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Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Masters Cup debutants out to prove themselves

By Sandra Harwitt
Special to ESPN.com

Four Points

As it turned out, this year's Tennis Masters Cup ended up as a split draw -- four familiar faces returning to the season-ending grand stage and four players making their debuts at the tournament.

Roger Federer and Andy Roddick -- two Tennis Masters Cup regulars -- are not surprised to see newcomers Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon join their ranks.

In Federer's words, "I definitely think the younger players are making their moves. They've made their move, and now they have to prove themselves next year, which is the interesting part."

And in Roddick's opinion, "It's a natural rollover consistent to years past."

Here's how the debutants stack up:

Murray magic makes the mark
Murray is one 21-year-old who is still pinching himself in response to his fabulous breakthrough season. And the British public is also pinching itself, realizing Murray could be the guy to potentially become the first British citizen to win a Grand Slam title since Fred Perry captured the 1936 U.S. Nationals. Murray, who reached his first Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open this year, considers his Tennis Masters Cup berth a privilege: "Just to be around all the top players in the world is a very nice feeling, because this is sort of like a reward for the season you've had." Noted as an intense competitor, Murray insists he entered this week with no pressure to succeed. "It's been a great season for me," he said. "I'm a little bit tired. If I play my best and lose all my matches, I'll be happy."

Tsonga

Andrew Wong/Getty Images

Despite an injury-plagued season derailing his progress, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga reached his solitary Masters Cup.

Tsonga tough but not tough enough
Tsonga quickly became a Shanghai favorite Sunday when he rebounded from 5-2 down in the third set to Nikolay Davydenko in his first Masters Cup match. But after forcing a tiebreaker, Tsonga couldn't even win a point. Tsonga didn't want to credit Davydenko's experience for the victory, choosing to point out that the Russian simply played better tennis at crunch time. But in the end, Tsonga agreed he lost his focus. And what caused Tsonga to lose his focus? Apparently it comes down to the towel. "I lost a lot of energy because today when I ask for my towel, my towel didn't come," he said. "When I ask for a ball, the ball didn't come. Sometimes I have to take my towel alone. So for me it's maybe 10 meters more. But if you count at the end of the match, it's like one kilometer."

Del Potro joins the TMC party
Del Potro, he of the sore toe here in Shanghai, offered an honest assessment of his jittery foray into the TMC after losing to Novak Djokovic 7-5, 6-3: "I started the match a little nervous, but it's normal. I never play the Masters." But Del Potro believes he's gained a lot of confidence from his successful season. Nevertheless, the humble 20-year-old, who moves on from here to the Davis Cup final against Spain in Argentina, still seems in shock at how he won four consecutive titles this summer in five final appearances. "I don't know what happened in this summer," he said. "[It's] difficult to explain because it's a little crazy, you know. In three months I won a lot of matches, a lot of tournaments. Now I have a lot of confidence." But the confidence isn't boiling over into high expectations in Shanghai. "I need to be relaxed and just enjoy this moment. I did a great season so I don't expect any more for this year," he said.

Simon sends another winning message
Simon initially was packing his bags to come to Shanghai as the alternate. But then Rafael Nadal pulled out, and the Frenchman was in the mix. "It's not a dream, but this is a great experience for me against the best players of the world," Simon said. "I've had a very, very good season and I've improved and in the top 10. It's good for my tennis, good for my experience and good for me looking ahead to next year." And he certainly proved he belonged in the elite eight when he handled Federer for the second time this year in a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 opening match on Monday. Simon now holds a surprising 2-0 record against Federer, having also taken their first match, also a three-set encounter, at the Masters Series event in Toronto this summer. After a suggestion that his first victory over Federer might have been lucky, he was asked to sum up his second upset of the great Swiss. The smiling Simon quipped, "A second accident?" According to Federer, who came to Shanghai with a backache but says he feels fine, Simon offers up a "unique" style of play, and that this encounter was very "similar" to their last outing.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

The financial picture

Federer

While tennis officials are doing their best to keep a stiff upper lip as to how the current world financial crunch might affect the sport, two key players in the game weighed in with their thoughts regarding the dollars and cents of it all.

Roddick has clearly given the world economy, as it relates to tennis, some thought: "Obviously, you can see how it's affecting things as you can see with our Davis Cup team losing AIG [as a sponsor] and our not having a sponsor right now. But our problems are a lot better than someone who's not worrying about whether they have AIG on their sleeve; they're worrying about whether they can get enough gas and get enough food on the table. In the grand scheme of things I'm worried, but either way, at the end of the day if we take a little bit of a hit, we're pretty blessed and lucky."

Federer also looked at the financial profile of the sport, adding a personal perspective: "It's something that is not good. It really affects us all, like I'm sure there aren't as many journalists [in Shanghai] as usual. It goes all the way down. But I'm very fortunate to have long-term partnerships with four or five sponsors, which is something I really appreciate. … These are rough times, and I think this is where the players need to show support and do more than they've done before to help the tour, help the media, just to make it a great tour."

Who's your coach?

Roddick

Though rumors are swirling that Roddick might be looking toward Paul Annacone, the former coach of Pete Sampras and a guy currently contracted to the British Lawn Tennis Association, as his next coach, the top American isn't offering specifics. "I don't know," Roddick said when asked who will be his new coach. "I'm putting some thought into it and looking at a few people. There's a few calls to be made after here and then a decision will be made after that. I'm here with [trainer Doug Spreen]." Roddick said his brother, John, who was his most recent traveling coach, is not missing the tour and is "enjoying being at home with his wife."

Practically a native

Djokovic

Djokovic tries to immerse himself into the local culture wherever he goes on tour, and he seems to have a great understanding of China. Tennis fans stand outside the player hotel to see their favorite players, and Djokovic seems to have a large percentage of that population -- some who are holding Serbian flags. And many of them don't arrive empty-handed. "I get presents every day I get back to the hotel," Djokovic said. "It's very nice of them." Djokovic also attempts to be something of a linguist on tour, saying, "I'm attracted by languages worldwide, so I try wherever I go to learn a couple of words."

Quote of the week

Roddick

"I'd like to meet my fiancée [model Brooklyn Decker] at home right now," said Roddick, when asked what famous person he would most like to be able to meet.