Andy Murray - Rakuten Open - Day 7

While Djokovic and Federer sprawl harmlessly across couches rather than courts this week, Florian Mayer excised another member of the ATP top four from the depleted Shanghai draw.  The sole survivor at the eighth Masters 1000 tournament of 2011, Murray now looks poised to sweep the Asian season and gorge himself on fall titles like a vulture on carrion.  But this section of the calendar historically has witnessed more unexpected ambushes than any other, and Murray displayed hints of vulnerability in a three-set triumph over Wawrinka.  We consider the seven remaining players who stand between the defending champion and a second straight Shanghai title.

Ferrer:  Not to be underestimated on any surface, the third seed might gain momentum after saving three match points in the third round against Ferrero and escaping a very tight two-setter with the dangerous Raonic.  If Murray enters Sunday a little fatigued from his recent exertions, Ferrer could capitalize just as he often does upon an opponent’s complacency.  Nevertheless, their head-to-head record splits cleanly according to surface, with the Spaniard undefeated on clay and the Scot undefeated on hard courts.  Just last week in Tokyo, Andy cruised through a semifinal during which David rarely could generate the groundstroke pace to hit through the Scot’s defenses or the serving power to seize control of the points from the outset.  In order to defeat Murray on a court, therefore, Ferrer needs assistance from across the net in the form of an erratic or disinterested performance, which he probably will not receive in a Masters 1000 final.

Roddick:  Before the third seed even reaches the final, in fact, he may fall prey to a miniature upset from the evergreen American.  Toppling Ferrer en route to the US Open quarterfinals, Roddick quickly thrust the disappointment of a first-round Tokyo loss behind him in Shanghai.  A round ago, he showcased not only the familiarly formidable serve against Almagro but also crisper court coverage, both vertically and laterally.  Roddick delivered one of the finest performances of his Slam career in conquering the home hope at the All England Club two years ago, exploiting his opponent’s negativity under pressure.  Outside that memorable meeting, though, he never has defeated Murray outside the United States, and his serve-reliant style plays directly into the hands of the ATP’s second-best returner.  So clinical was the Scot’s rout of Roddick at Queens Club this year that the American half-jokingly asked him for mercy.

Dolgopolov:  Captivating at his best and maddening at his worst, the quirky Ukrainian seems to have struck a rich vein of form at a convenient moment, when large quantities of cheap rankings points might await him.  Down a set in each of his last two matches, Dolgopolov conceded just one game in the last two sets against future superstar Tomic.  His quarterfinal opponent Nishikori will test his patience, rarely a strength, and force him to construct points more thoughtfully than usual.  Susceptible to veering in and out of focus throughout a match, Dolgopolov has the arrhythmic flair that could irritate Murray, as he showed in the third set of their Australian Open quarterfinal.  As Murray showed in the other three sets, Dologopolov oddly lacks the core of motivation that inspires elite contenders in significant matches.  When his focus fades, the second seed will pounce.

Mayer:  Last year, Melzer battered Nadal into submission in the third round before exiting Shanghai a round later.  As he recovers from the most impressive win of his career to date, Mayer must avoid the lull that afflicted his predecessor and fellow Central European.  Despite Rafa’s returning skills, he never faced a break point throughout that upset and lost only four first-serve points.  Should he maintain that standard, he will trouble anyone in the draw, but common sense suggests that he will not.  Mayer’s deceptively powerful backhand frustrated Murray throughout a first-set breadstick in Monte Carlo this year, after which an irritated Scot hurled two breadsticks back at him.  When faced with such a consistent opponent, the German’s precariously assembled technique proved his undoing, while his serve-volley attempts merely exposed him to Murray’s passing shots.

Lopez:  In the final of Judy Murray’s dreams, the one-dimensional lefty would stand little chance against Murray’s versatility unless he maintains a superb serving percentage.  Amidst one of the best seasons of his singles career, Lopez has fallen to the world #4 in straight sets at the last two majors, including an exhibition-like evisceration in New York.  Only one of their fifteen sets have tilted in the Spaniard’s direction, for his unreliable groundstrokes prevent him from surviving in extended baseline exchanges with Murray.  As long as the Scot can keep him out of the forecourt, he should contentedly concentrate on high-percentage strokes and wait for Lopez to either donate an unforced error or gamble upon an ill-advised approach.

Nishikori:  Somewhat similar to Ferrer in size and mentality, the Japanese star finally has achieved his goal of becoming the highest-ranked man in his nation’s history.  Guided by Brad Gilbert and finally (relatively) free from injuries, he rallied to stun Tsonga in a result almost as astonishing as Mayer’s upset over Nadal.  Also like Ferrer, however, Nishikori lacks the weapons to hit through Murray from the baseline or the serve to generate free points.  Never having reached a Masters 1000 semifinal in his career, he would rely upon a pedestrian performance from the Scot should he arrive there.

Ebden:  Perhaps buoyed by Stosur’s stirring US Open fortnight, this 124th-ranked qualifier derailed what might have become a compelling quarterfinal between Simon and Murray.  In its place awaits a demolition in the making, potentially similar to the Scot’s crushing victory over Donald Young in the Bangkok final.  After a rollercoaster victory over Wawrinka, Murray will welcome the respite that allows him to conserve energy for the weekend.

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