It is easy for Roger Federer to be sorely disappointed about his Shanghai Masters campaign. Novak Djokovic was out. Federer was the only man left to uphold the Big 3 banner in China.
Typically, when at least two of the Big 3 are gathered at a tournament, at least one player makes the semifinals. If he had reached the semifinals, Federer would have had a great chance at reaching the final and playing for his 103rd career trophy.
With Basel — always a good chance for a championship — coming up a in a few weeks, Federer could have positioned himself to end 2019 with 104 titles, putting him within legitimate striking distance of Jimmy Connors’ mythical 109 figure.
Failing to make his way to the victory stand — and at least to the final, which would have given him a points pickup from last year’s semifinal result — carries a degree of pain for Federer, whose upper back pains in New York sabotaged yet another cursed U.S. Open trip.
Federer, the man with the charmed life, has been brutally unlucky the past few months. Such is the contradiction of his tennis journey.
Speaking of contradictions, however: If there was one man Federer could lose to in Shanghai and still smile about the result when it was all over, it was surely Alexander Zverev.
The admiration Zverev has for Federer is open and profound. Federer’s desire to see Zverev succeed is also clear and unmistakable. One doesn’t have to be a fan of either player (or both) to see this.
Zverev looked up to Federer from a very early age. Federer has reciprocated the attention with generous servings of advice and support.
While Federer was personally frustrated during Friday’s quarterfinal, he had a warm smile for Zverev at the net when the match ended. A part of him surely was happy that Zverev pulled himself out of a prolonged rut and returned to the positive tennis the German is always capable of producing.
Yes, Zverev now figures to be a headache for Federer if they meet in the near future, most likely at the ATP Finals if they get drawn into the same group. This is something I and other tennis pundits were not ready to say at the U.S. Open or Wimbledon, but now, it is a point of widespread agreement.
That could be bad news for Federer… but think about how it could benefit him as well.
Unless Dominic Thiem goes absolutely crazy and wins both Bercy and the ATP Finals (or some other acts of God occur), Roger Federer will be seeded No. 3 or 4 at the 2020 Australian Open. He will not be a top-two seed barring an injury to Djokovic or Nadal.
This means Federer will probably have to go through Novak or Rafa in the semis in order to win another major title (unless he gets the No. 2 seed at Wimbledon AND avoids a Big 3 opponent in the semis, but that is way too far down the line to predict).
What could help Federer at a major in 2020?
You know what’s coming. You know what I am about to say next, right?
Zverev (or Stefanos Tsitsipas) picking off Djokovic or Nadal in a quarterfinal.
Of course, Federer didn’t plan this in Shanghai. Of course he wanted to beat Zverev and bag title No. 103.
Yet, if it turns out in the course of time (let’s wait until January in Melbourne to find out) that Federer has empowered Zverev to take on the elites, it could be just the thing to shake up the tour in 2020… and give Federer the opening he might need.
If Zverev becomes the new Del Potro — the big man capable of picking off a Big 3 opponent when all cylinders are firing — Federer might suffer in some spots, but he might benefit in others.
Such is the intrigue surrounding Federer, and the tour at large, as we head to Bercy, the ATP Finals, and then Australia.
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