The BNP Paribas Masters — informally known as “Bercy,” distinguishing this Parisian event from the major championship held at Roland Garros every spring — represent the last stop on the road to London, the site of the ATP World Tour Finals.
With 1,000 points being awarded to the winner and stacks of points in play for the finalist and semifinalists, Bercy often becomes a decisive moment for the players near the cut line for the ATP’s season-ending showcase. This year, the race to London was jumbled enough that while two players were almost certain to qualify for the World Tour Finals — beginning next Sunday, Nov. 9 — three spots remained officially unclaimed at the start of the week in Paris. Bercy is therefore the kind of tournament in which two major storylines emerge:
1) Who won the tournament?
2) Who qualified for London and the World Tour Finals?
Novak Djokovic won Bercy last year, and as he took the court in Sunday’s final against Milos Raonic, the world No. 1 was aiming for a very specific piece of history:
— Greg Sharko (@SharkoTennis) November 2, 2014
Djokovic was also trying to defend all his rankings points from last year, winning what is always — at the Masters level — a 400-point match. (The winner gets 1,000 points for winning the tournament, the loser settles for a substantial but still conspicuously smaller haul of 600.) When Djokovic lost to Roger Federer in the semifinals of Shanghai and Federer then won that Masters tournament, the gap between Djokovic and Federer was small enough that heading into Bercy, Federer had an outside chance to surpass the Serbian superstar for the No. 1 ranking at the end of the year.
A win in the finals of Bercy — ensuring the loss of not a single rankings point heading into London — would pretty well salt away the year-end No. 1 for Djokovic, especially since his opponent took out Federer in the quarterfinals, causing the Swiss to shed 180 points after making the semifinals in 2013. Raonic did Djokovic a favor in Friday’s quarterfinals, but Djokovic was in no mood to reciprocate to the Canadian.
In a straightforward match save for a brief complication in the first set (saving three break points at *4-2), Djokovic cruised past “The Missile,” 6-2, 6-3, to retain his Bercy crown and enter the World Tour Finals as the clear favorite. Djokovic abruptly altered the tone and tenor of the tennis conversation relative to Shanghai. After the birth of his and wife Jelena’s first child before the tournament, Djokovic was physically and mentally fresh in Paris, and he put that holistic wellness to good use, storming through the bracket with barely any missteps. Djokovic didn’t lose a set. He played only one tiebreaker set and needed seven games to win only one other set, against a tired Andy Murray in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Djokovic’s efficiency in Paris means he won’t be physically extended in London. If he loses at the World Tour Finals — where he’ll be the clear favorite — it will be because he fails to play his best tennis. Now the owner of 600 career match wins and 20 Masters 1000 titles, Djokovic wants to make one more statement to cap the 2014 tennis season. He’s in excellent position to do so, certainly better than anyone else on tour.
RAONIC RALLIES AND CREATES TWO MEANINGFUL MILOS MOMENTS
The second-biggest story of the BNP Paribas Masters was that Milos Raonic — needing to beat Roger Federer in Friday’s quarterfinals in order to have any chance of qualifying for the World Tour Finals — was able to take down the world No. 2 with a masterful display of both serving and consistently-executed forehands.
Raonic played authoritatively against an opponent who, though far more credentialed and the owner of a 6-0 head-to-head record against the Canadian, looked less than fully vigorous after winning an ATP 500 event in his home town of Basel, Switzerland, the previous week. Raonic faced a vulnerable version of Roger Federer, but the Canadian had to be good enough to take advantage of the situation. More specifically, he had to show that — unlike match losses to Federer in 2014 at Wimbledon and Cincinnati — he could dictate the flow of play and, more specifically, not get broken on serve. Federer pierced Raonic’s defenses at least once per set in both Wimbledon and Cincinnati. Raonic could never get to the sanctuary of a tiebreaker and create the kind of scoreline he will always need in order to beat any member of tennis’s “Big Three.” (Rafael Nadal, of course, joins Djokovic and Federer in forming that trio.)
On Friday, Raonic put the pieces together. He barely touched Federer’s first serve for most of the match — both men dominated on serve for most of the day, as these stats show:
— TennisTV (@TennisTV) October 31, 2014
However, Raonic was able to make inroads on Federer’s second serve, and as the above statistics indicate, the Canadian went for his shots. He clobbered the ball and took the initiative instead of waiting for something to happen. Sure, he hit a ton of aces, but if you remove them from the equation, Raonic still had a positive winner-unforced error differential. He wasn’t just a “servebot” on court; he brought a forehand which made the difference for him.
The reaction to Raonic’s win over Federer was and is one of the more disappointing aspects of this tournament. As had been the case with Federer’s Basel match against thunder-serving Ivo Karlovic, Raonic’s machine-gun aces were sometimes greeted with something other than polite applause. Basel’s crowd didn’t boo Karlovic, but the Bercy crowd went there:
This is some unreal serving by Raonic. Boos ring from the crowd after the Canadian saves set point with an ace.
— Nick Nemeroff (@NNemeroff) October 31, 2014
Yes, it’s true that a “servebot” doesn’t create the most textured or enthralling match. This is not an attempt to convince anyone that the style of play is aesthetically pleasing or should be loved instead of hated. Not warming to a particular style of play is what’s part of being a sports fan — we are all captured by one style more than another, and have every right to claim our own piece of aesthetic turf. What crosses the line, however, is when doing something well is booed or met with indifference.
A fan — when paying a ticket to a match — does have the right to do whatever he or she wants. Yet, professional sports are just that: a profession. Tennis players get paid to serve really well. Raonic (like Karlovic, and John Isner, and others tagged with the “servebot” label) might own a limited game, but when he pumps in aces, a fan in the audience — though inwardly hating the lack of texture found in one-shot points — should outwardly clap. No, it doesn’t have to be enthusiastic, but an acknowledgment of a professional athlete doing what he or she is supposed to do would be nice.
It would also be entirely appropriate.
Back to Raonic’s tennis and what he achieved this past week: The Canadian took advantage of Federer’s overall condition, which might lead a lot of skeptics to say that the victory might not mean that much in the long run. Perhaps. However, any athlete needs to be able to prove to himself (or herself) that beating an elite competitor is achievable. A player in Raonic’s position needs to experience the sensation of winning match point against the likes of Federer. It creates a present-tense reality and a visualization in the mind which can open the door to replicated performances and multiplied successes in the future.
Maybe Raonic isn’t yet ready to beat a Federer or Djokovic in the majors next season. Let’s at least acknowledge this, however: His odds just increased with his win over the Swiss on Friday. That’s one of the two big gains Raonic made from the past week in Paris.
The other big gain Raonic tucked away in Paris was a spot in the World Tour Finals. This prize was claimed as a result of something Raonic had no control over: the most dramatic match of the whole tournament.
Friday’s late-night quarterfinal between David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori was tense and intriguing on its own terms, due to the twists and turns of a see-saw second set. However, that clash carried a lot more weight in the world of men’s tennis… not because it was a Masters quarterfinal, but because — this being Bercy — a spot in London was on the line.
When Friday’s quarterfinal round began, Ferrer had to like his chances of qualifying for the World Tour Finals. As long as Federer defeated Raonic for the seventh time in seven meetings, Ferrer’s ticket to London was secure. (Nadal withdrawing from the event to have surgery for appendicitis increased the odds that Ferrer was going to return to the season-ending tournament.) However, as you’ve seen, Raonic pulled the upset. Ferrer had to defeat Nishikori and ultimately advance as far in the tournament as Raonic did in order to fend off the Canadian for the final spot in London. If Raonic advanced at least one round deeper than Ferrer, Raonic was going to book his flight for London as a qualified player, while Ferrer would have to settle for being the lead alternate.
The drama beneath the drama in Ferrer-Nishikori flowed from the fact that Nishikori had begun to outclass Ferrer at Ferrer’s specialty: doggedly competing to win razor-close matches and squeeze the most out of talent in a run to the top 5 of the ATP Tour. Nishikori outfoxed Ferrer twice in 2014 before this match on Friday, at Miami and Madrid, both Masters 1000 events. In both matches, Nishikori won a tiebreaker by the minimum amount of points (two) and went on to claim the competition in three sets. It’s not that Ferrer’s fight was deficient; Nishikori simply managed to compete even better… at least to the point of being more successful.
This Bercy battle seemed to be heading Ferrer’s way for most of the evening, but just when the Spaniard held a knife at the throat of his opponent, Japan’s rising tennis star — the first player of Asian nationality to crack the top 5 on the ATP Tour — once again found enough in his bones and marrow to rally.
Ferrer won the first set, and when he took a 4-0 lead in the second-set tiebreaker, an erratic Nishikori appeared just about done. Keep in mind that while Nishikori had not yet officially qualified for London, he would have been in trouble only if Ferrer and Raonic both went on to advance to the final. A Raonic win over Ferrer in that extended hypothetical could have squeezed Nishikori out of London, but that was a longshot possibility.
Ferrer was the player who needed this win far more than Nishikori. Having regrouped from a U.S. Open in which his body was overwhelmed by the humidity of New York, Ferrer pieced together a solid autumnal hardcourt season and gave himself better-than-even odds of returning to London. Just three points away at 4-0 in that second-set breaker, Ferrer was taking nothing for granted. Fans and pundits, though, were hard-pressed to cite convincing reasons why Nishikori would make a comeback.
What then happened? Oh, nothing big, just Nishikori winning seven of the next eight points — five straight after being down 5-2 — to swipe yet another tiebreaker from his Spanish foe by the minimum two-point margin. Nishikori then won the third set, 6-4, to punch his ticket to London, knock Ferrer out, and hit the top five in this week’s new rankings, effective Monday. Nishikori might be tired in London, but remember that he was supposed to be tired against Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open semifinals and their brutally hot and humid conditions. Remember that Nishikori was supposed to be done in the fourth set against Raonic in the U.S. Open fourth round. Remember that Nishikori competes as well as anyone not in the Big Three. It’s time to stop underestimating him on the eve of the World Tour Finals… an event that, thanks to him, Milos Raonic will also attend as a qualifying player.
Kevin Anderson failed to make his first Masters 1000 semifinal. Tomas Berdych qualified for London but didn’t look particularly strong throughout this week in Paris. Marin Cilic has a ticket to the World Tour Finals, but he didn’t even bother playing Bercy. These were all stories at the BNP Paribas Masters, but they took a back seat to the main events mentioned above.
Novak Djokovic’s high-level consistency; Milos Raonic’s resourcefulness against Roger Federer; and the sad fate of David Ferrer against Kei Nishikori represented the biggest takeaways from the final Masters 1000 event on the ATP Tour in 2014.
Next week, live-tweeting of the ATP World Tour Finals begins. Follow along on Twitter.
On Sunday, Nov. 16 and Monday, Nov. 17, you’ll find wrap-ups of not just the World Tour Finals, but the men’s tennis season, here at Attacking The Net.