No sooner did Rafael Nadal fasten his jaws around the US Open trophy than one wondered how his archrival would respond.  With his final Slam citadel ravaged by Rafa, would the lion roar with renewed appetite or lope quietly into the wilderness?  We have received our first answer to this question in Shanghai, and it should thrill even those tennis fans who don’t worship at the altar of the GOAT.  Subduing consecutive top-five opponents for the first time in over a year, Federer already has reclaimed the #2 ranking and emphatically reaffirmed his position among the leading challengers to Nadal.  If he captures the Shanghai title, in fact, he will equal the Spaniard’s record-breaking compilation of 18 Masters 1000 crowns.

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But Federer must overcome one of the most persistent thorns in his side over the last several years, a player who has won four of their five collisions at Masters 1000 events, including the Toronto title match this year.  Just as in Canada, the Swiss legend confronts the task of defeating Murray and Djokovic on consecutive days.  Nevertheless, his suffocating semifinal performance against the Serb will have depleted his reserves much less than their edgy Canadian collision, while the more sensible Shanghai schedule affords the evening semifinalist greater rest before the final.  Never seriously threatened by his US Open nemesis, Federer never dropped his serve until the match lay well within his grasp at a set and double-break advantage.  If he delivers an equally impeccable performance against Murray, their encounter might resemble the Toronto final less than the Australian Open final.  On that occasion, the Scot sagged under the pressure of Federer’s flowing, routine holds, which often forced him back to the service notch after just a one- or two-minute reprieve.

Despite Murray’s overall edge in their rivalry, moreover, Federer has won four of their five finals and has won ten of the twelve sets that they have contested in championship matches.  Aware that his counterpunching adversary won’t outhit him from the baseline, the 16-time Slam champion knows that the match lies on his racket and should relish the opportunity to dictate rallies.  During the rain-addled final in Canada, Federer’s slovenly start allowed Murray to relax by handing him an early lead, but his crisp, focused groundstrokes against Soderling and Djokovic suggest that the Swiss will prove less generous this weekend.  Frequently the instrument of Federer’s demise, his slice did not betray him in Shanghai under the assault of Djokovic’s forehand, a more intimidating weapon than anything in the fourth seed’s arsenal.

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Recently eclipsed by Djokovic, Murray often has seemed the heir apparent to Federer and the primary hard-court threat to Nadal’s hegemony among the Spaniard’s peers.  Having floundered woefully since Canada, he can reassert his status as the crown prince with a second straight victory over the Swiss in a Masters 1000 final.  While his finals record against Federer may not dazzle, Murray’s finals record in Masters 1000 events stands at an imposing 5-1.  Amidst the attention showered upon Federer’s serving exploits, one should note that Murray has dropped his serve only twice in the tournament—just like Federer—and has denied break points with similar stinginess.  In order to capture a sixth shield, though, the Scot also must punish his opponent’s second serve with a return that accumulated sting throughout the week, not only on the backhand side but also on the forehand.

During victories over Chardy and Tsonga, the Scot displayed an encouraging readiness to flatten his forehand rather than smothering it with risk-averse spin.  Although he retreated from this tactic against Monaco, he should revive it against Federer, who surely expects to target that wing with impunity as he did in Melbourne.  If Murray can find Federer’s backhand with his own crisp two-hander, moreover, the fourth seed might lure the third seed into running around his forehand too often.  When the Scot has defeated the Swiss before, his down-the-line backhand has exposed the latter’s movement towards his forehand corner, slightly less agile in recent years.  Demonstrating his renewed confidence, the fourth seed has capitalized upon opportunities to finish points in the forecourt this week and should continue to exercise that skill in the final.  Naturally inclined to retreat into passivity, Murray must remember that fortune favors the brave, an adage that he has obeyed against Nadal more often than against Federer.


We return shortly with a recap of the week in Shanghai, Linz, and Osaka in the (TW)2 style.