Novak Djokovic continues pursuit of Rafael Nadal as race to London heats up: Shanghai Masters talking points
The ATP Tour arrive in the Chinese city to compete in the penultimate Masters 1000 event of the season
The penultimate ATP Masters tournament of the year is underway in Shanghai.
Here is a look at some of the talking points and things to watch for as players compete for ranking points and to find form ahead of the end of the season.
Djokovic set for big stride toward No 1
Novak Djokovic is once again the best tennis player on the planet. Recent results ably back up this statement. Since his French Open quarter-final defeat at the start of June, Djokovic has won 26 of 28 matches across five tournaments to claim three titles, including Wimbledon and the US Open. Only his current world ranking of No 3 denies him official status.
The 31-year-old Serbian can take a big stride towards reclaiming top spot this week at the Shanghai Masters, where he has a great chance to replace Roger Federer as the leader of the pack chasing down top dog Rafael Nadal.
Djokovic heads to the Chinese city trailing his Swiss rival by just 445 points, and with Federer standing to gain no points as the defending champion even if he retains the title – and as Djokovic missed last year’s tournament and thus only has points to gain – the 14-time time major winner merely needs to reach the final to collect 600 points and usurp Federer as the world No 2.
There is still plenty of ground to make up on Nadal, who holds a 2,315-point advantage over Djokovic, but the Spaniard is sidelined with injury and there is still no fixed date for his return.
As Nadal continues to shed points through his absence, and as Djokovic only gains points having missed the second half of last season, it’s a lead that can be closed down.
The immediate focus for Djokovic, though, is the hard courts of Shanghai where anything less than reaching the final should be deemed a disappointment, given his current form.
The Serbian is on a 13-match winning run, compiled exclusively on hard courts, where he won the US Open and the Cincinnati Masters titles.
By Sunday, expect Djokovic, who in July was ranked No 21, to be back at world No 2 and that much closer to tracking down Nadal.
Shanghai next stop in race to London
While Djokovic pursues the No 1 ranking, at least he does so assured of his place at the year-ending ATP Finals in London. Four berths of the eight-player tournament have been filled, with world No 4 Juan Martin Del Potro joining his three higher-ranked rivals, but there is still all to play for to fill the remaining slots.
World No 5 Alexander Zverev will put himself in pole position if he betters his third round effort from Shanghai last year, while No 7 Kevin Anderson and No 8 Dominic Thiem only reached the second round in 2017 so will do themselves a favour by advancing a bit further this week.
Of those currently occupying the places for London, it is world No 6 Marin Cilic who would be most concerned. The Croatian is struggling for form, losing in the opening round in Tokyo last week, and needs to at least match his 2017 semi-final in Shanghai to avoid dropping points.
With just one Masters 1000 event, in Paris, and one 500-level event remaining before the finals, an early exit in China could spell trouble for Cilic’s London ambitions.
Another surprise winner?
It’s been a curious autumn on the ATP Tour, with the tournaments staged between the US Open and Shanghai won by some of the game’s less heralded players. Thiem’s success in St Petersburg aside, those in the winners circle the past few weeks include Gilles Simon (Moselle), Bernard Tomic (Chengdu), and Yoshihito Nishioka (Shenzhen) - with the latter two ranked outside the top 100 at the time of their respective victories.
Granted, these were 250-level events largely devoid of top-bracket players, but even last week at the two 500-level tournaments in Beijing and Tokyo, the respective champions were ranked No 34 (Nikoloz Basilashvili) and No 32 (Daniil Medvedev).
While this isn't entirely surprising given it's the time of year when players tend to be more selective, it's nevertheless refreshing to see new names carved into trophies.
Can the trend continue in Shanghai when the big guns return to action? It's unlikely considering the event's importance, but the rest of the field will take plenty of heart from the recent success in Asia.
Updated: October 8, 2018 10:26 AM