But Djokovic also happens to be the player of the moment, the player who notched up his 13th and 14th Major victories at Wimbledon and the US Open during the last three months or so, and became the only man to complete the set of nine Masters titles with his victory in Cincinnati. And it has been all the more impressive because, for the first few months of 2018, Djokovic had to rebuild his confidence and fitness after six months away at the end of last year.
In fact, since he hit the clay of Rome in May, the Serb has barely looked back: a 34-4 win-loss run. Make that 35-4 now.
He will hope to extend his 14-match winning streak when he takes on No16 seed Marco Cecchinato, who beat Djokovic in the quarters of the French Open, or Hyeon Chung, who beat the Serb during the first stages of his return to competition at the Australian Open.
And rightly, the Serb put his finger on the difference this time around:
“Both of these players won against me the last time we met… I think I’m completely different player than I was in first five, six months of the year. Hopefully the outcome can be different, as well.”
If Djokovic reaches the Shanghai final on Sunday, he will pass Roger Federer at No2 in the rankings, and if he wins the title, he will move to within 35 points of world No1 Rafael Nadal, who is absent this week as he rehabs a knee injury.
Djokovic’s inexorable rise in the last few months thus gives him the chance to regain the world No1 ranking—including the year-end No1 accolade—and he sealed his place at the Nitto ATP Finals weeks ago. However, there are still four places to fill at the London finale.
For two of those with hopes of sealing a top-eight spot in the fast-closing window of available tournaments left this season, the job got just a little harder.
The 30-year-old Matthew Ebden, a quarter-finalist in Shanghai seven years ago, rolled back the years to shock No7 Dominic Thiem, 6-4, 6-7(8), 7-6(4), in a marathon effort. It was only the 18th win of the season for the world No51, after he also took three sets to beat Frances Tiafoe in the first round.
Thiem, who leads the tour with 48 match wins, was aiming to reach the third round in Shanghai for the first time. However, the winner of three titles this season still maintains a grip on the top eight, helped by the absence of Grigor Dimitrov, John Isner and David Goffin in Shanghai.
The same goes for No6 in the Race, Marin Cilic, despite his surprise loss to Chile’s rising star, Nicolas Jarry, who came from a set down to win 2-6, 7-6(6), 7-5.
The 22-year-old, who was ranked just 113 at the start of the year, saved two match points on his way to a career-best-win—though he also beat Thiem in Hamburg in July. Jarry will next meet Briton, No11 seed Kyle Edmund or Italian Andreas Seppi.
Edmund reached the second round for the third straight year with a win over Filip Krajinovic, 7-5, 6-3.
Also in the bottom half of the draw, Nikoloz Basilashvili, who won the China Open in Beijing last week, continued his winning streak with victory over Denis Shapovalov, 6-2, 6-2, in under an hour, to score his first victory in three visits to Shanghai’s Qi Zhong Stadium. He next faces No4 seed Alexander Zverev.
In the top half of the draw, No13 seed Borna Coric beat Bradley Klahn, 6-4, 6-2, to set a meeting with either Richard Gasquet or No3 seed Juan Martin del Potro. Gasquet bounced back from a poor start to beat Leonardo Mayer, 1-6, 6-2, 6-1.
Another titlist last week, Daniil Medvedev, edged past Ze Zhang, 3-6, 7-6(7), 6-4, after almost over two and a half hours. The young Russian came via qualifying to win in Tokyo on Sunday, making this his eighth straight match-win. For his pains, he will tomorrow take on defending champion Federer in the second round.
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
BIOGRAPHY: Kepa Arrizabalaga