Cream rises to top in Shanghai as Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic ease to quarters

British No1 Andy Murray and world No1 Novak Djokovic are both through to the last eight at the 2016 Shanghai Masters

After a day tumbling seeds and thwarted Race-to-London ambitions in Round 2, the third round at the Shanghai Rolex Masters—one of the richest tournaments in the ATP crown—saw the cream steadily rise to the top.

Yes, there were some unexpected results. Mischa Zverev, who has had to play qualifying rounds in his last nine tournaments, is ranked 110, but beat the 43-ranked Marcel Granollers, 6-7, 6-4, 6-1, in what has been something of a dream run. First he met a 197-ranked wild card, then an imploding Nick Kyrgios, followed not by Tomas Berdych but Granollers.

The dream is likely to end tomorrow against top seed and three-time champion Novak Djokovic, for Zverev’s contemporary will arrive at their second meeting via a rather different career path.

Less of a surprise, even though most pundits would have put money on the younger of the Zverev brothers, 19-year-old Alexander, rather than Mischa to make the quarter-finals, was Jo-Wilfried Tsonga’s victory. The No9 seeded Frenchman fought back from a set and 4-1 down to beat the newest arrival in the top 20, and next takes on No15 ranked Roberto Bautista Agut.

Tsonga, who pulled out of Beijing last week with a recurring knee injury, faces several levels of dejà vu if he advances to the semis. He contested the title here a year ago with Djokovic—and lost, as he did in their semi-final here in 2013. Tsonga’s last match before Shanghai was the quarters at the US Open, where he was forced to retire in the second set—against Djokovic. And only twice since their thrilling five-setter in Australia in 2010 has Tsonga won, and one of those was courtesy of a walk over.

Of course, this is also Djokovic’s first tournament since losing in New York as he too has rehabbed an injury. But it has been business as usual on the court for a very calm, very relaxed defending champion. Little wonder: He now has a 26-3 record in Shanghai on the back of three titles after beating Canadian Vasek Pospisil in just an hour and 20 minutes.

However the mighty Serb arrived in China willing to talk about a new phase in his career, a new work-life balance, after admitting in New York that he had coped with emotional as well as physical problems after winning the French Open.

Asked in Shanghai about his thoughts on Andy Murray’s pursuit of the No1 ranking, Djokovic admitted: “Right now, no. I don’t think about [Federer’s Grand Slam record] at all. I don’t think about any achievements. I don’t think about any trophies or No1 of the world, the ranking or anything like that. It’s completely different… I play partly because I also enjoy being successful and seeing the results of my work. But on the other hand, that comes second now. It’s not the priority.”

Murray, whose form through the clay and grass seasons, and on to Olympics gold, the Cincinnati final and last week’s Beijing title, is drawing ever closer to Djokovic, but was equally pragmatic about the business of No1, and also about Djokovic’s tennis.

“I’m aware that if I want to get to the No1 ranking I need to win a lot of matches. It doesn’t just happen because Novak said it’s not a priority for him. [That] doesn’t mean he can’t win this week and win the World Tour Finals and the Australian Open, you know.

“My priorities are to try and finish this year as strongly as possible and make it my best year yet. That’s what I want to do just now. And to do that I need to keep performing like I have been. I need to stay focused on each match and each tournament.”

His match against the fast-improving 22-year-old Lucas Pouille, who arrived in Shanghai seeded 13 after winning his first title in Metz and making the quarters at Wimbledon and the US Open, looked to be a tough test for Murray. And it did take the two-time Shanghai champion seven minutes to hold serve in the opening game. But from that moment on, Murray was almost flawless: He ended the match with just 10 unforced errors.

The Briton converted his third break point in the second game, broke again for a 4-0 lead, and closed out the set, 6-1.

The second set was closer, even though Murray broke at the start. Pouille resisted Murray’s all-encompassing tennis until the ninth game, but then Murray broke once more for the set, 6-3, after just 77 minutes. He had not faced a single break point.

But if the early upsets had come in the top half of the draw, they came to the bottom half in the late hours of Round 3. Not that Gilles Simon, currently ranked 32, is not a fine player. He has played the year-end finals in 2008, and reached No6 in 2009. But he is not a heavyweight hitter, rather a fast, flat striker of the ball who creates precise baseline patterns of the most draining kind—and that is exactly what undermined the shot-making of US Open champion Stan Wawrinka.

Simon got the first break, Wawrinka levelled, and then Simon, after a quick consultation with the trainer, apparently for shortness of breath, broke again and held to love, 6-4.

Wawrinka alternated thrilling winners with errors—24 of them in that set—but seemed to right the ship in the second set as the two men exchanged breaks in the opening games. But at 2-2, the Swiss again came off the worse in some extended baseline exchanges, striking a forehand way wide to concede the break.

This time, he could not convert a break-back chance, and Simon served out the match, 6-4. He next plays Jack Sock, who saved two match points in the third-set tie-break to end an eight-match losing streak against No5 seed Milos Raonic.

But while Simon was upsetting Wawrinka on the main arena,the second show-court was saving the best for last between two men targeting the World Tour Finals for the first time, No6 seed Gael Monfils and No11 David Goffin.

On paper, the flamboyant Frenchman, who has been channelling his talent like never before, looked the winner. He was 23-4 since Wimbledon, all on hard courts, with the Washington title followed by semis at the Toronto Masters, US Open and Tokyo.

Goffin, in contrast, is a slight figure, but boasts some of the nimblest and fastest footwork on the tour to compensate for his lack of big power-plays. He was finalist in Tokyo last week and could break the top 10 in the Race to London with a win over Monfils—but it looked a tall order after an hour of tennis.

Monfils broke early and served out the first set, 6-4, before breaking twice in the second set for a 4-1 lead. Now, though, Goffin began to find his crisp form, placed his serve on a sixpence, and went on a run of three breaks, five straight games, for the set, 6-4.

It took the Belgian three deuces and two saved break points to hold the opener in the third set, and he then came out on the winning side of an 11-minute game to convert his sixth break point, 4-2. The men stood at 100 points apiece.

But Monfils began to look drained, seemed to struggling physically, and Goffin slotted first a running backhand winner than a forehand winner to break again for the match, 6-2.

The Belgian rises to No10 in the Race, but… now he faces Murray, and he has yet to win a set from the Briton in five previous matches. And while Goffin may have ended his late-night 2hrs 20mins victory in very fine shape, Murray is undoubtedly playing some of the best tennis of his career.

In short, it is hard to see anything but a final showdown between the cream of the crop: Djokovic and Murray.

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