David Ferrer - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 5

On a reportedly fast surface like the Decoturf in Shanghai, one raises an eyebrow to see just one full-blooded shot-maker (Lopez) in the semifinals, together with one passive-aggressive hybrid (Murray), and two innate defenders (Ferrer and Nishikori).  We break down what to expect on Saturday.

Lopez vs.  Ferrer:  Through the three sets and two tiebreaks of the Ferrer-Roddick quarterfinal, one player never lost his serve.  Upon casual inspection, one would identify Roddick as that player considering the numerous occasions on which he has accomplished such a feat.  But instead it was Ferrer who erased all five break points on his serve with aplomb, striking as many aces as did the American (11) and even finishing points at the net.  This most uncharacteristic display of offense disconcerted Roddick and may well cause Murray concern if the Spaniard can sustain that style for two more matches.  In a semifinal against his compatriot Lopez, Ferrer’s ability to consistently hold serve will prove critical when he confronts a foe who has not lost serve in his last two matches, facing one total break point against Berdych and Florian Mayer.  Probably the most intriguing factor in this all-Spanish duel lies in the clash between the third seed’s premier return game and the skidding, darting serve of Lopez, so effective on this low-bouncing surface.  Less known for striking audacious return winners than for his relentlessness in punching serves back into the court, Ferrer should find that style well-suited to an opponent who can struggle with consistency and prefers to win points with one or two shots.

Also on display is the contrast between the efficient volleys of Lopez, an expert doubles star, and the equally efficient passing shots of Ferrer, who relishes the opportunity to thread needles.  Despite the contrasts in their playing styles, though, the two Spaniards share the experience of having extricated themselves from perilous positions earlier in the week.  Saving match points in the third round and coming within a tiebreak of defeat in the quarterfinal, Ferrer flirted more brazenly with disaster than did Lopez.  Nevertheless, his compatriot danced with danger when he faced 16 break points (saving 14) against Alex Bogomolov in the second round before comfortable victories in the last two matches.  That type of resilient, grinding counterpuncher can wear down the more brittle, one-dimensional game of Lopez, and Ferrer will aim to exploit that one-dimensionality to the fullest by forcing the lefty to hit one, two, or three additional shots to finish points.

Nishikori vs. Murray: Whereas the first semifinal will hinge upon Ferrer’s ability to neutralize the Lopez first strike, the second semifinal will unfold mostly from behind the baseline.  Yet another product of the Bolletieri method, NIshikori shares the preference for penetrating groundstrokes displayed by many of the top women from that Florida hothouse of champions.  Limited by a Ferrer-like statute, however, the compact Japanese star cannot project the point-ending power on both wings that has become a hallmark of taller Bolletieri pupils.  A more natural grinder, he has honed exceptionally reliable technique and footwork on every stroke except his volleys, which still leave much room for improvement.  For the first time in his career, he has strung together noteworthy victories over a series of opponents who range from the heralded but not especially hungry to the hungry but not especially heralded.    Reaching his highest career ranking to date, Nishikori has positioned himself to test the boundaries of his upward mobility next year.

Still, the semifinal rests firmly in the hands of the second seed, seeking to hold a trophy for the third consecutive week.  While Shanghai will prove little about the state of Murray’s game or his likelihood of winning a major someday, he shoulders a pressure rare for him in the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic era:  entering the semifinal of a Masters 1000 tournament as the prohibitive favorite.  If he navigates comfortably to the title past these last two obstacles, Murray will have shown a maturity that augurs well for the future.  Against Nishikori, his serving superiority should reward him with more free points on this fast court, and he even might seek to experiment with an occasional net-rushing tactic.  In general, strengths—movement, consistency, versatility—mirror the strengths of his opponent and surpass them in every category, the best possible news for a player and his supporters.  While Murray probably can advance without leaving his comfort zone to attempt anything special, he might use these highly winnable matches in Shanghai to prepare for thornier fields like the World Tour Finals.  There lies a tournament where a title for the Scot would mean something significant as he prepares for a critical season in 2012.