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As the ATP spirals towards the close of its season, intriguing questions surround the four players atop its rankings.  Will Federer mitigate his Slam disappointment with an emphatic fall and a second straight Masters 1000 title?  Will Djokovic build upon his US Open heroics and conquer one of his three major rivals again?  Can Murray shrug off recent adversity more swiftly than after the Australian Open?  Or will Nadal continue to brush aside any and all challenges to his now unquestioned hegemony?  (Clearly, Uncle Toni never taught him the virtue of sharing with others.)

Nadal’s quarter:  With very little to motivate him this fall, Rafa nevertheless displayed largely focused tennis in Tokyo last week after a puzzling wobble in Bangkok.  A Shanghai finalist last year, the top seed begins against Wawrinka, who hasn’t defeated Nadal in six attempts but severely tested him earlier this summer at the Rogers Cup.  Beyond that initial challenge, few significant obstacles loom between the Spaniard and the final four, although defending champion Davydenko will seek to repeat his mini-upset over Rafa in the quarterfinals.  Posting an 11-11 record after returning from wrist surgery, the Russian hasn’t won more than two consecutive matches since February and has lost eight matches to players outside the top 50.  Like Wawrinka, he could challenge Nadal for a set or so, but he currently doesn’t possess the confidence or the consistency necessary to repeat the feat of 2009.  While opponents such as the burgeoning Istomin might seize inspiration from the ambush sprung by Garcia-Lopez and the near-ambush sprung by Troicki, Nadal rarely tolerates such unwelcome surprises early in Masters 1000 events.

Murray’s quarter:  This section seems the weakest in the draw, not least because the Scot is in it.  Moping his way to defeat against Ljubicic in Beijing, Murray still seems (understandably) disheartened by his New York disaster, much as he exuded deflation after losing the Melbourne final.  Judging by that earlier episode, he will spend the rest of his season nursing his fragile self-esteem back to health for 2011.  But a quirky collection of frail, enigmatic performers populate the fourth seed’s neighborhood, already a bit defanged by the first-round upset of the inflammable Almagro.  Mostly dormant since the grass season, Tsonga looked chronically fallible in a first-round victory over Lopez.  On the other hand, he has threatened Murray on fast courts and arguably should have won their Wimbledon quarterfinal if not for an untimely bit of carelessness in the second-set tiebreak.  A semifinalist at the US Open, Youzhny vindicated that victory with a title in Kuala Lumpur, although he struggled for much of that week against opponents well below his stature; in Beijing, he succumbed immediately to Ljubicic.  If Murray avoids spoilers like Chardy or Dolgopolov, he will hope to face the Russian rather than the Frenchman, for Youzhny’s artful style lacks the tectonic serve-groundstroke combinations that typically trouble the Scot…and that define Tsonga’s game.

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Federer’s quarter:  Apparently fascinated with the spectacle of the Swiss and the Swede, the draw deities again have situated them in the same section.  Nevertheless, these two bookends might find themselves toppled by one of the names between them, including the towering Isner.  Emboldened by a Beijing semifinal appearance, the American poses a perilous conundrum for Federer in his opener.  In order to capitalize upon his opportunities, the third seed must find his rhythm immediately and avoid any of his recently chronic profligacy.  Since he surged to the Australian Open semifinal, Cilic has stagnated if not regressed for much of 2010, so one suspects that Federer could handle him comfortably en route to a quarterfinal with Soderling or Ferrer.  Comprehensively dominating the world #5 in Beijing, the Spaniard reminded viewers of his underestimated hard-court talents by reaching the final of that event.  Meanwhile, the Swede has underachieved notably since Wimbledon.  Armed with a 23-1 record against Soderling and Ferrer combined, Federer might be forgiven for feeling a trifle complacent about his situation.  Complacency undermined him in his US Open semifinal with Djokovic, however, and he fell to the pedestrian Julien Benneteau at about this stage last year.  His thirst for majors only sparingly quenched in 2010, Federer should enter the fall season hungrier and more focused in 2011.

Djokovic’s quarter:  Having seized the Beijing title without the loss of a set, the Serb eyes an opener with Beijing semifinalist Ljubcic, who stunned him early in a fairytale fortnight at Indian Wells.  Restored to human form, the veteran Croat shouldn’t muster the relentless effort required to dispatch the reinvigorated Djokovic.  Much of the drama in this section may happen before the quarterfinal, including a first-round clash between Gulbis and Gasquet that opposes visceral force to deft versatility.  Also colliding in the first round are Roddick and Kohlschreiber, who delivered an entertaining four-setter at Wimbledon this year and a dazzling five-setter at the 2008 Australian Open.  Although Bangkok titlist and nascent Nadal-killer Garcia-Lopez might intend otherwise, either Kohlschreiber or Roddick likely will advance to a final-16 meeting with Berdych, brilliant in the first half but familiarly vulnerable in the second half.  (In fact, don’t be shocked if he falls to the tenacious Robredo on Tuesday.)  On the other side of the quarter, Djokovic could face Tokyo runner-up Monfils, who offered little resistance to the Serb at the US Open and flirts with drama too often to become a serious contender.  Dominated by Roddick since early 2009, the Serb probably would prefer a quarterfinal with Berdych.  Considering the American’s underwhelming second half, however, Djokovic might relish an opportunity to trumpet his revival by settling an old score.

***

As strongly as we’re tempted to choose a trendy draw-breaker in one of these sections, we have decided to unimaginatively stick with the top four seeds to reach their appointed destinations on Saturday.  We will return to Shanghai for semifinal and final previews (if not sooner) before reflecting upon the WTA’s new #1 early next week.

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