by James Pham
With the year’s final Grand Slam now in the record books, the world’s top players once again converge at the historic 10th edition of the Rolex Shanghai Masters. With the top rankings at stake, berths at the year-ending ATP Finals still up for grabs, and players looking to join a very short list of RSM champions, here are some of the exciting story lines we’re following in Shanghai.
1. The Race for No. 1: Just as the Rolex Shanghai Masters played a pivotal role in Andy Murray’s superhuman charge to No. 1 in 2016 and Rafael Nadal’s vintage surge last year, a title win by Novak Djokovic will put him just 35 points behind Nadal in the year-to-date rankings. The Serb plays exceedingly well in China, having amassed a 65-9 record with 10 championships and the Beijing Olympics bronze medal. There are a few different scenarios, but if Djokovic wins the title and Federer fails to make the final, Djokovic will leapfrog him into the No. 2 position. Should they meet in the final, Federer brings in a 2-0 head-to-head record against Djokovic in Shanghai.
2. How are Federer and Djokovic playing? Other than matches at the Laver Cup team event, Federer and Djokovic haven’t played an official match since the US Open where Federer felt the heat and humidity and Djokovic ran hot to take the title. Djokovic has often played in China the week before but this year has come straight to the Rolex Shanghai Masters in an all-out assault on a fourth RSM title. Federer has only one title this year, so motivation will be high to defend his trophy here.
3. Can someone other than the Big 4 claim this year’s title? In 9 years, only 3 active players have lifted the RSM title (Djokovic with 3, Murray with 3, Federer with 2), making it a very exclusive club. A few other players are coming in hot, having won titles in the lead-up, including No. 6 seed Dominic Thiem and Gilles Simon, a former Rolex Shanghai Masters finalist and one of only two players to have played all nine previous editions.
“I’m having a great form since US Open,” Thiem said. “Great US Open. Very good Davis Cup. My first title indoors (in St Petersburg two weeks ago), so I’m having great confidence also.”
Despite having a 3-7 career record in China, this year may be a turning point for the Austrian. He added: “The body is fresh, way fresher than it was the previous two years, so it feels good for the first time to be here. From all the years I’ve been playing so far, I think I’m feeling the best in this period of the year.”
Gilles Simon also picked up his 14th career title in Metz. “I was feeling really good. I won a tournament two weeks ago. I hope I will be able to produce good tennis again,” the 2014 RSM runner-up said.
4. Tango Time? Over an incredible stretch spanning more than 13 years (since July 2005), only Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray have been ranked in the Top 2. Coming off a strong showing this past week, last year’s RSM semifinalist Juan Martin del Potro could potentially bust up the quadropoly with a title win here and reach a career high ranking. Delpo’s compatriot Diego Schwartzman is also capable of doing some damage.
5. The rise of tennis’ next generation? Led by No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev, there are seven players under 23 in the Top 30 and they’ll all be looking to make their mark at this year’s Rolex Shanghai Masters. No. 10 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov, and Daniil Medvedev are in-form, all playing deep in Tokyo this week. However, Shanghai is an all-together different challenge, with only Zverev and Hyeon Chung making the Round of 16 in past efforts.