This was the type of day the ATP had in mind when it created the mandatory Super 9 series—later to be renamed the Masters—two decades ago. In those days, the top players were often scattered to the four corners of the earth, chasing appearance fees and avoiding each other for months and even years at a time. That would likely still be the case today if it weren’t for the Masters concept. Without it, what are the chances that we would see Juan Martin del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal play back to back to back to back at a tournament in China in October?
But that’s what we had today, as these four members of one of the world's most elite clubs—active men’s Grand Slam champions—took the court at the Shanghai Rolex Masters. I didn’t catch much of del Potro’s win over Philipp Kohlschreiber, which came in a third-set tiebreaker; the Argentine apparently had a fever, and Kohlschreiber is no pushover, so you have to credit del Potro for making it through that one. I did see most of Nole, Rog, and Rafa, though; here’s a quick look at how each of their openers went.
Take This, Your Daily Breadstick
Novak Djokovic d. Marcel Granollers 6-2, 6-0
The Serb and the Spaniard have now played eight sets, and they’ve gone like this: 6-1, 6-3, 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, 6-0, 6-2, 6-0. Eight sets played, 10 games lost by Djokovic. Granollers is averaging a slightly doughy breadstick.
We know about Federer’s “full flight” mode; those moments, once he’s up a break, when he seems to soar above the court. Djokovic has his own version. You can tell he’s in it by watching his forehand. Normally, if he’s tense, Djokovic will wait and play this shot with some safety. When he’s cruising, he moves in and blatantly rips it crosscourt with seemingly no fear of mistake or reprisal. His motion on the shot becomes faster and more fluid.
Today Djokovic didn’t wait to get up a break to lift off; he was hitting the forehand I just described in the opening game. I guess beating someone 3, 0, and 0 in your last match will give you that kind of confidence. It was clear from the start that Granollers had no way to hurt Djokovic, or hang with him for long. In that case, you might ask: Why not attack at all costs? That’s probably what I would have advised Granollers to do; he's a good doubles player and knows his way around the net. But it’s a tough ask against a return like Djokovic’s. The only thing that hurt Novak today was himself: He tweaked his right ankle in the first game of the second set and had it taped on the changeover.
But he wasn’t perfect. In blowouts like this, you usually get to see a top player do some experimental net-rushing. Djokovic obliged, and in the process showed us why it's likely to remain an experiment. On one point in the first set, he came in on the wrong shot—he made his approach from too deep in the court—and was passed. Later, Djokovic made a better approach and earned a sitter volley, only to stone it long. Like Andre Agassi in his day, Djokovic is efficiently brilliant from the baseline, but he’s never been a natural at the net.
Next match: vs. Fabio Fognini (Djokovic leads head to head 6-0)
Shank You Not Too Much
Roger Federer d. Andreas Seppi 6-4, 6-3
Over the last three years, we’ve seen Federer take a lot of first-time losses to players he once owned—Baghdatis, Soderling, Berdych, Monfils, Davydenko, Robredo, to name a few, all broke the Curse of the Maestro. Andreas Seppi, 0-9 for his career against Federer, made his bid to be the next today. But despite an early break, a mild case of shankisitis from Federer, and the earnest urging of his girlfriend in the stands, Seppi never seemed to believe. At 29, he’s been around too long to forget the old Federer aura completely. The Italian was broken back right away, and broken again in his first service game of the second set.
As for Federer himself, he was, not surprisingly, erratic with his forehand to start. At 3-3, he put too much wrist into one and smothered it into the net, then sent a sitter 10 feet long to set up break point. But his next forehand was the key to his day. After a good first serve, Seppi popped up a return that landed in a tricky position near the sideline, and bounced high. Federer overran it slightly, but moved back decisively and whirled around for a cross-court forehand winner. It was a risky shot, and not one most players would have tried immediately after missing several forehands. But Federer knows he’s not going to get very far if he can’t swing away on his favorite shot. This one was important to him; he punctuated it with one of his few celebratory yells of the day and went on to hold.
Otherwise, Federer’s first match in five weeks offered no surprises. Like Djokovic, he showed off his own imperfections around the net. Federer is the better volleyer, but he tends to run through them, bend at the waist, and try too many touch shots up there. Like Novak, late in the match he earned a sitter volley and sent it long. A bigger problem in recent years has been Federer’s habit of losing after holding match points. And today, when he served for it against Seppi, he did go down 0-30. But then he showed us another, better habit of his: Clutch serving. Federer hit two aces and, after squandering one match point, held on for the win.
Next match: vs. Monfils (Federer leads head to head 6-1)
Hair of the Dog (That Never Bit You)
Rafael Nadal d. Alexandr Dolgopolov 6-3, 6-2
Dolgopolov is the kind of guy who can put a scare into a top player; see his thrilling first-set tiebreaker against Djokovic at the 2011 U.S. Open. But the Dog is not the type of man who can actually beat one of the Big 4. Coming into today, he was 0-11 against them for his career.
Coming out of today, he’s 0-12. Dolgo, predictably, made Nadal work for a short time, then faded completely in the second set. Rafa’s bigger problem may have been the surface. Afterward, he said that he was surprised at how fast the court was playing this year. It appeared that Rafa adjusted to it midway through the first set. He stepped forward earlier and hit his forehand flatter; perhaps more important, Nadal also said he served better than he had last week in Beijing. It didn’t hurt that Dolgopolov, who was trying a blacked-out racquet and complaining about its string tension, let him have his way.
Aside from winning, Rafa also got some welcome news when he found out that his next opponent will be Carlos Berlocq rather than John Isner. The Argentine beat the American in straights.
Next match: vs. Carlos Berlocq (Nadal leads the head to head 2-0)