Roger Federer treasures the memoryof his first Masters Cup appearance. "I love coming here, and being part of the top eight was an incredible thrill for me in 2002," the defending champion said here yesterday. "I was like a kid in a candy store."
Andy Murray, who makes his debut when he takes on Andy Roddick tomorrow, has been similarly wide-eyed since arriving last Wednesday. The leading men do not exactly have to slum it for the rest of the year, but the tournament organisers here do everything to make the players' exper-ience special, reinforcing the point that only the crème de la crème qualify for the elite eight-man field at the traditional end-of-season finale.
The players have their own driverfor the week, can practise when they want and have private locker rooms at the Qi Zhong Stadium. At night they retire to a luxurious hotel where even the dressing gowns and pillowcases are individually embroidered with their names.
"We get treated unbelievably well," Murray said. "Obviously at most of the tournaments the treatment is very good, but the way all of the players have been treated since we got here has been great. The hospitalityis awesome, and I've really enjoyed myself so far. Just to be around all the top players in the world is a really nice feeling. It's like a reward for the season that you've had."
The only empty seat at the top table is that of Rafael Nadal, who pulled out with a knee injury that could yet see the world No 1 miss next week's Davis Cup final against Argentina. The Spaniard's rivals queued up to defend his decision.
"Rafa has the year-end No 1 ranking all sealed up anyway, so would he have been coming here just to beat everyone's brains in again?" Roddick said. "He's also responsible to his team-mates and to his country, so I think it's the right decision."
Will Federer miss his great rival? "We're not dating, so no," the defending champion smiled. "But he's great for tennis and it's disappointing for the game that he's not here. I'm a tennis fan myself, and I hope he gets fit again soon."
While Federer cannot reclaim his world No 1 ranking this week, despite the fact that an undefeated winner here receives 750 points along with a cheque for $1.3m (about £824,000), the Swiss sees it as a chance to make inroads into Nadal's lead, provided there is no recurrence of the back injury that forced him to pull out of the recent Paris Masters. The label as world No 2 sits as uncomfortably on Federer's shoulders as did the hand-made suits on some of his rivals beforeyesterday's opening ceremony.
"I don't like the ring of it when I'm being introduced on the centre courts," Federer said. "Saying, 'This is theNo 2 in the world' sounds wrong to me. Either I'm No 1 or I'm a Grand Slam champion, but I'm not No 2. It sounds awkward because I've been up there for so long. It's a challenge to get back where I was, and next year will be a good chance. I'm going to try and do everything – starting here."
Murray, who is drawn in the tougher round-robin group alongside Federer,Roddick and Gilles Simon, is the man in form after a four-month spell in which he has won three titles, including two in the Masters Series, and reached the final of the US Open and the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
"I've had a great season, my best year ever," the world No 4 said. "I'm a little bit tired but I'll try and play the best I can. If I do that then I'll be happy. Even if I lose all the matches, I'd still be happy, but I'd be disappointed if I didn't play well.
"I'm feeling pretty confident right now, though I'm not expecting to play my best tennis this week. It's been a long few weeks since Madrid, it's right at the end of the year and I've played a lot of matches."
Federer, who has won four of the past five Masters Cups, welcomed the fact that four of the field – Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Simon – are making their debuts. "The young players have made their move," he said. "Del Potro winning four straight tournaments is something that's very hard to do. I've never managed it. Murray definitely made his move right to the very top. Simon has had his breakthrough year, though not at Slam level, while Tsonga had that great start, got injured, but came back very strongly. He's exciting to watch. I love watching him play."
Two groups of four players, who all play three matches each, with the top two in each section progressing to the knockout semi-finals.
Roger Federer (Switzerland), Andy Murray (Britain), Andy Roddick (US), Gilles Simon (France).
Novak Djokovic (Serbia), Nikolay Davydenko (Russia), Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (France), Juan Martin del Potro (Argentina).
(06.00 GMT start): Djokovic v Del Potro, Davydenko v Tsonga.
(Not before 10.00): Federer v Simon; (not before midday): Murray v Roddick.
Participation fee: $100,000 (about £63,000). Each round-robin victory: $100,000 (and 100 ranking points). Semi-final winners: $315,000 (200 points). Final winner: $625,000 (250 points).
Undefeated champion: $1.34m (750 points).