Novak Djokovic - Western & Southern Open - Day 5

Djokovic vs. Murray:  Divided into three distinct acts is the mini-rivalry between the heirs apparent to the thrones of Federer and Nadal.  In Act I, from 2006 to early 2008, Djokovic won all four of his meetings against the man exactly a week younger than him while losing only one set.  A whiplash-inducing Act II began at the 2008 Rogers Cup and extended through three consecutive victories by Murray until the end of 2010.  At this year’s Australian Open, Act III signaled Djokovic’s burgeoning ascendancy with an emphatic, barely competitive straight-sets victory for the Serb.  In arguably his best match of the season so far, the Scot thrust the world #1 to the brink of defeat during their Rome semifinal before failing to serve out the match and succumbing in a third-set tiebreak.  Will this Act continue, or will the curtain rise on Act IV in Cincinnati?

Throughout this narrative arc, its contours have depended on the state of Djokovic’s game and mind rather than Murray.  The more assertive figure in both playing style and personality, the world #1 dominated the fourth seed during his initial breakthrough period, struggled against him during what now seems a sophomore slump, and restored his mastery during a second, more sustained, and much more spectacular assault upon the sport’s pinnacle.  One scarcely can imagine Murray playing even more brilliantly than during the last two sets of that Rome semifinal, yet still he faltered at the encounter’s climax, a pattern repeated from a similarly outstanding performance against Nadal at last year’s World Tour Finals.  Against an opponent bursting with confidence, the Scot must quell the latent negativity that has hindered him from winning a major or from consistently threatening the top three at majors.  Having not won a Masters 1000 hard-court match until this week, though, he now has an opportunity to deliver an imposing statement in a situation when he has little to lose and much to gain.  Not quite sensational in the earlier rounds, Murray nevertheless will have gained momentum from overcoming sweltering heat and patches of erratic form to overcome summer sensation Fish.  Probably the only rival who can match Djokovic backhand for backhand, the Scot also shares his talent for returning serves with depth and precision.  At the net, he surpasses the Serb for deftness and placement, although perhaps not in agility.  While few players defend more effectively than Murray, he also has shown an increased readiness to finish points when presented with a meek mid-court reply.

Separating Djokovic from his challenger, however, is his superiority in the two most critical shots of modern men’s tennis:  the serve and the forehand.  In the former area, he has balanced power with percentage more reliably and has developed a sense for when risks will reward, exposing his second serve less often than does the Scot.  In the latter department, the Serb has developed a long-time weapon into a more consistent, technically solid shot over the past year.  Unlike Murray, Djokovic can strike effortless winners from that wing without massaging the rally as meticulously beforehand.  Once infamous but now famous, his fitness rises nearly to a level that matches the Scot’s rigorous training program, which has proven a central ingredient in the latter’s 2009 title.  Nevertheless, the top seed will have felt relieved to have received a semifinal retirement for the second straight week, since Monfils had depleted his reserves of energy on Friday evening.  Scheduled for shortly after noon in Cincinnati’s August torpor, this final should test Djokovic’s fitness as much as did the Miami final this spring.

Perfect in his first nine finals of 2011, the world #1 aims to record his third pair of consecutive Masters 1000 titles this year.  In his last three North American hard-court finals, Djokovic battled through a tense three-set final against an inspired opponent.  Spectators should anticipate similarly stern resistance from an opponent seeking his most significant title in over a year.  While one finalist has gorged himself on trophies and glory in 2011, the other finalist has starved by his normally sparkling standards.  Against the virtually irresistible wave of momentum that has deluged the ATP this season, therefore, stands a competitor with the appetite and Masters 1000 pedigree to impede or perhaps bar the Serb’s path.   If he does, the ATP top three might become a Gang of Four once again.

Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 6

Sharapova vs. Jankovic:  Amidst perhaps the best odd-numbered year of her career to date, Sharapova eyes a fourth final at the tournament where she fell just a point short of the title last year.  Reaching consecutive finals in the 2007-08 Australian Opens, she erased her disappointment on the first occasion by capitalizing on her second opportunity against a much less intimidating opponent.  Despite losing five of her last six finals, including her last three in the United States, the three-time major champion will bring considerable confidence from her dominance over Jankovic.  Only once victorious over Sharapova, the Serb has lost all four of their hard-court meetings and retired from two of them, including the 2009 Tokyo final.  On the other hand, Jankovic has spent much of her week settling old scores against Schiavone (her conqueror at Roland Garros) and Petkovic (her conqueror in Miami and Stuttgart).  Generally at her best when she has something to prove, this former #1 has not won a title since Indian Wells 2010 but seemingly manages to win at least one significant tournament each season.  Her preceding breakthrough occurred in Cincinnati two years ago, indicating that the fast courts relished by Sharapova do not trouble the counterpunching Serb.

Once the most supple mover in the WTA, Jankovic has declined in that salient strength while improving her most notable flaw, her serve.  In the semifinal against Petkovic, she saved seven of eight break points, while her third-round victory over Schiavone featured several serves that effectively spun wide to open the court for her first groundstroke.  Not having played the Serb for nearly two years, the Tour’s leading returner may need to adjust to the improved pace of this stroke that she formerly devoured with impunity.  Breaking her opponents in more than half of their service games this season, Sharapova has relied upon an even more staggering rate (over 60%) in Cincinnati to compensate for the occasional stumble on serve.  Such stumbles usually have occurred at inconsequential moments during her victories over Kuznetsova, Stosur, and Zvonareva, whereas the unceasing pressure from her returns drew untimely double faults from the last two adversaries.  Encountering minimal adversity as she thundered through her first three matches, Sharapova suffered another of her inexplicable lulls in the first set of the semifinal but recovered immediately after consulting with her coach.  Buoyed by both his advice and his reassuring presence during his visits all season, this fiercely independent figure in fact may have gained as much from the WTA’s coaching experiment-turned-reality as any of her rivals.

Less impressive in finals than Sharapova, Jankovic reeled off eight of her twelve titles in 2007-08 during the stretch that witnessed her rise from outside the top 10 to year-end #1.  Although she has declined sharply since then, the Indian Wells and Cincinnati championship runs testify to her continued viability as a dark horse just outside the central corps of contenders.  One should not forget that the Serb with the glittering smile reached her only Slam final at the US Open three years ago, confirming her affinity for North American hard courts.  Almost as fond of fashion and glamor as her opponent on Sunday, the less intense Cincinnati atmosphere may have allowed her to focus upon tennis.  For much of the season, Jankovic looked disenchanted and lethargic during her matches, but that suspenseful triumph over Schiavone appeared to have reawakened some of her appetite for competition.  Like Sharapova, her most impressive and most reliable stroke remains her backhand, unleashed down the line and cross-court with equal vigor.  Both finalists thus will face a decision between constructing rallies around their stronger groundstroke or their opponent’s weaker wing, which mirrors their own.  More likely to redirect balls early in the point, Sharapova will seek to temper her aggression with a judicious sense of timing.  Maneuvered out of position more easily than in former years, Jankovic still covers the court more adeptly than any of the Russian’s earlier opponents.  Those defensive skills will test the consistency of Sharapova’s offensive barrage much as Sharapova’s penetrating blows will challenge the Serb’s counterpunching abilities, offering a valuable test for two divergent players as they prepare for New York.  While the 2006 US Open champion has bolstered her already legitimate status as a contender this year, the 2008 finalist has renewed her relevance at an unexpected moment.  When the scene shifts to the season’s last major, both will encounter elevated expectations and the attention that accompanies them.

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We return to review the events in Cincinnati before launching the US Open preview series during the coming week.

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