Rafael Nadal's absence from the Masters Cup was supposed to make things easier for two-time defending champion Roger Federer. It hasn't worked out that way so far, with the Swiss landing in the group of death, feeling the effects of a back injury and battling a stomach ailment. Still, if he beats the sizzling Andy Murray on Friday, Federer will reach the semis.
Andy Roddick, meanwhile, won't see action this weekend.
Here's a glance at some of the big issues of the first week.
The guy who replaced Nadal, pesky Frenchman Gilles Simon, did it again Monday by upending Federer in three sets.
And, just as Simon did in the second round of the Toronto Masters in July, he rallied from a set and break down, helped by a plethora of unforced errors from Federer's feared forehand. Midway through the second set, there were gasps galore when Federer sent a routine, easy overhead volley and comfortable drive volley into the net.
One of the lingering images was Federer being wrong-footed on a Simon forehand in the second. How many times does that happen?
Murray gives Federer headaches, and Simon has been described as a mini Murray, minus the big serve and variety on the backhand.
"The better you play, the better he plays," Federer said. "And he's quite a unique player. He makes you work hard and runs very well. He's unusual to play against."
With undo hysteria setting in, Roddick pointed out that Federer dropped his opener to explosive Chilean Fernando Gonzalez last year before cruising to the title. Federer indeed bounced back with a straight-sets win Wednesday over a less-than-prepared Radek Stepanek, who was inserted into the draw when Roddick hurt himself in practice.
There still were some unusual Federer misses, although they might have been caused by a tummy upset suffered in the wake of the Simon defeat.
"It would have been impossible to play [Tuesday]," Federer said. "I hope with a day of recovery, I'll make a miracle happen here and get through into the semis."
Wherever the tennis tour takes him, when he's not injured, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is usually a crowd favorite. The Frenchman's attacking style is widely seen as a refreshing change to the excess of one-dimensional baseliners, and his unabashed joy upon winning a big match endears him further.
But come on, Jo, what were you thinking, criticizing the tireless ball kids in Shanghai?
In what had "sore loser" written all over it, Tsonga claimed their tardiness contributed to his three-set loss to Russian Nikolay Davydenko when play began Sunday.
"I lost a lot of energy, because when I asked for my towel, my towel didn't come," he whined. "Sometimes in this match, I lost energy with that. Sometimes I have to take my towel alone, so for me, it's maybe 10 meters [33 feet] more. But if you count at the end of the match, it's like one kilometer [0.62 miles]."
The outburst from Tsonga prompted veteran tennis writer Neil Harman of The Times to declare: "People who are currently in charge of the sport need to tackle this stupidity once and for all. I want to be there when the first ball [towel] kid tells someone to get their own towel. I shall burst into applause."
Tsonga's backhand and inability to win the key points cost him in Shanghai: He lost three of four tiebreakers in his first two tussles and quickly was eliminated -- before a meaningless three-set victory over Novak Djokovic on Thursday. p>
Think the ball kids miss him?
The Djoker's reply
Still on the subject of whining, few need reminding of Djokovic's antics following his victory over Roddick in September's U.S. Open quarterfinals.
Since then, though, the Serb has embarked on a charm offensive to mend ways. First, he acknowledged the crowd at the Thailand Open later in September with a traditional Thai greeting, then, he gave Tsonga a big hug in front of the quick-to-pounce French fans after losing their third-round tilt at the Paris Masters in October.
In Shanghai, Djokovic connected with the spectators by saying, "Thank you," in Chinese.
"I'm attracted by the languages worldwide, so I try wherever I get to learn a couple of words from the certain language," he said, quick to add that the U.S. Open brouhaha was simply a misunderstanding. "I have the best fans here in China. I get presents every day I get back to the hotel."
Djokovic dropped all three of his matches at the Masters Cup as part of a horrendous fall in 2007 but made amends by reaching the last four this week, despite getting bageled in the second set by Davydenko on Tuesday and the loss to Tsonga on Thursday.
It's been that kind of season for Roddick.
He lost early at the Australian Open, rebounded by knocking off Nadal, Djokovic and Federer in the spring, then suffered a shoulder injury that kept him out of the French Open and hampered his performance at Wimbledon, where he was greeted by a second-round exit.
He had shoddy preparation for the U.S. Open, affected by a neck malaise and cutting coaching ties with brother John. Then came Tuesday's setback to his right ankle.
Roddick needed to down Federer and Simon to emerge from his group, an uphill task, after falling to Murray on Monday.
"The risk-reward wasn't there," he said. "You're risking further injury where it might cut into preparation for next year."
Reports in England, meanwhile, suggest Paul Annacone, the former coach of Pete Sampras and Tim Henman, could be hooking up with Roddick.
The long season
When Roddick was forced to withdraw, organizers, as usual, turned to the first alternate. That turned out to be Stepanek, who, as entertaining as he is, finished a distant 26th in the ATP race, a whopping 18 spots below the cutoff. Stepanek rushed in after holidaying in Thailand and had to borrow Djokovic's rackets and Murray's socks and get a new pair of contact lenses just to make it on the court.
Among those who turned down invitations to stand by in Shanghai and pick up a minimum $50,000 were James Blake, who was fresh off an extended break in the fall, rising Croatian star Marin Cilic and the monster-serving Ivo Karlovic, who was a spot ahead of Stepanek in the race.
"A guy like Cilic, or even Karlovic, I don't get that," said former world No. 8 Peter Fleming, who is working as a commentator for Britain's Sky Sports. "What's the problem? Just go there and eat some Chinese food for a week and watch how these top guys do it in a big situation and learn."
As many predicted, Stepanek gave a weary Federer a run for his money, delivering a few outrageous winners and celebrating the way only he can in a 7-6 (4), 6-4 loss.
Competitive matches were a fixture throughout the first four days, when each of the entrants had something to play for. The only lopsided score resulted when Murray toppled Simon 6-4, 6-2 on Wednesday to advance to the semifinals.
Mind you, Simon fought back from 4-0 in the first set and failed to capitalize on break chances at 3-4. Ahead 1-0 in the second, he squandered three more break points and that time couldn't recover.
What kind of effort will Murray produce against Federer?
"Ideally, I'd like to knock him out of the competition if I can," Murray said. "I'd rather not have to play him twice in one week."
Quote of the week
That goes to the playful Simon.
Here's an extract from his news conference Monday.
Q: You beat Roger Federer once. People might call it an accident or a surprise. Now it's the second time. What would you call it?
A: A second accident.
Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.