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Monday, November 10, 2008
Players have plenty of incentive at Masters Cup

Well, the early returns suggest that the "election" of the Tennis Masters Cup champion this year is going to be an unpredictable and fiercely fought battle -- Gilles Simon suggested that with his opening-round win over Roger Federer, and Andy Murray seconded it by taking out Andy Roddick.

But instead of taking a shot-in-the-dark champion, let's look at how much incentive the eight players have for winning the year-end championships:

Roger Federer: He's vying to join Pete Sampras and Ivan Lendl as the only five-time winner of the YEC. History-wise (the only thing that seems to interest Federer any more), it would be a fine achievement. A win in Shanghai will also suggest that Federer's struggles earlier this year were less a matter of "slump" than a re-ordering of priorities, allowing him to start 2009 with a feeling of firm control of his own destiny.

Novak Djokovic: The wheels didn't exactly fall off Djokovic's game in the latter half of the year, but a few of the lug nuts are definitely loose. A win in Shanghai would re-establish the Djoker as a clear-cut No. 3, given that he has a major in the bank already. It seems that Djokovic plays better when he's chasing someone instead of fending someone off; this tournament is an interesting test for him in that regard.

Andy Murray: He's the one everyone is talking about. By winning Shanghai, he'll replace Djokovic as the player of the moment when the next Australian Open rolls around. Murray has been emerging as a mentally and temperamentally solid player at the high-stakes table, and his results in the fall suggested he used his U.S. Open runner-up finish as a lasting momentum-builder.

Nikolay Davydenko: When Davydenko won Miami in April, pundits wondered if he had come of age as a contender for major titles. But Davydenko's subsequent results were disappointing. This is a guy who needs to slough off the cloak of the perpetual semifinalist, but it seems increasingly remote that he can accomplish that. His window opened this spring; it seemed to close quickly.

Andy Roddick: For a number of years now, Roddick has run a pretty good race, staying a car-length or two behind Federer and Nadal. But a few other drivers (Djokovic, Murray, even Jo-Wilfried Tsonga) have moved up in the field and perhaps even nosed ahead of him. But never underestimate pure horsepower, especially indoors on a hard court. Roddick could really use this win to salvage his year, and a title in Shanghai would suggest that he's ready to reclaim his place among the elite.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: If Jo-Willy pulls this off, Murray and Djokovic will have to start watching their backs as they chase Federer and Nadal. Tsonga started the year with a runner-up finish in Australian, and if he ends it with a title in Shanghai, you can bet he's going to feel that the future is now. He's had a remarkable year, given that he suffered a serious knee injury that sidelined him at the peak of the Grand Slam season.

Juan Martin del Potro: This guy is destined to become "the guy I most hate to play" for everyone else mentioned here. Del Potro had a breakthrough summer, and he has shown it was more than a hot streak. He's big and physical, and if he wins Shanghai, the whole house of contender cards for 2009 comes tumbling down.

Gilles Simon: Gotta love his story, even if it's hard at the moment to put him right up there with Del Potro and Tsonga as players nipping at the heels of Djokovic and Murray, who are nipping at the heels of Federer and Nadal. But with the kind of year it's been, Simon could provide a Shanghai surprise that further muddies the water in what is likely to be remembered as a year of transition for the ATP Tour.