It has not been the best of years for Rafael Nadal, but the world No 2 is threatening to finish the season on a high. Having fought back from knee and stomach injuries that severely hampered his summer campaign, Nadal will today play in his first final for five months when he meets Nikolay Davydenko to decide the outcome of the inaugural Shanghai Masters.
Nadal also has a Davis Cup final against the Czech Republic to look forward to in December, while his lack of ranking points to defend in the closing weeks of the year means he might even go close to reclaiming the world No 1 spot from Roger Federer, who has not played any tournaments since the US Open because of exhaustion.
Nevertheless, it took the ninth retirement of a bizarre week here to give Nadal a comfortable passage through yesterday's semi-finals. Feliciano Lopez, who was already suffering with an infection in his right foot, jarred his right ankle at the end of the first set and retired with Nadal leading 6-1 3-0.
If those retirements have been a powerful argument for a shortening of the men's calendar, they have been rough justice for this tournament. Shanghai has invested millions in the event, which has been impeccably run, and deserves better competition than this. There will be relief that Nadal has made the final, even if the organisers might have preferred Novak Djokovic to be facing him rather than Davydenko, who won the other semi-final 4-6 6-4 7-6.
While it remains to be seen whether Nadal is anywhere near back to his best – his previous opponent, Ivan Ljubicic, also retired hurt – this week has represented marked progress after his year ground to a shuddering halt with his defeat by Robin Soderling in the fourth round of the French Open, where the tendinitis that had been causing increasing discomfort in his knees finally caught up with him. He went on to miss Wimbledon, returned in the American hardcourt season, but then suffered an abdominal injury that scuppered his chances of success at the US Open.
Lopez, playing in his first Masters Series semi-final, won the first game yesterday but then lost nine in a row. Nadal's fellow Spaniard was never in the contest and twice called for treatment before quitting.
At least the crowd in the impressive 15,000-capacity Qi Zhong stadium had had their money's worth in the previous match, a hard-fought affair lasting just over three hours as Djokovic's great run of success on Chinese soil finally came to an end. The Serb won the Tennis Masters Cup here 11 months ago and returned last week fresh from his victory in the China Open in Beijing.
At the end of a lengthy run, however, the last person you want to meet is Davydenko, even if Djokovic beat him twice here last year en route to victory in the Tennis Masters Cup. The 28-year-old Russian may have no major weapons at his disposal, but he is a relentless retriever and one of the fastest men around the court. Djokovic did well to make the contest last as long as it did. While the Serb looked tired throughout and especially at the end, Davydenko played just two loose games all match. He had looked the better player in the first set, only to lose it with a series of loose shots when he served at 4-5.
With Davydenko forcing the pace, Djokovic was regularly forced into throwing up lobs, but the world No 8 did not miss a single overhead. The only break in the second set came in the seventh game, when Djokovic twice tried to take the initiative and on both occasions found himself passed at the net.
Davydenko's second lapse came in the sixth game of the decider, but this time the Russian played superbly from 0-40 down to hold serve. He took immediate control of the tie-break, which he won 7-1.
Djokovic, who will replace Andy Murray as world No 3 in tomorrow's updated rankings list, insisted that fitness had not been an issue. "There was no problem – he just played too well," the Serb said afterwards. "I'm disappointed, because I think I played a great match, but overall these two weeks have been great for me."
Nadal has won four of his six meetings with Davydenko, who will be looking to win his third Masters Series title following his successes in Paris in 2006 and in Miami last year. The former world No 3 has had a mediocre year in the major events, but the points he has earned this week make him one of the favourites to claim one of the three remaining places in next month's end-of-season Barclays ATP World Tour Finals in London.Reuse content