Paris: While the vast bulk of players on the men’s tennis tour set about finalising vacation arrangements after a long, hard year, the world’s top eight pack their bags for one final stop on the circuit as they head off to the season’s climax in Shanghai.
Last week’s Paris Masters ended all speculation about who was in and who was out of next week’s lucrative year-ender, as six players joined world number one Lleyton Hewitt and Andre Agassi, who had already booked their places in the Masters Cup.
While Australian Hewitt and 32-year-old Agassi will continue their battle for the top spot when the jamboree begins on November 12, the rest are there for prestige and, of course, the cash.
The tournament, which is played in a round-robin format before the semi-finals, has a prize fund worth $3.7 million. No wonder there were some relieved faces around the players’ lounge last week in Bercy.
The pre-tournament debate will be whether Agassi can close an 88-point gap on the 21-year-old Hewitt who admits he is finding the end of the season a struggle, but the man to beat in Shanghai looks like being Russia’s Marat Safin.
The 22-year-old was in a class of his own last week in Paris, storming through the draw before reducing top seed Hewitt to the role of spectator for long periods of his 7-6, 6-0, 6-3 final victory.
Before the match French Davis Cup player Fabrice Santoro dubbed it “the world’s number one against the world’s best player,” and on the evidence of Sunday it was hard to disagree.
Safin, who surprisingly had not won a title for 13 months before Paris and who said earlier in the week that he was “fed up with tennis,” cannot overhaul Hewitt as world number one, although he could catch Agassi. “I’m happy enough with number three,” he said when asked what he hopes to achieve in Shanghai next week.
“But if I have the opportunity to be number two of course I will fight for it.
“I want to win, I want to take all the money, take all the points, and win the Davis Cup, but it’s not easy. But at least I have my chance. I played continuously for the last five weeks to qualify for Shanghai, now I’ve finally made it.
“If I play like I did here (in Paris) in the final and in the semi-final, I think I can win it.”
Agassi may well have to win it if he is to become the oldest player to end the year as world number one. With a maximum of 150 points going to the winner, he will still be a threat to Wimbledon champion Hewitt, who last year became the youngest player to end the year at number one.
He is not surprised at the veteran American’s challenge. “Not really. Not when your name’s Andre Agassi. A lot of guys wouldn’t be able to do it at 32 but he’s in great shape and is moving as well as ever.”
The other five players who will appear at Shanghai next week include three Spaniards, the only time a country, other than the US, has managed to have three qualifiers by right.