Give this ATP Big Four group credit. They've won 38 of the 41 Masters 1000 titles (as well as 39 of past 43 Grand Slam events), but they always seem to find a way to keep things interesting despite their dominance.
When we last left this group, back at the US Open, Roger Federer was ranked No. 2 and nipping -- nay, snapping -- at the heels of the current big dog, Novak Djokovic. At the same time, Rafael Nadal was mired in a slump, and Andy Murray was still trying to find the form that propelled him to Olympic gold and two Grand Slam titles.
Now Djokovic is holding steady, Nadal is surging and Murray finally seems closer to getting all his little ducks in a row. Along with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, those three will be headline the Shanghai Masters semifinals.
No. 8 Rafael Nadal vs. No. 16 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Saturday, 4:30 a.m. ET on ESPN3
These two were the major beneficiaries of Federer's early failure in Shanghai. Tsonga would have had to clear the Federer hurdle first (in the third round). Instead, the Frenchman had just one major test en route to his appointment with Nadal, which came against No. 12 seed Kevin Anderson.
Nadal is 7-3 against Tsonga, but they haven't met since 2013. While Tsonga has a big serve and forehand, his shortcoming has been a defensive backhand and a tendency to lose intensity, which has created clear repercussions in the quality of his game.
Tsonga did show excellent resolve in his quarterfinal match against Anderson, winning the lengthy tussle 6-4 in the third. But Tsonga's first-serve conversion rate was just 62 percent, and he won just 52 percent of those points -- 15 of those points coming on aces. Worse yet, Tsonga won only 22 percent of his second-serve points. He was lucky Anderson was even more error-prone.
Nadal is playing unfettered, confident tennis again. His degree of enthusiasm is so striking that it almost seems as if someone had pushed a reset button somewhere in his being. Most importantly, it appears the trademark intensity with which Nadal once played every point has also been rekindled. That's bad news for Tsonga, because when Nadal turns up the heat and begins to swarm over opponents, it's tempting to mentally fold up the tent and call it a tournament.
No. 1 Novak Djokovic vs. No. 3 Andy Murray, Saturday, 8 a.m. ET on ESPN3
It seemed like some form of poetic justice when Murray moved ahead of Federer into the No. 2 slot in the latest rankings (after the Shanghai seedings were set). The message: You've had your chance to knock Novak off his perch and failed, Roger. Now it's Andy's turn.
But the odds on Murray succeeding where Federer failed remain slim. Djokovic leads his rivalry with Murray 19-9 and has won eight of the past nine. The good news for Murray? He won the last time they played, in the Rogers Cup Masters 1000 final shortly before the US Open. It will give Murray some comfort as he's given a cigarette and gets fitted with the blindfold.
Djokovic could be playing the best tennis of his life. He's on track to equal his sublime year of 2011, when he also won three majors and posted a 70-6 record. (He's currently 68-5.) Djokovic has been merciless in Shanghai. The closest he has come to losing a set was the tiebreaker Bernard Tomic forced upon him in Friday's quarterfinals.
But then Murray is one of the very few men who can keep up with Djokovic in the rally game, even outhit and outwit the Serb on occasion. Murray has historically played well in the fall, and overall, these are great days for the inventive Scot. Next month, he'll have a golden opportunity to help secure a historic Davis Cup title for Great Britain. Inspiration-wise, Murray couldn't ask for more. He's perfectly positioned to let it flow.
Djokovic will always have a slight edge once rallies are underway from a neutral start. His game simply is more disciplined, his transition from defense to offense more lethal. So, much will depend on the matchup of serve and return -- particularly Djokovic's serve and Murray's return.
In his quarterfinal beatdown of No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych, Murray allowed his rival to win just 58 percent of his first-serve points and a paltry 40 percent of second serves. If Murray can pressure Djokovic in similar fashion, nailing returns that put the top seed on his back foot, the Scot might be able to keep Djokovic off-balance. Murray can be devastating when he works with that advantage.
Of course, Djokovic is no slouch as a returner, either. And he'll be looking for payback for that beating he took at the hands of Murray in Montreal. The way Djokovic has been playing, he'll probably get it -- perhaps with a little interest.