Top-seeded Roger Federer overcame some mid-match brilliance from David Nalbandian to open his bid for a third straight Tennis Masters Cup title with a 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 win.
Ivan Ljubicic off Croatia had a much easier time, crushing Argentina's Guillermo Coria 6-2, 6-3.
"There were some good moments and some bad moments," said Federer, who is playing for the first time in seven weeks because of an ankle injury. "But with the injury I'm happy I'm back."
Moving smoothly and effortlessly, Federer appeared as if he was going to make it a quick day. Striking the ball cleanly off both sides, the Swiss star fought back from triple break point, love-40, to hold serve in the third game, then broke Nalbandian in the sixth game to easily capture the opening set.
But the Argentine right-hander, who wasn't even in this elite eight-player event until Andy Roddick pulled out with an injury a few days ago, raised his game. Facing break point on his serve in the fifth game, Nalbandian lost just three of the next 19 points to level the match at one set each.
Nalbandian, who beat Federer in their first five meetings but has lost the last three matches, continued the pressure. He lost only two points on his first two serves to begin the third set, and when he broke Federer at 15 in the fourth game, Nalbandian had a 3-1 lead.
That's when Federer showed the sparse crowd at the 15,000-seat Qi Zhong stadium why he has been the No. 1 player in the world for the past two years.
"I took the opportunity he gave me," Federer said of his match-winning sprint that saw him win five of the last six games, at one time winning 14 of 18 points to build a 5-3 lead.
"I had no expectations," Federer said. "I was mentally ready for a two-sets defeat."
Instead, he ran his match record for the year to 78-3. By winning his other two round-robin matches and the title here, Federer could equal John McEnroe's match-winning percentage record of (.965) in a calendar year, marking the best of the men's professional-era.
Making his Tennis Masters Classic debut, Ljubicic continued his torrid play with his destruction of Coria. Ljubicic was ranked 18th in the world five weeks ago, but posted a career-best 16-match winning streak while reaching the final in four of his last five tournaments. That was enough to qualify him for Shanghai.
On Sunday, Ljubicic pounded out 25 winners to just 11 for Coria, whose record isnt that great once he leaves his favorite clay surface. Playing in his third consecutive Tennis Master Classic, Coria has just one victory in seven round-robin matches.
Federer is attempting to become the first to win the season-ending tournament three consecutive years since Ivan Lendl did so from 1985 through 1987. The last man to win a year-end championship three times was Pete Sampras, who won his last title in 1999 when it was known as the ATP Tour World Championships.
In one rally Sunday, Nalbandian seemed to hit every line before Federer took the point when he jumped on a short ball and rocketed a forehand cross court. Another time, Nalbandian was at the net hitting one reflex volley after another before finally winning the point when Federer's cross court backhand sailed long.
"I was just getting a little bit worried," Federer said of the possibility of losing. "But the more matches I play, you know, maybe it's even good it was a three-setter so I really got to get even more match play. I will play better. I'm very sure the next match will be better.
"I was hoping he would give me an opportunity, and he did. To start with a win in my group, that's definitely a great cushion to have."
Federer, Nalbandian, Coria and Ljubicic are in the Red Group in round-robin play. The Gold Group, composed of Rafael Nadal, Andre Agassi, Nicolay Davydenko and Gaston Gaudio, will play their first matches on Monday night.Reuse content