Top dogs Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer continue to thrill Shanghai

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are both making progress at the Shanghai Masters

Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer began their Shanghai campaigns as the top two men in the race to the ATP World Tour Finals.

By the time they bid to reach the quarter-finals, they were also the top two men in the overall rankings.

Both also boasted great seasons to back up those rankings.

Federer, in his first tournament since helping Switzerland to the Davis Cup final, arrived as the tour leader in match-wins, 57, in hard-court wins 41, in top-10 wins, 12, and in finals, eight, this season. He won titles in Dubai, Halle and Cincinnati, and lost to the man ahead of him in the rankings in the Wimbledon and Indian Wells finals.

Djokovic was on a 26-match unbroken streak in China, two-time defending champion in Shanghai, and after his fifth title in Beijing, was looking to emulate the glorious undefeated run he made from Asia through to the World Tour Finals last year. And he already led the race by 1,630 points—an almost impregnable margin as he targeted another end-of year No1 trophy.

As it happens, though, Federer was only back on Shanghai’s centre court for the second consecutive night by the skin of his teeth.

His great escape against an on-fire Leonardo Mayer drew more hand-on-hip poses from the Swiss than in all those 57 match-wins combined, and with good reason.

He faced down five match points, more than in any match in over 11 years, and he could not help but smile about it afterwards: “I was trying to go for an all-time record of missed volleys tonight! Could be my greatest escape thus far. I’ve had some good ones over the years, but this one might just top it all because I was literally out of the point at one stage.

“I had to come up with some shots that were hard to do anyways. But on match point even more so. So I feel a bit sorry for Leonardo, I must say. I think I got unbelievably lucky today. Let’s be quite honest, I think he deserved it.”

Federer’s extraordinary late-night escape—and he tweeted incoherently at 4.28am—was in stark contrast to first match Djokovic’s. The defending champion had sailed into the third round half a day earlier against Dominic Thiem—but he would not be exempt from the thrills and spills that Shanghai has delivered this week.

And many had not made it this far—No2 seed Rafael Nadal, No4 seed Stan Wawrinka, No7 seed Kei Nishikori, and Nos 9 to 12 had all fallen—and Djokovic had to dig to his deepest to avoid joining his colleagues on the flight back to Europe.

He faced the No85 ranked Mikhail Kukushkin who, before this week, had scored back-to-back match-wins only twice this year. It was hard to believe from the attacking tennis he produced against Djokovic.

The Serb kept the fire-power of Kukushkin under control in the first set, breaking to lead 5-3 and serving out the set, 6-3, in just half an hour. But that was far from the end of the story.

Kukushkin broke in the second game and held to take a 3-0 lead as his flat, fast serve and ground-strokes continued to fire through the court. Djokovic held off set point at 2-5 and then broke back, but even that did not stop the Kukushkin attack. He broke to take the set, 6-4.

Djokovic, though, was relentless, as only he can be from the back of a court. From both wings to both wings, he pushed and pulled the Kazakhstan man, whose legs were striped with supporting tape. Kukushkin did not flag, but nor could he stave off Djokovic, who broke in the fifth game, and held onto his slight advantage to take the win, 6-4, in just over two hours.

Federer then played his part in these mirrored days. Where Djokovic had sailed through his first, and then had to resist an onslaught, so the Swiss man’s tennis in his second match was the antithesis of that played almost 24 hours before.

Against Mayer, Federer made just 25 points from 47 at the net and a staggering 57 unforced errors. Against the No14 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, one of the most improved players this year, he won 22 out of 24 at the net, throwing some spectacular backhand smashes into the mix, serving strongly enough to produce eight aces, and dropping only five points on his first serve.

They stayed on serve through the first set, both playing some thrilling, high-pace rallies, but come crunch time, Federer broke to take the first set 6-4. He had notched up 19 winners to nine errors—and it got still better. Bautista Agut was broken twice, in his first service game and his last, to concede the match, 6-2, in 73 minutes.

The top two players in the world are, as luck would now have things, drawn to face one another in the semis—and Shanghai must hope that both bring their A games rather than their ‘almost lost’ games, because the tennis between these two can be the most charismatic on the tour.

Before that, however, Djokovic must deal with David Ferrer—though he has beaten the Spaniard in their last six matches dating back almost three years.

Federer has the more intriguing match-up against a man who has given him problems before. Julien Benneteau has beaten Federer in two of their three hard-court meetings, most recently in Rotterdam last year—and the Frenchman, most memorably, had Federer at two sets down in Wimbledon in 2012.

It will, again, be the last match of the day: It may, again, become a thriller.

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