Since it joined the top tier of men’s tennis in 2009, the players have voted Shanghai the ATP World Tour 1000 Tournament every year—four consecutive wins—and it’s easy to see why.
The biggest tournament in the Far East is hosted by one of the most vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in China with a skyline that takes the breath away. Its monumental centre court, at the Qi Zhong Tennis Centre, is one the sport’s most spectacular, built especially for the Masters Cup—the forerunner of the World Tour Finals—from 2005 to 2008. Even its steel roof, made from eight petal-shaped pieces, is an engineering masterpiece, able to open up to the sky in just eight minutes like a blossoming magnolia.
Yet despite its many attractions, Shanghai has not enjoyed unbroken good fortune. In 2011, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic missed the tournament, as did Juan Martin Del Potro, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and John Isner—all of them ill or injured.
Last year, it was Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer who missed Shanghai, and then there was also heightened security following a death threat on Federer.
This year, it is the two-time champion, Andy Murray, who is absent as he recovers from back surgery.
Nevertheless Shanghai in 2013 promises much drama, as well as answers to some big questions. With 1,000 points on offer to the winner, and with only three men thus far qualified for the World Tour Finals, there is much at stake.
While Nadal, Djokovic and Del Potro have been tied up with finals in Tokyo and Beijing this weekend, much of the attention has been on the man who enthuses Chinese tennis fans like no other. Federer’s path, from is arrival at the airport and along every step of the way to Qi Zhong, has been thronged by fans.
At Fans’ Day, the 16,000-seat stadium brimmed over with supporters while he played a one-set exhibition, and every one of them brandished a red banner proclaiming: “We believe in U Roger.” It was breathtaking in its scale, but will surely only add to the challenges he faces.
For it is many years since Federer reached this stage of the season without his ticket to the World Tour Finals already booked. Indeed not since he reached the Masters Cup semis in 2002 has he been so far off the pace. He is currently seventh but, more importantly, only 450 points separate him from the four following contenders: No8 Stan Wawrinka; No9 Gasquet; No10 Milos Raonic; No11 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
So Federer, the only seed in the draw who has played not a single match since the US Open, needs big points in Shanghai.
He was one of three Rolex Global Brand Ambassadors at the prestigious draw held ceremony held at the Rolex Boutique on the Bund on the Shanghai waterfront. The others were Tsonga and the great Rod Laver. But which seeds came off well and which not so well as their names were pulled from the Rolex box?
Missing seeds: No3 Andy Murray, No15 Jerzy Janowicz.
Despite the switch in their ranking positions this weekend, it is Djokovic who arrives at Qi Zhong with the advantage over Nadal, having just beaten the Spaniard to take his fourth Beijing title.
The nature of his victory will have rung alarm bells for more than just Nadal: The Serb played near flawless tennis to sweep past the new world No1 in only 87 minutes, 6-3, 6-4. There is no doubt that he loves these Asian hard courts, and he also understood the significance of his timely victory:
“I needed this win today. I really wanted to get my hands on the trophy and win against Nadal who has been the best player so far in 2013. It’s very important for my confidence. It’s very important mentally and emotionally for me.”
And as luck would have it, this is the man that Federer, who is also in search of a confidence-boosting win, has drawn in the quarters.
Djokovic should have no problems in his opener against either Marcel Granollers or world No23 Janko Tipsarevic. Next will be No19 Fabio Fognini—though he is 15 in the race—or a resurgent Tommy Robredo, the lowest seed in the draw.
Federer’s segment, conversely, throws up some tough early matches. The first will be either Lleyton Hewitt, an old foe and former No1, and still full of fight and flair—always dangerous in early rounds—or the No22 ranked Andreas Seppi.
The next round is full of talent and intrigue. Gasquet is right behind Federer in the rankings, has played one of his best seasons in years, arrives in Shanghai with semi finishes at the US Open, Bangkok and Beijing, and has beaten Federer before. But Gasquet’s run is also tough: first the fast-rising Canadian talent, Vasek Pospisil, then possibly the unpredictable brilliance of Monfils. In truth, any of the three could face Federer in the third round.
If Federer survives, he will almost certainly face Djokovic in the quarters. Then beyond that, in the semis, the draw suggests the survivor of a quarter-final between world No4 Ferrer—who is within a hair’s breadth of qualifying for London—and Tsonga, another of those chasing qualification.
Tsonga reached the final of Metz, his first event since retiring in Wimbledon’s opening week with injury. He will be fresh, but he fell in the second round in Beijing last week, and could meet the man who beat him, Ivan Dodig, in the third round. Alternatives are No12 seed Kei Nishikori or Grigor Dimitrov.
Ferrer, who was a runner up here in 2010, first plays Lukas Rosol then possibly No13 seed, Gilles Simon, unless Benoit Paire finds his entertaining form or Simon’s groin strain from last week is still a problem.
Semi-finals: Djokovic beats Tsonga
The Spaniard reached the Shanghai final in 2009 and is in the happy position of knowing he has no points to defend this year. He will, then, extend his lead over Djokovic in the race regardless of how far he advances.
And as Djokovic rightly said, he is the form player of the year—even on hard courts: 10 titles won, three more finals reached, a record eighth Roland Garros plus the US Open and three hard-court Masters. He has lost only four matches to 65 wins, but two of those loses were to Djokovic.
And Nadal has some tricky matches along the way. First is likely to be Alexandr Dolgopolov, then No14 seed, Isner, who took him to two tie-breaks in the final of Indian Wells this year.
Next could be Raonic, No10 in the race, and a showing growing quality and maturity this season. He won in Bangkok—beating Tomas Berdych—and reached the final of Tokyo this weekend, losing a close contest against Del Potro, 7-6, 7-5.
By coincidence, Raonic was Nadal’s opponent in another North American final this year, in Montreal, and received what he called “a bit of a clinic”, but the big Canadian could be ready to take advantage of any off-day, though he first has the not inconsiderable presence of Wawrinka looming in the third round. Indeed that big-hitting match could determine one of the London spots, so close are they on points.
Nadal’s semi opponent should be between two men standing at Nos5 and 6 in the race, Del Potro and Berdych. The latter retired against Nadal with a back problem in the semis of Beijing, so his form is uncertain, and he faces an early challenge from either Feliciano Lopez or Jarkko Nieminen. Beyond that are Bernard Tomic and Nicolas Almagro, a semi-finalist in Tokyo. Any could test a bad back, though Berdych will have an eye on points for London.
Del Potro’s main contenders in the early rounds are likely to be first the dangerous Philipp Kohlschreiber, then No11 seed Tommy Haas or Sam Querrey, who beat Wawrinka in Beijing last week.
Berdych and Del Potro are locked together in the race and split their last two matches. Should they come through to their allotted quarter-final, it could be a cracker.
Semi-finals: Nadal beats Del Potro
Final: Djokovic beats Nadal
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