Maria Sharapova - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

In a suspenseful three-set encounter, not all points are created equal.  Few players recognize and exploit this truth more than Sharapova, who survived 11 double faults and 64 unforced errors to collect the title that painfully eluded her a year ago.  Trailing Jankovic by a set and a break in a final that resembled the nearby rollercoaster, the 2010 Cincinnati finalist sank her teeth into the match midway through the second set, holding serve twice to stay alive.  In the ensuing tiebreak, the serves and groundstrokes that had sprayed throughout the court suddenly found lines and corners with vintage precision.  Three times trailing by a break in the final set, Sharapova pinpointed her returns to erase each of the deficits in a final during which each player rarely led by more than one game or by more than one point in a game.  Never ahead between the seventh game of the first set and the seventh game of the third set, she allowed her sprightly opponent no room for recovery once she gained the initiative.   Amidst the unsightly statistics of double faults and unforced errors, another statistic proved the most relevant:  a stunning 11-0 record in third sets this season that testifies to her unsurpassed resolve when matches hang in the balance, as well as to her ability to overcome imperfections in a game designed for the pursuit of perfection.  Crushing Kuznetsova and Stosur earlier in the week, the three-time major champion scored a similarly valiant victory over Zvonareva after a dismal beginning to their semifinal.  With disappointments in Stanford and Toronto placed firmly behind her, she will travel to New York armed with a timely injection of confidence.

An even more dramatic confidence boost will have propelled the Cincinnati runner-up into the season’s final major.  A first-round loser at both Wimbledon and the Rogers Cup, Jankovic had drifted beyond the edge of relevance this year as her 2010 slump on non-clay surfaces had deepened.  Although she profited from a walkover and an injured semifinal opponent (see below), the Serb seemed to recapture her affection for the sport this week.  Compensating for reduced foot speed with smarter anticipation, she showcased not only her lithe movement and keen instincts but the smile that accompanied her exploits during her ascent to #1.  On several occasions throughout the final and her third-round victory over Schiavone, Jankovic sprawled across the court to produce passing shots or unexpected retrievals, demonstrating her natural athleticism and racket-head control.  A potential narrative of the final would cast it as a potentially uneventful straight-set win that she let escape her, like Sharapova in last year’s final, but she battled an increasingly determined Sharapova with courage and concentration until the last two games.  Whatever one’s response to the polarizing Serb, one still can appreciate the player if not the person.  Not realistically a genuine contender at the US Open, she might provide a fascinating foil for the power-hitters atop the WTA if she can build upon this result.

Andy Murray - Western & Southern Open - Day 7

As desperate as Sharapova to forget the foibles of the previous week, Murray had not won a match at a Masters 1000 hard-court tournament this year—until he won all of his matches this week.  An opening-round exit had terminated his Montreal title defense, appearing to distance him further from the top three.  Had he suffered another early loss, he would have struggled to acquire the optimism necessary for surviving the intense fortnight in New York.  By capturing the Cincinnati trophy, however, the world #4 reestablished himself as a serious contender in what has become a US Open men’s field surrounded by questions, none more notable than those concerning Djokovic’s shoulder.  Unable to compete effectively against the Scot, the world #1 already had played more matches than he did all of last season and may have suffered merely a case of aggravated fatigue as he did after Miami.  Nevertheless, the injury arrived at an inauspicious moment, offering a breath of hope for the other 127 players in the draw.  Despite an uneven performance in the semifinal, Murray also outlasted the most successful player of the summer in Mardy Fish, who has assumed the mantle of leading American with unexpected speed and ease.  That encouraging victory illustrated the Scot’s skill in defusing imposing servers, the type of player that normally profits from the fastest Slam surface of all.

In a week that witnessed the withdrawal of one former champion from the US Open, Cincinnati proved relatively unkind to most of the others.  Perhaps hampered by burned fingers, Nadal struggled with his first serve and forehand throughout his two victories before succumbing to Fish for the first time in his career.  In his three-tiebreak, 217-minute victory over Verdasco, the defending champion failed to find the rhythm on his groundstrokes for prolonged periods, a rare sight even on hard courts.  His confidence shaken by losses to Djokovic, Nadal’s abbreviated US Open Series left him additional time for much-needed preparation in New York.  Less surprising was Del Potro’s loss to Federer, for the Argentine had not defeated a top-three opponent since his return from wrist surgery and had grown oddly passive since Wimbledon.  The five-time US Open champion avenged his loss in the 2009 final with a performance as sparkling as any of his hard-court matches this year but found little of that form three days later against Berdych.  After his third consecutive loss in the quarterfinals or earlier, Federer will face a severe test in stringing together seven consecutive quality performances.  Not since February in Dubai has he reached a non-clay final.  To be sure, the Swiss won the US Open after losing early in Cincinnati three years ago, while the Czech defeated Federer twice and nearly a third time last year.

Having accomplished little of significance so far in 2011, Berdych overcame the 16-time major champion without facing a break point.  This achievement might have positioned him to threaten a fallible Djokovic on Saturday, had not an injury-caused retirement intervened.  When Djokovic himself fell victim to a shoulder injury a day later, the men’s tournament concluded with consecutive retirements.  From the women’s draw withdrew Serena and Azarenka, while Petkovic suffered a knee injury in her quarterfinal that impeded her perceptibly during her semifinal loss to Jankovic.  As the US Open approaches, one expects that some of these injuries will disappear (see S for Serena and A for Azarenka), but this rising trend on both Tours should cause them to investigate this issue further.  Despite the Roadmap, the post-Wimbledon break, and more intelligent scheduling by the players themselves, too many outcomes continue to hinge upon physical condition rather than tactics and execution.  The sport’s sprawling calendar thus remains a topic of concern.


We will return very shortly with capsules on the leading men’s contenders at the US Open, followed by a similar sketch of the women’s contenders.