Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The 2005 Tennis Masters Cup will be staged next week in Shanghai, with "The Maestro," Roger Federer, seeking a third straight championship.
Federer is the reigning two-time Masters Cup champion, having claimed the title in Houston in each of the last two years and posted a flawless 10-0 mark in the process. He's an awesome 13-1 at the event since making his debut in the elite eight-man tournament in 2002 and last year became the first player since the great Ivan Lendl in 1986-87 to claim back-to-back Masters Cup titles without losing a match.
The world No. 1 Federer is an astounding 77-3 this season, with 11 titles, including Wimbledon and U.S. Open crowns. The mighty Swiss has won three straight Wimbledons and the last two U.S. Opens on his way to securing six of the last 10 Grand Slams.
Roger Federer stands in front of the stunning Qi Zhong Stadium.
Federer has been idle since the first week of October, as he's been nursing an ankle injury. On court, he's won his last five events and is riding a scorching 31-match winning streak.
So, can anyone challenge the Fed indoors at the spanking-new Qi Zhong Stadium?
Well, there are seven other men in the field, including Spanish sensation Rafael "Raging Bull" Nadal and U.S. Open finalist Andre Agassi.
The world No. 2 Nadal is the reigning French Open champ, captured 11 titles this season and leads the ATP with 79 match wins in 2005. And the 19-year-old star, who will make his Masters Cup debut in Shanghai, is 2-1 lifetime against Federer, including a semifinal victory against the sublime Swiss at Roland Garros this past spring.
I'd say contender.
FYI, Nadal (4) and Federer (4) accounted for eight of the nine Masters Series titles this year and also combined to win three of the four majors.
Agassi will seek his first Masters Cup title since 1990, the year he captured his only championship at this lucrative tourney. He's been the runner-up on three other occasions, including 2003 against Federer in Houston.
The 35-year-old Agassi is the oldest player to qualify for this event since Jimmy Connors turned the trick at the same age in 1987. Agassi will make his 13th appearance in the tournament (he qualified in 1995, but withdrew because of an injury), eclipsing Ivan Lendl's record of 12 trips.
A rusty Agassi looks like a long-shot in Shanghai, having failed to play any tennis since his U.S. Open loss against the Fed. And the ageless American is 3-8 lifetime versus Federer, with all eight losses coming in their last eight encounters.
A pair of superstars pulled out of the prestigious Masters Cup this week, as Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick and last year's Masters Cup runner-up Lleyton Hewitt announced their disappointing withdrawals.
Roddick bailed due to a lower back injury suffered last week in Paris, where he lost to hot Croat Ivan Ljubicic in a semifinal affair. But at least now the massive-serving former world No. 1 American doesn't have to worry about clashing with Federer, who is a commanding 10-1 lifetime against Roddick, including wins in their last six matchups, two of which were Wimbledon finals.
Roddick reached the Masters Cup semis each of the last two years in Houston.
The Australian Open runner-up Hewitt withdrew from Shanghai due to his impending fatherhood. The fiery Aussie and his wife, Aussie soap star Bec Cartwright, are expecting their first child within the next two weeks.
The former world No. 1 Hewitt captured the Masters Cup back-to-back in 2001 and 2002, as he and Federer have accounted for the last four titles at the event.
Injured 2005 Aussie Open champ Marat Safin will also not be on hand in Shanghai, which last hosted this tournament in 2002.
The Shanghai field will also feature speedy Argentine Guillermo Coria, gritty Russian Masters Cup rookie Nikolay Davydenko, the surging Ljubicic, Hewitt's replacement Gaston Gaudio of Argentina and yet another Argentine, David Nalbandian, who joined the field when A-Rod dropped out. Gaudio was last year's French Open champ, while Coria was the '04 Roland Garros runner-up.
The big-hitting Ljubicic was last week's runner-up to rising Czech Tomas Berdych at the Paris Masters and has won 20 of his last 23 matches, including titles in France and Austria. He also reached a final at the Madrid Masters last month before losing to the excitable Nadal.
Note: Ljubicic, who will also be making his Masters Cup debut, leads the ATP with 29 indoor victories this season.
The '05 Tennis Masters Cup will commence this coming Sunday and conclude the following Sunday in China. The first six days will feature round-robin action before the semifinals and final are staged next weekend.
A four-player "Red Group" will feature Federer, Coria, Ljubicic and Nalbandian, while the "Gold Group" will boast Nadal, Agassi, Davydenko and Gaudio.
FYI, the stunning Qi Zhong Stadium is a futuristic 15,000-seat facility that features an eight-piece magnolia roof that will be closed throughout the $4.45 million competition.
The Masters Cup marks the final event on the ATP's '05 calendar.