Shanghai Masters: Nadal out, Murray in, young guns blazing
Andy Murray extended his winning streak as Rafael Nadal suffered a surprise third-round loss in Shanghai
For a Masters tournament that had begun to take on the look of a regular 500, the climax of the Asian swing has proved to be a headline grabber.
It started without Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, plus world No6, Robin Soderling, No9 Gael Monfils, No14 Juan Martin Del Potro, No17 Richard Gasquet and No18 John Isner.
And it began low key, with rumour and counter-rumour about player strikes, before rumbling into controversy over the competition balls””Shanghai’s were too fast, Tokyo’s too slow, or vice-versa.
Next, Rafael Nadal’s decision to forsake the grass of Queen’s for the grass of Halle next June came under the microscope: The UK’s prohibitive tax system was to blame, went the argument.
Light relief followed with the unveiling of a new terracotta statue of defending champion Andy Murray that made the efforts of Madame Tussaud look good””unless Murray had asked for the “Beethoven treatment.”
But amid the white noise, a few rather more significant tennis stories began to take over.
The first gathered its own momentum like a snowball rolling down Ben Nevis: Murray’s imminent leapfrog of Federer in the rankings for the first time in his career. The Scot needs only to defend his title this week and the deed is all but done.
The second story focused on who might fill the remaining four places at the World Tour Finals in November. Thus far, only one man has sealed his place, No5 David Ferrer, who worked like a Trojan to get past Milos Raonic, 7-5, 7-6.
He worked even harder in the next round to bring down his friend and fellow Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero in three sets, but it earned him his pass to London.
Ferrer next plays Andy Roddick, who beat him last month amid the chaos of rescheduled matches and last-minute court changes at the US Open. Roddick needs to win this quarter-final””indeed needs to win the title””to keep his own hopes of London qualification alive.
To keep the race even more interesting, two of the prime contenders for London, Mardy Fish and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, lost their opening matches. Tomas Berdych, who is within touching distance of a WTF place, then lost in the third round, and outside chances Nicolas Almagro and Gilles Simon did the same.
The next highly anticipated story drew on the top two seeds, Murray and the main obstacle to the title, Nadal. It looked a foregone conclusion that final Sunday would serve up a sixth meeting between them and, with Murray beating Nadal for the first time last week in the Tokyo final, this was a tasty prospect.
Murray was the first to attempt to keep his side of the bargain but he faced a tricky passage in the formidable frame of Stan Wawrinka.
The No2 seed may or may not have been grateful for an extra day’s rest at the hands of Dimitry Tursunov’s withdrawal from his opening match: With the centre court’s roof closed and the balls flying, Murray may have preferred some match-play before tackling the man who beat him in the third round of 2010’s US Open.
But Murray opened well and broke for a 3-0 lead, and although Wawrinka came back at him, Murray’s serving and net play were top-notch. He took the opener in style with a smash, 6-4.
Murray’s form fell off a little in the second set and he found himself saving a couple of break points in the sixth game, but in the eighth, Wawrinka struck again to level the match, 6-3.
Murray hastily switched from black shirt to red””replicating Wawrinka’s colour scheme””and that seemed to refocus the Scot.
He ran to a 5-0 lead before Wawrinka’s huge sweep of a single-armed backhand forced one break back to take three straight games. It turned out to be a final flourish. Murray served out to love, a reminder that he is the form man of the moment.
This was Murray’s 22nd win from 23 matches and he is bidding for his third consecutive title. His progress to that notable achievement””and with it the No3 ranking””became just a little easier after Nadal faced and lost to the flourishing Florian Mayer.
The German has a variety of shot that can dazzle but this unassuming 28-year-old has never made the inroads that his charismatic tennis might suggest.
Only this year has he broken into the top 20 after 10 years as a pro, yet his tennis against Nadal””intelligent and full of variety””suggested he may finally have found the confidence to upset a few more top names.
Nadal is a fighter without equal but Mayer had him chasing down drop shots, lobs, smashes and huge, looping cross-court forehands””often in 20-or-more stroke rallies. Mayer’s first break point in the 10-minute 10th game brought the German plunging to the ground. Nadal saved a second, too, but he could not contain Mayer in the tie-break.
The German continued to stun both Nadal and the crowd in the second set, breaking in the seventh game to take the match, 6-3.
Mayer won only his first ATP title last month in Bucharest. With tennis like this, he will surely have a second before too long.
Murray’s next opponent, like Mayer, is also climbing the rankings. This time last year, Matthew Ebden was barely making inroads on the Challenger circuit. Now he is ranked No124 and headed towards the top 100.
Shanghai’s third-round action concluded with the fifth Spaniard of the day, Feliciano Lopez. Now 30, the classy serve-and-volley exponent is another long-established player to have found a rich vein of form this year.
His declared intention at the start of 2011 was to reach No20″”the last time he did so was almost seven years ago.
After possibly his finest match of the year””a straight-sets defeat of Berdych””and with no points to defend for the rest of the year, Lopez is on course to do just that. He also goes into the quarter-finals knowing that his scheduled opponent, Nadal, has gone.
So a day that started much like any other at a big tournament””with the top seeds apparently making majestic progress to the latter stages of the draw””ended with altogether different headlines.
In beating the top-seeded Nadal, the unstarry Mayer has both the Shanghai crowds and some effusive commentary teams buzzing with excitement at the creativity and variety of his tennis.
A swathe of rising talents took steps into new territory by the narrowest of margins and in the tightest of matches. Japan’s 21-year-old Kei Nishikori reached his first Masters quarter-final””and became his country’s highest ranked man ever””after beating Santiago Giraldo in three sets, despite taking 108 points to the Columbian’s 109.
Ebden beat world the No12, Simon, in three sets and by 99 points to 97.
Alexandr Dolgopolov also reached his first Masters quarter-final by beating teenager Bernard Tomic who has catapulted from outside 200 to inside the top 50 this year, and will go still higher before year-end.
And, in a neat full-stop to such an eventful day’s proceedings, Djokovic was confirmed as the year-end No1 by the ATP. One man’s loss is another man’s gain, and with the exit of Nadal in the third round, Djokovic can no longer be caught in 2011. And with his record this year, that seems only right.