I always need to watch my back during press interviews… pic.twitter.com/RKOPw4xxkt
— Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) October 7, 2013
Tournament organizers in Shanghai could be forgiven for not paying attention to the shift in power that took place in Beijing last week between the then and now current No. 1 players on the ATP Tour. After all, for them, the most important man in tennis was back in town.
While Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic began their expected exchange of ranking spots, Roger Federer arrived early at the Shanghai Rolex Masters. In his first event since losing in the fourth round of the US Open, Federer showed up a few days ahead to get in some extra practice and to take part in pre-event activities that included an impromptu appearance at the draw ceremony that also featured tennis legend Rod Laver.
Federer, despite having never won the Shanghai Masters event, is still its biggest star. That’s largely due to him having reached three finals and winning twice (2006, 2007) the end of season ATP event, formerly known as the Tennis Masters Cup, during its tenure in Shanghai from 2005 to 2008. (Federer has won the ATP Finals a total of six times) While Djokovic and Nadal certainly have their share of fans, the event is very proud to promote Federer just an extra bit more. It also helps that the tournament and Federer share a sponsor in Rolex, the luxury watchmaker.
In many ways, Federer’s extended appearance at the premiere ATP event is to help promote tennis in the growing Chinese market. That was made even more apparent when Federer, who rarely plays doubles, teamed up with China’s own Ze Zhang this week at the suggestion of the tournament director. The wildcard pair won their first match on Monday against another unlikely duo in Kevin Anderson and Dmitry Tursunov 6-2, 6-1. Federer afterwards said he thought the win would be good for tennis in China. “That’s kind of the ultimate goal, to partner up with a Chinese up‑and‑coming player and promote the game at the same time.”
While growing the sport in new markets may be part of Federer’s duties, it’s not the only business he must attend to this week. Federer is still very much in the hunt to qualify for the upcoming ATP World Tour Finals in London next month. Normally by now, Federer would have sewn up his spot after yet another successful season. But 2013 has proved a challenge for the 17-time Grand Slam champion. Still not having secured his berth, Federer finds himself fighting for likely either the seventh or eighth spot in the eight-man event. Currently in seventh place in the points race, Federer barely leads fellow Swiss Davis Cup teammate Stanislas Wawrinka and France’s Richard Gasquet by not even 100 points. A sticky situation indeed for the nearly unflappable Federer.
Federer needs a good showing in Shanghai to keep his chances alive. While he is expected to meet Djokovic in the quarters, nothing is certain anymore with Federer who has lost early and often this season despite being the favorite in nearly all of his matches. These losses, including an unexpected early exit at Wimbledon, have made Federer the subject of an endless debate on if his storied career is coming to an end sooner than expected. At age 32, Federer keeps reiterating that he enjoys competing and has no plans to stop. But it’s the uncertainty of Federer’s reign as one of the sport’s greatest champions that continues to generate more headlines and conversation, even as Djokovic and Nadal, fresh off of their 38th meeting in the Beijing finals, add even more chapters to their engaging rivalry.
He may be playing the role of the sport’s ambassador in Shanghai, but Roger Federer is not ready to make it his full-time job just yet. How he fares not only during the main event this week, but in upcoming tournaments in the next few months, could well determine if the man many consider the greatest ever to play the game continues to be viewed as the sport’s once, and, perhaps, future king again.