Arriving here on the back of a title-winning run in Tokyo that took him to No5 in the race to the World Tour Finals, he went down with a fever that looked as though it might end his Shanghai run before it had started.
In fairness, he was drawn against one of the most consistent players on the tour, No23 Philipp Kohlschreiber. The German 29-year-old has rarely been out of the top 30 in the last six years and reached a career-high of 16 just a year ago. He also possesses the kind of game that always has the potential to trouble the big Argentine.
Kohlschreiber’s single-handed backhand is one of his big strengths, especially married to nimble movement and great touch around the net. Del Potro has always struggled with low, sliding balls, and the courts in Shanghai combine speed and slickness that rewarded the German’s clean top-spin strikes and skimming sliced backhands.
So the slow-starting Del Potro was caught on the back foot by some near-perfect opening plays by Kohlschreiber, was broken on his opening serve, and was quickly a set down, 6-3.
The second set was a mirror image of the first as Del Potro, having called the medic to court, settled into a better rhythm and earned the only break of the set to level at 6-3. It would all come down to the third, and with both now producing their best tennis at the same time, it was a cracker.
By 3-3, they stood at 70 points apiece with only one double fault on the board—and that came in the second set to Del Potro. The serving was outstanding on both sides, accurate, pacey and varied, and perhaps surprisingly, Kohlschreiber led the way with 19 aces to the Argentine’s 12.
The German had already stacked up 44 winners to 24 from his opponent, but his attacking tactics had also brought 22 errors. Del Potro, though, was doing little wrong—he had made only eight errors thus far—and would be rewarded for his consistency and determination in the seventh game. It took just a small slip in Kohlschreiber’s level, offering up five consecutive second serves, for Del Potro to apply the pressure, and a cruel net cord on break point gave the Argentine what looking like a the decisive break, especially with the benefit of news balls on his own serve.
So Del Potro served for the match at 5-4, but the German’s backhand suddenly came alight again to attack the Argentine’s serve, now with a blocked cross-court angled return of serve, next with an accurate winner down the line. A third drew an error from Del Potro and three break points. The Argentine saved the first with an ace, the second with a near-ace, but on the third, he could not handle another searing backhand return of serve, a 10th winner off that wing, and Kohlschreiber broke for the first time since the opening game of the match.
What’s more, the German’s serve found its groove again, and a 20th ace gave him a love hold and 6-5 lead. After two hours of play, these very contrasting players, one 6ft 6in, the other just 5ft 10in, headed to a tie-break.
It opened with a rare backhand error from Kohlschreiber at the net, and though he levelled things again, another untimely backhand error gave Del Potro a 4-2 lead at the change of ends. The German made two aces to stay in contention, 4-5, but a big serve, followed by his signature forehand winner, took the match, 7-4.
Kohlschreiber was left to wonder how he had lost a match in which he hit 50 winners, almost double the number of errors, and hit 22 aces to not one double fault. It came down to the right point at the right moment, the result of Del Potro’s experience, power, and not a little courage in handling the testing Kohlschreiber tactics despite feeling far from his best.
They are qualities that also, in due course, should confirm his place in London in November, but in the meantime, he has pulled out of the doubles draw in Shanghai and will hope to feel fully fit before he takes on another German, most likely Tommy Haas, who can deploy just the same destructive tactics as his compatriot.
Elsewhere, No11 in the race to London, Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, took only 65 minutes to beat the lowest-ranked player to be faced by any of the top eight seeds, No55 Pablo Andujar. Tsonga broke four times in his 6-3, 6-2 win, after being sidelined for nearly three months during the summer due to a left knee injury.
Tsonga’s compatriot, Gael Monfils, also scored an impressive win over the talented Vasek Pospisil, 7-5, 7-6, and awaits the outcome of Roger Federer’s opener against No22 Andreas Seppi.
Two seeds who have put themselves out of contention for London are No16 Tommy Robredo—he retired with a wrist injury against Fabio Fognini—and No14, John Isner, a surprise loser to the 44-ranked Carlos Berlocq, 6-4, 7-6.
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