Can Davydenko repeat his much-needed title?
Shanghai Rolex Masters—China
The culminating men's event in Asia will feature all top 20 players in the world taking part in a Masters 1000 event for the first time this season. Highlighted by 56 determined competitors, the Shanghai Rolex Masters will boast Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, and Robin Soderling.
Considering that the Asian swing has provided a few surprising winners—namely Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in Bangkok, Thailand—the trend of an unlikely champion could continue in Shanghai.
The former home of the World Tour finale, and the ATP World Tour Masters event of the year, will hold 1000 valuable points toward the remaining five entrants into the year-end event.
Providing $616,500 to the winner—the highest payout of any Masters event on Tour—the Shanghai tournament should be filled with many competitive encounters.
With the stage set from some great match-ups throughout the week, let's now take a look at the four quarters of the draw.
Rebounding from his loss in Bangkok, Nadal enters Shanghai on the heels of a deep run in Japan. Reaching the finals of the event last year, Nadal was handed a difficult path to his ninth final of the season. Beginning with either Gilles Simon or Stanislas Wawrinka, Nadal could face Mardy Fish or Jurgen Melzer in the third round.
Although Nadal has stamped his place as one of the fittest players on the circuit, one has to wonder whether or not his third-straight week on the circuit will result in an early departure.
Nadal received staggering appearance fees in both Bangkok and Japan, but those extra and unnecessary events (in my opinion) could leave the usually unflappable Spaniard low on reserves.
Fernando Verdasco will be in search of his first match victory in Asia this year, while defending champ Nikolay Davydenko could have a do-or-die week in Shanghai. The Russian has 1000 points to defend, and an early loss could see him tumble out of the top 10. Adding to Davydenko's pressure, he could be in danger of not qualifying for the Tour finale—which he won last year—resulting in a further drop on the computer.
I'd be inclined to go with Verdasco in this quarter because he's due for a quality result, but his shaky demeanor as of late has me worried. With that in mind, I will venture into the unknown in this quarter and pick a player that proved to be the real deal in New York.
Although Wawrinka has never defeated Nadal in six previous meetings, their grinding match in Toronto suggested that the Swiss veteran was more-than-ready to dismiss the top dog.
I'll go out on a limb and say that Wawrinka grabs his first victory against Nadal here.
While Murray enters Shanghai with a slight cold and a dismal loss to Ivan Ljubicic last week, the Scot was granted a relatively easy path to the quarterfinals. Facing Radek Stepanek or a wildcard in the first round, Murray could take on either Marcos Baghdatis, Alexandr Dolgopolov, or Nicolas Almagro before the final eight.
Almagro remains in contention for a World Tour finale spot, but the Spaniard has never flourished on hard-courts. Baghdatis has been up-and-down this year, while Dolgopolov continues to search for the right recipe to unleash his talent.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has returned to action after another injury, and he will likely need a few more events to find his footing. Mikhail Youzhny has been in good form as of late, and possesses a more than realistic chance of making London. The Russian's crafty all-court game translates well onto hard-courts, and he could march into the quarterfinals comfortably if he performs well.
Sam Querrey remains a name to watch out for, but the American continues to struggle when it counts the most.
All in all, Murray and Youzhny should rule this section, and although I'm leaning more toward Youzhny to reach the semifinals, Murray's three-set expertise should allow him to prevail.
It's still kind of strange to see Federer ranked No. 3 in the world, but the Swiss great will have to improve if he's to catch Djokovic and then charge toward Nadal's top spot.
Taking a breather from the circuit after the US Open, Federer will need his reflexes to be in full gear when he potentially faces John Isner in the second round. Isner recently advanced to the semifinals in Japan, and his monster serve remains a valuable asset against the best players. Isner did take a set from Federer in their lone meeting three years ago, and the big man is a much better player these days.
If Federer can fend off Isner, then his draw would likely include Robin Soderling, David Ferrer, or Marin Cilic. Soderling has been flaky in recent weeks, and it appears that the pressure of reaching London has taken over his sonic groundstrokes. Ferrer continues to chip away at whatever he can get, while remaining a fierce competitor regardless of his opponent. Cilic has been in an awful funk as of late, and his 15-1 start to the season has turned into a 22-17 record since.
Although Federer does hold a substantial head-to-head series lead over everyone in this quarter, an important stat to keep in mind is that he's only won four Masters titles in the past four years. Federer has clearly saved his best for the Slams, and if Isner can serve the lights out in round two, then an early departure for the Swiss could take place.
However, Federer appears like a man who wants to end the year strong, and his recent press conference ahead of the Shanghai provided the type of fighting spirit that would indicate a finals march.
Look for a few battles in this section, but Federer's first-ever appearance at the tournament should last until the weekend.
Holding up his end of the bargain thus far in Asia, Djokovic advanced to the finals in China last week and will need a final four showing in Shanghai to solidify his No. 2 ranking.
The menacing serve of Ljubicic could be on deck for Djokovic in the second round, while Gael Monfils, Richard Gasquet, or Ernests Gulbis could be lurking in the third round. Tomas Berdych or Andy Roddick are projected quarterfinal opponents for the Serb, but both players have had their share of confidence woes in recent months.
While Djokovic picked up his stock after his US Open showing, he'll be motivated to keep up his form ahead of December's Davis Cup final.
Roddick did show signs of life last week in Tokyo, but his passive play from behind the baseline will continue to hurt his results.
Djokovic has seldom performed well in back-to-back weeks on Tour, and his success in Beijing could cost him in Shanghai. The Serb alluded to the Davis Cup being his top priority for the remainder of the year, and an energy-saving, early-round loss could be on tap.
On the other hand, Berdych has had far too good of a season to roll over at this point. With a chance at his first Tour finale, look for the clean strokes of the Czech to race into the semifinals.
Semifinals: Murray vs. Wawrinka; Federer vs. Berdych
Finals: Murray vs. Federer