The noise and visual spectacle of Shanghai is, in itself, enough to set the pulse racing. It is a city with a glimmering, modern heart: buzzing, neon-lit, sky-scraping, and with a photo opportunity on every corner.
The city, in keeping with its no-holds-barred image, has created one of the finest arenas in tennis. From first sight, the monumental centre court of Qi Zhongâ€™s impresses and, once inside, its circular colosseum gives every seat a perfect, unimpeded view.
The steel roof is made from eight petal-shaped pieces, each weighing two tonnes, and as it opensâ€”in just eight minutesâ€”it represents the blossoming of Shanghaiâ€™s symbolic magnolia.
Yet the Shanghai draw has suffered something of an early frost. In 2010, it was the first Masters event of the year to feature all of the top 20 players. This year, it is missing two of the top three, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, with injury.
It is also without world No6, Robin Soderling, No9 Gael Monfils, No14 Juan Martin Del Potro, No17 Richard Gasquet and No18 John Isnerâ€”all of them ill or injured.
Fortunately for the tournament, there are still plenty of storylines to make the action compelling.
First, it has the potential to bring together Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray for the sixth time this year. As well as the semis of the Monte Carlo Masters, they have faced one another in the semis of the last three Grand Slams. Nadal, world No2, won each time, but this weekend it was a Murray in superlative form who beat Nadal to win the Tokyo 500 title.
In Shanghai, both men have particular incentives to win. Murray, if he defends his title, will seal a run of three consecutive titlesâ€”he won Bangkok prior to winning in Tokyoâ€”and two straight Mastersâ€”he won the last 1000 event in Cincinnati. He will also be poised to overtake Federer in the rankings for the first time.
Nadal, for his part, is aiming for his first title in Shanghai and a 20th Masters crown. With Djokovic out of the pictureâ€”and now with more wins this year than the all-conquering Serbâ€”Nadal has a chance to boost his confidence with a big title and then take a recuperative break before the Paris Masters.
Away from the top four men, one more drama will continue to unfold: the race to the World Tour Finals. All the main contenders for the remaining places are in Shanghai and all are finding good form at just the right time.
No5 in the race, David Ferrer, reached the semis in Tokyo, had a resounding win over Gilles Simon in the Davis Cup, has set one of the best win-loss records this yearâ€”47 to 14â€”and is at his highest ranking in three years.
Next comes Mardy Fish. He also reached the semis in Tokyo, continues his first ever run in the top 10 and is within touching distance of a first WTFs.
At No7, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has rediscovered his zest for tennis this year and notched up a semi finish at Wimbledon and a quarter in New York. He won his first title of the year a fortnight back in Metz and was a semi-finalist in Beijing this week.
Finally, at No8 in the race, Tomas Berdych has built a head of steam this week, reaching the final of Beijing via wins over Tsonga, Fernando Verdasco and Jurgen Melzer.
Also with the potential to cause an upset if they do well in Shanghai are Nicolas Almagro, Simon and the constantly improving Janko Tipsarevic.
While Nadal should negotiate his first match without incident, the next, in Round 3, poses a variety of challenges. The only non-Chinese wild card has been handed to David Nalbandian, who has often given Nadal problems. Nadal has won the last three of their five matches but he dropped the opening set to the Argentine in Miami last year and was pushed to 7-6, 6-1, 7-5 at the US Open.
Nalbandianâ€™s fitness is always a concernâ€”2011 has again been marred by injuriesâ€”but he played some good tennis in reaching the quarters in Tokyo.
However, he has to get past another talented but unpredictable player in the first round, Ernests Gulbis, but since winning in Los Angeles, the Latvian has posted few wins.
On paper, it should be No15 seed Florian Mayer who meets Nadal in the third round but, in practice, it may be Nalbandian.
The other quarter-finalist should be Tipsarevic and Berdych. The Serb has risen from 49 at the start of the year to a lifetime high of 13, reached the quarters of the US Open where he took Djokovic to two tiebreakers before retiring, and has just won his first title in Kuala Lumpur.
If Tipsarevic negotiates the dangerous Feliciano Lopez in his opener, and if Berdych is tired from his Beijing run, the Serb might face Nadal in the quarters, and that would be another step towards his first WTFs.
Matches to watch out for: Nalbandian v Gulbis, Round 1; Tipsarevic v Lopez, Round 1; Berdych v Tipsarevic, Round 3.
Ferrerâ€™s segment is difficult to call, and is particularly tricky for the No3 seed in the early rounds. His first opponent will either be the huge-hitting Milos Raonic, who took Nadal to 7-5, 6-3 in Tokyo in his first tour match back from injury, or the serve-and-volleyer expert, Michael Llodra.
The next round holds Verdasco, Juan Carlos Ferrero or Mikhail Youzhny. All of them have lower rankings than their abilities warrant and the latter two in particular have the variety of game to break up the rhythm of Ferrer.
The lower section is also wide open. No7 seed Almagro broke the top 10 this year for the first time but all three of his titles came on clay and he lost in the first round in Beijing.
As for the rest, Andy Roddick had some success on the North American hard courts but also lost his opening match in Beijing. Tommy Robredo has barely played since Wimbledon due to injury and he too lost in the first round in Beijing. That leaves the way open for the bright talent of Grigor Dimitrov unless a qualifier such as Donald Young repeats his Bangkok runâ€”there are three qualifier slots in this eighth.
Matches to watch out for: Youzhny v Ferrero, Round 1; Raonic v Llodra, Round 1.
Both Tsonga and Fish are in line for a London place. While the Frenchman made the Masters Cup in 2008, Fish is more than a little keen to qualify for the first time: â€œLondon is the main goal at the end of the yearâ€¦I desperately want to [make it], thatâ€™s no secret.â€
The two could face one another in the quarter-finals in a replay of their only other meeting in the fourth round of the US Open. It was one of the matches of the tournament, a three-and-three-quarter hour five-setter that eventually went Tsongaâ€™s way. Both have reached semi-finals this week and, appropriately enough, they are seeded Nos 4 and 4 in Shanghai.
Ahead of that, though, both have their work cut out. Tsongaâ€™s eighth includes Robin Haase, Ivan Dodig, Ivan Ljubicic and Melzer. Tsonga even faces a possible third-round repeat of the Metz final, where he took two-and-a-half hours to beat Ljubicic.
Fishâ€™s segment includes first Kevin Anderson or Bernard Tomicâ€”both of whom he has beaten recentlyâ€”and then either Alexandr Dolgopolov or Marin Cilic, the latter a particular dangerous finalist in Beijing this week.
Matches to watch out for: Tomic v Anderson, Round 1; Cilic v Dolgopolov, Round 2; Tsonga v Fish, quarter-final.
In comparison with the Tsonga-Fish quarter, Murrayâ€™s route to the semi-finals should be negotiated with relative ease, especially in his current form. He has looked strong, confident, relaxed and ready to take on all-comers throughout the Asian Swing: He remained unbeaten through Bangkok and Tokyo, even reaching the doubles final in the latter.
If he defends his Shanghai title, it would mark his eighth Masters trophy and his 21st ATP title overall. Bearing in mind that he goes into the event with 21 wins from his last 22 matchesâ€”his only loss coming to Nadal at the US Open last monthâ€”he will take some beating.
The highest seed in his quarter is No8 Simon, and Murray has won the last eight of their nine meetings. Simon did take Murray to three sets in the Bangkok semis last week, but the Frenchmanâ€™s hope for an upset seem slim.
One man for Murray to note is Stanislas Wawrinka, who has won in four of their nine meetings, including their most recent at the 2010 US Open. The Swiss is playing his first tournament since an heroic, tie-sealing win over Lleyton Hewitt in the Davis Cup.
There are three qualifier slots in this quarter, too, so Murray may even find Young in the third round, but he left the American for dead in the final of Bangkok last week.
Matches to watch out for: Wawrinka v Monaco, Round 1; Simon v Troicki, Round 3.
Final: Murray defeats Nadal
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