As the tournament progresses, it challenges us to keep up with the evolving storylines — the sudden defeat of major players and the quiet emergence of those who have escaped notice, the silent assassins.
My day started on Court 3, a make-up match between the ninth seed Na LI (CHN), the first Grand Slam winner from China, and qualifier Johanna Larsson of Sweden, who, on the morning of this match, was celebrating her 24th birthday and in her debut here in Cincinnati.
Li has been in the spotlight, with two Slam finals last year, but at 30 years old, one has to wonder if she has peaked too late. She is six years older than her opponent, but today, it is best to focus on experience rather than age because she displays a potent blend of wisdom and execution as she forces her younger foe to work harder and harder for the points she wins on her serve, while Li cruises through her own service games. She breaks Larsson twice with surgically precise shot placement, moving Larsson around at will. When Li captures the first set 6-2, it is plain that she is firmly in command and using the match as practice because thanks to the suspension of play from the previous night, the winner here will end up playing again tonight.
Another holdover from the rain delay is the battle between Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (RUS), which was called with Pavlyuchenkova already up a set (6-4) on the number six seed and former number one player in the world.
By the time I settled into the stands, Wozniacki was down 4-3 in the second and Pavlyuchenkova held to take a 5-3 lead. The Russian woman looked like a pounding brawler, but a couple of points dispelled that misconception. Pavlyuchenkova tempered her obvious strength with well-placed balls that unerringly found line and corners of the court just beyond Wozniacki’s reach. A hold from the higher seed set up an opportunity for Pavlyuchenkova to serve out the match, much to the chagrin of the vocal fans on the Grandstand who possibly hoped to be able to catch a glimpse of Rory McIlroy later in the evening. Alas, it was not to be. Pavlyuchenkova slammed that book shut, earning a spot opposite Petra Kvitova to compete for a coveted semifinal match, where maybe the fans might join her cause.
Next up on the Grandstand, Venus Williams and the three-seed Samantha Stosur (AUS), the reigning US Open champion. Venus has had to exert a great deal of effort along the way and would probably appreciate an easier match here, but with the formidability of Stosur and her compact, punchy power that’s highly unlikely.
It is apparent though that Venus wants to be the aggressor, as she stands on top of the baseline for Stosur’s first serve and a foot inside on the second. This allows her to get the jump and force Stosur off-balance. An early break and a tough hold for Venus, followed by a quick hold and a break for Stosur, and any hope for a quick two-setter are completely out the window. Even though Venus breaks right back on her opponent’s next two service games and ends up taking the first set 6-2, something in the way Stosur carries herself says, this isn’t close to being over.
On Center Court, Novak Djokovic and Marin Cilic (CRO) have already completed a set, which Djokovic took 6-3. Djokovic has had a fairly easy path thus far, especially his previous match, which ended when Davydenko retired after losing the first set 6-0, before last night’s rain. Today, he is a cat toying with his well-contained prey. Cilic is definitely in a tight corner with his back to the wall because before fans can blink, Djokovic is serving for the match with a 5-2 lead and just like that, it’s over. The cat has gobbled his prey up.
Stosur forced Venus to go back and forth with her on their way to a second set tiebreak, which she seized 7-2, but then Venus immediately broke her in the first game of the third set. As Venus reaches 3-1, most thoughts start to drift to a possible fantasy match-up of the Williams sisters in the final. Serena is set to start on Center Court and has dominated her court appearances thus far.
Television coverage of the end of the Venus-Stosur match means that Serena and Angelique Kerber (GER) are forced to wait.
A gritty battle for the final set goes to Venus (6-4) and we are tantalizingly closer to the dream.
Joe Morgan handles the coin toss to determine who serves to start the Serena-Kerber match. Serena serves and promptly gets broken, although she does seem too bothered. Her shots were either just a bit long or subject to the fickle fate of bounces off the net cord, which she will certainly adjust to as the match progresses.
Kerber, a much shorter player with reasonable power, works on moving Serena around and capitalizing on her error-prone play. There are flashes of Serena’s gifts – games where her serve, one of the best in the women’s game, cannot be touched – but those moments are fleeting. Instead, we see a Serena who has trouble timing her shots, sending swinging volleys into the net that should have been clear and rousing winners. She ends points staring off at either where the winner should have fallen or confused by the absurdity of this predicament she found herself in.
She seemed to be wondering where the real Serena Williams was, and she wasn’t alone. The only person not asking that question was Kerber, who took the match from whoever happened to be standing there in Serena’s lime-accented attire.
Final score: 6-4, 6-4.
Cincinnati heats up, but it does little to slow down the fans eager to follow their favorites all over the grounds of the Open. Another day of racing between matches to catch the highlights as a scattered flurry of notable pairings dot the landscape.
Jumping right in, I head over to Court 9 for a look at two players I caught on Day 1. American wild card Sloane Stephens against fellow wild card Italian Camila Giorgi who took out Francesca Schiavone with relative ease. Both women seemed sharp and ready in the opening round and this match promised more of the same.
Thanks to early double faults, Stephens breaks Giorgi for a 2-1 lead. Both players are striking the ball exceptionally hard. After a Stephens hold, Giorgi loses her concentration for a moment – a swinging volley on a shot that was going to drop long – and that leads to another break and a request to talk things over with her coach.
Stephens keeps her head down and gets to 5-1, before Giorgi is able to hold again, but it matters little once Stephens holds at love for a 6-2 first set.
Another outer court beckons me. Shuai Peng of China battles Italian Roberta Vinci on Court 7. Peng displayed great discipline in taking out last year’s finalist Jelena Jankovic in a marathon match Monday night, but she had no worries today. By the time I arrived, she had just broken to take a 5-3 lead. A quick hold gave her the first set.
Once again, I found myself seated near her coach on the bleachers.
Peng breaks quickly in the second set for a 2-1 lead and then just handles business to capture the match at 6-4. The only weak link in her game seems to be an inability to secure net volleys. This may haunt her as she moves further into the tournament.
Back on Court 9, Stephens is up 5-1. As with her first match, she’s clicking and looks extremely poised on the court. While Peng has a slight crack in her armor, Stephens appears to be a bit more fortified and ready for another round or two here.
Both women have strong and vocal fan bases as well who are excited to go on with them.
The second round of matches for the morning feature our first glimpses at the top seeds of the tournament.
Questions have dominated the discussion about the number two seed Novak Djokovic, facing off against Italy’s Andreas Seppi, with many seeking to compare his standing this year to where he was a year ago. Last August, he suffered just his second loss up to that point here against Andy Murray in the final. It was a run for the ages and his win at the US Open capped off a three-out-of-four Grand Slams and a world number one ranking.
Of course, now we see how the wear and tear of a long tennis season along with the constant media scrutiny can chip away at the resolve of even the best players. This year, Djokovic has seemed far more mortal, while still having an enviable record – he earned another Australian Open and looks poised to defend his US Open title.
During his first match here, fans got to observe how a top player works himself into a match and a tournament. For a comparable sports analogy might be fitting to look to boxing and the early rounds where the boxers are getting their bearings, moving and punching, but not for points or power yet, more to settle their nerves before establishing their game plans.
Djokovic was loose and a bit free-swinging initially, but he found his range on serve and then focused on picking the right opportunity to pounce on Seppi, who gamely fought through a few tough service games, but held his own. By the first set tiebreak though, Djokovic scored the min-break he needed to win 7-4 and the inevitability began to creep in for Seppi.
Over on the Grandstand, the number four seed Petra Kvitova (CZE) ran into a strong challenge from Mona Barthel of Germany who wisely decided early on to play a safe return game because Kvitova started off quite error-prone. Down 5-1, Kvitova looked listless and luckless as shot after shot either sailed out or flew of the net cord or the side of her racket. She kept at it though and picked her way back into the set before finally falling 6-4, but the last couple of games showed that if she found her hard-hitting form, she might be able to punch her way back into the match.
Djokovic found the next gear quickly and jumped up to a 5-1 lead in the second set, but Seppi dug in for a hold to make it 5-2, forcing Djokovic to serve it out. The final point of the match came on a soft volley into the open court and with a gentle smile for the fans, Djokovic, the winner last weekend in Toronto, was ready to move on.
Kvitova apparently was ready to prove my assumption correct. She pounded shots at Barthel, hard and heavy body blows and knocked her down in the second set 6-2. The match really was looking like a pair of boxers, one using finesse, the other a power puncher, somehow going toe-to-toe.
On Center Court, Sam Querrey, the American wild card, was preparing to face off against the number three seed from Great Britain, Andy Murray, last year’s winner and thanks to his runner-up spot at Wimbledon and then his Olympic Gold against Roger Federer (a replay of the Wimbledon final), a man on a mission to shatter the glass ceiling keeping him from the rare air of the top three ranking in the world and Grand Slam glory.
As I mentioned while covering Querrey’s previous match, he’s got skill and form to spare but he hasn’t found the intangible that will take him to the next level consistently. While watching the first set of his match against Murray, I found myself comparing him to one of the competing interns on that season of the medical drama House, when Dr. House was trying to pick a new diagnostic team. A host of talent and knowledgeable doctors and specialist raced and clawed their way through challenges to land a spot and Querrey’s one of those in the hunt in tennis, but Murray, well, he’s a bit like Foreman (Omar Epps), a former team player who hangs around, but everyone knows he’s just not quite ready to take over for House (ever). Of course, he can out-diagnose any pesky intern, any day of the week.
And like a classic episode of House, it’s only a matter of time before the intern falls.
Kvitova has to grind it out in the third set because Barthel has the nerve to stand in the center of the ring and trade punches with her. They go back and forth and there’s something surprising about Barthel’s tenacity, her pesky spirit that gains depth as the match goes on.
But she slips up on her way to a possible tiebreak, losing the third set 7-5, and sadly the match. Has Kvitova gotten herself on track though?
Unforced errors kill Querrey (6-2, 6-4). All that time I spent coming up with the House analogy, Querrey was guessing and guessing wrong. If there really had been a patient on the table, they would have died repeatedly and their next of kin would have earned millions in medical malpractice.
After the more leisurely pace of the first day, which afforded me the opportunity to settle in for whole matches at a time, the second-day schedule presented quite a change right off the bat. As always, I find myself drawn to a few select players, in the early rounds, who don’t get the same level of attention as the top seeds but who might be sleepers.
Center Court launched with Venus Williams as a wild card facing the 12 seeded Maria Kirilenko (RUS). Williams, working her way back into form while recovering from illness, still seemed more than capable of handling Kirilenko and the first set, which she won 6-3, sent me off in search of other signs of life.
Court 9 played host to another American wild card, Sloane Stephens, who has attracted interest as a possible upstart in the Williams sisters mold. She’s a solid African-American player who has risen up through the U.S. system and has become one of the marketable role models for kids in the summer recreation center programs around the country.
Her match, against Tsvetana Pironkova (BUL), offered an up-close glimpse and she did not disappoint. Pironkova is a game competitor with second-week experience in the majors, but she lacks the power of the top players. She craftily uses finesse and movement to keep herself in points, but Stephens seized the opportunity and dispatched her handily (6-4, 6-1).
What was impressive about Stephens was the fact that she went in with a game plan and executed it flawlessly. She knew Pironkova’s weaknesses and attacked with power and pinpoint accuracy. Stephens looks strong and fit, although the comparisons to the Williams sisters seem forced. She’s not as tall as Venus or as strong as Serena. Physically, she’s a step removed from each of them, yet a good blend of their strengths. It remains to be seen if she will be able to harness her talents and catapult forward, but the potential is certainly there.
Back on Center Court, Venus was prepared to serve out the second set against Kirilenko, but a funny thing happened on the way to that forum. A few slips at net and erratic serving led to a tiebreak, which Kirilenko won (7-5) to force a third set.
The third was little more than a wake-up call for a snoozing Venus who definitely looked a bit more like an awakened giant. She took the match [6-3, 6-7 (7-5), 6-2] and enjoyed the full support and admiration of the fans on Center Court.
The fans would be on-hand to bolster the spirits of several others over the course of the day.
The second match on Center Court, between Andy Roddick and lucky loser Jeremy Chardy (FRA), appeared to be more red meat for the crowds. In the early going, Roddick used his booming serves to feed the frenzy, routinely registering aces in the 130-range before dropping the pace for a sneaky 110 mph kicker that completely froze his opponent.
Monday was a bit of a wash, and yes, I mean that literally. Unable to journey out during the daytime session, I braved rush hour traffic in order to catch the evening match-ups.
News trickled in from loyal colleagues as the afternoon progressed. Andy Murray felled by lucky loser, the Frenchman Jeremy Chardy who had already dispatched Andy Roddick. Unfortunately for him there are no other Andys in the draw. And Roger Federer was Roger Federer, making routine work of his opponent.
So I just knew the night would be worth the trip, right?
Novak Djokovic versus David Davydenko. I imagined that the Russian would force Djokovic to find his groove early. There would be no time for half-stepping against the veteran. But from the start, something was off with Davydenko. He wasn’t crisp and clean with no caffeine, although Djokovic certainly was as he fired off aces and returns. He wasn’t at the top of his game yet, but he was ready to shift into that next gear when necessary.
It wasn’t necessary, not at all. He took the first set 6-0 and before I could blink — I actually had a wild hair in my eye that was bothering me — he called for a trainer. No diagnosis was announced, but Davydenko retired and the audience was quite gracious.
And then the rain began.
After the 45-minute delay Monday night, I was ready for a brief wait and the promise of more tennis, because really I hadn’t gotten much tennis at all thus far. But alas, it was not to be. The rain fell steadily and lightning flashed like aces in the night sky and tournament officials suspended play.
And so we all retired for the night.
All of the qualifying matches, on both the men and women’s sides, have been played and today marks the official start of the main draws. There are preliminary press conferences scheduled with a select group of top players and while the interviews may have star power and a hint of intrigue – especially in light of the impact of inserting a grass court Olympics event into the already crowded summer schedule – I am drawn more to a few first round match-ups.
Veteran Nikolay Davydenko (RUS) dispatched the 13th seed Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR) with such ease and efficiency [6-1, 6-1] that I never even made it out of the press box above Center Court down to watch the match from inside the stadium. Dolgopolov fumed a bit, but was clearly not ready for the steely Davydenko who is never unprepared.
I was able to march over to the Grandstand though for the second match of the day on that court, featuring two Americans – the qualifier Jesse Levine and young upstart Donald Young who has cracked the mid-to-upper ranks (world top 30) thanks to strong recent Grand Slam showings. He’s got natural athleticism and solid command of his shots, but the knock on him has been that he’s not as disciplined mentally as he needs to be to truly make a sustained run.
And, unfortunately, today’s match offered proof to support these claims. The duel between the two American lefties kicked off with loose play from Young as he was broken easily in his first service game and then sloppily dropped enough points for Levine to hold. Watching Young, it felt like he started out in a much lower gear, so low, in fact, that I would argue it’s a gear that the top players don’t even have anymore at this stage. The guys in the Top Five start in third and shift up from there, but Young was definitely in first and seemingly stuck, although Levine wasn’t ready to jump on the opportunity. He played down to Young’s level and I found myself pondering how quickly the winner here would exit in the next round.
In a fit of frustration after a listless point, Young muttered to himself that his shot “was the worst ever” and sadly, it would have been hard to disagree with him. That attitude though, without a corresponding rise in the level of play, is going to knock the wind out of his sails and those of his fans. Buck up, Young man!
The next match on the Grandstand, I was sure, would be better. In another battle of countrymen, Francesca Schiavone (ITA) faced off against wild card Camila Giorgi and I was hyped for a passionate display from Schiavone who impressed me during last year’s W&S Open with her never say die approach and gritty shot making. She has won a Grand Slam on clay, which lines up with her skills (and robs the larger, stronger players of their strengths), but the shots have to fall and alas that was not the case against Giorgi.
Schiavone struggled to withstand the power of Giorgi, a player who certainly looked equal to her in stature. There was discipline and poise in every move Giorgi made, while Schiavone settled into a surprising degree of resignation over the shots she was spraying all over (and beyond) the boundaries of the court. She quickly transitioned from frustration to acceptance that today, in this match, Giorgi was simply better, but she fought to the last point, as we would expect. In this case, as opposed to the Levine-Young match, I give Giorgi solid odds to possibly advance further, mainly because she didn’t simply let Schiavone give her the match; she earned it by seizing control of points and making shots.
My final match of the day, the first of the evening on Center Court featured the 13th seed and former Number One Jelena Jankovic (SRB) against Shuai Peng from China. Jankovic won the women’s W&S title back in 2009, but has been struggling to rebound back into the top ranks of late.
Rather than watch from the sheltered remove of the press box, I ventured down to the photographer’s pit on court and by chance ended up next to Peng’s coach. While I offered little more than a nod of greeting when he initially sat down, I found myself alternating between my own study of the match and a sneak bit of observation, focusing on his reactions to his player’s efforts.
Much is made of the idea that players should not receive coaching during a match, but a simple clap of encouragement or a reminder to keep your head in the game or to watch a stroke seems perfectly acceptable. Peng’s coach did these things, sparingly, and often, it was little more than confirming something Peng (and many of the observant fans in the stands) already knew. It was intriguing interplay that never crossed the line, but also wouldn’t intrude upon the player’s ability to think and strategize for herself. She is the one out there in the match and any adjustments, whether large or small, must come from her and their arrangement certainly gave her the control she needed.
Peng is a crafty and solid player who primarily uses a two-handed swing on both sides. I’m not much of a fan of the two-handed backhand because I believe that it limits the full range of the player’s stroke and forces them to get into position faster to reach and make certain shots, but watching Peng’s form, I must admit that she nearly won me over. When she was set and on top of the ball, the two-hand swing allows her to generate a great deal of power, which she can control and direct to either side.
The best facet of her game though is her discipline and mental toughness. Peng never once succumbed to rushing either a shot or the pace of her play. There was always a sense of an inner calm and this match certainly ended up pushing her to the limit.
Peng and Jankovic slugged it out for three long sets, the final going to a tiebreak, alternating between brilliant shot making and loose points. In addition, they suffered through a 45-minute rain delay, but in the end, Peng stood triumphant, as Jankovic seemed ready for the match to be over. After nearly 3 hours, it was hard to blame her.
Saturday semifinals and on the men’s side, the only real intrigue comes from looking ahead to the finals, although any player will tell you that they can never overlook the opponent immediately across the net.
Novak Djokovic, the number two seed, goes toe-to-toe with the sixth seed from Argentina Juan Martin Del Potro, the first man other than Rafael Nadal to steal a Grand Slam from Federer during his amazing run from a few years ago. Del Potro has dealt with injuries, which slowed him down following his US Open win, but he’s back and clearly has what it takes to reach the finals here.
Djokovic has definitely brought that return game of his, which will be key against the taller Del Potro who takes advantage of his height. The first set stays on-serve until Del Potro litters a serve game with two double faults and Djokovic breaks for a 4-2 lead. From that point, it’s a routine set of holds with Djokovic winning the set 6-3.
Djokovic breaks Del Potro during his second service game in the second set. A pair of holds before Djokovic breaks again (Del Potro fails to win a point during this service game) for a 5-2 lead. Watching the latter portion of this set, its curious to see Djokovic pushing Del Potro further and further off the baseline with punishingly deep shots. And he pushes and shoves him right out of the match with a final ace [6-3, 6-2].
The other semifinal match is all Swiss, all the time. The number one-seed and world’s number one player Roger Federer against Stanislas Wawrinka. The two teamed up to capture the gold in doubles in the Olympics and having served as practice partners over the years, there’s a real familiarity that could make this match intriguing.
Federer comes out and it is apparent that as the man is king of all he surveys. The crowds are overwhelmingly behind him, granting him home court advantage, although its not like he needs it.
The first set features flashes of brilliance from each man as they hold serve with Wawrinka confirming that he has a powerful weapon in his serve. He logs more aces than Federer, yet Federer's net play and shot selection more than keeps him in the match. By the inevitable tiebreak, the all-around game of Federer leads to a 7-4 win.
The second set is more of the same as they trade holds up through 3-games all, and then Federer sneaks in a break and a strong hold for a 5-3 lead. The expectation is for a Wawrinka hold and then Federer to serve it out, but an untimely double fault for Wawrinka gives the game and match to Federer [7-6 (7-4), 6-3].
Roger Federer versus Novak Djokovic. The number one seed versus the number two seed – the first time the two top seeds have met in the finals at the W&S Open. This is the match everyone was waiting for and the crowds are raucous.
On court, the action takes an unexpected turn. Federer breaks immediately, holds and then breaks again for a 3-0 lead. He holds again at love and unbelievably breaks once more for 5-0. Is Djokovic hurt? He makes no calls for his coach or a trainer and simply lets Federer serve out the first set [6-0]. Has he ever been blanked in a set, in an event final?
When Djokovic holds to start the second set, the crowd whoops it up, hoping to provide him with a charge. And now both players look like the top seeds we came to see. The service games add up and there’s the sense that a tiebreak is in store.
When it arrives, the temperature seems to rise. Heat and excitement generate a palpable jolt. Federer grabs a mini-break on Djokovic’s first serve and holds his two points. Before the air deflates out of the stands, Djokovic holds and breaks back. Back and forth they go. At 6-6, with the crowd firmly in his corner, Djokovic holds to take a 7-6 lead, but Federer scores a huge smash before taking the next two points and the match.
He raises his arms and grants Mirka a knowing nod as he walks over to towel off before the trophy presentation. This match sets the field on notice that Federer is ready to extend his Grand Slam singles title count even further and everybody, including the defending champion, better watch out.
The women’s finalists, ninth seed Na Li (CHN) and the fifth seed Angelique Kerber (GER), have the distinction of being the players who took out the Williams sisters on the way towards this meeting and each of them has proven capable of slugging it out or exerting their will through carefully constructed points.
Much like the men’s final though, this one starts off rather one-sided. Kerber follows up an all-business hold with a quick break of Li and another hold. Li finally hangs on during a service game, but what has undone her thus far is an inability to rein in her shots. Serves and groundstrokes sail far and wide in an-ever increasing avalanche. She seems confounded by her lack of control, but by the time Kerber has earned the first set at 6-1, Li has no answers and yet, it is Kerber who calls for an on-court conference with her coach.
The second set offers more of the same, as Li continues to push shots, except for her swinging half-volleys, which she nails with surprising accuracy. Somehow, she settles into a groove and evens things up at 3-all. Kerber lapses into a funk and before you know it, Li has secured the second set 6-3.
Li breaks to open the third set and suddenly, the two have completely switched games. Kerber can’t keep the ball on the court or as the games mount, it looks like she’s frustrated by Li’s ability to power shots all over the court. Kerber begins to stop chasing down shots that she consistently reached in the first set. She calls for a second pow-wow with her coach after falling down 3-0. Li aces her to take the fourth game, but Kerber digs deep enough to win her next service game and the crowd perks up for a minute, checking Kerber’s resolve. Unfortunately, Kerber had nothing left in the tank and she allowed Li to sweep her off the court without much resistance.
The final score [1-6, 6-3, 6-1] doesn’t quite reflect the curious lack of sharp precise play. It will be interesting to see if either player can use today’s effort as a springboard into the US Open. The women’s side of the upcoming Slam appears wide open, ready and waiting for someone, anyone to step up to the big stage, like Stosur last year. At this rate though, it will take far more from either of these finalists to own that epic moment.
The Western & Southern Open kicked off in grand fashion Aug 13, spotlighting the renovations to the Lindner Family Tennis Center that now allow it to accommodate both men’s and women’s action simultaneously. More importantly, the immediate impact hit when the news arrived (at day’s end) that Saturday drew an all-time record for attendance with 13,204 tennis fans taking in the new digs, a strong line-up of qualifying matches as well as opportunities to catch top names tuning up on the practice courts and the undeniable fun of Kids Day activities.
The heart of the tournament sets up a day made for the remote control, but out on the grounds of the Lindner Family Tennis Center, you can only hope that your feet won’t fail you because who knows what you might miss as you’re dashing between courts to catch all that you can of the human highlights. And today would definitely offer its share of highs.