Looking at the draw of the Shanghai Masters, I was subconsciously thinking that this was the field for a strong 500-point tournament in the Asian swing. It didn't quite occur to me for a while that I was looking at the draw for a Masters tournament. I mean, does that surprise you, particularly when David Ferrer is the No. 3 seed? Or better still, when Florian Mayer is seeded at all?
To say that the status of Shanghai as a city for elite tennis has declined since 2008 would be a massive understatement. Long gone are the times when all tennis players used to slug it out for the full year, fighting tooth and nail just for the honor of being included in the top eight to simply be able to play in Shanghai at the World Tour Finals.
With Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and perhaps less significantly, Robin Soderling, Richard Gasquet and Juan Martin Del Potro all withdrawing from China's premier tournament, let's take a look at the draw itself.
Rafael Nadal is the top seed, and although he's got a mildly tricky quarter, he's the overwhelming favorite to make it comfortably to the semis from his side. Receiving a bye in the first round, he opens against Somdev Devvarman or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, and even though the latter shocked him last year in Thailand, this is probably going to be a stroll to the third round. There, he could well meet the unpredictable Argentine wildcard David Nalbandian, who he's struggled against sometimes. A lot depends on the kind of form Nalbandian is on the day, though it's interesting to note that historically, he's at his best at this time of the year, on the indoor courts. Should Rafa negotiate that stern test, he runs into Berdych or Tipsarevic. The Czech hasn't had the best of results this year, but Janko has been on fire since the North American hard court season, and if his booming ground strokes are working, he could create problems for the Spaniard. However, with Nadal never having dropped a set against him, I expect to see him standing tall come semifinals day.
Third-seeded David Ferrer heads the second quarter, which has a bunch of very good players, albeit in woeful form. Players like Youzhny, Verdasco, Robredo, Almagro and, not least, Andy Roddick all have a decent chance against Ferrer on their best days,but they simply aren't cutting it at the moment. Ferrer faces young Canadian Raonic or veteran Frenchman Llodra in the second round, with neither expected to offer much resistance at the moment (with Raonic just returning from injury and Llodra simply not being good enough). He then meets either Youzhny or Verdasco, both of whom he should put away with ease given the vast difference in form between them and him right now. He will then probably run into Roddick or Almagro, with the Spaniard not quite as potent a force indoors as he is on the clay courts. Roddick is unlikely to repeat his impressive U.S. Open defeat of Ferrer without thousands of doting Americans giving him very vocal support. In short, it would take a big upset to prevent a Nadal-Ferrer semifinal from happening.
Enigmatic Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is the fourth seed in what is comfortably the most exciting quarter of the draw. He faces Robin Haase or Kei Nishikori in the second round, which is his only (relatively) easy match. He then meets Ivan Ljubicic, who is in great form at the moment and was in some ways unlucky not to triumph against Tsonga in Metz a couple of weeks ago. If he does manage to pull that off, he could face Mardy Fish, Kevin Anderson, Marin Cilic or Alexandr Dolgopolov, each of whom with intriguing matchups of their own in the earlier rounds. So this is easily the most competitive, yet open, section of the draw with a host of people capable of making it to the semifinal.
Second seed Andy Murray probably has the easiest draw, with Gilles Simon the only probable threat to prevent him from reaching the last four. He faces Tursunov or Bellucci first up, which is likely to be a cakewalk. He is then likely to play talented Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka, but Stan is simply not in good enough form to take out a hot Murray at the moment. With a match against Simon looking inevitable, the Scot is expected to come out tops having beaten the Frenchman the last eight times they've played.
So there we have it: Three of the top four seeds are almost locks for the semifinals. While the Nadal-Ferrer semi could be the match of the tournament, given that Ferrer beat Nadal in straight sets at the Australian Open, Rafa was injured then. Count on the left-hander to extract revenge in a grueling three-set battle. The other semi could be Murray versus "a host of players" but I count on Fish producing his best tennis to make the final four, where Murray will prevail in two tight sets.
A Nadal-Murray final is expected, and I believe we'll get one. While Nadal isn't at his best post-U.S. Open, Murray has probably played too much tennis in the last few weeks to produce a big enough challenge to dismantle Rafa. Expect Nadal to win his 20th Masters series shield in a pulsating three-set contest.