The story was coming together perfectly. With the No1 ranking up for grabs as early as the end of this season, Murray was closing in nicely with his victory in Beijing as defending champion Djokovic delayed his return from injury to focus on the bigger prize of Shanghai.
Having not played since his US Open runner-up finish, it was to be expected that the Serb may be a little rusty, even though he had won in Shanghai three times, and lost just one match since 2012.
That he would not have to play a seed until the semi-finals, however, would help him sharpen his game as the challenges grew tougher. Sure enough, he dispatched dangerous opposition to reach his allotted place, albeit with seesawing focus and accuracy against the attacking serve-and-volley tennis of Mischa Zverev.
Murray, conversely, arrived with more matches in his legs than anyone else on the tour. By the time he reached the semis of the tournament that he had won twice before, he was up to 72, 63 of them wins.
Since losing the final of the Madrid Masters to Djokovic, he had reached seven finals and won five of them. He was in great form, but for how long could he maintain such a level? Well judging by his tests in Shanghai against men riding their own form to a possible place at the World Tour Finals, Lucas Pouille and David Goffin, for a while yet.
With both now targeting their 10th final of the season, the top two seeds took on super-fit, fleet-footed, durable men who played the kind of baseline tennis on which Djokovic and Murray thrive: Roberto Bautista Agut and Gilles Simon respectively.
Such was the parity, then, that their paths looked set to converge for a 35th time.
But Shanghai was in for a shock. Djokovic had beaten the rising No15 seed Bautista Agut in all five previous meetings, though in their two Grand Slam matches, the Spaniard had nabbed a set. This time, though, Djokovic found it increasingly difficult to maintain the calm equilibrium that had brought him through his Zverev test.
He had a chance to break the Spaniard in the ninth game, but failed to capitalise as Bautista Agut lobbed him, and then outmanoeuvred from the baseline to make his winning forehand. The Spaniard immediately turned the tables on Djokovic to convert his own first break point for the set, 6-4, as the Serb struck a backhand well wide. Unlike the previous day, Djokovic did not release the tension by humming but by smashing his racket.
The top seed regained his composure at the start of the second and began to mix things up, holding to love with a drop winner and then an ace. But his frustration burst through again as he failed to capitalise on a couple of deuces against Bautista Agut and ripped open his shirt. His mood was not helped by a time violation for heading back to this chair to change his shirt as the Spaniard waited to serve. Not that Bautista Agut seemed fazed: He hit two big serves to hold, 3-2.
Indeed the momentum shifted to the Spaniard’s side, helped by a drop shot and then a forehand winner, plus a double fault from Djokovic. Another error from the Serb brought up a second break point and Bautista Agut cracked a winning return of serve for 4-2.
It did not last, however. On the third break point, Djokovic made a drop winner to level again, but still the Serb could not string his patches of good play together, and Bautista Agut’s defensive tennis made it still more difficult. Djokovic put an easy drop into the net and then a backhand wide to concede another break.
However, serving for the set, Bautista Agut was near-paralysed with tension, his ball toss went to pieces, he double faulted on the opening point, though still worked three match points from a stream of second serves. But after 10 minutes, Djokovic broke: Surely that was the Spaniard’s chance up in smoke?
Not a bit of it. Relieved of the pressure of serving, Bautista Agut went after the Djokovic serve, and given one more break chance, he hurtled to the forehand wing to pull off a final match-winning pass, 6-4.
The win marks the Spaniard’s first ever Masters final, and he was delighted: “After the passing shot in the last point, I was so happy… I couldn’t imagine me closing the match against Novak. It’s not easy to play Novak when he’s playing really good. I’m so happy I could beat him. The first time I remember I played him I thought he was from another planet, and now I think I’m closer to him.”
He certainly is, and even keeps himself in contention for the World Tour Finals. This run takes him to No13 in the Race, and victory would make it No10.
But to achieve that ground-breaking win he will have to take on the seemingly impregnable Murray, who brought to his semi-final a head-to-head of 14-2 over Simon.
Murray had yet to drop his serve in three matches this week, and was on an eight-match, 16-set winning streak, but Simon’s craft and tactical subtlety made the Briton look, for a while at least, rather less impregnable.
He broke Murray in the first game with one of his signature flat, fast backhands and a crisp return of serve. Simon’s 2-0 lead did not last long, though, as Murray wove a web of rallies—one of them 39 shots long—to take the next four games.
But Simon wove his own traps, and drew Murray errors to break—in what would become a run of five consecutive breaks of serve. However, Murray had the advantage of serving first, so his break of Simon at 5-4 sealed the set, 6-4—and with the finest point thus far: a Simon lob countered by a Murray lob onto the Frenchman’s baseline.
The second set looked more one-sided once Murray broke Simon at the fifth attempt in the second game. The Briton made it 4-1 with two 130mph plus aces and broke for 5-1, only for Simon to claw back a break for 5-3.
Murray eventually got the win after an hour and three-quarters of gripping, tactical tennis, 6-3, to reach his 20th Masters final.
Bautista Agut failed to win a set in his previous two meetings with Murray, but he has been playing more complete and aggressive with each passing month. And Murray knows that the Spaniard’s incentives are as great as his own.
“He’s had some very good wins this week, playing really well. He’s improving all the time, and will be highly motivated in playing his first Masters final—and he’s in with an outside chance of qualifying for the year-end championships, too.”
It may not, then, be the final that most predicted for Shanghai, but it will still be a major upset if the Briton does not claim his third title come Sunday.
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