Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Winners, Losers at Cincinnati Masters

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistAugust 18, 2014

Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Winners, Losers at Cincinnati Masters

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Roger Federer and Serena Williams are no strangers to championships, but this is the sixth time the Swiss Maestro has won the Western & Southern Open, and the first time for Serena. Is this enough to make them favorites for the U.S. Open?

    The ATP saw some of its best contenders flop in the early rounds, but the WTA stole the show with great semifinals showings from some of its biggest stars. The women's tour is gaining strength with young players and high-profile contenders.

    The following "Winners and Losers" column evaluates the biggest stories at Cincinnati as the tours prepare for the U.S. Open. This is were we comment on the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in tennis.

Loser: Novak Djokovic

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    TOM UHLMAN/Associated Press

    This might be the most important story of the week, even if it is only a whimper that disappeared in front of great weekend tennis at Cincinnati. It's not just Novak Djokovic lost to Tommy Robredo in the third round, but rather the questions that have sprouted up because of the loss.

    Is the World No. 1 distracted from his wedding and life transition?

    Will the World No. 1 regain his best form in time for the U.S. Open?

    No player can play with relentless energy every time out, but Djokovic was determined to come back and win Cincinnati after a poor match in Canada, losing to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. We discussed the particulars to this defeat and his lost opportunity for the Career Golden Masters.

    There will be one more week off before the U.S. Open tips off. If history is any indicator, expect Djokovic to bounce back with a strong bid for the title. He has rebounded several times in his career to run off impressive winning streaks, and he will likely not go quietly, if at all.

    This week's setback could be the wake-up call that he needs for bigger things again. It could be just another step in the career rise of the sensational Serbian.

Winner: Julien Benneteau

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    David Kohl/Associated Press

    Take a bow, Julien Benneteau. Two years after famously going up two sets on Roger Federer at Wimbledon, the serve-and-volley veteran was the surprise semifinalist on the fast courts at Cincinnati.

    Never mind that he ran out of gas against the more-seasoned David Ferrer. This was another career highlight, worthy of honorable mention for Masters performances in 2014.

    Does this mean that Benneteau is a threat for the U.S. Open? Probably not, but he could be a thorn in the side of a top contender who draws him in the early rounds; he is emblematic of the depth in the ATP draw.

Loser: Fabio Fognini

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Understatement of the year: Fabio Fognini had a bad day.

    But there is no excuse for his 6-1, 6-0 embarrassment, losing to Milos Raonic in the quarterfinals.

    Fognini is a good clay-court player who peaked at No. 13 in the ATP rankings, but the last few months have witnessed his unraveling, one thread at a time. There have been temper tantrums, rackets abused and a lot of inconsistent tennis. Losing 12 of 13 games to Raonic should not happen. There is more wrong with Fognini than just tennis.

    Is this a case of a player’s recent success vs. his growing expectations? The past year Fognini had been rising, but along with the results, so was the tension and quest for more. In a strange way, his personality can be a detriment to his success. He pushes so hard, he seems to lose concentration. He is passionate, but he burns away his focus.

    Right now, Fognini needs to clear his head and simplify the way he reacts to adversity. A back-to-basics routine is much better than eating this week’s Burnt Bagel award, but unfortunately that’s about all he deserves at the moment.

Winner: David Ferrer

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    Jonathan Moore/Getty Images

    David Ferrer has had a difficult year, but he refuses to fill out his retirement papers. He has navigated injuries, fatigue and even a difficult loss at the French Open quarterfinal to Rafael Nadal in which he admitted that he "threw in the towel."

    So in many ways, it's a pity that his career is a footnote in the Big Four era to most general sports fans. He grinds, runs and plays with an energy reserved for players usually 10 years younger. And this week he survived three tiebreakers against Philipp Kohlschreiber, and he defeated three talented veterans in Mikhail Youzhny, Tommy Robredo and Julien Benneteau. He took Roger Federer to three sets in the final.

    He made it to his seventh Masters 1000 final, but for the sixth time had to settle for the runner-up hardware. And now is not the time to pile on his abysmal record in Masters final. He did defeat young Jerzy Janowicz at Paris in 2012.

    His Masters finals losses have not been unexpected. Twice he has fallen to Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. He has lost once to Novak Djokovic and Federer. If anything, Ferrer's career really summarizes where he stands in this era. He is just a few players away from several great titles. Give him credit.

Loser: Simona Halep

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Simona Halep is the No. 2 player in the world, but she is still trying to get over the hump and establish herself as an elite Grand Slam contender. In the quarterfinals of Cincinnati, Halep battled Maria Sharapova in a strange match, unlike the efficient duels at Madrid and the French Open, and the result was another disappointing rewind. Halep is now 0-5 in matches against Sharapova, with three losses in three months.

    In addition, Halep blew a set and a break advantage against Sharapova, and she did not respond as well with her weak serving and rattled nerves, falling 3-6, 6-4, 6-4.

    Finishing off Sharapova is one measure of the gap that still remains in her bid for major titles. Perhaps the one real question mark about her resume is the amount of mid-level tournaments she has won to stack up many of her points. Her draws in majors have been relatively kind, so the Cincinnati draw was more representative of the depth that could make it difficult to win a major.

    Halep’s beautiful strokes and fast footwork is an exciting contrast to some of the top hitters on tour, but this could also be the problem in her quest to win the U.S. Open. It’s hard to endure through two or three slugfests, especially for a player whose game is built on energy and precision.

    For now, she might be ranked No. 2 player, but she still feels a little more like an underdog in the mix of the very best players.

Winner: Ana Ivanovic vs. Maria Sharapova

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    It was perhaps the match of the week, and once again Maria Sharapova was the center of the drama. But unlike her quarterfinals victory over Halep, she was unable to pull out another big comeback, falling to Ana Ivanovic 6-2, 5-7, 7-5.

    Sharapova has arguably been the best player in the WTA for 2014. She leads the Road to Singapore, largely on the strength of her dominating clay-court season and French Open title.

    Often she has needed a set or more to rally back from early deficits. While it makes for entertaining matches, it’s an ominous sign for the U.S. Open.

    Sharapova will have to come out stronger in big matches. Against Ivanovic, who is having a terrific year, it’s too costly to go down 6-2, 4-0.

    Ivanovic deserves full marks for her growing resilience. Last May at Rome, she crushed Sharapova 6-1, 6-4. In this semifinal, she blew a huge lead, fought off two match points and still hung in to finish off the win.

    Is Ivanovic ready to win the U.S. Open? She’s not going to be the favorite, not after losing to Serena Williams in the final, 6-4, 6-1. But Ivanovic is one of a few that could win it all, and might be even odds with players like Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska. She’s certainly proved that she has enough toughness and game to contend.

Loser: 2nd-Tier ATP Contenders

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    Jonathan Moore/Getty Images

    Lately, a lot of excitement has been generated because of the swelling field of ATP contenders. With Spanish star Rafael Nadal sitting out with injury, Novak Djokovic playing subpar tennis and Andy Murray still trying to turn back the clock to the Ivan Lendl-coaching days, the prevailing outlooks show that other contenders are closing in for big titles.

    But not this week at Cincinnati. While Roger Federer and David Ferrer showed their old reliable selves, other opportunists fell flat.

    Ernests Gulbis, Tomas Berdych, Grigor Dimitrov and Stanislas Wawrinka were defeated early and left wondering about their games as they fly east to New York. As usual, their big games were overshadowed by more inconsistent results.

    What next? Which of these players has the best chance to get on a roll and get to the second weekend at the U.S. Open?

    Gulbis is streaky and not a great bet until people forget about him.

    Berdych was a 2012 U.S. Open semifinalist, but the wind blew away his toss and exposed his fragility.

    Dimitrov flopped the past two weeks when he had every opportunity to compete for Masters titles.

    Wawrinka is looking more than ever like a one-Slam wonder, the kind of story that should run on VH1.

    And yet the aging champions Roger Federer, Nadal and Djokovic somehow keep finding ways to trade off on their winning. Which means that if one of the second-tier players does break through, he will have to knock off one of the tried-and-true champions.


Winner: Serena Williams vs. Caroline Wozniacki

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Two consecutive weekends. Two topnotch matches between Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki. And like last week’s Rogers Cup quarterfinal, Serena outlasted the resurgent Dane in a three-set semifinal comeback.

    Can we get this again at the U.S. Open?

    It’s a promoter’s dream for several reasons, including star power and appeal, but especially because of their contrasting styles. Serena’s power and offense was tested by Wozniacki’s defense and growing aggression. In the end, Serena won with her will and talent.

    Sunday’s final for Serena was a mere formality in crushing Ana Ivanovic 6-4, 6-1 for the Western & Southern Open.

    For Serena, the U.S. Open sets up for her to be the favorite once again. She thrives with New York’s atmosphere and hard courts. As long as she gets to the final weekend, she has the mentality and power to close out her top rivals.

    Wozniacki is still a dark horse. She has played better, but breaking the quarterfinals will be difficult, depending on the draw. She can defeat other Top-10 players, but she is just as vulnerable. Still, this is the best tennis she has played in over two years.

Losers: Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil

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    Only diehard tennis fans pay much attention to doubles. But interest has increased in recent weeks with the fresh team of young prospects, Canadian Vasek Pospisil and American Jack Sock. Call them the Can-Am Connection.

    Pospisil and Sock surprised everyone by winning the Wimbledon final at the expense of the current era’s nearly invincible doubles team, Bob and Mike Bryan.

    Even as the Can-Am Connection continued their torrid summer with 14 straight wins, tennis fans have wondered if the Bryan brothers have become vulnerable. They have not won a Grand Slam title this year, after winning 15 majors since 2003. Heading into the Western & Southern Open final, it seemed that the Bryan brothers were the underdogs. Could they stay with the younger, more powerful upstarts?

    But experience, teamwork and the challenge of winning a big title was important to the Bryan Brothers and they rolled to a convincing 6-3, 6-2 victory over the Can-Am Connection, perhaps motivated more by their Wimbledon conquerors who have garnered big press in recent weeks.

    Pospisil and Sock have won 93 percent of their matches following their first defeat as a team. Is it time for another streak or will the novelty wear off and fade behind their possible singles' breakthroughs?

Winner: Roger Federer

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    For sure Roger Federer loves the fast courts at Cincinnati. He just won his sixth title here. But it's simply amazing that he summoned up the energy to compete at back-to-back Masters finals and then to win this one against resilient opponents like Andy Murray and David Ferrer.

    Other younger players were long gone, but Federer's spry performance is another reminder that Father Time has a ways to go in order to tug the Swiss Maestro away from tennis.

    Federer had a tougher draw than he did in Canada. He opened the week by defeating Vasek Pospisil and Gael Monfils in three sets. Then he swept Andy Murray and Milos Raonic. Finally, he outlasted fellow veteran Ferrer and claimed his first Masters title in two years.

    Does this make Federer the favorite for the U.S. Open? It probably depends more on how Novak Djokovic plays, but Federer may not have to deal with Rafael Nadal, and he has handled Milos Raonic easily enough on fast courts. While he may have day-to-day trouble spots with powerful and streaky players like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer is armed with consistency and recent success.

    It's time to see what he can do at the U.S. Open. He's as ready as ever.