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Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 7

Checking off the boxes:  When Nadal tumbled in the third round to Florian Mayer, the Shanghai Masters event retained only one legitimate contender in its draw and thus only one logical outcome.  In the fall, however, foregone conclusion often prove anything but foregone.  More notably, players who become overwhelming favorites after upsets riddle key tournaments shoulder a ponderous burden of their own.  No clearer example of the dynamic emerges from recent history than the 2009 French Open, when observers sensed that Nadal’s fourth-round demise laid down a red carpet for Federer’s coronation.  But they had forgotten that the Swiss legend still had to win four more matches to complete the feat, which would include two five-setters and a comeback from a two-set deficit against the unheralded Haas.  To be sure, nothing approaching the magnitude of a career Slam weighed upon Murray as he approached his eighth Masters 1000 crown.  And neither Ebden nor Nishikori would have defeated the Scot except on an exceptionally wayward day.  When he faced an inspired Ferrer in the final, though, the second seed and prohibitive favorite knew that he could not escape with a performance lacking his usual focus and determination.  Further complicating his quest was the competitive fatigue from playing a final for a third consecutive week.  An especially short temper aside, however, few traces of fatigue afflicted Murray as he patiently stifled the Spaniard with his superior depth and court coverage.  Like Djokovic, he often won points with depth as much as precision, while his ability to strike backhands as assertively as forehands offered him a distinct advantage over the forehand-centered Ferrer on this fast court. Already accomplishing his fall objective of eclipsing Federer in the rankings, Murray now must find a fresh source of motivation before the World Tour Finals.

Spaniard under siege:  Colliding in an entertaining three-set semifinal was a pair of Spaniards who have recorded accomplished 2011 campaigns.  The Spaniard with the most accomplished 2011 campaign, however, fizzled for a third straight hard-court Masters 1000 tournament.  Downed by Dodig in Montreal and dominated by Fish in Cincinnati, Nadal fell to yet another opponent with a crackling serve and a penetrating backhand.  This combination frequently frustrated the younger Rafa, but second-tier opponents like Florian Mayer had scored scant success against the more mature version of Nadal, no matter how imposing their weapons or how neatly they fitted into the Spaniard’s frailties.  Considering his outstanding return game, the top seed should have engineered a break point on Mayer’s serve, and his tentative performance in the crucial first-set tiebreak hinted that loss after loss to Djokovic may indeed have diminished his confidence more generally.  On the other hand, Nadal exited in the same round here last year to Melzer and may have entered the week reeling from Murray’s audacious assault in Tokyo.

Young guns fire:  In the absence of Djokovic, Federer, and several other notable stars, the next generation or two of potential contenders enjoyed an opportunity to claim a noteworthy victory or two.  First among them was Nishikori, younger in tennis years than his age suggests because of recurrent injuries.  The Japanese prodigy charged to the Shanghai semifinals seemingly from nowhere, rallying after losing the first set to topple the fourth-seeded Tsonga.  In that section of the draw, rising stars cannibalized each other as Nishikori dispatched Dolgopolov, who himself had defeated the precocious teenager Tomic in an odd three-setter.  Before winning just six games in three sets from the Ukrainian, the quirky Aussie duplicated Nishikori’s comeback against a formidable foe, this time the perennially star-crossed Fish.  But the United States also benefited from the youthful surge in Shanghai when Ryan Harrison qualified before upsetting the sagging Troicki.  Unsatisfied with his Bangkok runner-up trophy, moreover, Donald Young displayed the resilience that so long has eluded him in qualifying for the main draw and nearly repeating his US Open ambush of Wawrinka.  Without the suffocating proximity of their superiors, these younger talents could test their footing at a relatively prominent tournament and gain experience valuable for their evolution as competitors.

Validating the validation:  Overshadowed by the events in Shanghai were two minor WTA tournaments in Linz and Osaka.  Although only the most ardent fans will remember their results a few months from now, they may have proved disproportionately meaningful for Kvitova and Stosur.  Two of the season’s three first-time Slam champions, they had settled comfortably into the post-breakthrough hangovers that now seem de rigueur in the WTA.  As the Czech won a title and the Aussie reached the final, succumbing to the ever-fearsome Bartoli, they took initial steps towards building upon their summer achievements.  While winning a major certainly validates a player as an elite member of her generation, they—and their Slam triumphs—earn another layer of legitimacy when they regroup to showcase their abilities at the Tour’s ordinary events.  Kvitova and Stosur cannot graduate from the class of “one-Slam wonders” until 2012, but a return to (some measure of) reliability before then would only consolidate their status. Now, can Li Na emulate them?

The last word…   …belongs to Kimiko Date-Krumm, who won the Osaka doubles title in a match tiebreak over two-time major champions King and Shvedova.  Architect of several stirring upsets in 2010, Date-Krumm had forged few accomplishments in singles this season, so this triumph in her home nation must have tasted especially sweet.  The evergreen Japanese veteran had won one previous doubles title in her career, partnering Ai Sugiyama at the Tokyo tournament—fifteen years ago, when Pete Sampras won the men’s title.

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Andy Murray - 2011 Shanghai Rolex Masters - Day 6

Overshadowed by plotlines like the ascendancy of Djokovic and the decline of Federer is the singular season of contradictions alternately enjoyed and suffered by Andy Murray.   Sometimes heroic and sometimes humiliated, Murray reached semifinals at all of the year’s last three majors consecutively for the first time in his career—yet fell more or less routinely to the same player at all of them.  The Scot inflicted one of the only two blemishes on Djokovic’s 2011 record—yet absorbed an ignominious annihilation in their most significant meeting, at the Australian Open.  But the starkest and strangest dichotomy of all springs from his record at hard-court Masters 1000 tournaments, which will stand at two titles and three opening-round losses if he wins on Sunday.  The defending champion in Shanghai, Murray seeks to sweep the ATP Asian season with a third consecutive hard-court title in a season during which he lost five consecutive hard-court matches.

Since Madrid eleven tournaments ago, though, the world #4 has lost only one match to an opponent other than Djokovic or Nadal, whose rivalry may now have paused until the Australian Open.  Instead of a top-two opponent, the ambitious David Ferrer now positions himself between Murray and not only an eighth Masters shield but the #3 ranking.  The Scot has won all of their hard-court meetings and thrashed Ferrer comprehensively in a Tokyo semifinal just eight days ago, when he stayed more consistent and intelligent in the extended rallies.  More impressive this week, the third seed has rallied from one-set deficits in three consecutive matches to reach his second Masters 1000 final of the season, so he will not falter mentally under early adversity.  In a statistic from which Isner could take pride, Ferrer has not lost his serve for eight consecutive sets while registering 37 consecutive holds.  In Tokyo, a key reason behind Murray’s dominance lay in the disparity between their serves, an advantage that may not hold on Sunday against the suddenly serve-slashing Spaniard.  On the other hand, the puny returns of Roddick and Lopez often transform average servers into leviathans at the notch.  Also uncharacteristic of the clay-based grinder whom we know as Ferrer was his surprisingly effective movement into the forecourt and generally efficient volleys, although he did miss a key volley when facing set point against Lopez.  Adjusting to the slick DecoTurf surface with creditable aplomb, the world #5 showed that his game may conceal more variety than we associate with it.  This thought begs the question of why Ferrer has settled into a relatively passive playing style, which has crippled him against the ATP elite, but this self-deprecating figure may lack the inner confidence necessary to execute more aggressive tennis under pressure.

Often critiqued for similar reasons, Murray generally has stayed content in Shanghai to unfold his trademark brand of high-percentage, low-risk tennis.  Facing no opponent more notable than Wawrinka, he enjoyed the rare gift of facing two opponents outside the top 30 in the quarterfinal and semifinal of a Masters 1000 event.  Unlike Ferrer, who may arrive a little jaded from three straight three-setters, Murray should bring ample reserves of energy to their clash.  He needed a set to summon the willpower to leave his comfort zone in the Tokyo final against Nadal, and he may need a lesser leap of faith in himself here if Nadal’s compatriot continues to shine even in the traditionally weaker areas of his game.  Far different from their Tokyo meeting was an Australian Open semifinal in which the Spaniard came within a point of a two-set lead over the Scot, trumpeting his danger

Winless in Slam finals and thoroughly feckless on those stages, Murray has compiled quite the opposite sort of record in Masters 1000 finals:  7-1, with his only loss to Nadal.  Determined to attain the #3 ranking this year, he has extracted vital motivation from that mission throughout the last few weeks, when his rivals have not found any such goal to grasp.  The defending champion of Shanghai surpassed Federer on the court in last year’s final and likely will surpass him in the rankings after this year’s final, squeezing all of the juice that he can from the meager fruits of fall.

Rafael Nadal - Rakuten Open - Day 6

First quarter:  In the aftermath of yet another disappointment in a final, Nadal will have reason to smile when he crosses the Sea of Japan and examines his accommodating draw.  A runner-up in Shanghai two years ago, the world #2 exited in the third round to Melzer last year and will feel determined to improve upon that result.  With Djokovic and Federer absent, the top seed would not face any opponent more formidable than Ferrer until the final.  As Nadal attempts to rebuild his confidence, he could meet last year’s Bangkok nemesis Garcia-Lopez in the second round, but the prospect of a Dodig-like debacle seems distant.  Aligned for an intriguing first-round meeting with Gulbis is Nalbandian, who competed sturdily through two tight sets against Murray in Tokyo.  The Argentine might well justify his wildcard with a win over the Latvian, the victim of three consecutive losses to players outside the top 50 as his 2011 record has slipped to 17-18.  Despite failing to win a set from Nadal at the US Open, Nalbandian stretched him deep into two sets and continued to trouble Rafa with his flat two-hander.  If he advances to the quarterfinals, the top seed should brace himself to meet Djokovic’s compatriot Tipsarevic, who has evolved into a threat in his own right following a Montreal semifinal and US Open quarterfinal.  Edging within range of the top 10, the Serbian #2 has enjoyed success against sixth-seeded Berdych that includes a US Open Series victory.  Having won his first title in three year at Beijing, however, the Czech may have gained sufficient momentum to avenge that defeat.  But Berdych has lost nine straight matches to Nadal, including 21of their last 22 sets, while Tipsarevic has lost all six sets that he has played against the Spaniard.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter:  Although the most prominent among them rests on the top line of the draw, Spaniards dominate this section in a demonstration of their nation’s depth in men’s tennis.  Bookending the quarter are Ferrer and Almagro, rarely perceived as threats during the fall season but both near or at their career-high rankings.  In Almagro’s case, though, the sheer quantity of matches that he has contested this year (especially on clay) has masked his unremarkable performances at the key hard-court tournaments.  There, he has recorded nothing more than a quarterfinal at the Rogers Cup and a fourth-round appearance in Melbourne.  On the other hand, early assignments such as a clash against his light-hitting compatriot Robredo should not trouble him unduly.  Only once has he faced Roddick, a first-round loser in Beijing who struggled to hold serve there on the same DecoTurf surface laid down in Shanghai.  In fact, the American may not escape a compelling challenge from Grigor Dimitrov if the Bulgarian can impersonate more of Federer’s game than his backhand.  Unlike Almagro, Ferrer stands in the curious position of having etched his reputation on European clay but having recorded his most notable accomplishments with semifinals at the two hard-court majors. His road looks more dangerous with an opening match against Raonic or Llodra, although he edged the Montenegrin-turned-Canadian in four sets at the Australian Open.  Potentially pitted against Ferrer two rounds later is the dark horse of this section in the ever-frustrating, ever-dangerous Verdasco.  A combined 11-6 against Ferrer and Almagro, the Spanish lefty has shown signs of life by winning two matches in each of his last three tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Verdasco

Third quarter:  Expected by many to fade after the US Open, Fish erased those suspicions with a  semifinal run in Tokyo.  If he duplicates that performance in Shanghai, he will thoroughly have earned it by navigating past a varied assemblage of streaky shot-makers.  First among them is Kevin Anderson, the South African who defeated Murray in Montreal and Roddick last week.  Or can Bernard Tomic, who thrilled at Wimbledon and fizzled in New York, build upon his Tokyo upset of Troicki to arrange a rematch with Fish?  In their quarterfinal last week, the American found himself forced to rally from a one-set deficit against the towering but nuanced Aussie.  Oscillating wildly from one tournament to the next, Dolgopolov faces dangerous doubles specialist Kubot before a probable meeting with the possibly resurgent Cilic.  A finalist in Beijing for the second time in three years, the Croat’s steady, understated personality and methodical approach to competition should serve him well during the final.  Cilic surely would relish an opportunity to avenge his loss to Dolgopolov on home soil in Umag, and he has swept his four meetings with Fish.  The #1 seed in Beijing, Tsonga has received perhaps the highest seed of his career at a Masters 1000 tournament as the top-ranked player in this section.  Few are the plausible upset threats in his vicinity, although Santiago Giraldo tested Nadal in Tokyo and Robin Haase severely threatened Murray in New York.  More athletically gifted than either of the above, Tsonga might need to solve the enigmatic Melzer, the architect of Nadal’s demise here last year.  In the event that the Frenchman does face Fish in the quarterfinals, he should gain conviction from his five-set comeback victory over the American at the US Open.

Semifinalist:  Tsonga

Fourth quarter:  With a Djokovic-like display of rifled returns, whizzing backhands, and surreal court coverage, Murray torched 2011 Slam nemesis Nadal in the Tokyo final as he collected his 19th victory in 20 matches and third title in four tournaments.  Unsatisfied with that achievement, he accompanied his brother to the doubles title afterwards in his first career singles/doubles sweep at the same tournament.  Following that hectic albeit rewarding week, Murray will need to elevate his energy once more as he prepares to defend this title more effectively than he did the Rogers Cup trophy.  One wonders whether he can sustain the level of his last match—or the last two sets of it—or whether a lull will overtake him.  Unlikely to profit such a lull are the underachievers Bellucci and Tursunov who will vie for the opportunity to confront the Scot, but third-round opponent Wawrinka might pose a sterner challenge.  The Swiss #2 defeated Murray at the 2010 US Open and may have reinvigorated his sagging fortunes with his heroic effort in winning the Davis Cup World Group playoff.  A surprise finalist in Bangkok, meanwhile, Donald Young qualified for the main draw, drew a Chinese wildcard in the first round, and will hope to repeat his New York upset over Wawrinka.  Another American of note has lain dormant for several weeks following his US Open embarrassment, but Ryan Harrison could trouble the staggering Troicki en route to the third round.  At that stage, he would face the tireless Gilles Simon, often at his best in the fall when his workmanlike attitude capitalizes upon the weary or the satiated.  Although we don’t expect Simon to defeat Murray, he might deplete the second seed’s energy for the more demanding encounters ahead this weekend.

Semifinalist:  Murray

***

We return shortly to review the WTA Premier Five / Premier Mandatory fortnight in Tokyo and Beijing.

 

As a lull in both calendars approaches, we rewind the week in Shanghai and two WTA International events…

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1) Nadal is still human on hard courts…somewhat: Unnoticed by all but the most ardent fans, Rafa’s bizarre loss to compatriot Garcia-Lopez in Bangkok presaged his upset by Melzer in Shanghai.  Struggling to break his opponent’s serve on both occasions, the Spaniard fell to two players well beyond the orbit of his typical nemeses.  Before he acquired the Tokyo title a week ago, an unexpectedly inspired Troicki came within a point of ousting him from their semifinal there.  (What an excellent fall it’s proved for Serbia!) These two losses and one near-loss restore a bit of reality to Nadal’s situation, reminding us of his fallibility on this surface when he falls short of his electrifying best.  But it’s difficult to imagine Garcia-Lopez or Melzer defeating the world #1 at a hard-court Slam, so perhaps his precarious Asian performances suggest that Rafa has begun to peak at the majors more perceptibly than he did earlier in his career.  Like Federer a few years ago, Nadal soon will compete less with his colleagues than with history, and history enters exactly four events each year.

2) Federer has become predictably unpredictable: For the second straight tournament, he unleashed a stunning display of dominance in one round and an equally stunning display of frailty a round later.  Had the second opponent in each pair proved far superior to the first opponent, one would suspect that Roger had slipped into an inevitable spiral of decline.  Had the second opponent in each pair proved far inferior to the first opponent, one would suspect that Roger no longer could muster the motivation to dispatch adversaries unworthy of his steel.  Since Soderling, Djokovic, and Murray occupy roughly the same level, however, neither of those explanations apply.  Quite simply, one doesn’t know what to expect from Federer on any given day or even in any given set, which lends his matches an aura of intrigue absent from the clinical demolitions that he once delivered.  For those who relish dramatic suspense, the mighty one has become more engaging—and more sympathetic—now that he has become a little less mighty.

3) Tall men stand short:  When Soderling reached the Roland Garros final and Del Potro won the US Open a year ago, the towers of power seemed about to swallow up the ATP.  This trend gathered impetus when Berdych finally broke through on clay and grass this year, but the baseline behemoths have stumbled in the last several tournaments.  At an event where they should have prospered, Soderling mustered just two games against Federer, Tsonga collected just two games against Murray, Berdych crumbled against the aforementioned Garcia-Lopez, and Del Potro never appeared.  Viscerally thrilling to watch, their games may prove less durable and consistent than those of their more versatile, more modestly proportioned peers.

4) Time can stand still for some:  Still charging up the rankings into the top 50, Kimiko Date Krumm continues to baffle the WTA elite with her distinctive, arrhythmic style.  In Osaka, she battled past both Stosur and Peer before succumbing to fellow senior citizen (well, virtually) Tanasugarn after a ferociously contested final; Tanasugarn herself had ambushed Bartoli in the semifinals.  Perhaps the most remarkable element in Date’s implausible comeback is her physical and mental stamina, which more than once this year has enabled this intrepid 40-year-old to outlast far younger opponents in three-hour matches.  The results of this week included, she has accumulated a winning record against the top 20 since her return.  Far from a harmless, endearing anomaly, she constitutes a legitimate threat to almost anyone on any occasion.  Halfway around the world, moreover, the evergreen “Peppermint Patty” Schnyder reached her second final of 2010 with victories over Hantuchova and the burgeoning Petkovic at her home tournament in Linz.

5) The Sleeping Beauty awakens: When Serena’s withdrawal opened a wildcard for Ivanovic, the eager Serb seized her opportunity with both hands and romped to her first title since…Linz two years ago.  Building upon encouraging efforts in Cincinnati, New York, and Beijing, Ana unleashed a commanding performance behind her serve that featured 25 aces and plentiful service winners—several on key points—while surrendering just five breaks in five matches.  The engine of her post-2008 misfortunes, that shot fittingly has become the platform of her resurgence, testifying to her renewed confidence.  Undeterred by adversity this week, Ivanovic maneuvered around undigested yogurt in the second round and three squandered set points in her quarterfinal with her glowing smile intact.  While Linz featured few familiar names, the experience of winning a title again will rekindle the Serb’s self-belief and determination over the off-season by reminding her of what she can still accomplish.  After the shortest WTA final of 2010, the moment that Ana’s fans had feared might never come finally arrived:

Transmission reference: XKJ110

***

We return in a few days with an article on the new WTA #1, who may be less unworthy of her position than some would suppose.

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.

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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.

 

 

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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.