The fall, from a men’s perspective at least, is suddenly looking up. Rafael Nadal hasn’t blinked, Roger Federer sounds hungry and maybe even a little testy, Novak Djokovic is in good form, and the Shanghai draw is loaded. If the atmosphere, or utter lack thereof, in the arenas there leaves a little to be desired over the first few days, be patient. This one has the potential to build to something pretty compelling by the weekend. It has never happened at this time of year before, but maybe, who knows, we'll see another rejoining of the Nadal-Federer rivalry on Sunday. What would that be, Stage V? Stage X? Just musing, of course: The competition in each of their sections is a little too stiff for them, or us, to start looking that far ahead.
Nadal was fortunate to survive a third-set tiebreaker against Victor Troicki in the semifinals in Tokyo, but he played well for most of the week. He has added his serve to his mix of point-ending shots, even when he doesn't hit it particularly hard. It’s the aggressive versatility more than anything else that he has improved. At 40-30 and 30-40, Nadal had a lot of confidence in the flat ball up the T, in part because he was keeping his opponents honest with the wide hook in that court. Otherwise, Nadal’s forehand looked especially good, with a lot of heavy-bouncing consistency. Nevertheless, he remains human, or close to human: In the third set against Troicki, Nadal showed a hint of tentativeness on one double-fault into the net. I hope his opponents in Shanghai happened to be watching.
Nadal’s draw is favorable, but not a cakewalk. Nikolay Davydenko, who has beaten him multiple times on hard courts and is due for a fall bank run, is on the other side of this section. Scattered in between are Fish, Melzer, and De Bakker, who continued his steady rise today by upsetting Fernando Verdasco. But Rafa can't worry about that to start. He begins against Stan Wawrinka, who is due to beat him one of these days. If that doesn't happen this week, and if Rafa does face Davydenko in the quarters, it will be a good test of how much the No. 1 player has, or hasn’t, separated himself from the field on hard courts.
Mikhail Youzhny just keeps plugging away, doesn’t he? I know he made the semis of the Open, but I’m surprised to see him at the bottom of this quarter listed as the tournament's 8th seed. His status hasn’t won him the easiest draw in the world, however: He might get Tsonga or Querrey in the second round.
At the top of this quarter is the troubling figure of Andy Murray. Troubling because, after looking so free and easy coming in coachless to the U.S. Open, he now appears adrift after losing dismally in Flushing Meadows and Beijing. Murray has mastered the Masters Series format, but he doesn’t seem to be a in a good place at the moment. His potential second-round opponent, Radek Stepanek, beat him in the Paris Indoors last fall, and the Czech has a history of coming to life during paycheck season. Still, if Murray does win that, the draw opens up for him. He’d play the winner of Chardy and Dolgopolov, another young guy who, like De Bakker, has risen just a little bit more already in Shanghai, having beaten Nicolas Almagro in the first round.
Roger Federer, third seed and probably not loving it, is slotted here. He hasn’t been seen in competition since the Open, which means there are two questions to be asked concerning his game: (1) Will we see anything significantly, or even just noticeably, different from him now that he’s been able to spend a chunk of practice time with Paul Annacone? [Update: Federer says he didn't get to spend much time with Annacone, who has been sick, in his preparatory build-up in Dubai. So the first question here may be moot.] And (2) The eternal question in these situations—will the break leave him refreshed of rusty? We may find out very quickly: Federer could face John Isner in his opening round. The Isner serve, and the rhythm-less game that will follow it, is not the greeting that any top player likes to receive after a break.
If Federer surivives the big man, he should reach the quarters. Waiting for him there, if all goes according to plan, will be Robin Soderling. Like Roscoe Tanner was for Bjorn Borg back in the day, Soderling seems to have become the designated Quarterfinal Test. Standing in the way of that test are worthy denizens of the second and third tier named Tipsarevic, Golubev, Llodra, and Ferrer. Marin Cilic is also playing. I'm not sure what else to say about that fact.
Novak Djokovic is in good form, but there are two things working against him right at the start of this tournament. He just played a rain-delayed Monday final in Beijing, and he might have to open with Ivan Ljubicic, a veteran who has given him problems in the recent past. Djokovic won't be able to ease into this one.
The rest of this section is equally difficult to predict. Berdych is the second-highest seed, but he’s in the midst of a downward spiral. Andy Roddick is here, but he’s been hit and miss for the last five or six months, and he opens against a strong opponent in Philipp Kohlschreiber. Gael Monfils is also here, and has been playing well, but it’s hard to know what that means. If he reaches his third-round date with Djokovic, it will be a battle of the overtennised. Is anyone ready to take advantage?
First-round slacker showdown to watch: Ernests Gulbis vs. Richard Gasquet
Semifinals: Nadal d. Tsonga; Soderling d. Djokovic
Final: Nadal d. Soderling