Nadal’s Shanghai exit clears Murray’s path to the final
In the end, it was not the Shanghai title-holder who challenged Rafael Nadal: Nikolay Davydenko did not even make it through his first match.
Defeat for the best man in the world came in the unexpected shape of No13 seed Jurgen Melzer.
Even without Nadal’s 2010 resume at hand, a betting man would have put down his house on a Spanish win. In their previous meetings, Melzer had not won a set let alone a match against Nadal, and he had not won a title all year. And here he was, playing the man who had won seven titles in the last eight months, three of them Grand Slams and the latest one only last week in Tokyo.
Anyone watching the match unfold, however, would never have believed that balance of power. And a closer look at Melzer’s year would reveal that the 29-year-old has had his finest ever season, reaching a career high ranking of 12 just last week.
He brought that form to this match, and played one of the best sets of his life to wipe Nadal off the court 6-1 in the opener.
Melzer, though, is known to have the talent to play hot patches, but he often goes on to falter against quality opponents. So when, in the middle of the second set, the two men stood toe-to-toe, it looked as though one would seal the deal or one would turn the tide.
The fifth game was pivotal, and included a long, stunning rally of flat deep drives and angled bullets that went to Melzer. Nadal resisted the break with some clever service placement and follow-throughs and, sensing that he’d inflicted some mental damage on his opponent, he opened up an irresistible attack on Melzer.
The Austrian made the tactical error of twice attacking the net, but got passed and broken. It was the moment, like so many others that feature Nadal, when the adrenalin started to pump, and the Spaniard held his serve twice to take the set 6-3.
The third set seemed destined for one outcome but Melzer, serving first, held a lead with some outstanding baseline shot-making -his forehand in particular finding the lines on both wings. At precisely the same stage as in the second set, 2-3, the match took a dramatic turn. Nadal was forced to rush his shots in response to Melzer’s early ball-striking, and fired two forehands wide. Melzer took the break.
As if to drive the knife deeper, Melzer then played a perfect service game of his own -with two forehand winners and two aces -for a love hold.
Melzer all but broke Nadal again but his match-winning drive was wrongly called out and Nadal held. However, Melzer’s nerves held. He swept through his service to victory with an outright backhand winner, a perfect touch volley and two near aces.
It marked Nadal’s first loss before a quarter-final all year, but the result was just as noteworthy for its impact on the draw.
With Davydenko out of the tournament -and almost certainly out of the WTFs in London -the top quarter has opened up perfectly for Melzer who, conversely, has fresh hope of reaching London himself.
Above the Austrian in the race are Fernando Verdasco and Mikhail Youzhny who have both made early exits in Shanghai, as well as Andy Roddick who yesterday retired injured. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
As for the rest of the draw, one of the possible beneficiaries of Nadal’s exit, Andy Murray, has made comfortable progress through to the semi-finals. He next faces Jo-Wilfried Tsonga who, newly back from injury, is performing better than expected. The Frenchman is a dangerous player on the indoor hard courts and is also, placed No12 in the race, looking for good points in his bid for the WTFs.
Things have opened up in the bottom quarter of the draw, too, where Novak Djokovic is making serene progress for the loss of just eight games. He wiped Richard Gasquet off the court, 6-1,6-1.
Since the start of the US Open series, Djokovic has begun to look like the man who won his first Slam title in 2008. He feels he is playing the best tennis of his career, and that in itself is an intimidating prospect: He is not one to blow his own trumpet. For the first time in a long while, he has the look of a man entirely comfortable in his skin and, with Tomas Berdych dismissed by Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Djokovic should advance easily to the semis.
Ahead lies the prospect of another semi-final encounter with Roger Federer, but the Swiss faces the biggest task in the quarters in the shape of Robin Soderling. Both men are playing very strongly in Shanghai, and they shared the spoils in their last two matches. Soderling won his first ever match against Federer in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros, while Federer got revenge at the US Open.
The Swede scored a good win over a very tough David Ferrer, while Federer showed the full extent of his talent in taking out John Isner and then a feisty Andreas Seppi. His serve is working nicely and he is mixing up his tactics with pace and flair. He even treated the crowd to another winning hotdog. For a man with such a quiet on-court demeanour, he certainly knows how to put on a show.
Soderling’s coach, Magnus Norman, was courtside to check out the Federer game. The message for his man can be just one thing: attack from start to finish. Just ask Djokovic, who beat Federer in New York by playing aggressively through five whole sets to beat him in the US Open for the first time in four attempts.
There are many in Shanghai -and around the world -who hope to see a repeat of that match-up come Saturday. Soderling is the player most likely to prevent it.