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Don't dare miss this season's conclusion

You have to flip quite a few calendar pages to get back to a fall season as supercharged with relevance as the one we're embroiled in right now. With one Masters 1000 tournament (the Paris Indoor) still to come, we have three intriguing storylines to follow:

1. Champions in resurgence. Although Andy Murray hasn't won a major, he has been a consistent contender, as evidenced by his runner-up finish to Roger Federer at the Australian Open way back in January. Murray's commanding performance in Shanghai last week is a de facto declaration that he's going to be a force to reckon with in Paris -- and beyond.

Novak Djokovic has been on a tear ever since he gave Rafael Nadal all that the No. 1 could handle at the U.S. Open. The well-hidden engine driving the Djokovic juggernaut is the upcoming Davis Cup final in which his team, Serbia, will meet France. Djokovic's mission is to stay focused and thereby scare the pants off whatever squad the French bring to Belgrade. Don't expect a letdown.

2. Affirmation. Although Rafael Nadal was upset by Jurgen Melzer in Shanghai, he was a terror at the start of the Asian swing. He has his eye on the only significant title that he has yet to bag: the year-end championships (the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals). Can he put the finishing touches on a career year -- and dispel the lingering suspicion that he runs out of steam as the year winds down?

3. Payback. Roger Federer was humbled by those back-to-back losses at Wimbledon (to Tomas Berdych) and the U.S. Open (to Djokovic), but in recent years, he has owned the ATP year-end championships, and don't think for a moment that he's going to yield that turf to Nadal -- or either of the other three members of tennis's current big four -- without a fight. Nothing would please Federer as much as halting his slide and finishing the year as convincingly as he started it.

Thus, the fall of 2010 has been a triumph for the ATP and its dedication to a full seasonal slate -- a commitment that has periodically come under fire by those who think tennis ought to have an offseason, like most major team sports. The criticism has seemed especially sharp in those years when injuries, indifference or lack of appropriate incentive led the top players to perform listlessly and allowed opportunistic second-raters to snap up deeply discounted titles.

The reformers make one critical mistake. They ignore that tennis is, and always has been, an interval sport. It demands periods of intense effort interspersed with periods of rest. The events of the recent weeks have demonstrated that when there's enough at stake, the players find more than sufficient energy to play compelling, Grand Slam-grade tennis. And it helps that the Masters series is structured in a way that forces them to pay attention deep into the fall in years when a lot is at stake.

All the evidence suggests that we're heading for a whopper of a grand finale to the regular season, a far cry from the years during that four-year stretch from 2005 to 2008, when the Paris title fell into the hands of four different men, none of whom has won a major to date (Berdych, Nikolay Davydenko, David Nalbandian and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga).

It's hard to imagine anyone outside the big four winning the Paris Masters, and that's a sign that this year, at least, the tour is functioning exactly as it was meant to by the men who dreamed up the calendar and its critical, well-placed Masters 1000 events. And it's not even as if the No. 1 ranking is up for grabs.

If Paris ends up with a Slam-less champ this year, it almost certainly would be six-time Masters titlist Andy Murray. And I wouldn't call him a bargain-basement champ.