Western and Southern Open 2014: The Biggest Things Learned in Cincinnati

Matt McGladrigan@@mattmcgladriganFeatured ColumnistAugust 18, 2014

Western and Southern Open 2014: The Biggest Things Learned in Cincinnati

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    For the majority of the big names, that’s U.S. Open tune-ups done and dusted. Next stop for racquet bags, coaches and physios is New York for a week of resting, refining and mental preparation.

    As we go into Flushing Meadows, though, what did we learn from the second of the two back-to-back hard-court events, this time in Cincinnati?

The Wimbledon Singles Champions Are Struggling

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    It’s more than fair to say that Novak Djokovic has had a demanding and stressful past few months. It’s been pretty special too, though: a strong run in Paris, only ended by Rafael Nadal’s unmatched brilliance in the final; a dramatic five-set triumph over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final; a stag do in between those two and then the subsequent marriage; a baby is on the way too.

    Thus, it’s not overly surprising that he hasn’t given his fans too much to shout about on the tennis court in these last two tournaments. Tommy Robredo turned back the years to take out the Serb in the third round in Cincinnati, but Djokovic was average at best.

    He admitted so after the contest: “Many, many, many things are not clicking these two weeks on hard courts. It’s unfortunate, but it’s more than obvious I’m not playing even close to what I’m supposed to play”.

    A strong week of practice and getting sharp is much needed for the world No. 1, as he bids to claim a second U.S. Open crown, after losing in the final the last two years (2012 to Murray; 2013 to Nadal).

    If he negotiates the first week in New York, we can expect a major rise in level by the time fellow members of the top 10 come around.

    The lady who stood next to Djokovic at the Wimbledon Champions’ Ball, clutching the Venus Rosewater Dish, has also been toiling on the hard courts. Petra Kvitova was so impressive on her run to a second title at SW19, but so far that form has not transferred between surfaces.

    She was unexpectedly downed in straight sets by world No. 39 Elina Svitolina in her opening match in Cincy. She lost to Ekaterina Makarova in the last 16 of Montreal too.

    So, with desperate need of match play on hard courts, Kvitova will enter the Connecticut Open at New Haven, to test herself along with the likes of Simona Halep, Eugenie Bouchard and Caroline Wozniacki.

Is Roger Federer US Open Favourite?

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    The dodgy back and results of 2013 are just a distant blot in the past these days for the great Swiss maestro. Roger Federer picked up his sixth Cincinnati title with a three-set win over David Ferrer, who he has now beaten all 16 times they’ve played, and heads into the U.S. Open in the most perfect fashion.

    So, with Novak Djokovic floundering slightly and seemingly otherwise engaged, with Rafael Nadal unsure of his fitness, and with Andy Murray being baffled by his inconsistency, is Federer the favourite to win in New York?

    Well, the other members of the Big Four all have questions to answer, but not Roger. He’s playing quality tennis and is the form guy going into the last Slam of the year. It was significant to get his hands on a trophy just before too, after losing a couple of finals in a row.

    Over five gruelling sets, you may still favour the younger Djokovic and Murray to battle through, as Skybet do with their odds (as of August 18, Djokovic is 11/8; Murray 7/2; Federer 9/2). But Federer is just gliding around the court at ease right now, playing such offensive and poetic tennis.

    The locker room knows he’s back in 2014 and has a definite chance of taking an 18th major title.

Serena Is Most Definitely Back on Song

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    Alarm bells were ringing after the 17-time Grand Slam champion’s miserable Wimbledon campaign, particularly after she looked so visibly disturbed in a doubles match that her and sister Venus had to withdraw from. But Serena has responded in typical fashion in North America on the hard courts.

    She’s already guaranteed the $1 million U.S. Open Series bonus package before Flushing Meadows, after winning titles in Stanford and Cincinnati, mixed in with a semi-final in Montreal.

    Both of these championship-winning weeks have contained some workmanlike performances at times, as she’s struggled to find her very best level consistently. Both contests with her friend Caroline Wozniacki in particular have been difficult.

    However, it all came together in the Cincy final against Ana Ivanovic. The serve was on fire, with 12 aces belted down. Ivanovic herself even suggested after that she “got a lesson on how to serve today.”

    When she’s anywhere near her absolute top level, no one is coming anywhere near. She hasn’t found that in the Grand Slams thus far in 2014, but could it be around the corner for the world No. 1?

    That would be some story if both Roger and Serena could claim an 18th Slam on Arthur Ashe’s famous court.

Post-Rory Wozniacki Is a Force

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    Northern Irish golfer Rory McIlroy has won two major championships, the Open and US PGA, since he broke off his engagement to Caroline Wozniacki.

    While the Danish former world No. 1 hasn’t scaled those heights in her own sport since the break-up, her form has improved dramatically.

    She won a title in Istanbul, meaning she’s now won an event each year since 2009. She’s had two great runs at the back-to-back tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati, only being stopped by Serena Williams in the quarter-finals and semis respectively. Both of those matches were extremely tight, going to three sets.

    Wozniacki is on the brink of the top 10 once again, now ranked at No. 11. Her movement and defensive skills have always been her strengths, but there seems to be more aggression in her game of late, which is causing her to destroy opponents comfortably in straight sets.

    She could be a dark horse to remain at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center deep into the second week.

Andy Murray Is Still Not Fully Confident in His Game

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    It's all looking a little bit like that photo right now for Britain's finest. Off the back of surgery that ended his 2013 season after the U.S. Open, Andy Murray has had a trying 2014. He’s desperately attempting to regain his Grand Slam-winning form in time for New York, and things just aren’t falling into place for him.

    After a quarter-final defeat to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Toronto, the Scot fell at the same hurdle in Cincy, this time to Roger Federer. Murray had strangleholds in sets in both of those contests but tamely let his advantages go. He was up a double break at 4-1 in the second set over Federer but eventually lost it 7-5, and thus lost the match.

    The Olympic champion is yet to beat a fellow top-10 player this season, but the U.S. Open would be a great time for that to change.

    He needs to be more proactive and aggressive and win matches rather than just be solid and watch players spray unforced errors by him. He can’t rely on these top-10 players to make lots of mistakes.

    However, Murray’s win over John Isner in the last 16 was a definite step forward. He managed to pull himself through an extremely close encounter with some clutch match play in the deciding tie break. He didn’t lose his serve in the entire match, which is all you can ask for against a prolific server like the tall American.

    It’s playing those big moments in matches well that he has been missing, which, of course, will be essential for success in New York.

Sharapova Is a Fighter

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    She may not have won the tournament or played near to her best tennis, but Maria Sharapova showed her almost unbeatable mental strength in abundance.

    The candy-selling Russian entrepreneur was a part of two of the great WTA matches of 2014 in Cincinnati. Firstly, in the last eight, she fought back against world No. 2 Simona Halep to win in three sets. Then, in the semis against Ana Ivanovic, she was a set and 4-0 down. With the Serb a little tight seeing the finish line, Sharapova stormed back to take the second set 7-5.

    Subsequently, it was the Russian in the driving seat, with two match points at 5-4 in the decider. But Ivanovic herself showed tremendous resolve to forget the disappointment of having lost her commanding position in the match. She saved the match points and broke back, before breaking again for 7-5 to advance to the final.

    The five-time Grand Slam champion was unbelievably close to getting the win in the end, after being in an extremely precarious position.

Don't Anger the Bryan Brothers

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    American Jack Sock and Canadian Vasek Pospisil have undoubtedly been the new sensations of the doubles tour of late. In their first tournament as a pairing, they thrillingly defeated Bob and Mike Bryan in the Wimbledon final back in July.

    Then, they won in Washington and still hadn’t lost (barring a withdrawal in Toronto) going into the Western and Southern Open final (making them 14-0). Their doubles success has seemingly had a positive effect on the duo’s singles performances too, with Pospisil giving eventual champion Federer a tough match in Cincinnati.

    But the Bryan Bros. weren’t going to be beaten twice in a row. They stepped right up in Cincy and finally made the young North American duo taste defeat together, beating them in straight sets in front of a fascinated crowd.

    With another excellent run right through to the final, Sock and Pospisil still have a strong chance of reaching the ATP World Tour Finals in London later in the year. They’ll team up in New York to try to make it back-to-back Grand Slams. It’s fair to say that the world No. 1s will have a large say in that, though.