Top 20 men fight for the spoils in shimmering Shanghai
The race is on, and the scramble for those prestigious eight places at the World Tour Finals in London’s O2 at the end of November is becoming more frenetic by the week.
The penultimate Masters of the year in Shanghai -capping the action-packed and tightly-packed exotic swing in the Far East -will therefore provide the perfect backdrop for one of the most keenly contested tournaments of the year.
Only five men have found their way to the rostrum in one of the 11 Masters or Slam events so far this year, and they are all playing in Shanghai: Rafael Nadal -with a jaw-dropping three Masters and three Grand Slams; Roger Federer -boasting one Slam and one Masters; and Andy Murray, Andy Roddick, and Ivan Ljubicic with one Masters apiece.
Add in six of the seven men who have won a 500 event in 2010 and you have the makings of a top-class tournament. Indeed, Shanghai is the first event of the year to include all top 20 players.
How appropriate, then, that this landmark occasion should take place in one of the finest arenas in tennis. The monumental centre court of the Qi Zhong stadium comes into view at night like a glowing colosseum. Its interior is a vast, elegant purpose-built court uncluttered by any obvious support, and guarantees a perfect, unimpeded view from every seat.
The steel roof made from eight petal-shaped pieces resembles a magnolia, the symbolic flower of Shanghai, and its opening represents the magnolia’s blooming. With the first round of the Masters now complete, the tennis too is about to bloom as the big guns enter the fray in Round Two.
So who will be the last men standing when the top half of the draw meets the bottom half in the semi-finals? And who will move one step closer to the London finale?
First quarter: Rafael Nadal, ATP No1, Race ranking No1
Nadal’s most recent title, just last week in Tokyo, notched up his seventh of the season and the 43rd of his career. Not only was his place booked for London back in June, he is guaranteed -5,200 plus points clear of the opposition -to be world No1 at least until the French Open.
In all honesty, Nadal does not appear to have anyone in his quarter to derail him. He faces Stanislas Wawrinka in his first match, and that may be his biggest threat. The Swiss found some outstanding form in the US Open, and has already rushed through Gilles Simon -a winner in Metz last month -in Shanghai. But he has not beaten Nadal in six previous attempts.
Nadal was scheduled to meet either Fernando Verdasco or Nikolay Davydenko in the quarters but his compatriot has already crashed out in the first round. The Russian, however, beat Nadal here in last year’s final, and went on to beat him at the WTFs and in Doha.
But this is different Nadal and a different Davydenko. While the former has taken off like a rocket during 2010, the Russian has suffered a fractured wrist and a fractured spirit. He went out early in both Kuala Lumpur and Beijing, so unless he finds the same surge he produced this time last year, it should be a walk in the park for Nadal.
Second quarter: Andy Murray ATP No4, Race ranking No4
Coach-less Murray played some aggressive and imaginative tennis on his way to the Toronto Masters title, and led the US Open Series. He then lost out to a battling Wawrinka at Flushing Meadows, and only reached the quarters on his return to the tour in Beijing last week. He does, however, have a very decent draw in Shanghai so he should become the fourth to qualify for the WTFs.
He cannot face a seed until the quarter-finals, where he could meet Sam Querrey, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or the Kuala Lumpur winner Mikhail Youzhny. But Murray, on one of his favoured surfaces, should reach the semis comfortably.
Third quarter: Roger Federer ATP No3, Race ranking No2
Federer is the only top player to enter Shanghai with no warm-up event in Asia.
He had a gruelling US swing, winning the Cincinnati Masters and reaching the final of the Toronto Masters, so he is not in bad shape, despite losing to Novak Djokovic in the US Open semis.
He claims to be well rested and making good progress with new coach Paul Annacone. He also arrived in Shanghai early to get in some extra court time. He does, however, face a tough quarter. His first match is against John Isner, the world No20 who reached the Beijing semis last week.
Thereafter lies either Robin Soderling, playing on his favourite surface and keen to put on points for his WTF campaign, or David Ferrer. The Spaniard has reached the finals in Beijing and the semis in Kuala Lumpur. He has entered the top 10 for the first time in two years, and has overtaken Verdasco into the No8 position for the WTF race.
So many pitfalls for Federer, but he likes the Shanghai tournament, and because he was unable to play here last year due to injury, he could regain the No2 ranking with a good run. It would be a shock to see him fall before the semis.
Fourth quarter: Novak Djokovic ATP No2, Race ranking No3
If there’s one player as confident as Nadal at the moment, it is the extrovert Serb. After a lean year for titles -just Dubai back in February -Djokovic seems back to his best. With a win over Federer in New York, and a final of high quality against Nadal, Djokovic rose to No2 in the world. By winning the Beijing title last week, he also ensured his berth at the WTFs.
If he’s to match his semi-final finish in Shanghai last year, however, he will have to overcome stiff competition from Ljubicic, then either Richard Gasquet or Gael Monfils -all very dangerous players on their day. Next in line could be Roddick or Tomas Berdych, both capable of serving Djokovic off the court. Both, too, need points to qualify for London. But in his present form, Djokovic will be very tough be beat -by anyone.
Vying for one of the five remaining WTF places
Robin Soderling: Race ranking No5
The Swede is hot on Murray’s tail, and likes the indoor season. His steady progress under Magnus Norman should seal his London place with ease, and could guide Soderling to a new end-of-year high ranking.
Tomas Berdych: Race ranking No6
The big Czech has suffered a dip in form since his Roland Garros and Wimbledon runs. He is struggling with a stomach upset in Shanghai, and faces a tough draw, so needs to beware the chasing pack if he’s to get to London for the first time.
Andy Roddick: Race ranking No7
Roddick qualified for London last year but injury prevented him from playing. He will need that serve to be hitting the high 130s because he has some work to do to make the WTF cut.
David Ferrer: Race ranking No8
Ferrer’s runner-up finish in Beijing and semi finish in Malaysia have boosted the hard working Spaniard’s chances. Right now, he looks a good bet for London, and certainly a stronger contender thanÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Fernando Verdasco: Race ranking No9
Verdasco now seems to have thrown away any chance he had of repeating last year’s last-minute qualifying act. With first round losses in Bangkok, Beijing and now Shanghai, he will surely be overtaken byÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Mikhail Youzhny: Race ranking No10
Not since February 2008 has Youzhny been inside the top 10. He has now matched his all-time high of No8 following a win in Kuala Lumpur. If he can repeat his good end-of-season run of last year, the fluid, all-court Russian could be a popular WTF participant.