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After a virtuoso performance in the Australian Open final, Federer has lost three consecutive championship matches on three different surfaces.  Attempting to halt this trend tomorrow, the Swiss grandmaster confronts a player who ambushed him on a North American hard court two years ago.  The stunning victor in that Indian Wells semifinal, Fish has lost only one match in four tournaments since Wimbledon as he prepares for his fourth final of the summer.  Ever eager to erase blemishes upon his glory, the 16-time major champion generally has exacted revenge upon journeymen who have frustrated him, although the task has grown more difficult late in his career.  While Federer comfortably dismissed Indian Wells nemesis Baghdatis in the semifinals, he admitted to uncertainty and anxiety when meeting Miami and Wimbledon nemesis Berdych at the Rogers Cup.  Having spent less than three and a half hours on court this week, the GOAT did not face a break point in his uneventful semifinal and more than once held serve in less than two minutes.  He will need to settle into his service rhythm at a much earlier hour tomorrow, a challenge with which he struggled last Sunday in Canada.  Down two breaks immediately to Murray there, Federer rallied to break the Scot’s less formidable delivery and temporarily rejoin the battle; however, he can’t afford to surrender an early advantage to Fish, who has lost his own serve just twice in five matches and more than ten hours.  The Swiss legend’s second Cincinnati title came against home hope Blake in 2007, a leisurely stroll through the sun during which the then-#1 never found himself forced to leave his comfort zone.  Yet this American’s arhythmic, net-rushing style will put pressure upon Federer’s returns, dismal in their Indian Wells encounter.  Central to Federer’s success on Sunday is his concentration, which has wavered with increasing frequency in 2010 and hasn’t always returned when summoned at crucial moments.  Against Baghdatis, he dazzled at the net but faltered a bit on passing shots, an area vital against the forward-moving Fish.  From the baseline, though, he enjoys a significant advantage even on these fast courts, for his groundstrokes remain more consistent than the American’s, while forehand-to-forehand exchanges almost invariably will swing in his direction.

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Favoring Fish is the noontime scheduling, for which his previous rounds have prepared him better than have Federer’s.  The third seed has played in the day session only once and has yet to experience the most extreme conditions of this summer heat, although his training in Dubai should have conditioned him for such situations.  Meanwhile, the Atlanta champion should attempt to take the ball early and shift the rallies into backhand-to-backhand exchanges, since his crisp two-hander represents the only area of his game in which he is distinctly superior to the GOAT.  If Federer struggles with timing on his groundstrokes, Fish might want to place his returns deep down the center of the court rather than allowing his fabled foe to create the running, sharply angled shots that showcase his unsurpassed reflexes.  When his first-serve percentage dips, he should continue to be aggressive with his second serve in the awareness that neutral rallies favor the Swiss, who has more weapons at his disposal and becomes most formidable when given time to deploy them.  Although errors do occasionally creep into Federer’s game, Fish must seize opportunities as soon as they arise without waiting for a higher-percentage opening.  His best chance to capture a maiden Masters 1000 title in 2010—joining fellow veteran Ljubicic—lies in dictating play at all costs.  Having overcome Verdasco, Murray, and Roddick this week, the American’s confidence must be soaring higher than it ever has in his erratic but engaging career.  In his two previous Masters 1000 finals, he dragged a more heralded opponent into a final set and even held match points against Roddick in his previous Cincinnati final; clearly, the magnitude of the occasion will not disturb him any more than did the reputations of his earlier victims here.  If Federer fails to produce convincing tennis, Fish will be ready to pounce upon any frailties that emerge.

Does Federer hook the American, or does Fish seize the GOAT by the horns?  Despite the unglamorous setting of Cincinnati, more may lie at stake in this match than one would think.  A title defense here not only secures the #2 seed at the US Open but sends Federer into New York as the perceptible favorite for a sixth US Open crown, having come within one win of a summer Masters sweep.  By contrast, a fourth consecutive finals loss might dent his confidence before the year’s final major.  Combined with the desire to reverse the outcomes of both the Toronto final and his last collision with Fish, the determination should motivate Federer to deliver the crisp, meticulous, and focused performance necessary to defuse his dangerous challenger.

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Following a sodden day and night at the Rogers Cup, the final there remains undecided and perhaps a mirage altogether, considering the vast quantities of rain expected to descend upon Montreal during the next two days.  If the semifinals are played tomorrow and the final on Monday, we will return tomorrow with a preview of the championship match.  Otherwise, our next article will initiate a four-part series of US Open previews:  the contenders (Monday), the challengers (Tuesday), the dark horses (Wednesday), and the draw itself (Friday or Saturday).  Happy reading!  🙂