The Paris Bercy Masters 1000 is one of the top events on the tennis calendar. The last big event before the World Tour finals in Turin, the big boys tend to turn up and give a show.
This was my first visit to Paris Bercy since 2003. Back then I saw the likes of Jonas Bjorkman, Tim Henman, Gustavo Kuerten, Roger Federer, and the talented but forgotten Martin Verkerk. Great names indeed but from a totally different era in every sense. That particular event was held on fast indoor carpet. Today, indoor tournaments are primarily played on indoor hardcourt (plexicushion). Having watched live tennis for over 20 years, the big difference between carpet and plexucushion is the speed and the bounce. No doubt plexicushion is relatively slower and higher bouncing; players have to hit harder to penetrate defenses. This in turn has allowed counterpunchers to flourish, particularly counterpunchers with fast twitch fibers.
This was my first visit to Bercy since 2003 but not live tennis in Paris. I attended the French Open on six occasions and the WTA Paris Indoors three years in a row. That was an excellent tournament, sadly now defunct, part of the recent flux and uncertainty of the WTA tour.
Back to Paris Bercy, I attended the day session of the quarterfinals, with four of the NextGen on show. Frances Tiafoe took on Felix Auger-Aliassime while Holger Rune entertained Carlos Alcaraz. Not sure if these guys are Next Gen or Gen Z, there are now so many labels I can’t keep up! Tiafoe v Aliassime was first up, USA vs Canada. The first thing that grabbed my attention was how tentative Tiafoe appeared in the warm up. I would hasten to say casual, not moving his feet at all and patting the ball back and forth. Auger-Aliassime was the opposite, hitting the ball as hard as possible, as if the match had already begun!
Play did begin and before he knew it Tiafoe was 4-1 down, still looking lethargic. At one stage Tiafoe played a rally which summed up his lack of mental application. He played a series of drop shots, allowing Aliassime to get to each one with time to spare. Not the way to play drop shots! Tiafoe lost the first set 6-1 and did not fare too much better in the second set. Even so, Tiafoe tried to get himself going, engaging the crowd and hugging a ball boy, but none of it worked. Tiafoe also won a point with a serve and high forehand volley with what can only be described as a frying pan grip. Amateurs who play tennis will know exactly what I mean by a frying pan grip, not something I thought a professional would use.
But then I noticed something else, my notes hardly mentioned Auger-Aliassime. It seemed a lot about Tiafoe’s failings. So what about Auger-Aliassime? His performance was solid if unspectacular, slightly uninspiring. Could he lift his game if he was properly challenged? On this occasion it didn’t matter as he strolled to a 6-1 6-4 victory. Having seen Auger-Aliassime up close, I still think he needs to do a lot more if he wants to win a grand slam tournament. He plays within himself too often; he needs to display more of his talent, and more energy.
The second match involved two 19-year-olds. World number 1 Carlos Alcaraz from Spain took on Denmark’s Holger Rune. I was looking forward to this match, my first opportunity to see US Open champion Alcaraz. Alcaraz unsurprisingly (to me at least) has struggled for form and fitness since his breakthrough in September. We have seen this before; he is not ready to dominate. Fans will need to understand this and coach Juan Carlos Ferrero will not be panicking. The media is another animal altogether and they will pile the pressure on if results do not go his way.
Both players came out to “I Love Rock and Roll” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Interesting choice! Anyone reading this under the age of 40 will have to google Joan Jett. With the coin toss done, Alcaraz sprinted to the baseline, a la Rafael Nadal. Alcaraz won the coin toss and chose to receive. This left me slightly surprised, a decision counterpunchers usually make to receive serve first.
I don’t consider Alcaraz a consistent counterpuncher, but it might reveal his current state of mind. This fueled Rune who came out strong, serving well and displaying a big forehand which he was not afraid to use. Alcaraz was immediately on the back foot, initially saving break points early but got broken soon enough. In fact by the seventh game Alcaraz already lost all of his challenges with silly decision making on balls that were clearly out. Rune in the meantime was looking sharp, coming into the net off short balls and putting away volleys with aplomb, taking the first set 6-3.
Alcaraz came out for the second set looking far better, coming to the net and unleashing huge shots from the baseline. One thing about live tennis is watching big shots produced by great players. The acoustics of live tennis tend to be different. When watching on television, or internet stream, microphones are put close to the court, amplified shots can sound like gun shots, making it more dramatic.
As the second set went on, Rune was starting to make more mistakes, coinciding with Alcaraz employing more drop shots. However, Rune held off Alcaraz’s surge impressively, and we were set for a major battle in the second set tiebreak. Unfortunately, Alcaraz twisted his abdomen just when things were getting interesting, after lengthy treatment and a couple more points, retired hurt. However, it was a great battle between two future top players who will be competing for the major tournaments.
I arrived for the final on Sunday knowing Rune would play Novak Djokovic. In the semifinals, Rune beat Auger-Aliassime 6-4 6-2 and Djokovic beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in a third set tiebreak. Having seen both young guys on Friday, the result was not a surprise. Rune seems eager to get to the top, while Aliassime does not appear determined enough, missing the X factor. Determination and not just skill is a huge factor in how far players can go in their career.
Djokovic beating Tsitsipas was also not a surprise. Since the ill-fated French Open final of 2021 where Djokovic came from two sets down to beat Tsitsipas, Tsitsipas has not beaten a top player in an important match. He is mentally struggling, and only he and his team can pull themselves out of this. The belief is not there when it matters.
On the other hand, Djokovic at age 35 is almost twice the age of his final opponent, which is something. It was all about Rune in the final; could he hold it together mentally? At age 19 he could run all day but his tactics would be interesting. The match started with Rune unsurprisingly nervous but still going for his shots. In typical Djokovic fashion, he stayed steady and eventually broke twice in the first set to take it 6-3.
Despite the setback, Rune was still going for shots, and his 2n.d serve. Remarkably, at one stage he hit a 2n.d serve at 200kph (125 mph). Not sure if that was exuberance of youth or lack of experience in not playing steady. One thing became clear; Rune was not interested in playing longer rallies with Djokovic, ultimately a wise decision. Rune wanted to attack short balls and close the net; stay aggressive often. A commendable game plan against the supreme counterpuncher in tennis history. The aggressive mind-set worked because Rune broke right at the start of the second set, and was able to hold serve throughout to take it 6-3.
Djokovic thought he gained control of the match in the third set, breaking Rune but Rune broke back, showing his resilience. Rune broke again at 6-5 to serve for the match, taking the already raucous Paris Bercy crowd into an absolute frenzy. The final game seemed to take twenty minutes, I lost count of the break points, but there were at least two match points. On the first match point, Rune missed the 1st serve and double faulted, attempting a 2n.d serve on the line at near 200kph. Maybe he got caught up in the atmosphere because that was crazy stuff! Rune eventually won it, getting the error of an attempted Djokovic half volley.
Rune won by staying aggressive and not being overwhelmed by the occasion, this bodes well for the future. Djokovic was gracious in defeat but demonstrated just how hard it is to put him away! The first of many Masters Shields for Rune if he continues to progress.
What I like about Rune and Alcaraz is that they play quickly. No messing between 1st and 2n.d serves, no timewasting or bouncing the ball excessively before serving. Plus, their first instinct is to go for their shots.
The future of tennis is in good hands if Next Gen players continue to shun the counterpuncher style. All top players from every era need to know how to defend, but we want players coming through who want to attack first and foremost, while having the ability to defend when required. Former number 1 Daniil Medvedev needs to take note, he has retreated into a defensive shell, and his ranking and confidence is taking a hit.
All in all, another great Masters event at Paris Bercy.
Main Photo from Getty.