Chase To The Rolex Paris Masters Title Underway

Taylor Fritz (photo: ATP Tour video)

PARIS/WASHINGTON, October 31, 2022 (by Michael Dickens)

The 37th edition of the Rolex Paris Masters, an end of the regular season fixture on the ATP Tour every year since 1986, began Monday with a stellar field that features nine of the current Top 10 players and 18 of the Top 20.

Main draw play in the season’s last Masters 1000 event unfolded Monday inside Accor Arena in the Bercy neighborhood of Paris’s 12th arrondissement, home to France’s Finance Ministry. While it is anyone’s guess who might lift this year’s trophy next Sunday – not to mention win first-prize money of €836,355 and collect 1,000 ATP Rankings points – World No. 1 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain and six-time champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia are hoping to stop Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime, who has won three straight titles (Florence, Antwerp, Basel) and is playing the best tennis of his life. Auger-Aliassime comes into Paris on a career-best 13-match winning streak, unbeaten since October 13, and will face 74th-ranked qualifier Mikael Ymer of Sweden, who withstood 16 aces and 51 winners from No. 36 Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan and won 6-1, 6-7 (2), 6-4.

Meanwhile, Alcaraz is 4-3 over the past seven weeks since becoming No. 1, including losses to Auger-Aliassme in Davis Cup competition and in the Basel semifinals last Saturday. He will face No. 38 Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan in his opening match on Wednesday.

“I’m really excited to play here,” the 19-year-old Alcaraz said Monday evening during a pre-tournament press conference. “Yeah, I’m gonna try my best to of course end the year as the No. 1.”

ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi presented Alcaraz with the ATP No. 1 trophy presented by Pepperstone before the start of Monday’s evening session.

“For me it’s a dream come true being No. 1 in the world, to be a Grand Slam champion,” Alcaraz said, quoted by the ATP Tour website. “I feel like the No. 1, to have this trophy, it means a lot to me.”

As for the sixth-seeded Djokovic, he has merely won nine straight matches since losing to the Canadian No. 1 at the Laver Cup in late September. He’s recently won titles in Tel Aviv and Astana after being forced to miss the US Open due to not being vaccinated against COVID-19. Djokovic, who received a first-round bye, will open Tuesday against No. 34 Maxime Cressy of the United States, who advanced with 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 24 Diego Schwartzman of Argentina.

With two singles spots remaining to be filled for next month’s Nitto ATP Finals, there’s a four-way battle this week in Paris among Auger-Aliassime, Andrey Rublev, Taylor Fritz and Hubert Hurkacz to determine who earns a place in Turin. Of the four, only one was in action on Opening Day, No. 9 seed Fritz from the United States, who faced a very difficult and determined Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain on Court Central. Fritz entered in eighth place in the Pepperstone ATP Race To Turin standings in his quest to reach the year-end finale for the first time.

High stakes matches are something the newly-turned 25-year-old Fritz has dealt with this year, after winning Indian Wells and making a deep run at Wimbledon. He won his most recent title this fall in Tokyo. On Monday, the World No. 11 from Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. rose to the occasion against No. 32 Davidovich Fokina and won 7-5, 6-2 in an hour and 29 minutes by outpointing his opponent 75-57 and converting five of 10 break points.

Although Fritz hit just 12 winners, he played solidly from the baseline and maintained control of the match from 4-all in the first set. It was his first win over the Spaniard in three career meetings. The previous two were on clay.

“[I’m really] happy, he’s a tough person to play against,” Fritz said during a post-match interview with ATP Tour media. “He’s got weapons on both sides. He’s extremely quick as well, so there’s nowhere you can really play with a lot of safety. He makes a lot of crazy shots and he’s beaten me the past two times. So, definitely good to just get out there, play a solid match, and get through it.”

Later, during an appearance on Tennis Channel, Fritz added: “I knew an indoor hard court would favor me quite a bit. So, I tried to focus on my serve, be aggressive, try to attack his forehand as much as possible.”

Next, the American No. 1 Fritz, a Paris quarterfinalist last year, will face 188th-ranked French wild card Gilles Simon, in his quest to move one win closer to qualifying for Turin.

“I just really need to take it one match at a time,” Fritz told Tennis Channel. “When I look back on this whole year, when I have been able to win a couple matches at the start of a tournament, I’ve done really well. I just need to get past the first couple of matches and take it one match at a time. Once I get into it, I feel I can play good tennis, play confidently, no pressure. I’m going to do my best to steal that last spot.”

Simon rolls back the clock to earn 503rd career win 

At age 37, France’s Gilles Simon is the oldest player in this week’s Rolex Paris Masters draw. He’s part of a French generation of Les Mousquetaires that includes Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gaël Monfils.

“I draw inspiration from them, because we grew up together,” the former World No. 6 Simon said in a pre-tournament interview on Sunday. “It’s easier to look forward and to feel that one can beat the best players in the world when your bodies can do it. It’s easier to go at yourself with them, because you can play with them.”

The trio of Tsonga, Gasquet and Monfils were all together court side to cheer for their friend, who earlier this season announced that he would retire from pro tennis after Paris. After two hours, 50 minutes, Simon pulled off a nice surprise. He rolled back the clock and played inspiring, come-from-behind tennis to beat former World No. 1 Andy Murray of Great Britain, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3. The triumph advances Simon to the second round against No. 9 seed Taylor Fritz of the United States.

Simon struck an equal amount of winners to unforced errors with 25 each. He converted six of 12 break points and outpointed Murray 99-87. Murray hit 31 winners but was overcome by 52 unforced errors. Murray served for the match at 5-3 in the second in anticipation of a straight-set win but Simon came back from the brink in his final tour-level event to break the Briton and the partisan French crowd that filled Accors Arena would not let Simon fail.

“It was a crazy match,” Simon said in a post-match interview, quoted by the ATP Tour website. “I was behind the whole match… At 3-4 in the second set I felt a lot of emotions coming. It was difficult to play my service game at that moment and he broke me. He got tight at 5-3 and this time I managed to push, hold my serve and break him again. I tried to push on every game.

“It was really difficult physically, but it was difficult physically on his side. But I thought ‘Come on, I have a chance to beat him.’ It is not like I have the best record against Andy. I really wanted to win this one and I was really happy I was able to do it.”

In his 18th overall Paris appearance, Simon’s 503rd ATP Tour-level victory improved his career head-to-head against the 48th-ranked Murray to 3-16.

Around the Accor Arena

While the top eight seeds all received byes and will play their first matches over the next two days, the opening day of the main draw featured some exciting first-round matches – and there were a few upsets along the way.

• No. 12 seed Cameron Norrie was first on Court Central and first to win. The World No. 13 from Great Britain eliminated No. 29 Miomir Kecmanovic of Serbia, 6-2, 6-4, in only 69 minutes to earn his 49th victory of the season. The Briton was backed by 21 winners and a 91-percent efficiency rate in winning points on his first serve. Norrie outpointed Kecmanovic 59-40 and next will face either No. 26 Borna Coric of Croatia or 64th-ranked qualifier Corentin Moutet of France.

• No. 15 Marin Cilic of Croatia was upset by No. 23 Lorenzo Musetti of Italy, 6-4, 6-4, in an hour and 22 minutes in their second career meeting. Musetti, who two weeks ago won the Tennis Napoli Cup title and is headed to next month’s Intesa Sanpaolo Next Gen ATP Finals, made only nine unforced errors against the 17th-ranked Cilic while hitting 15 winners and outpointing his opponent 58-51. It improved Musetti’s indoor win-loss record this season to 9-5.

“I didn’t expect to play like this. I’m very happy with my performance today,” Musetti told Tennis Channel after his victory.

Next, Musetti will play No. 106 Nikoloz Basilashvili of Georgia, who was a 6-3, 6-4 winner over 69th-ranked French qualifier Quentin Halys.

• No. 11 seed Jannik Sinner was an upset victim of 26-year-old qualifier Marc-Andrea Huesler of Switzerland, who was making his ATP Masters 1000 main draw debut and stunned the Italian star, 6-2, 6-3, in comprehensive fashion. The 61st-ranked Huesler struck six  21 winners and made just 10 unforced errors. He outpointed Sinner 67-39 to advance against World No. 19 Karen Khachanov of Russia, who easily beat No. 40 Sebastian Baez of Argentina, 6-1, 6-1, in 57 minutes.

Huesler, who recently won his first ATP Tour title at Sofia, broke a three-match main-draw losing streak on Tour with his win against Sinner, who finished the season 47-16 with one title won at Umag.

“[It feels] really big,” Huesler said in a post-match interview with ATP Tour media. “I’ve had a great season. … I had two good matches in the qualies, I came out here and had nothing to lose today. That helped me play very aggressive. It was not his best match, for sure, but I had to be ready to take that [opportunity]. I just stayed at it, and I’m really happy with the win.”

• No. 16 seed Frances Tiafoe of the United States moved into the second round with a 6-4, 6-4 win over 51st-ranked Italian qualifier Lorenzo Sonego. The 21st-ranked Tiafoe dropped just five points on his first serve, didn’t face any break points, hit 22 winners and outpointed Sonego 62-48 in winning their meeting. Next, Tiafoe will face either 42nd-ranked wild card Arthur Rinderknech of France or No. 45 Jack Draper of Great Britain.

“This week I feel good, I want to play, I really like being in Paris,” Tiafoe said in an interview with Tennis Channel. “My girlfriend is here, I’m going to have fun and have a good last week [to the season].”

• Unseeded and 76th-ranked wild card Richard Gasquet of France rose to the occasion of playing a featured afternoon match on Court Central, upset No.  44 Alex Molcan of Slovakia, 6-3, 6-1, to advance to the second round against No. 3 seed Casper Ruud of Norway. The 36-year-old Gasquet, who is making his 15th appearance in Paris after debuting at age 17 in 2003, outpointed Molcan, 62-40.

“The public was cheering for me. It’s Bercy. It’s a big tournament,” Gasquet said in press, translated from French into English. “I was lucky enough to have a wild card. So I was happy to play well. It’s a beautiful victory for me, and I’m lucky enough to play another match.”

• Both No. 25 Alex de Minaur of Australia and No. 33 Sebastian Korda of the United States were unseeded, but they still commanded a night session billing on Court Central that began Monday evening in October and finished at 1:45 a.m. Tuesday morning in November after two hours and 41 minutes of play. De Minaur came away with a hard-fought, spirited 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 victory.

De Minaur overcame 41 unforced errors by hitting 16 winners, 10 of them from his backhand side. He withstood an onslaught of 41 winners hit by Korda, who also committed 48 unforced errors. Korda, who came in off of back-to-back semifinal finishes at Gijón and Antwerp and was 8-2 in October, outpointed de Minaur 105-104. Next, the Aussie No. 1 (44-23 in 2022) will face No. 4 seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia, the 2020 Paris champion who Sunday won his second ATP Tour title of the year at Vienna.

Monday’s Rolex Paris Masters results

Tuesday’s Rolex Paris Masters order of play

By the numbers

• Felix Auger-Aliassime is the second player in the past 15 months to win three titles in as many weeks. He joins Casper Ruud, who accomplished the feat in July 2021. If Auger-Aliassime wins the Paris title, he would become the first player to win at least four championships in as many weeks since Ivan Lendl swept five over a five-week span in fall 1981.

• American John Isner, the 2016 Paris champion, improved his career record at Bercy to 18-11 with his 82-minute 6-4, 7-6 (3) win over 57th-ranked qualifier Oscar Otte of Germany. The 47th-ranked Isner struck 19 aces to advance against No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev of Russia on Tuesday.

“Quotable …”

“Of course, we can’t be satisfied with that situation. We are a great nation of tennis in France. I don’t know how far back we have to go, maybe 40 years, when we had players ranked among the top 20 or the top 10. We have a Masters 1000, we have a Grand Slam, and we have 250s. We are fully involved in the training of tennis players, so we can’t be satisfied with the current situation. As tournament director, I have to say that I’m pretty much sad about the situation.”

Cedric Pioline, tournament director of the Rolex Paris Masters, during a pre-tournament press conference Sunday. He was commenting on the state of French men’s tennis, in which all seven French players in this week’s tournaments are either wild cards (4) or qualifiers (3).