Novak Djokovic - Rogers Cup - Day 5

Djokovic vs. Fish:  Halfway through this historic season, the world #1 aims to break another record and become the first player to win five Masters 1000 titles in one year.  In each of his previous four title runs, Djokovic contested at least one compelling three-setter against opponents such as Nadal, Federer, and Ferrer.  By contrast, this week has witnessed the emergence of no serious challengers for the Serb after the first set of his first match.  Recovering from a deep deficit to win that set, Djokovic has lost his serve only once thenceforth and has displayed little tension in his three successive straight-sets victories.  The raised eyebrows and bemused shrugs of Monfils and Tsonga, two spectacularly gifted Frenchmen, demonstrated not only the degree to which the Serb has risen above the competition but also the degree to which he intimidates even high-quality foes.  Having won all six of his meetings with his opponent in the final, the tournament seems headed towards an anticlimactic conclusion.

Or will it?  For his part, Fish has reached three consecutive finals for the first time in his career and will contest his fourth Masters 1000 final.  On these relatively fast hard courts, Fish has executed his serve-reliant style to excellent effect and more often than not has attacked the net at judicious moments.  (In an upset-riddled draw, however, Fish has defeated no opponent more imposing than Wawrinka, far from a hard-court threat.)  During the Indian Wells final three years ago, moreover, the top-ranked American rebounded from a lopsided first set to alarm the Serb’s fans by extending him to a final set.  Likewise unruffled by facing Federer in last year’s Cincinnati final, he came within a tiebreak of what then would have seemed a stunning upset before suffering another gallant defeat.  Nevertheless, in a sport where outcomes still matter most, the key word remains “defeat.”  A dismal 6-13 in championship matches, Fish rarely has summoned his finest tennis on Sundays but instead has contributed to his conqueror’s cause with untimely unforced errors or unwise shot selection.  Most tellingly, Fish’s most impressive tournament in 2011 halted with a lopsided loss at the hands of the Serb.  Having defeated Del Potro and Ferrer en route to the Miami semifinal, the American clawed just four games away from Djokovic despite earning multiple opportunities to play an active role in their encounter.

In order to inflict the second loss of Djokovic’s season, therefore, Fish probably must hope for a fallible performance from the top seed.  Victorious in all eight of his finals this year, the Serb faces an opponent outside the top five for just the second time on a championship Sunday.  He has dropped just one of his last 63 matches to opponents in that category, a tribute to a versatile game that lacks any element upon which an adversary can prey.  When battling Federer, opponents know to attack his backhand; when dueling with Nadal, they can expect vulnerability on his serve.  Somewhere between solid and stunning in every department, meanwhile, Djokovic can combat Fish’s outstanding serve with one of the ATP’s finest returns, the product of agile footwork and reflexes.  Also essential in this final for the Serb is his movement and his passing shots, for the American will stand little chance in a contest of protracted exchanges from behind the baseline.   As Tsonga learned in the semifinals, however, only commanding approach shots can prevent Djokovic from finding an angle to force a difficult volley attempt.  All the same, Fish can rely on the underdog’s nervelessness and remind himself that he has nothing to lose, perhaps allowing him to swing more freely.  If he can stay within range in the early stages, the Serb might feel pressure from the unfamiliar situation of playing a close match.  Should Djokovic gain an early lead, conversely, he almost certainly will not allow the American a second life, as he did in their Indian Wells final.  An increasingly inexorable front-runner when he holds the advantage, the Serb still has not suffered a dip in motivation as he seeks to continue his march into history.

Serena Williams - Rogers Masters presented by National Bank - Day 4

Serena vs. Stosur:  Terminating the nine-match winning streak of the San Diego champion in the semifinals, the suddenly resurgent Stosur attempts to terminate the ten-match winning streak of the Stanford champion in the final.  Their past encounters offer the Aussie reason for hope, especially a Roland Garros quarterfinal last year.  Despite the magnitude of both the stage and the opponent, Stosur summoned the courage to outplay Serena on crucial points deep in the third set, normally when the 13-time Slam champion becomes most dangerous.   Also inspiring hope in her supporters is a three-set victory during the 2009 US Open Series at Stanford, which marked her first breakthrough against an opponent from whom she previously had won sets.  Since losing the opening set of her tournament to Morita, Stosur has lost her serve only three times in the eleven sets thereafter, subjecting her opponents to immense pressure on their own service games.

Better equipped than any other potential opponent to handle that pressure, however, is the most formidable server in the WTA.  Against the outstanding return game of Azarenka, Serena faced only two total break points and rarely trailed in a service game.  Just when the fourth seed seemed on the verge of asserting herself early in the second set, Serena cruised through a service game in which she hit only one groundstroke (a routine forehand into the open court) together with two aces and a service winner.  Typically associated only with the ATP, that sort of overwhelming serving has worn down opponents mentally as much as physically.  One could observe even the highly accomplished Belarussian grow progressively more discouraged until she finally capitulated.  Not much less impressive, Serena’s second-serve return has unleashed a cascade of flagrant winners throughout this tournament, so Stosur either must aim for a high first-serve percentage or add ample kick to her second serve.  Considering the American’s modest stature, that kick serve could prove one of the keys to the final if it consistently veers above her favored strike zone.  Yet in few other areas does the Aussie have weapons that can trouble Serena.  More balanced from the baseline than Stosur, Serena should find ways to target her opponent’s backhand and perhaps stretch her wide to the forehand in order to expose the backhand corner.  In the semifinal, though, she curiously directed the majority of her groundstrokes towards her opponent’s stronger wing—the backhand—and still managed to prevail while matching strength with strength.

Although both players prefer the staccato, first-strike tennis that showcases their imposing power, Serena probably has a slight edge in movement and defense.  As she smothered Azarenka, spectators could notice that she often forced the Belarussian to hit an additional shot or two when the rally’s conclusion seemed foregone.  Whereas the fourth seed could not always finish those points, the 13-time Slam champion almost invariably finished when she had the opportunity.  That type of focused, precise play should allow Serena to exploit the occasional crack in Stosur’s serve when it does arise and edge past an opponent who, like Fish, rarely finds her highest level in finals.  Juxtaposed with the American’s sparkling 38-14 record in championship tilts is a statistic that illustrates her opponent’s contrasting fecklessness on those occasions.  A finalist ten times but a titlist just twice, Stosur has not acquired the mixture of scorching intensity and steel focus that champions like Serena personify.

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We return shortly with Cincinnati previews and a review of the most memorable upsets in Canada.

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