Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Reflections from the ATP Western & Southern Masters in Cincinnati

Nadal lay downs a marker for the US Open

After Rafael Nadal's shocking first round exit at Wimbledon, I was one amongst many who doubted Rafa would be successful on the faster surfaces of the summer hard court season in North America. Turns out not only did Rafa take a month to solve all his fitness issues, he has also developed a more aggressive game for the US Open Series.

Nadal's dominance this year is a testament to his desire to always improve and an enduring will to win in an era where sportsmen are becoming increasingly complacent as bank balances reach a million for half a year of good work.

For my money, I still believe Nadal can be vulnerable to a top player who sustains an attacking game on hard courts, as witnessed in the final against John Isner, and for a set each by Roger Federer and Grigor Dimitrov. However, sustain is the operative word, because Nadal always hangs in, and the moment an opponent's level drops, its pretty much game over. It's also become increasingly hard to break Nadal this summer, as the trajectory of his serve is flatter and faster especially out wide on the ad court, corresponding with the trajectory of his form, which within the space of two weeks has rapidly made him the favourite for the US Open.

John Isner

Isner would have been happy enough just to beat Richard Gasquet and Milos Raonic in the third and fourth round respectively. That he then beat Novak Djokovic in a tight three-set match in the quarterfinals and followed it up by beating Juan Martin Del Potro from match point down in the semifinals, bordered on the surreal.

In the final against Nadal, Isner played at a level that surely would have been good enough to beat any other player in the world. Isner served like a dream as he usually does, and for what must surely be a first, Nadal won without breaking his opponents serve even once. What I liked about Isner's display the most however, was that he didn't hesitate to take risks, often finishing points early with a big forehand and putting pressure on Nadal by coming to the net often.

Isner now heads into the US Open with a seeding guaranteed in the top 16, and with his lethal serve and unmatched prowess in tie-breaks, he will be an opponent that many would look to avoid in the draw. That being said, I hope the likeable American didn't peak too soon, as the biggest challenge for players behind the top eight is usually sustaining the form of a great week like Isner had in Cincinnati into the next tournament, especially when the transition involves best-of-five sets tennis at a grand slam.

Djokovic, Murray and Federer


Over the course of the 2011 and 2012 tennis seasons, Djokovic developed an unparalleled appetite for winning tournaments, proving himself to be the ultimate competitor, and possibly possessing even greater determination than Nadal. However, after winning the Australia Open to start this year, and then impressively becoming the first man to beat Nadal in Monte Carlo, the world number one has had to digest some tough losses. The semifinal defeat to Nadal at Roland Garros, so quickly followed by defeat in the Wimbledon final to Andy Murray, must have taken an emotional toll. Djokovic looked good in both Montreal and Cincinnati before losing two tough matches to Nadal and Isner respectively. If Djokovic wants to win the US Open he has to recall his vital ability to win tough matches from insurmountable situations.

Andy Murray also has to quickly overcome the vast amounts of emotional energy spent to become the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years, if he wants to defend his US Open title. To be fair, Murray can at times appear to be off the boil during Masters Series tournaments before a grand slam, and its highly likely that if he were to meet Ernests Gulbis or Tomas Berdych in New York, the Scotsman will prevail on the bigger occasion. It's perplexing to think Murray has been placed third favourite behind Nadal and Djokovic, considering he has reached the finals of the last four grand slams he has played in and won two of them.

Roger Federer displayed some of his best tennis this year in Cincinnati. The former world number one admitted to doing the hard yards and tweaking his game in the aftermath of his shock loss at Wimbledon. The backhand was on fire in the three matches he played, and for two sets against Nadal in the quarterfinals, the standard of tennis reminded everyone of how their matches built the pre-eminent rivalry of the modern era. If Federer sticks to the attacking style of play that he displayed at the Western & Southern Open, he should be able to overwhelm most opponents at Flushing Meadows, although beating any of the top three over five sets would be asking too much.

The best of the rest

Juan Martin Del Potro started off the US Open series well by winning Washington, but followed it up with two rather perplexing weeks of tennis in Montreal and Cincinnati. On his day, Del Potro is clearly the best player after the top four, and if anyone outside that esteemed quartet is going to win a grand slam in the next few years, it is the Argentine. However, his desire and motivation have to be questioned after he threw away a set that he was primed to win against Milos Raonic in Montreal, and then imploded after missing a match point against Isner in Cincinnati. For all his talent, if the going gets tough, Del Potro is susceptible to an upset in New York.

David Ferrer seems to have gone completely off the boil since Wimbledon, losing to Alexandr Dolgopolov and Dmitry Tursunov in Montreal and Cincinnati respectively. Ferrer is yet another player who invested a lot of effort in the European season, and the faster courts of the US have historically not been kind to him. That leaves Berdych as the best placed challenger to the top four, and if the world number six maintains consistency, a repeat of his run to the semis last year isn't out of the question.

Milos Raonic should be looking to make his first quarter final at a grand slam after making the finals in Montreal. The serve is key for the young Canadian, though the temperament is a little suspect. If Raonic controls the mental aspect of his game, there is no reason why he can't be as dangerous an opponent as Isner. Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet will delight fans with their artistry, but are unlikely to trouble the best. The same applies to veteran Tommy Haas who will look to make another deep run, while the jokers in the pack are big serving Jerzy Janowicz and Grigor Dimitrov, with many in the tennis world hoping the latter finally announces himself at a grand slam with a strong performance at the US Open.
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