We’ve seen two utterly fascinating weeks of North American hardcourt tennis since the world’s best (minus Rafael Nadal, Juan Martin del Potro, and Li Na, among others) came to Canada in early August.
Tour action continues this week in New Haven (Connecticut) and Winston-Salem (North Carolina). Moreover, a few of the big names on the WTA Tour — Simona Halep, Petra Kvitova, Eugenie Bouchard, and Caroline Wozniacki — will be playing in New Haven. Yet, the Canada-Cincinnati fortnight represents the heart of the North American hardcourt summer. It sets the stage for the U.S. Open, the final major tournament of the calendar year. When Cincinnati brings the WTA and ATP together for this longstanding combined event, the tennis community puts on the identity of Janus, looking back to Canada for answers, and looking forward to New York with fresh questions.
As we leave Cincinnati and prepare for the Big Apple (all while seeing how the top four women handle a loaded New Haven field), where does the tennis world stand?
ROGER FEDERER: EARNING PRAISE THAT’S HYPERBOLE-FREE
A 33-year-old man won a Masters tournament on Sunday in Cincinnati. He beat a 32-year-old man for the title. Another 32-year-old reached the semifinals. Yes, you can be in your early 30s and win Masters-level tennis matches, which means that Roger Federer’s triumph, his sixth in Cincinnati, was not an act of God or a feat worth the highest, most excited hosannahs.
Moreover, Ken Rosewall made both the 1974 Wimbledon and U.S. Open finals at age 39 (!!!). It’s true that much older men have forged more remarkable feats on court. What Federer is doing at 33 years and 10 days of age is not quite as miraculous as Jesus turning water into wine or multiplying the loaves and fishes. There’s your obligatory caution against overly hyperbolic praise of Old (tennis) Man Roger, who just keeps rollin’ along.
However… what Federer is doing at 33 isn’t exactly normal, either.
Here’s ATP stats guru Greg Sharko on Federer, with the correct year being 1991 and not ’81:
— Greg Sharko (@SharkoTennis) August 17, 2014
Federer has 49 match wins and eight finals to his credit in 2014, with three titles. He hasn’t won a major, but his week-to-week consistency is right there with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Andy Murray is a man in search of his game, Nadal has been dealing with an injury, and Djokovic appears to be coping with transitions to married life and impending fatherhood (though that’s pure speculation concerning his pair of early flame-outs in Canada and Cincinnati). Those are three reasons which certainly help explain Federer’s strong fortnight in North America. However, players can only play what (and who) lies in front of them, and when those players lose matches they expect to win, (cough, cough, Stan Wawrinka against Julien Benneteau in the Cincy quarters, cough, cough), they get shredded.
Federer didn’t have to suffer that fate.
His accomplishment might be diminished in the eyes of some, given the travails of the other members of “The Big Four,” but taking care of business is something that can’t be knocked. Moreover, Federer’s ability to go the distance in both Canada and Cincinnati (losing the first final and winning the second) is impressive in light of the lack of a week off between the two events, not to mention the fact that the Swiss had a short turnaround between a nighttime semifinal and an afternoon final in both tournaments. Federer appeared to be dragging in the second set of the Cincinnati final against David Ferrer, but a rejuvenated serve steered him through the third set and on to the finish line.
Federer’s tennis these past two weeks has not been overly sublime, crisp or elegant — not with the regularity and full-flight flow of his halcyon days — but it was airtight in every crunch-time moment in Ohio. If Federer continues to be this resourceful, and this able to shrug off the occasional bad set in New York, he should do well.
SERENA WILLIAMS: REDISCOVERED RESILIENCE
Do you recall Serena Williams’s three-set loss to Alize Cornet at Wimbledon? One of tennis’s greatest champions and the best female player of the 21st century suffered a “come-from-ahead” defeat. She controlled the first set of that match but then faltered in the second. Instead of regrouping in the third, she continued to lack answers and took wrong turns in crucial moments.
In Canada and especially this past week in Cincinnati, Serena became a third-set problem-solver again.
In each tournament, she turned back a strong performance from a renewed Caroline Wozniacki, winning a third set by a narrow margin. Wozniacki is no longer the player who, for several years on tour, would normally wait for an opponent’s mistakes. Wozniacki is a much more aggressive player now, hitting a much bigger and more proactive forehand earlier in rallies. Serena had to contend with that power and change of direction in the Montreal quarterfinals and, this past Saturday, the Cincinnati semifinals. Serena’s ability to stay the course, riding out several breaks of her own serve against Wozniacki’s formidable return game, should mean more for her confidence than her Sunday demolition of a tired Ana Ivanovic in the Cincinnati final.
A brief word about the Williams-Ivanovic final:
Ivanovic played a late (and long) nighttime semifinal on Saturday against Maria Sharapova (more on that in a bit), due to the fact that Cincinnati scheduled split-session semifinals this year for both the women and the men, a TV-friendly move that’s terribly hostile to players. If Cincinnati affirmed one reality about tournament scheduling, it is that semifinals should be staged in one session, back to back, not in separate sessions. It is hard to imagine that if Serena played a very late match and Ivanovic had the early-afternoon slot on Saturday, this same scoreline (6-4, 6-1) would have emerged. This is why Serena’s win over Wozniacki on Saturday carries more weight heading to New York (albeit as a matter of opinion, not fact).
As far as Serena’s prospects at the U.S. Open are concerned, the first priority for her is to rest her back, which stiffened up against Wozniacki and limited the effectiveness of Serena’s lethal first serve, which — in 2014 — has not been the rock of stability it proved to be in previous major tournaments. If Serena’s serve is there, feeding her stacks of cheap points and highly valuable confidence, she can be seen as the best player in the field. If her serve comes and goes — as has been the case in Australia, Paris and Wimbledon — she could face a year without a single major title. Being healthy sits at the root of all that is possible for Serena in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
IVANOVIC-SHARAPOVA: CINCINNATI’S ENDURING MEMORY
It was the kind of moment which some find uproariously entertaining and others view as unpardonably nasty. Great television and awful manners were brought together, creating an internet firestorm.
Tennis diehards, if they didn’t watch Saturday night’s WTA semifinal between Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova on live television (or streaming), certainly found out on Sunday morning about the request heard ’round the world. What was the request, you ask?
For full context on Maria Sharapova’s sudden interest in another player’s health, not to mention other classically soap-operatic elements from Ivanovic’s draining three-set win on Saturday, check out this superb overview by Andrew Eccles of The Changeover.
The win represents a deeply satisfying triumph for Ivanovic, who clearly seemed to be a likely loser once she allowed a 6-2, 4-0 lead to slip through her fingers, leading to a third set against one of the best third-set players in recent WTA memory. Ivanovic busted a lot of narrative themes and expectations by coming back and winning the third set. For this, she should be extremely happy with her week in Cincinnati.
As for the U.S. Open, though, Ivanovic is a player who has been — no, this is not too severe a reading of her situation — psyched out by the majors and the pressure they bring. Sharapova and Simona Halep (the player Sharapova defeated in a riveting Friday quarterfinal in Cincinnati) are the two best bets to win the U.S. Open if Serena can’t do the job.
FINAL THOUGHTS: THE REST OF THE FIELD
More will be written about the U.S. Open later this week, as Attacking The Net begins to cover the year’s last major. For the ATP, it has to be said that a preview of the U.S. Open can’t really be written in full until Rafael Nadal decides whether to play in the event or not. That decision will come as the week progresses. Yet, it can be said right now that Cincinnati has left both the WTA and ATP in very uncertain states heading to New York. Complete chaos could easily reign in both halves of the tournament.
On the WTA side of things, Simona Halep was too passive in her loss to Sharapova on Friday. Yes, Halep skipped Montreal because she played Bucharest (in her native land, Romania) the week after Wimbledon. She wanted the extra week of rest in August and is playing New Haven, as mentioned earlier. However, even if you were to use Halep’s lack of match play as a reason for her loss to Sharapova, it’s a bit concerning to see Halep try to come over the ball at times just to slow down the pace of a match. Sharapova leaked errors early in that contest, and Halep — though not quite playing poorly — verily ceded the initiative to her opponent. That can’t continue in New York. If Halep plays Sharapova again, the burden of proof will lie with Halep, not Sharapova, even though Sharapova’s only true comfort zone these days exists on clay.
Elsewhere in the WTA, Cincinnati has established Wozniacki — a semifinalist — as a legitimate contender in New York, though not on the same level as Serena. Cincinnati did expose Petra Kvitova as a player who is not ready to handle the cluttered, clamorous, changing conditions of the U.S. Open. However, if Kvitova can be written off for this tournament, Agnieszka Radwanska — who backed up her Toronto title with a solid quarterfinalist result in Cincinnati — has to be seen as a contender. Serena and rival Victoria Azarenka might not tower over the field the way they have at past U.S. Opens, but if there isn’t an obvious favorite, the tradeoff for that is increased depth and a round of 16 that should be extremely competitive on Sunday and Monday of Labor Day weekend (Aug. 31-Sept. 1).
As for the ATP, Novak Djokovic has no business being considered a U.S. Open favorite… until you look at all the alternatives.
Yes, it makes little sense on the surface to call Novak Djokovic the favorite in New York, given that his head seemed to be in another place in both Canada and Cincinnati. When Djokovic lost, 2 and 2, in the round of 16 in Toronto to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the natural reaction for many tennis fans and observers was, “Well, he wants to win Cincinnati, the one Masters title that has eluded him. What did he have to prove in Toronto, anyway? He’ll sort things out.”
Well, Djokovic didn’t sort things out in Cincinnati. More to the point, he didn’t come close, losing in straights to Tommy Robredo in the round of 16 on Thursday. His return game is AWOL and his backhand lies in shambles. The player who defeated Federer in a high-quality Wimbledon final is nowhere to be seen. Naturally, this kind of lead-up to the Open, with minimal match play, is not conducive to a title.
Yet… what else is there?
Stan Wawrinka got demolished by Julien Benneteau in the last two sets of Friday afternoon’s early quarterfinal. Wawrinka did not go deep in Toronto, so this Cincinnati disappearing act, reminiscent of how he bowed out of Roland Garros to Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, points to an inconsistent and ultimately unsuccessful Open for the Swiss. Some will quite reasonably note that Wawrinka was not productive in last year’s Canada-Cincinnati swing, only to then make the semis in New York and stretch Djokovic deep into a fifth set. That’s true, and it’s a fair point. Yet, there’s one basic difference between August of 2013 and August of 2014: Wawrinka is a marked man now.
Failing to show that he can absorb the best fastball of lower-ranked opponents in Canada and Ohio is a hugely discouraging sign in advance of the Open. Roger Federer simply hopes that Wawrinka’s confidence won’t be hijacked for the just-around-the-corner Davis Cup semifinals against Italy in September.
Andy Murray is, quite simply, lost at sea. He blew a 3-0 third-set lead to Tsonga in the Toronto quarterfinals. In the Cincinnati quarters, he lost a 4-1 second-set lead to Federer. It’s not just that Murray is losing before semifinals of tournaments, or that he’s losing to top players. Those things happen. What’s alarming is how Murray is losing, and that these patterns are recurring. It is true that the first week of a major has been known to allow a great player (which Murray is — not on the same plane as the Big Three, but still genuinely great) to play his way into form. That is always a possibility with Murray. However, his confidence is so deeply wounded that anything beyond a quarterfinal showing in New York would rate as a noticeable surprise. An appearance in the final would not quite be shocking, but highly unexpected? Yes.
Tomas Berdych? He has endured an absolutely brutal summer, one which included a premature exit at the ATP 500 event in Washington, D.C., as well. He’s not ready to go deep in New York.
David Ferrer actually looks like a much better bet than anyone would have thought a month ago. Ferrer had been slogging through a miserable year, but after reaching the final in Cincinnati, the path for a Ferrer final (if not a championship) in New York is clear: If members of the Big Three stumble, and they all realistically could, Ferrer is the most proven member of the ATP Tour at beating everyone else. If he gets a bracket break, he could have a legitimate chance.
Milos Raonic? Federer once again exposed his lack of movement and return, as was the case in the Wimbledon semifinals. Is Raonic ready to beat Djokovic, Nadal or Federer in a best-of-five-set match? Probably not.
Grigor Dimitrov? He did battle the flu on the back end of Toronto, which might have carried into Cincinnati, but he should have expected to win at least a couple of matches in Ohio. Is he mentally strong enough to reach the semis or better at the Open?
The cupboard is pretty bare on the ATP side, if you ask me. Djokovic is struggling, but who — other than Federer and (if he enters the event) Nadal — has truly shown that he’s ready to claim a piece of history for himself?
That’s it for Cincinnati. Now, it’s on to the U.S. Open. Stay tuned later this week for more at Attacking The Net, starting with U.S. Open retrospectives and continuing with previews, including draw analysis.