CityBeat Blogs - Tennis http://www.citybeat.com/cincinnati/blogs-1-1-1-38-161.html <![CDATA[W&S Open: Championship Weekend]]>

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].

FINALS

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.

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<![CDATA[W&S Open: Day 5]]>

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.

It is time to dream another dream, it seems.

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<![CDATA[W&S Open: Day 4]]>

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.

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<![CDATA[W&S Open: Day 3]]>

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.

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<![CDATA[W&S Open: Day Two]]>

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. 

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<![CDATA[W&S Open: Day One]]>

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.


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<![CDATA[W&S Open: Days Eight and Nine]]> The semifinals — ATP during the afternoon, WTA at night under the lights — has an electric feel. On the men’s side, we’ve been following American Mardy Fish, and his match-up against Brit Andy Murray stirs the crowds. Murray won here in 2008, and Fish was a finalist last year (losing to Roger Federer), so each knows the glory (and the likely battle against the dominant Djokovic) awaiting. ---

Murray sets the standard with his strong service hold in the opening game (his final serve hit 135 on the radar gun). Fish counters with less power but sharp placement to hold, and during the next Murray service game he begins his now routine creeping approach during the first serve, which seems to get Murray’s attention (two double faults), although not enough to keep Murray from holding. In fact, it's Murray who breaks first, and that is all he would need to seize the first set. Fish rebounds as best he can from the break, but he is not as precise as he has been in previous matches, and Murray isn’t the kind of opponent who will give up too many loose points. (View Brian Taylor's photos here.)

The crowd, at key moments, does all it can to support Fish, as he and Murray battle through tough holds and breaks during the second set. An inevitable tiebreak results with great shotmaking from both players before Murray outlasts Fish (10-8) to take the set and the match.

The win launches Murray one step closer to what he hopes will be a solid tune-up for the U.S. Open, but it's Fish who gains because his summer record is one of sustained efforts to reach deeper into the draws and bolster his attack on the top seeds ahead on him in the rankings. He’s playing like he knows he can not only compete with but also beat any and all of them at any given time.

As expected, Novak Djokovic cruises into the finals here, after Tomas Berdych retires due to shoulder issues. Berdych soldiered through the first set, even breaking Djokovic early, but didn’t want to push the injury to the point that it would endanger his chances at the Open.


August 21, 2011: The Finals

Right from the start, lackluster play from Djokovic results in an early break for Murray. It appears that fatigue has set in for the world’s No. 1 playing his 59th match of the year (his record at 57-1 up to this point) with nine titles so far (Australian Open and Wimbledon Grand Slams and five ATP Masters 1000 titles — more than any player has ever won during a single year). Only John McEnroe, back in 1984, has ever had a better record (59-1 with nine titles as well) coming into this time of the season.

There are flashes of the brilliant tennis that we’ve come to expect during this phenomenal run, but more often than not Djokovic just looks dog-tired. He calls for the trainer and gets treatment on his right shoulder, but it is not enough to convince him that he can last beyond the first set, which he loses (6-4). And then the rain arrives, a downpour, that leaves us all wondering if he had waited to call his match, would he have gotten more treatment and continued.

During his press conference, though, Djokovic lays such thoughts to rest. He apologized to the fans and Murray profusely, but definitely would not have reconsidered his decision. The shoulder, which has plagued him for the last 10 days, more than the general fatigue he has experienced, could not be overcome, especially since he only has eight days to get ready for the final the U.S. Open.

There’s no way I could beat a player like Andy (Murray) with only one stroke,” he confirmed.

He hasn’t had an extensive evaluation of the injury, but believes that with the time available he will be able to bounce back and compete at the appropriate level to win the Open.

We will see if he’s right, but this news and the results here bode well for Murray, the champion again and likely the strongest of the four top seeds heading to New York. It would seem that Murray won’t have a better opportunity to finally break through at a Grand Slam event, but he should beware because Mardy Fish and Gael Monfils are another couple of hungry sharks sniffing for blood in the water.

The women’s crown goes to fourth-seeded Maria Sharapova, the winner over No. 14 seed Jelena Jankovic. But Sharapova needed three sets to knock off Jankovic (4-6, 7-6, 6-3), and her achilles heel (her serve) remains a weakness capable of breaking her down completely at any time.

There doesn’t appear to be a clear favorite going into the U.S. Open for the women — Kim Clijsters has withdrawn due to injury — although that simply means that the odds tip towards Serena Williams, the winner in Toronto last week and a seeding problem for the tournament, since she has been out of the game most of the past year. She seems to be playing at her top 10 (top five, if truth be told) level, but can she be placed that far ahead of ranked players who have been competing throughout the season? And if not, who wants to meet up with her as a lower-ranked challenge in the early rounds?

Love and intrigue, anyone?

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<![CDATA[W&S Open: Day Six: Fish Beats Nadal]]> Only one opportunity to catch a match live, and thanks to a hook-up from the scheduling gods, it was Mardy Fish vs. Rafael Nadal. Yet another look at Fish, the men’s player with the most upside entering the U.S. Open, while Nadal seems to be caught in a slight free fall, so maybe this would serve as a course correction for him. ---

Competitive right from the start, Fish and Nadal waste no time and each player even ends up losing a challenge early as well. The interesting aspect of the games is return of serve. Fish, as has been the case through his run, starts out about three or four feet behind the baseline, but quickly moves in to jump on the serve as soon as it rises off the bounce. Mastering the focus to take an early return means he’s able to create an advantage, seizing the power from the server. Nadal generally likes to settle in further behind the baseline, but with such pressure from Fish, he tries to step in himself, into a position that it is obviously less comfortable for him. This is not the kind of adjustment that Nadal used to make during games or even during a set, but he finds himself tweaking his strategy more and more, at first in connection to the Djokovic onslaught and now there is carryover to others, like Fish.

(View Brian Taylor's Fish vs. Nadal match photos here.)

Fish gets his first real break opportunity at 2-1 and the crowd feels the momentum begin to shift. Nadal double faults and Fish secures the break with an efficient hold of serve (now 4-1). Nadal grits out his next two service games, but Fish, in command, takes the first set 6-3.

Even as the level of play increases from Nadal in the second set, there is never any doubt that Fish won’t capture this key win and advance to the semifinals. He is simply, as I’ve said all week, playing like he knows he can and should win each and every point. Nadal and Federer used to have that confidence; Djokovic certainly has it at the moment. In fact, those three players have that and something else. They have (or had, in the case of Nadal and Federer) an internal switch to flip that sends their game into turbo mode when necessary. I’m not sure that Fish has that switch, but more importantly, it doesn’t seem like he needs it (or would even want it). His renewed approach centers on being in each point, doing whatever it takes to win. He’s not holding anything back. Fish just gets into gear right off the bat and it seems to be working fine.

Brian Taylor was able to provide live coverage of the Djokovic-Monfils match, another powerful slugfest with real implications for the U.S. Open. Djokovic won (in three sets), but keep an eye on the Frenchman.

(View Brian Taylor's Djokovic-Monfils match photos here.)


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<![CDATA[W&S Open: Day Five]]>

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. ---

After a slow start though, especially for Li Na on the Grandstand Court against Samantha Stosur, who lost to Serena Williams last weekend in Toronto. Stosur comes in strong, looking to make an even stronger showing here. And Li, for the second match in a row, has a sluggish, error-prone match. An early break by Stosur sets the pace. She capitalizes on Li’s mistakes like a professional should and displays a machine-like sense of purpose. Li has flashes of technical brilliance, but too much of the match remains covered by dark clouds of erratic play. The match goes the distance, but Stosur moves on 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

Over on Center Court, Rafael Nadal, with the fingertips on his right hand taped to protect burns, finds himself locked into a Spanish Civil War against countryman Fernando Verdasco, in what proves to be the epic match of the afternoon session. Nadal claims the first set tiebreak. Watching his game is like sitting ringside at a boxing match with a fighter, a real brawler who also understands the sweet science of boxing. Nadal hits for power again and again, and then slips in a beauty of a slice or a drop shot that blindsides opponents and fans.

(View Brian Taylor's photos here.)

Feeling the Center Court match was in hand, there’s a mad sprint over to the Grandstand again, now to catch Mardy Fish, the top ranked American who looks, more than possibly anyone else in the field other than Novak Djokovic, like he believes he can and will win every point. Richard Gasquet steps up more than the Russian Davydenko did in the previous round, but Fish simply will not be denied. He is the player to watch at the U.S. Open, maybe the toughest to beat because he’s not taking anything, not a single point, for granted. He dispatches Gasquet 7-5, 7-5.

Around the time that Fish finishing things up, Nadal, still struggling to complete the opening match on Center Court, scratches and claws against Verdasco in a third set tiebreak, following Verdasco’s second set tiebreak win to even things up. Nadal has never lost to his fellow Spaniard in 11 meetings, but Verdasco has his eyes on rewriting their history. Back and forth they go in the final tiebreak, but alas, it is Verdasco who blinks on a couple of points and Nadal limps his way into the next round (although before that, he has a doubles match to play with partner Marc Lopez against Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes — and Nadal/Lopez go down in straight sets 6-4, 6-2.

The evening session has luster and a bit of epic drama of its own.

Roger Federer, a fan favorite, runs headlong into another sentimental favorite in American James Blake, a rematch of their final here a few years ago — although Blake had to be hoping for different results (Fed breezed through that match to claim the title). It was obvious after Federer broke Blake during the first service game of the match that there wasn’t much going on to keep hope alive. The only mistake made here was leaving the first set thinking that there would be a chance to come back to catch a little more action in the second, because after a 6-4 first, Federer flipped the switch and ended this tawdry affair 6-1.

Jelena Jankovic versus Francesca Schiavone issued its siren song from the Grandstand. Schiavone has a strong reputation as a clay-court specialist (having reached the finals at the French Open the last two years and earning the title in 2010), but it was worth catching her to see if her game translates to the hard courts. Small in stature, Schiavone stalks the court with a huge heart and tons of swagger. She, like Fish, has the look of a player who believes they own each and every moment when the ball is in play. Jankovic breaks her early in the first set, but the feisty Italian dares her to try to sweep her off the court. The Serbian grabs the first 6-3 and its time to race over for another intriguing match-up. More to come here.

On Court Three, Gael Monfils stares down Philipp Kohlschreiber, who knocked the big-swinging Roddick out during the first round. The first set is nearly over with Monfils up 5-2. The Frenchman is such a fascinating player to watch. He reacts to each and every point, sometimes each swing during a point. Fans love him and he has the skills of a top 10 player, but he can be frustratingly inconsistent.

Scouting a match like this one, though, captures him striking the ball cleanly and offers proof that his raw talent can carry him far. He seemingly plays each point, and again each individual stroke like it is all new to him and he’s enjoying the newness of the experience. He’s amazed that he can do these things — throwing his long, lean body into his serve, snapping his strong yet sensitive hands into a volley — but not completely surprised. He knows he’s got the talent, now it's time for him to hone it into a plan he’s ready and willing to execute. Kohlschreiber is no patsy, he knows how to handle big service heat, but not when it is followed up by sharp net play, and so he falls to Monfils 6-2, 6-2.

Back on the Grandstand, Jankovic and Schiavone continue to knock each other all over the court. Schiavone battles back and seizes the second set 7-5, setting up a third set that draws every available fan into the tight confines of the night here. Surveying the crowd, under the lights, and the atmosphere feels like one of those late matches at the U.S. Open with everything on the line. Agassi vs Blake or Sampras vs Agassi. A classic.

And the women don’t disappoint. Jankovic has to call the trainer to kick things off, but once play resumes, it's Schiavone who needs assistance. She sprays shots all over and gets broken twice (down 4-1) before she sets her mind to the task at hand and wills herself back into the mix. She and Jankovic dig deep, deeper than either likely anticipated when this one started at 7 p.m., seemingly an age ago. Jankovic gets broke once but hangs in for a 6-4 win and a ticket to the quarters.

The real winner though might have been Schiavone, who impressed the crowd and sets herself up as the player no one will want to see in their part of the bracket at the U.S. Open. She is the kind of woman LL Cool J was talking about, a real-life “Around the Way Girl,” making toughness and a feisty spirit sexy, exactly what you want in your corner.

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<![CDATA[W&S Open: Days Three and Four]]>

A sparse crowd arrives early on Center Court for the first match of Day Three (Aug. 16), which features one of the more intriguing players on the WTA roster thus far in 2011: Li Na, who reached the finals of the Australian Open and became the first native-born Asian player to capture a Grand Slam title when she won the French Open. Kicking things off here, the tournament was proud to recognize a group of young girls from the Mountain Flowers Chinese Youth Tennis Academy in attendance. Although light, the crowd warmly greeted Li during the player introductions; a sign that the dedicated fans of the game wanted an up close look at her. ---

The match itself, with Li facing Lucie Safarova, found Li battling a sluggish start as mounting errors lead to her falling behind 0-2 before her serve settled a bit (more pace and better placement than Safarova) for her first hold. An immediate break of Safarova and Li seems to have hit a groove, but she never looks as crisp or clean throughout the match as one would hope. She snags the first set 6-3 and jumps on Safarova in the second with two quick breaks, but lets her sneak back in before finally dropping the hammer for a 6-4 set and match. Of course, this is an early round match — she should certainly be sharpening her focus for the next round. Despite all this, Li still has the look and feel of a dangerous opponent who will lurk around and strike whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Next on Center Court is Jo-Wilifried Tsonga against Marin Cilic in what appears to be a true clash of the titans. Tsonga is a burly but graceful 6 feet 2 inches, while the slimmer Cilic stands at 6 feet 6 inches. A gregarious presence, Tsonga, like Prometheus, aims to bring his fire to the crowd, which has swelled in appreciation of his good-natured antics. But he also sets the courts ablaze with scorching serves.

Cilic brings the heat as well, although he starts off slower, possibly attempting to lull Tsonga and the crowd with his initial off-speed placement. Both players flash more than hints of solid net play, either through selective serve and volley or coming in behind approach shots, but Tsonga proves better at repelling Cilic thanks to exceptional passing shots. In fact, one such pass secures the only break he will need (to go up 5-3) on his way to claiming the first set. The second set features another pass to set up an early break (for a 2-1 lead), but Cilic refuses to fade. Even when he loses the random point, Tsonga works the crowd. But here it's only a matter of time before he lowers the boom, boom, boom, which he does for a 6-3, 6-4 match and his patented celebratory bouncing around the court.

By evening, the spotlight turns to none other than defending champion Roger Federer, who's flying under the radar this year despite extending his record streak of deep second-week appearances at Grand Slams and stemming the dominant tide that is Novak Djokovic (over 50 wins this year and one defeat, at the hands of Federer). It has been longer than anyone might have suspected since Federer won a Slam, but he remains a quiet force, and he’s apparently not ready to surrender the throne here in Cincinnati.

Two aces in his first service game and the crowd, packed for the evening session and the return of the king no doubt, responds with rousing cheers of support. “C’mon, Roger,” and “Go, Roger” pepper the night air, whether he wins or loses points. From the court-side photographer’s section, his grace impresses, but what stands out is his laser-sharp focus. Federer stands no more than a foot or two behind the baseline when receiving serves that, in this case against Juan Martin Del Potro clock in over 115 mph, and he rarely lets one slip by without getting a racket on it. He’s able to block many of them into play and start in on his game plan, which can be to either stay back and trade baseline shots or slide forward to end things from the net, where he displays surgical precision and the steadiest of hands.

Although he breaks Del Potro early, what matters more is the sense that he doesn’t have one truly dominating skill on court — he doesn’t have the most powerful serve or the strongest game from the baseline — rather he simply has reached peak levels across the board. He does everything far above average and he has harnessed the mental aspect as well.

For instance, for a player who hates the challenge system, it seems now that he uses it, not to argue close points, but as a means of refocusing his occasional frustrations. During the first set, he signaled to challenge one of his shots that was obviously out along the side alley, but while the shot replayed, he attended to his racket and re-establishing his game. It was more of a timeout and with three of them, if well-timed, they could settle a rattled psyche.

This is not to say that Federer needed such recourse during this opening round match, even against an opponent like Del Potro, who interrupted his run of U.S. Open titles back in 2009. Del Potro is working his way back after a wrist injury, which explains their early match-up.

Federer ended up taking the match 6-3, 7-5, and slipped quietly into the night. (View Brian Taylor's Day Four photos here.)


On Day Four (Aug. 17) the plot starts to thicken as a stew of matches simmers during the day.

On Court 3, Gael Monfils takes on Croatian Ivan Dodig, while the Grandstand plays host to women’s No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki vs. American hopeful Christina McHale. And over on Center Court, the resurgent American Mardy Fish faces veteran Nikolay Davydenko.

I start with Monfils who, two points into his match, calls for the trainer to stretch and eventually wrap his thigh. Fearing this will be called, I dash over to Center Court for a glimpse at Fish, a seeming late-bloomer who has had an exceptional year, which he credits largely to his renewed commitment to fitness.

The face-off with Davydenko captures him in tip-top shape, both physically and mentally. By the time I arrive, he has already broken twice and serves with efficient conviction, using serve and volley, solid placement to move his opponent around at will and a Zen-like presence that lets you know that he realizes that it will take phenomenal play and shotmaking to beat him. A curious on-court trait speaks to power of presence. When serving, Fish takes three balls, but ends up keeping only one to serve, which could indicate a desire to focus on the point and moment at hand and to play it like it is the last opportunity. He certainly seems to here against Davydenko, dispatching him 6-0, 6-2 and looking more than ready, not only for his next opponent but also like a man ready for a deep run at the U.S. Open.

Monfils fights through his early injury, although he loses the first set 6-4. He breaks Dodig in the second (at 4-3) and takes the second, before Dodig is forced to retire during the third. It will be worth watching out for Monfils in the next round to see if the injury flares up again.

Speaking of injuries, Serena Williams, having routinely walked through her opening round match, withdraws today, citing a swollen toe that needs rest before the U.S. Open. Williams won the WTA event in Toronto prior to her arrival here, but the Grand Slam is the real prize she has her eye on. And later in the day, Victoria Azarenka pulls out of her match against Shahar Peer with an injury to her right hand. Lucky loser Pauline Parmentier replaces her, but loses to Peer (6-2, 6-3).

The rest of the afternoon follows suit. Rafael Nadal punches his way to the next round against Julien Benneteau of France (6-4, 7-5) and Andy Murray of Great Britain continues to mystify me. He handles Argentine David Nalbandian routinely, at least when considered from the score (6-4, 6-1), but his opening set is littered with moments where he drifts and lets his frustrations get the better of him, which makes it equally aggravating for his legion of fans waiting for him to finally break through and claim a Grand Slam title. He has all of the skills; what he lacks is a certain intangible, an essence that might separate him from the rare pack above him.

(View Brian Taylor's Day Five photos here.)

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<![CDATA[W&S Open: Day Three: Roddick Melts Down]]>

Although I missed the morning and afternoon session of Day Three, Brian Taylor snagged a few key photo opportunities. From Center Court, there are shots of the match between Svetlana Kuznetsova versus American qualifier Jill Craybas. The results, with Kuznetsova cruising 6-3, 6-4 into the second round, speak to the stout power of the talented Russian, who happens to be one of the more formidable hitters on the women’s side. Off court, Taylor captured Rafael Nadal during his press conference, where he likely faced questions about the ongoing meteoric rise of Novak Djokovic who is in the midst of a phenomenal run, the likes of which the game hasn’t seen, possibly ever. Will it continue here, or will Rafa or reigning champion Roger Federer (the only player to have beaten Djokovic so far this year) or someone else slow him down before the U.S. Open?---

(View Brian Taylor's photos here.)

The night-time session was the right time for Ana Ivanovic on Center Court. Her tournament opener against American Alexa Glatch provided a fitting showcase of the work captured during her weekend practice. Ivanovic broke Glatch immediately with good all-around shot placement and simple patience because Glatch proved quite error-prone, and once frustration set in, her will, what little was in evidence, evaporated. After losing the first set without taking a game, Glatch looked broken during the early games of the second set, even though she found ways to hold serve twice. She was so obviously demoralized that she failed to respond to a crowd eager to back an underdog. In the end, it was Ivanovic, smiling and swinging away en route to a 6-0, 6-2 victory.

The follow-up match on the main court featured fan favorite Andy Roddick, another player we were able to catch during one of his weekend practice sessions. Roddick, for all his explosive talent, has a temperamental streak, overrunning passion that can sabotage his best efforts, which means that staying with his matches throughout is a must.

He opened up last night dropping service bombs all over, losing only a handful of points in the first set, while challenging the radar gun. His high-end service range was in the 130 mile per hour zone. His off-speed — if you can call it that — was between 108-117. His opponent, Phillip Kohlschreiber, a feisty and crafty player with deceptive power from both wings and his serve, found the sweet spot in the 120s when he needed to win a big point, but he certainly mixed things up more, confusing Roddick with serves as low as the mid-80s and shifting placement. Kohlschreiberm though, in the opening set, appeared to be working harder to hold serve and in the first set tiebreak, succumbed to the blitzing Roddick.

Game over, right?

Guess again. The testiness sets in and Roddick falls 7-5 in the second, mainly for a flameout that included throwing his racket to the court and launching a ball into the stands, which resulted in a game-ending point penalty. From there, the 6-1 third set by Kohlschreiber sealed the deal and raises the alarm once again for the supremely skilled Roddick as he slinks his way towards the U.S. Open. Can he focus enough to catch fire one more time and claim a second major?




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<![CDATA[Western & Southern Open Begins!]]>

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. ---

Kids from summer tennis leagues throughout Cincinnati gathered on Court 9 to engage in light competitive events against each other and select professionals like 2007 Western & Southern finalist James Blake, who over the years has become an unofficial U.S. Tennis ambassador. Blake, a former top 10 player who has faced adversity throughout his career and openly shared his experiences, jumped right in, playfully challenging groups of aspiring youngsters in volleying competitions, deftly switching from a standard racket to a Teflon-coated skillet.

For regional fans who, throughout the Grand Slam season, find themselves glued to televised coverage, the Open grants up-close access to players thanks to the court-side seating at the facility’s practice area. Where else can you be mere steps away from Jelena Jankovic, a former No. 1 women’s player, as she warms up for her first-round match? Decked out in purple, Jankovic displayed the solid footwork and sharp forehands that she will need to make a run here and prepare herself for the year’s final Grand Slam, the U.S. Open.

Minutes later Andy Roddick attacks the practice courts with his still-explosive serves and strong strokes (both forehand and his reliable two-handed backhand). Roddick is fascinating to watch during practice, because even though the fans are only a few steps away, he refuses to hide his frustration over minute miscues. It might just be practice, but he gives free rein to his unfettered passion in pursuit of the perfect game (which he came closest to achieving during the epic Wimbledon final he lost against Roger Federer in 2009) without fear. To see it live and in person speaks to the supreme focus and dedication needed to compete on the professional level.

Qualifying matches provide another perspective on the competitiveness of the game. It's curious to watch the lesser names and the up-and-comers grinding their way into the main draw, or the journeymen and women, the solid mid-levelers, possibly returning from injuries seeking to play their way back into contention, or the crafty veterans looking to make a last run. Each point matters, and this is where strategy and execution meet guts and heartache.

The first match of the day on Center Court featured Vania King and Sania Mirza battling for a spot in another qualifying match, another chance to break into the main draw against Maria Kirilenko, Jankovic or Serena Williams. King folded in the first set tiebreak against Mirza, but charged back and captured the second set easily. She fell behind in the third set, but again dug deep to force a decisive third set tiebreak, which went back and forth as the two traded mini-breaks early.

The key to the match, though, came on a missed call by the baseline judge during a long rally. One of Mirza’s shots was obviously long (easier to catch from the vantage point in the press box) but play had to continue because the challenge system was not active during the opening matches on Center Court. King lost the point (due to her frustration over the missed call and her inability to stop the point) and then flubbed match point. She immediately tossed her racket on her way to net, where she shook hands with Mirza, but failed to greet the chair umpire.

It would be simple to dismiss her actions as unsportsmanlike, but such an assessment fails to consider what’s at stake for a player like King. The time on the road and the expense, the hours of practice, the sacrifice of the routine pleasures of life for a chance to step out on court, to step up to a moment where maybe, if the ball skips off the line just right and the proper calls are made in key moments, there’s a chance to beat Kirilienko or Jankovic or one of the Williams sisters here. Which could open a doorway, an easier path into the main draw at the next tournament where with rest or more time to practice and strategize, another win might make the improbable a little less so.

(View Brian Taylor's Day One photos, including the one of Roddick above, here.)

The second match of the Day Two on Center Court features Sania Mirza taking on another American player, Alexa Glatch, who dispatches Mirza in rather pedestrian fashion (6-2 and 6-4). Having watched Mirza engage in such an intense back-and-forth match the day before, it is surprising to see her fall here so quickly, but Glatch works her over with both power and technique and with zero drama.

The anticipated highlight of the early session, though, is the next match on Center Court, the first main draw pairing on the men’s side — Juan Martin Del Potro vs. Andreas Seppi. Del Potro, working his way back into competitive form after a wrist injury, had his best year in 2009 when he reached the quarters at the Australian Open, the French Open semis and won the U.S. Open (dethroning Federer). He dashed off to a quick break of Seppi to kick things off and held serve, which is not surprising for the tall Argentine who not only has power but places his serve with pinpoint accuracy.

On the other hand, it was obvious that Seppi, a solid player, was not on his game. By the time DelPo’s lead hit 4-love, Seppi signaled for the trainer. He returned to win the next game after the consultation, but retired immediately that.

With only more qualifying matches on the docket, it was time to wander the practice courts for another glimpse at the daily training regimens of the professionals.

First up was Li Na, the first Chinese woman to win a Grand Slam title (2011 French Open). Prior to her win at the French, Li Na reached the Australian Open final, so she is certainly a player to watch as the tour season heads towards the final major of the year. Listed at 5’7 1/2”, she is much more solidly built than many of the taller, leaner players on the women’s circuit and she definitely generates great power, but the more fascinating aspect of watching her practice session was her mental game. While there were few exchanges between Na and her coach, the fierce determination in her eyes gave off a sense of the strategic wheels turning before every swing of the racket. That machine-like purpose paired with good health bodes well for her. Following her session, like any savvy rising star, she mingled with the fans, signing autographs and posing for a few photos.

The next court over, it was all business for Petra Kvitova, the newly crowned Wimbledon champion from the Czech Republic. Working with her coach, she ran through a series of placement drills aimed to recondition her grass court skills to the different feel of the hard courts. One-legged forehand drills to hone her balance, constant attention to keeping her wrist strong and her grip tight, this session with its focus on repetition was the definition of practice.

Contrast that with the afternoon session of Ana Ivanovic, the former No. 1 player, who reached the Australian Open final in 2008 and won the French that same year. Although she has had less success at the Slams since then, she continues to move well on court and exhibits sharp shot placement. Intriguingly, her practice round illustrates that, for some professionals, the game is still a game and one that they actually enjoy.

Ivanovic jokes around with her coach and hitting partner, smiles during each rally and radiates an infectious charm that draws the gathered crowd in. Fans cheer well-played points and offer encouragement and light-hearted razzing to her hitting partner.

For a game that is played with such regimented decorum, it's likely these moments, when a player and the fans can truly connect and have fun, that matter more to the sport than all the titles and statistics.

(View Brian Taylor's Day Two photos here.)

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