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Brimming with confidence after a commanding quarterfinal victory over Soderling, Federer faces Djokovic in a semifinal that will decide next week’s ownership of the #2 ranking.  If that scenario sounds familiar, it should.  Exactly the same events unfolded a month ago at the US Open, which produced the most memorable single match of 2010 so far.  While their Shanghai encounter probably will fall short of that standard, one might also recall the suspenseful clash between the Swiss and the Serb at the Rogers Cup this summer.  Decided in Federer’s favor after whiplash-inducing momentum shifts, the Canadian semifinal perhaps marked the beginning of Djokovic’s reawakening from a listless lull in his career.  Curiously, the matches in Toronto and New York followed similar trajectories until their final moments.  On both occasions, Federer seized an early lead with assistance from his opponent’s early nerves, Djokovic then capitalized on his opponent’s mid-match complacency to equalize proceedings, and the two players combined to produce their finest tennis in the final set—an ideal outcome for the audience.  Also perceptible on both occasions was the Serb’s determination to dictate rallies during the late, crucial stages, a strategy as vital to his US Open success as his Rogers Cup loss.  Although Federer profited from Djokovic’s profligacy at the Canadian event, he should enter this semifinal intent upon recapturing that aggressive role from the second seed.  Since the Serb’s confidence has soared after his recent surge, the tactic of patiently waiting—and hoping—for untimely errors probably won’t reap rewards in Shanghai.  Whereas Federer must guard against a mid-match lapse in focus, Djokovic must attempt to open the match more assertively than he did in their two previous meetings, when he allowed the Swiss to settle too swiftly into a smooth baseline rhythm.

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During the first three rounds, Federer and Djokovic have compiled remarkably similar statistics, each having lost serve only once in the tournament.  Neither the Swiss nor the Serb has dropped a set or lost more than four games in any set, towering above their opponents throughout victories that have ranged from routine to resounding.  Since Federer’s draw has proved the more challenging, one might argue that it has prepared him for this encounter more effectively than the trio of Ljubicic, Gasquet, and Garcia-Lopez have prepared Djokovic for a steep rise in competition.  While the third seed has won 12 of his last 13 matches overall, the second seed has claimed 14 of his last 15.  The principal threats to Nadal’s dominance, the Swiss and the Serb intend to deliver imposing statements during the fall from which they can launch their 2011 campaigns.  While Federer hopes to avenge the indignities of a Saturday in New York on a Saturday in Shanghai, Djokovic seeks to record consecutive victories for just the second time in their rivalry (2009 Miami, Rome).  Brazenly complacent before their US Open semifinal, the Swiss now knows that he can’t afford to casually dismiss the Serb.  Meanwhile, Djokovic knows that he can’t afford to coast through four sets before striking his inner spark.  This extremely even matchup likely will hinge upon a few key moments when one player reveals a tiny crack in his nearly bulletproof armor—a benign second serve on break point, an overly cautious net approach, a slightly mistimed forehand.  Against most opponents, Federer and Djokovic can circumvent such minute stumbles with their vast, versatile talents.  When they intersect with each other, though, the gap between victory and defeat often can be measured in millimeters.

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Following the spectacular implosion of a quarter where Nadal, Davydenko, and Verdasco once resided, Juan Monaco wanders out of the rubble into a most unexpected semifinal appearance at a hard-court Masters 1000 event.  Don’t consign him to the dustbin of Shanghai history just yet, for he extended Murray to three sets in Miami last year and (less surprisingly) upset the Scot on clay.  A Ferrer-like counterpuncher with meager offensive potential, the Argentine outlasted Nadal-killer Melzer and retrieves impressively even on faster surfaces.  Nevertheless, the fourth seed has flattened his first three victims as ruthlessly as did Federer and Djokovic, seizing attention with a 54-minute demolition of former Slam nemesis Tsonga.  If he requires further motivation, the prospect of winning a Masters 1000 tournament without facing Nadal should inspire him to redouble his exertions.  After dismal performances at Cincinnati, the US Open, and Beijing, Murray has elevated his level with each ensuing match and now resembles the player who defeated Nadal and Federer on consecutive days in Toronto.  Without sacrificing his consistency, he has cracked his forehand with greater ambition while displaying his ball-redirecting talents more freely.  Although he hasn’t cruised through his service games as regularly as the GOAT and the Djoker, he likewise has dropped serve only once in the tournament.  Broken four times in his quarterfinal alone, Monaco might stay even with the Scot for a set or so but eventually will crumble beneath the pressure of his opponent’s more multifaceted arsenal, much as he did a year ago in Miami.  The Argentine’s grinding game tests fitness and consistency, subjects that Murray typically aces.


We return tomorrow with a preview of the Shanghai final, which should offer a rousing climax to a tournament greatly improved over last year’s edition.