Rolex Paris Masters…Djokovic est le seul (Is The One)

By Cheryl Jones and Mark Winters

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This year is the thirty-sixth version of the Rolex Paris Masters, which is the only Master series event to be played indoors. Taking place, November 1-7,  at the AccorHotels Arena in Bercy, on the right bank of the Seine in the city’s 12th arrondissement, the 2021 tournament expanded the singles draw from 48 to 56 and the doubles from 16 to 24 teams. And after having been fan-free because of the pandemic in 2020, spectators took full advantage of the 14,000 seating capacity of the arena.

Going into the final, Daniil Medvedev was looking to become the first champion to repeat since 2014. His opponent, Novak Djokovic, the only player in the tournament’s history to repeat, actually he had a “three for…streak” between 2013 and ’15, wanted to make sure the Russian would be a “one and done” winner. The Serbian accomplished his goal, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 in two hours and 15 minutes. Having reviewed videos of his 6-4, 6-4, 6-4 loss to Medvedev in the US Open final, he changed tactics and among other things, took advantage of the fact that his opponent regularly played standing in the next arrondissement. He took advantage of “having more court…” and came to the net more than usual.

With his children Stefan and Tara in attendance, Djokovic claimed his record setting sixth Rolex Paris Masters trophy and with the victory, his 37th Masters title, breaking his tie with Rafael Nadal.

Djokovic's family
Novak Djokovic’s family watching the trophy presentation…Jelena Djokovic, holding daughter Tara, and son Stefan. Photo: Loic Baratoux

The contest marked the first Bercy final between No. 1 and No. 2 players in the game since 1990 when Stefan Edberg, the No. 1 seed from Sweden earned the title when the No. 2 seed Boris Becker of Germany was forced to retire at 3-3 in the first set.

With the competitive year wobbling to a conclusion, Bercy (as the tournament is known) as it regularly does, showcased L’innatendu (the unexpected). To begin, prior to any balls being hit Matteo Berrettini, The Championships finalist from  Italy, pulled out due to a stiff neck. Canadian Denis Shapovalov, the 2019 tournament finalist, decided not to play for “whatever” reason. (But he is playing Stockholm next week because he is the defending champion.) Cristian Garin of Chile wasn’t in the draw because of a nagging right shoulder problem.

The second round was all about L’innatendu…Lucky Loser Dominik Koepfer of Germany was 6-3, 7-5 better than Felix Auger-Aliassime, the No. 9 seed from Canada. Koepfer, a two-time All-American when he played for Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, warmed up for the match denying Andy Murray, the British wild card, seven match points before winning, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 in the first round. Australia’s Alexei Popyrin, another Lucky Loser, led 4-2 when Stefanos Tsitsipas, the No. 3 seed, decided to retire. (Tennis fans have long memories so spectators gave the Greek, who became “Mr. Bathroom Break” at the US Open, a rousing chorus of la huée [hoots/boos] as he left the court.) After the match, Tsitsipas said, that the problem (and he didn’t specify what it was) had been getting worse. He admitted feeling pain and decided to stop because he wanted to be able to play the year-end event in Turin. He also pointed out that in his nearly 300 match ATP career, he had only retired on one other occasion.

Stefanos Tsitsipas Paris
Stefanos Tsitsipas in action against Alexei Popyrin. Photo by Loic Baratoux

Marcos Giron of the US has qualified at Bercy the past two years. In 2020, he slipped past Berrettini, the No. 7 seed, 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 in the second round (before losing to Canadian, Milos Raonic, the No. 10 seed, 7-6, 6-2 in the third round). This time out, in another gritty second round performance (gritty is fitting because the hard court surface described as “Greenset on boards” but it was slow. Medvedev suggested it was like playing on Terre Battue indoors) Giron wore down Diego Schwartzman, the No. 11 seeded Argentine, 7-6, 7-6 victory.

Hugo Gaston, the lefty with a magic touch, is at his drop-shotting best whenever he competes in Paris. As a wild card at Roland Garros in 2020, he became the first Frenchman ranked outside the Top 200 to reach the fourth round since Arnaud di Pasquale in 2002. Because he was ranked No. 103 coming into Bercy, he had to qualify. In the first round, he was better, in three sets, than his wild card countryman Arthur Rinderknech. In his next contest, he downed Pablo Carreno Busta, the No. 12 seeded Spaniard, 6-7, 6-4, 7-5.

The singles draw continued to débrouiller (unravel) with two almost identical second round match scores. Taylor Fritz and Andrey Rublev had played three times in career face-offs before Bercy. The American won the first encounter but the Russian had taken the next two matches. Fritz evened the head-to-head count scoring a 7-5, 7-6 decision over the No. 5 seed. In a 7-6, 7-5 score reversal, Carlos Alcaraz, who is viewed as Spain’s “Tomorrow” defeated Jannik Sinner, the No. 8 seeded Italian.

Carlos Alcaraz playing tennis
Carlos Alcaraz playing Jannik Sinner. Photo Jean Catuffe

The pillaging carried over to the doubles. In one of the year’s most bizarre second rounds both the No. 1 and No. 2 doubles teams lost…in straight sets. In a country versus country contest, the Belgian duo Sander Gillé and Joran Vliegen was 6-3, 7-6 better than the top seeds, Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic from Croatia. Tim Puetz of Germany and Michael Venus of New Zealand ended the No. 2 seeds’, Rajeev Ram of the US and Joe Salisbury of Great Britain, tournament with a 7-6, 7-6

Gaston went on to dispatch Alcaraz 6-4, 7-5 in the third round before falling to Mevedev, 7-6, 6-4 in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, Fritz continued his stellar play, winning 6-3, 7-6 over Cameron Norrie the No. 10 seed from Great Britain. By the time he lost 6-4, 6-3 to Djokovic in the quarterfinals Fritz had become the highest ranked American on the ATP Tour.

For Guy Forget, the tournament was a benchmark. It marked his tenth year as Tournament Director. Even more significant, it was the thirtieth anniversary of his 7-6, 4-6, 5-7 6-4, 6-4 final round victory over Pete Sampras on November 4, 1991. Almost a month later, (December 1st), Forget again defeated the 20-year-old. The score this time was 7-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 and it took place at the Palais des Sports de Gerland in Lyon. With the triumph, Forget, who was a month shy of turning 27,  gave France its first Davis Cup in 59 years.

Daniil Medvedev playing tennis
Daniil Medvedev in the final against Djokovic. Photo: Victor Joly

In one semifinal, Medvedev erased Alexander Zverev, the No. 4 seed from Germany, 6-2, 6-2. As hard as it could be to believe, the other semifinal was much more meaningful. Edging Hubert Hurkacz of Poland 3-6, 6-0, 7-6, Djokovic added to his Paris tennis history by finishing the year ranked No. 1 for the seventh time. After the match he told ATP media, “[I am] Just proud and extremely happy. Obviously that was one of the biggest goals and it’s always one of the biggest goals, to try to be No. 1 and end the season as No. 1. To do it for the record setting seventh time and surpass my childhood idol and role model, Pete [Sampras], is incredible. Very grateful, very blessed to be in this position.” 

Closing any season in any sport as the best, is almost undefinable particularly in men’s tennis. That Djokovic has “topped the chart” on seven occasions is extraordinary…But, the ATP and many journalists seem to be overlooking, in our mind, the real essence of the accomplishment. Sampras was No. 1 six consecutive years, that’s right six, from 1993 to ’98. Jimmy Connors was the game’s best for five straight years from 1974 to ’78. What’s more, John McEnroe “four-straighted” at No. 1 from 1981 to ’84 and Roger Federer did the same from 2004 until ’07. (Djokovic has been No. 1 two years in a row on three separate times and has now held the No. 1 position for 350 weeks, 40 more than Federer, who is second at 310.)

Sébastien Grosjean, commemorating the twentieth anniversary of his 7-6, 6-1, 6-7, 6-4 victory over Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov, presented the “Tree of Fanti”, (the tournament trophy), to Djokovic. The dramatic day finished with “une odeur aigre” (a sour smell) when Tim Puetz and Michael Venus denied Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicholas Mahut, the home team, 6-3, 6-7, 11-9 in the double’s final.

Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev were magnificent and so were Tim Puetz and Michael Venus. Though they didn’t add to their trophy collections, Taylor Fritz and Hugo Gaston, who resides in Fonsorboes, deserve louange (praise) for their performances. And once again, Bercy slipped into the history books with panache.  

Title photo by Jean Catuffe

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