Five thoughts on Cincinnati.
While many in the tennis community spent the week speculating about the long-term implications of Rafa Nadal’s injury-related withdrawal from the US Open, most of the world’s top players gathered in America’s heartland.
1. Ohio: where the rubber meets the road. In any year, the Western & Southern Open is in a tough spot. By this point in the season, tennis bodies have suffered the wear and tear of competition on three surfaces and multiple continents over eight months. The top players, who often skip the smaller US hard-court tournaments in July, have generally made their North American debut in Canada the previous week. And the final Slam of the season looms large over this quarter of the calendar. Added to the existing challenges this year is the rapid transition players had to make from the extended grass-court season – as well as the additional physical and emotional demands – of the Olympics. Given all of this, it was little surprise to see players dropping early this week: some from injuries sustained in recent weeks, others from heat-related dehydration or general fatigue, a few with a stomach virus, and still others (hoping to recover strength in time for the US Open) with precautionary pull-outs. Nevertheless, we saw some familiar faces on the men’s side: three out of the four players who appeared in the medal rounds in London made it to the final weekend in Cincy, with Stan Wawrinka taking the spot vacated by Andy Murray.
2. New and Improved. The tournament site in Mason, Ohio has seen significant renovations over the past three years, the results of which are getting rave reviews from fans, media, and players alike. Now in the 114th year of its history and its second as a combined ATP/WTA event, the tournament needed modernizing as well as expanding to accommodate a larger field. Six new courts, more various & higher-quality food options (from made-to-order sushi rolls to Skyline Chili, a local favorite), and ample green and shady places for fans to relax are just a few of the improvements on site. In addition to making sure the venue retains a fan-friendly intimacy even as it increases in size, the tournament has taken care of its highest profile visitors, upgrading both locker rooms and player dining facilities. According to men’s second seed Novak Djoković, such changes are welcome: “The reaction of the players is positive. It’s a good thing.” It also can’t hurt that those in the main draw get to see the USA in a Chevrolet, thanks to tournament sponsors.
3. The Sisters Williams. Following her shocking first-round exit from Roland Garros, Serena Williams has been on a tear, winning titles at Wimbledon, Stanford, and the Olympics in rapid succession and dominant form. Coming into North American season with a 17-match winning streak, Serena was the clear favorite on the women’s side, especially after the withdrawal of top seeds Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.
However, it is Venus who took centre stage in Cincinnati, making it a round further in the tournament than her younger sister and proving that she is still more than capable of playing relevant tennis. Williams ended 2011 ranked outside the top 100 for the first time in 15 years, after missing almost all of the season due to her struggle with Sjögren’s Syndrome. Thus, Saturday’s match against Li Na, her first WTA semifinal of the year, represents a major accomplishment. Yet Williams is not satisfied with this progress. Asked why she continued to fight in the third set, despite having a back injury that hampered her serving, Venus replied, “Because I like to live life with no regrets. I don’t want look back and feel like I gave up or say I could have done this or that. That’s not me. I wanted to go the very end and at least know that maybe I missed some shots or maybe I wasn’t feeling my best, but I gave it all.”
4. Break, then consolidate. If 2011 was a break-out season for Angelique Kerber, who reached her first Slam semifinal at the US Open and ended the year with a career-high rank of 32, 2012 has seen the consolidation of her game. All seven of her career wins against top-ten opponents have come this year, along with her first WTA titles (Paris and Copenhagen) and her meteoric rise through the rankings. Her 53 wins are the most of any WTA player this year and whether she beats Li Na in Sunday’s final or not, she must be considered a serious threat in New York.
5. And then there were two. At the beginning of the week, there were a number of exciting prospects and intriguing questions on men’s side, most of which receded quietly into the background as Saturday’s semifinals progressed. Anyone wondering how Andy Murray would do after his triumph at the Olympics will have to wait another ten days at least, as will those intent on seeing Miloš Raonić’s big breakthrough or on determining whether Juan Martin Del Potro will return to the very top of men’s tennis. Instead, we find ourselves in familiar territory: Cincy will be the 16th consecutive Masters 1000 tournament won by a member of “the big four.”
After Roger Federer and Novak Djoković square off for the 28th time today, one of them will walk away with not only prize money, pottery, and points but also a little piece of history. If Federer triumphs, he will become the first five-time winner of the men’s singles title in Cincinnati. If Djoković extends his mini-streak (15 hard-court wins, dating back to March), he will not only collect his first trophy in Ohio but also move one step closer to having won all nine of the Masters Series titles. How important is this match as a predictor for the big showdown in New York? We’ll let Federer have the last word on his first hard-court encounter with Djoković in almost a year: “I guess it will be helpful to win, but then again, it’s not going to decide the outcome of the US Open. We’re on opposite sides of the draw… and might not even play each other.”