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What's at Stake for Men's Tennis Superstars at Shanghai Rolex Masters?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistOctober 6, 2014

Rafael Nadal of Spain return a shot to Peter Gojowczyk of Germany during the China Open tennis tournament at the National Tennis Stadium in Beijing, China, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)
Vincent Thian/Associated Press

The Shanghai Rolex Masters is the peak of the Asian tennis swing, and there is plenty at stake for the top superstars on the men’s tour. It is the penultimate Masters 1000 tournament of the year, and it will be instrumental in filling our five of the eight slots for the year-end WTF final in London.

Men’s tennis has become deeper and more competitive inside the Top 10. It’s a battle-royal brawl with the top contenders trading blows from one tournament to the next.

Who looks most likely to finish the season on a roll? Who could really use a boost? We look at the six stars who have had the biggest Grand Slam impact in 2014.

Vincent Thian/Associated Press

 

Marin Cilic

The U.S. Open champion is fighting for a place in London. Though ranked at No. 9 in the ATP Rankings, Cilic is No. 6 in the Race to London. Now is the time to strike when the iron is hot. He has at least created an aura of great respect, if not fear. The best thing he can do is build on his major-winning form at Flushing Meadows.

At stake, the chance to be in the mix of superstars. If Cilic bows out meekly in the next few tournaments, tennis observers may wonder if he was a flash-in-the-pan, at least as far as being a top contender. Losing 6-1, 6-4 to Andy Murray at the China Open is not a vote of confidence for top-level consistency.

A closer look shows that Cilic has been quietly consistent in 2014. He is terrific on grass and nearly upended Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon. The hard courts and fast pace this fall should favor his chances to close out the year strong and compete for the WTF title.

At Shanghai, Cilic could potentially battle a tired Tomas Berdych and Stanislas Wawrinka to reach the semifinals. If he gets on a roll, he could be the favorite regardless of who comes out of the bottom semifinal slot.

TOKYO, JAPAN - OCTOBER 05: Kei Nishikori of Japan in action during the men's singles final match against  Milos Raonic of Canada on day seven of Rakuten Open 2014 at Ariake Colosseum on October 5, 2014 in Tokyo, Japan.  (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Image
Koji Watanabe/Getty Images

 

Kei Nishikori

So far, so perfect for Kei Nishikori at Malaysia and home-country Japan. Two titles in two weeks, though far from easy. Nishikori battled through tough three-setters. His mental toughness and physical endurance is rising.

Can he cap off a trifecta with his first Masters 1000 victory in the heart of Asian tennis? It may play like a home World Cup soccer match for the support he is sure to garner.

There are some big obstacles coming. He could conceivably play 10th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth round, and Dimitrov will be hungry to rebound and fight his way back for a place in London.

The quarterfinals and semifinals could produce Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic respectively. It’s a mean draw that will call for even more from the wiry Nishikori. Don’t be surprised if he drops an early match from sheer fatigue.

At least Milos Raonic would be glad to see him eliminated. Nishikori has now won four of the five meetings in their budding rivalry.

Shizuo Kambayashi/Associated Press

 

Stanislas Wawrinka

Wawrinka feels like the outsider in our preview. He had a terrific start to 2014, but has been knocked down a couple of pegs. Nevertheless, he still looks like he will at least be back in London.

Wawrinka could use a revival of baseline blasts and big serving. Last year, his late-year success was clearly the catalyst in setting up the confidence he needed to win the Australian Open. He needs to rediscover his mojo in Asia.

His early matches should be conquests and he could be battling the Berdych-Cilic winner in the quarterfinals.

Can he get back to playing like an underdog with nothing to lose?

Vincent Thian/Associated Press

 

Rafael Nadal

There’s never a shortage of drama surrounding Rafael Nadal. Whether it’s his battles with injuries and stated distaste for the hard courts at the WTF final, he is a lightning rod for tennis fans and detractors.

Meanwhile, he is the No. 2-seed and buried at the bottom of a fairly kind draw. There are a couple of big servers in John Isner and Milos Raonic, but otherwise this is another great opportunity to get in more matches and march to the semifinals.

Unless he is unable to play like the Nadal fans used to always expect.

Father Time backs away from nobody, specifically superstar tennis players with a lot of match mileage through the years. Nadal, like Wawinka, needs to reassert his best tennis and prove that he can contend for the WTF.

There are younger budding stars and at least a handful of top players who will be favored to defeat him in the next month. The least Nadal can hope for is to be healthy and get in the work he needs to set his sights on Australia and overcome the misfortunes that have plagued him there.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

 

Roger Federer

Suppose Federer goes on a terror and finished ahead of Djokovic for the No. 1 ranking to end 2014. It would be an amazing climb given that he did not win a major, holds one Masters 1000 title to date (Cincinnati), and has not held the top ranking in two years.

Would 2014 be considered a success?

Probably.

On the one hand, Federer might trade all of his 2014 accomplishments, including a spectacular runner-up showing at Wimbledon to win one major. It’s as if the tennis gods decided to tantalize his hunger with fruit and water that he cannot reach.

But Federer proved he was not an aging star trying for one return to glory. He is consistently in the mix for big titles and played as a contender for nearly every tournament. For all of the retro-comparisons to players such as Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi, Federer's quality was consistently impressive for a player crossing into his 33rd year.

He loves surfaces that allow his serve and forehand to finish points quickly. He has the edge in his draw until the semifinals, where a match versus Djokovic could showcase big points for the No. 1 ranking.

Vincent Thian/Associated Press

 

Novak Djokovic

Watch out. Djokovic looks like he could be on one of his multi-tournaments tears (terrors?). He plays Asia as if he has established residency there. When he is charging ahead, there is nobody better.

This isn’t to say that Shanghai will be a slam dunk for the Serbian. He opens with young Dominic Thiem, whose inexperience is only going to become seasoned with more big matches. And there are solid veterans like Kevin Anderson, Andy Murray, Jerzy Janowicz, Martin Klizan and David Ferrer in his quarter.

But right now feels like Djokovic is back to his best form. Tomas Berdych is even now nodding his head after looking at a double-bagel (6-0, 5-0) before being released from purgatory to win two games.

At stake is nothing less than the No. 1 ranking for the third time in four years. Only Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have won this at least three times. It’s the usual familiar company that Djokovic will be rubbing elbows with as he continues his fabulous career.

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