No major, no problem for Andy Murray

There probably was much weeping and gnashing of teeth in Shanghai the other day, when ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic declared that he's taking a pass on the event to further rest the back. Roger Federer is bypassing this Masters 1000 tournament as well. He's No. 3 but not quite as keen on touring Asia in the fall now that he's turned 30 (been there, done that) and is a papa with twin toddler daughters.

Given the premium put on (top) player participation at any tournament (it's the baseline for the significance of the event), and the fact that the ATP presently is ruled by a quartet (the aforementioned players, along with No. 2 Rafael Nadal and No. 4 Andy Murray), you could say that Shanghai is operating at less than 50 percent of its potential horsepower, which undermines the idea behind the Masters Series.

Let's face it, Shanghai is not much stronger than the ATP 500 event that just ended in Tokyo, and it could very well cough up the same two finalists -- Nadal and Murray. They're seeded Nos. 1 and 2, respectively. That's a bummer for Shanghai -- or it was until just two days ago, when Murray upset Nadal in the final of Tokyo.

Murray has had any number of problems in his career, starting with some rotten luck -- and form -- in Grand Slam finals. He's played for three major championships and walked away empty-handed each time. And if anything, he's played worse in each successive one; he lost to Federer in two finals (U.S. Open of 2008 and Australian Open of 2010), both times without winning a set. And Djokovic demolished Murray in similar fashion in Melbourne to start this year.

Over time, Murray also had developed a pretty significant Nadal problem, which is why his win in Tokyo looks so big -- and injects much-needed hype into the Shanghai Masters. Nadal took the measure of Murray, who's almost a full year younger, in their first five meetings, but Murray cracked the Rafa code in the semis of the U.S. Open in 2008. Murray went 4-3 against Nadal afterward, which was all the more impressive because Nadal was arcing toward his peak.

But that period of genuine rivalry was short-lived. Nadal had won another five in a row going into the Tokyo final, including critical semifinal confrontations this year at all three majors after the Australian Open. Among the ruling ATP quartet, the most lopsided head-to-head is Nadal-Murray. Nadal led Murray 13-4 going into last week's tournament.

Had Nadal walked away the winner in Tokyo, Shanghai would be a whole lot less interesting. Murray, whose year has been wildly unpredictable, has threatened to make big moves before, only to come up a little short. He's had a lot of trouble breaking out of that No. 4 position; he hit No. 2 in August 2009 and No. 3 in February 2010 but spent a grand total of just five weeks up in those positions.

But in what may be a sign of the times, certainly as far as Federer's impact and future is concerned, Murray has a big lead over Federer in the telling year-to-date ranking (which is based on points earned this year, rather than on the rolling 52-week "official" ranking). Murray is the de facto No. 3 thus far in 2011 and likely to finish the year there.

He can do that without recording any more big wins over Nadal, but we know that Murray's goal is not to reclaim No. 3 in the world. He wants to win majors -- first and foremost. In order to do that, Murray will have to deal with his Nadal problem. He's won 21 of 22 matches since the middle of August, but the one he secured in Tokyo may be the most significant of them all.