Not unfamiliar is the sight of the top four seeds reaching the quarterfinals in unison at a Masters 1000 tournament. This event surprises a bit more in the post-US Open fall season, when upsets typically have run rampant. But the fourth-seeded, sixth-ranked Berdych joins the three uninjured musketeers from the Big Four for a Friday in Shanghai that features only one evenly balanced match. We look at the prospects for each of the draw’s four anchors as they aim to set the table for a blockbuster Saturday.
Federer: Uncertain until the last minute whether he would even play this week, the world #1 confirmed that he would become the first man ever to hold the top ranking for 300 weeks. Omitting Shanghai from his 2011 schedule, he gained the necessary points with an uneven victory over his compatriot Wawrinka. Rare in the history of their rivalry are matches in which the Swiss #2 has threatened Federer, and yet the former came within a tiebreak of victory in a concerning sign for the latter’s future hopes. Untested by Yen-Hsun Lu in his opener, the top seed will face an opponent who never has defeated him in Marin Cilic. Although he won two small titles this summer, the Croat still lacks a marquee victory over a marquee opponent since his initial surge in 2009-10. His only win in seven meetings with top-10 opponents this year came against Isner on the blue clay of Madrid. Nevertheless, Cilic did win a set—and nearly two—from Murray at the US Open, where he reached the quarterfinals, so he brings at least as much momentum as his opponent into their encounter.
Murray: Clearly flat in his first post-major title tournament last week, the US Open champion may have welcomed the respite that he earned when Florian Mayer withdrew from their second-round meeting. Murray thus has reached the quarterfinals after just one match, a routine dismissal of Dolgopolov that never tested his fortitude or focus. Tracing the opposite route is his next opponent, who survived a tense three-set victory over Isner despite his advanced age. Like Dolgopolov, Stepanek should lack the explosive ball-striking to hit through Murray from the baseline and instead must pin his hopes on finishing points at the net as soon as possible. An area in which he excels, approaches to the forecourt also exposes him to two of the Scot’s greatest strengths, his return of serve and his passing shots. Stepanek did topple Murray at the Paris Indoors three years ago, but the Shanghai court usually plays more slowly and should reward the counterpuncher more than the net-rusher.
Berdych: Tasked with by far the most challenging assignment of the top four seeds, he faces a player ranked just two places below him. After he had cruised through the first set against Querrey in his last match, Berdych let his advantage slip away and perhaps should feel fortunate to have closed out the American, a thorn in his side at times. Likewise, Tsonga began his eventual victory over Baghdatis with authoritative play in every department but allowed the plot to thicken in a rollercoaster second set. Throughout their careers, both men have struggled with maintaining leads, winning matches that they should win, and stringing together impressive results. Their parallel inconsistency perhaps explains why they have met only twice, both in fall semifinals last year. Illustrating the lack of clear separation between their talents, they split those matches of seismic serves and ferocious forehands. Since they share those weapons, their relative weaknesses may distinguish these two quarterfinalists. Both struggle on their returns of serves, which should lead to plenty of free points for both, and with their backhands, which should cause both to attempt forehands from their backhand wings. If Berdych can stay positive and patient, his steadier baseline play should trump Tsonga’s superior athleticism and dexterity at the net on a medium-speed hard court.
Djokovic: Although he cannot reclaim the #1 ranking this week, the man who started the year in that position would move closer to that goal with a strong performance at a tournament from which he withdrew in 2011. Never having reached a final in Shanghai, Djokovic must fancy his chances against the 34-year-old veteran Tommy Haas despite the latter’s implausible collection of victories over top-10 opponents this year. Defeating Federer, Tsonga, Berdych, and now Tipsarevic, Haas became the only player to break Djokovic’s serve or win a set from the Serb during his title run at the Rogers Cup. Even more remarkable was his victory when they met three years ago in a Wimbledon quarterfinal. At none of his nine Masters 1000 tournaments on outdoor hard courts in 2011-12, however, has Djokovic lost to an opponent outside the top four. Buoyed in confidence from two upsets over seeded opponents, Haas will muster a sturdy challenge, but Djokovic should display the greatest motivation of the elite contenders here. His previous two victories showed the same efficient, purposeful demeanor that characterized his march to the Beijing title last week, and that efficiency should bolster his chances as the tournament progresses.