Divided between Beijing and Tokyo last week, most of the leading men have arrived in Shanghai for the last meaningful outdoor tournament of 2012. In just its fourth year of existence, this Masters 1000 event already has acquired a reputation for oddity (upsets of Nadal by Melzer and Mayer, a title for Davydenko), injury (nine retirements in 2009, withdrawals by Federer and Djokovic in 2011), and anticlimax (two three-setters from the third round onwards in 2010). This year, the adverse publicity began before the tournament even started, although through no fault of its own. In a stadium where few spectators have ventured so far, the Shanghai organizers will hope that the right kind of drama unfolds from a draw that looks promising on paper.
First quarter: Only somewhat distracted by the security concerns swirling around him in Shanghai, Federer should find nothing else to unsettle him in his first few matches. The closest seed to the world #1, his compatriot Wawrinka has defeated him only once before and has settled over the past few years into an attitude between the deferential and the spineless in their matches. Aligned to face Federer in the quarterfinals is either Cilic or Verdasco, neither of whom ever has defeated the Swiss star. Despite his new hairstyle, the Spanish lefty remains the same immensely talented, immensely inconsistent shot-maker that he has stayed throughout his career, and his unreliability has deepened with age. Cilic compiled encouraging results during the grass and summer hard-court seasons, including two titles and appearances in the second week of both Wimbledon and the US Open. All the same, he has lost both of his previous hard-court meetings to Verdasco, so he faces the challenge of reversing that history in a test of his dubious fortitude.
Second quarter: Justifiably drained by his fortnight in New York, Murray failed to defend his Tokyo title last week and now faces the same assignment in Shanghai. Since his opening opponent Florian Mayer upset Nadal here last year, the two-time defending champion lacks much time to play his way into the tournament. But the slower hard courts should favor Murray more than did the fast, low-bouncing surface in Tokyo, and, like Federer, he has little to fear from the highest seed in his section. Aligned to meet Dolgopolov in a clash of style against substance, Simon rarely has troubled Murray while suffering nine losses in their ten previous encounters. More concerning to the latter’s supporters is a projected quarterfinal against Isner, who saved three match points in a three-tiebreak victory over fellow serving specialist Kevin Anderson. Extended well past two and a half hours in that match, the American must conserve his energy in the next round to retain the explosiveness necessary to echo Raonic’s upset in Tokyo. Always a threat against any opponent, Isner may seek revenge against Gasquet for a semifinal loss in Montreal this summer, a surprising result in which fatigue also played a role. Embroiled in many a thrilling duel with Murray at prestigious tournaments, his fellow 25-year-old from across the English Channel typically has surged to early leads before snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Third quarter: Usually featuring the greatest intrigue is the section without any member of the Big Four, which offers an opportunity for an unexpected face to appear in a significant semifinal. Finalists at 500-level tournaments in Beijing and Tokyo last week, Tsonga and Raonic stand one victory apiece from deploying their massive weapons against each other. The Canadian did not greatly impress in an uneven first victory, however, perhaps struggling to recover from an exhausting sequence of three-setters the week before. As for Tsonga, one never quite knows what to expect, but the fall proved kind to him last year when he reached key finals in Paris and London. Not much more impressive than Raonic in the first round, Nishikori labored to finish off a local wildcard and should suffer a dip in motivation following his remarkable title on home soil. Earlier this year, the Tokyo champion fell resoundingly to Querrey at the Rogers Cup. If he can reverse that result, a battle with Berdych would repeat their pedestrian quarterfinal in Tokyo. Since Nishikori prevailed that time and has won three of four overall, the Czech might prefer his odds against a more similar type of opponent in Querrey. On a relatively slow hard court, he should hold the advantage against either Tsonga or Raonic with a rally-oriented style more methodical than their quick strikes and preference for short points.
Fourth quarter: Just as the top two Swiss populate the top quarter, the top two (in fact, three) Serbs have landed in the bottom quarter. The match between competing Djokovic understudies Tipsarevic and Troicki should produce impressive backhands and a test of competitive will on both sides, especially since the winner could foresee a route to the quarterfinals. Across the net from the winner would stand only one of two veterans, the fading Robredo or the resurgent, much more dangerous Haas. After a strong spring and summer, this 34-year-old had lost four of his last five matches before regrouping to upset Almagro here in a three-set comeback. The only man to win a set from Djokovic in Montreal this year, Haas has earned notable successes against the Serb that would add a layer of interest should they meet in the quarterfinals. Djokovic’s route there does not look intimidating, for he should dismantle the undependable backhand of Grigor Dimitrov with his own two-hander and blunt the lefty serve of Lopez with his precise returns. Absent from Shanghai in 2011, he never has reached the final here, alone among all Masters 1000 tournaments. But Djokovic appears to have drawn motivation from the objective of regaining the year-end #1 ranking, and he has not lost before the semifinals at a major or Masters 1000 tournament on an outdoor hard court since 2010.
Final: Murray vs. Djokovic
Champion: Novak Djokovic