In its 10-year history, this glamorous event in the glamorous city of Shanghai, has won the Masters Tournament of the Year Award five times. No expense has been spared at the magnificent Qi Zhong Stadium, and that extends to the prize money—an eye-watering $8.3 million purse, only marginally short of the giant Masters of Indian Wells and Miami.
That three of the biggest players of their generation have won the last nine editions has only added to the tournament’s kudos and fan appeal: Roger Federer twice, Andy Murray three times, and Novak Djokovic four times—and he is defending champion this year.
However, Murray’s recent history is a familiar one: repeated hip injuries and two surgeries—most recently nine months ago—have prevented his participation in Shanghai since he won in 2016. Indeed few on that occasion, after Murray burst through the autumn calendar to win every match from Beijing to the ATP Finals—five straight titles—could have anticipated that he would slip from world No1 at the end of 2016 to a current No289.
But after a successful return to competition in doubles in the grass season, he made his singles return in earnest in Asia, opting to play back-to-back weeks in the tennis swing that has been so successful for the Briton in the past.
In Zhuhai he got his first main-tour win, in Beijing he won two matches to reach the quarter-finals, but while the draw at the China Open was a stern one, the Shanghai Masters is another step up: The 16 seeds are drawn from the top 18 men in the ranks, including all three of those former champions.
Only an injured world No2 Rafael Nadal and No8 Kei Nishikori are missing from the seedings, while each of the champions to emerge in China and Japan in the last fortnight are also in the line-up, and that includes No1 Djokovic, who put his US Open disappointment behind him—he retired with a shoulder injury in the fourth round—to take the Japan Open in Tokyo.
And that gave a boost to what is sure to be one of the key storylines during the rest of the season. Djokovic has a 32-4 win-loss record in Shanghai, and if he wins a fifth title there, it would put him just one Masters title behind Nadal’s 35.
Even more significant, perhaps, is that Djokovic has closed the gap on Nadal in the Race to London to around 1,500 points, and there are 1,000 points available in Shanghai and another 1,000 at the Paris Masters. In London, the winner can take 1,500 points—so the year-end No1 gong is well within the reach of Djokovic.
The Serb star does have a tough draw: Canadian star Denis Shapovalov in his opener, Zhuhai champion Alex de Minaur or John Isner in the third round, with Beijing finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarters.
The semis could bring one of the stand-out players of the year, No3 seed Daniil Medvedev, who has won more matches this year than any other player, or his compatriot, No7 seed Karen Khachanov. And this Russian quarter is where Murray will fight his corner.
The Briton came through a top-notch challenge from Juan Ignacio Londero, a man at a career high of 56 and with the first title in his career this season.
The Argentine has a huge forehand, plus plenty of touch around the court, and he had a sluggish Murray under pressure in the first set: The Briton resisted three break points and seven deuces in a 14-minute first game. And he would rue failing to convert three break-back points in the fourth game, for Londero broke in the fifth with a superb net point.
He broke again for 5-2, as Murray wavered, served two double faults, and saw the set slip away, 6-2, with just one point won at the net and only seven winners to Londero’s 18.
But Murray dug in, found his range in this first meeting with the Argentine, and turned the tables to break and lead 3-0. He broke again for the set, 6-2.
Come the decider, and Murray got the decisive break for 4-2, and saved break points to serve out the match, 6-3, after two and a quarter hours.
He summed up the match thus:
“The court is by far the fastest conditions that I have played in since I came back. I really struggled with that early on. I was mis-timing the ball. I felt quite slow on the court, and he was pretty much dictating all of the points.
“I managed early on in the second set to start putting a bit more on my ball, going for my shots a little bit more, and just trying to hit through the court more, get him on the defensive, which I did pretty well.”
He next faces No10 seed, Fabio Fognini, who is aiming to qualify for the ATP Finals for the first time: He currently stands at 13 in the Race. The Italian beat Sam Querrey, 6-4, 6-2.
In the bottom half of the draw, the third Shanghai champion, Federer, seeded No2, also faces a tough quarter, though one potential hurdle, Marin Cilic, was eliminated from Federer’s opener, beaten by Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
Federer’s second opponent could be David Goffin, who has come back into significant form after a series of injuries, to reach No9 in the Race. The quarters bring more young players who can claim wins over Federer in big matches, Borna Coric, Andrey Rublev and Alexander Zverev—with John Millman, the Tokyo finalist who upset Federer at the US Open last year, also in the equation.
The other bottom quarter is headed by Dominic Thiem, Beijing champion and winner over Federer in the Indian Wells final. Indeed Thiem has won four of his six meetings with Federer, and has also beaten both Nadal and Djokovic this season. He is, in short, proving himself to be one of the biggest threats on the tour, and particularly now that he has developed his attacking, net-rushing skills, too.
There are, then, plenty of young players flexing their muscles this season, with four 23-and-unders in the top 10. But all three top men, all of them well into their 30s, still have the desire and fitness hold off the challengers. So the close of 2019 is building up to be a thriller—and Shanghai could be the launch-pad to a grand finale.
Previous champions in draw: Djokovic (four titles and defending); Murray (three); Federer (two)
Previous finalists in draw: Roberto Bautista Agut, Coric, Gilles Simon (lost in R1)
Missing from main draw: Nadal, Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin Del Potro, Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Kevin Anderson, Grigor Dimitrov, Nick Kyrgios
de Minaur (Atlanta and Zhuhai)
Diego Schwartzman (Los Cabos)
Medvedev (Cincinnati Masters and St Petersburg)
Hubert Hurkacz (Winston-Salem)
Pablo Carreno Busta (Chengdu)
1 Rafael Nadal 9,225 [qualified]
2 Novak Djokovic 7,775 [qualified]
3 Roger Federer 5,520 [qualified]
4 Daniil Medvedev 4,885 [qualified]
5 Dominic Thiem 4,355 [qualified]
6 Stefanos Tsitsipas 3,380
7 Roberto Bautista Agut 2,405
8 Alexander Zverev 2,265
9 David Goffin 2,245
10 Matteo Berrettini 2,195
11 Kei Nishikori [out of Shanghai] 2,180
12 Gael Monfils 2,170
13 Fabio Fognini 2,100
14 Diego Schwartzman 1,860
15 John Isner 1,680
16 Stan Wawrinka [out of Shanghai] 1,670
17 Karen Khachanov 1,615
18 Felix Auger-Alisassime 1,601
19 Lucas Pouille 1,565
20 Guido Pella 1,530
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge