Roger Federer: One could point to Federer’s easy start to the week, with Denis Istomin quitting in the first set and Philipp Kohlschreiber not even picking up a racket, and call it luck. But, as Thomas Jefferson said, “I find the harder I work the more I have of (luck).”
With a runner-up performance in Toronto and the win in Cincy, The Great Swiss has put forth his best pre-US Open summer hardcourt season since 2007, when he achieved the same results. He has not looked quite as dominant as then, when he steamrolled through Cincinnati and Novak Djokovic needed a third-set tiebreak to beat him in Canada, but he continues to compete well.
Despite losing the first set against Mardy Fish in the final, Federer managed to hold serve throughout the match before finally breaking the big-serving American in the second to last game.
He isn’t winning as easily as during the middle of the decade, but with Rafael Nadal playing uninspiring tennis at the moment, Juan Martin del Potro injured and Andy Murray yet to prove he can win 21 sets, competing well may be all he has to do.
Mardy Fish: And that fact that Federer had to turn to those competitive instincts to win on Sunday showed how far his opponent had come. Now 29 (less than a month younger than the Swiss), Fish lost their first five meetings, taking just one set. However, in Cincinnati he not only pushed the most decorated player of the Open Era deep into a third set, he improved to 3-0 against Andy Murray this year and 2-0 against Andy Roddick.
Fish has always had the serve, the backhand, the return and the volleys of a top flight player, but in a game where top 10 players must erase all weaknesses, he had three: his movement, his fitness, and his forehand.
Having lost 30 pounds since last year, Fish is now moving and striking the ball better than ever. He may have emerged as the best chance, not only for American tennis at the Open, but for attacking tennis in general. This is happening just in time, too, with the major with the slickest surface just ahead.
The trouble with Fish, though, is that he’s gone into majors with momentum before. In 2003 he also reached the finals of Cincinnati. Earlier this year he got to the last round at Queens. In the majors that followed, Fish could only convert that momentum into second round losses to Karol Kucera and Florian Mayer.
He should go further this year, and reach the second week. The trouble is, his next trip to a major semi will be his first.
Andy Roddick: The American’s return to the semis of Cincy this week brought good signs, particularly with his narrow defeat of Robin Soderling, his second win over the big Swede this year.
This was enough to end his brief stay outside the top 10, something that hasn’t happened to him in eight years. His 6-1 third set loss to Fish, though, doesn’t leave many encouraging indicators. Another sign of trouble: He hasn’t been past the USO quarters in four years.
For now, his fans should be hoping he matches last year’s fourth round appearance, keeping his points and staying in the top 10.
Marcos Baghdatis: Like with Fish, the Cypriot with prior fitness issues seems to have regained form, and was rewarded with a win over Nadal, an opponent whose game once left him flummoxed.
Unlike Fish, though, Baghdatis was unable to impose any kind of pressure on Federer in the next round. The 6-4, 6-3 scoreline doesn’t really tell the tale of their 70 minute semi.
Will Baghdatis be a consistent presence from here on? He’s come a long way since last fall, when he had to play Challengers to get his ranking up, but all that effort seems to have put him in a position where he can be simply brushed aside the game’s best.
Rafael Nadal: The world No. 1 is, frankly, not playing like it on the asphalt. Despite coming in with plenty of confidence from a stellar European summer, he has not duplicated his form from 2008 and 2005, when he won titles in Canada.
The good news is that he had less momentum last year and still made the Open semis. The bad news is that that result won’t be good enough for a player seeking to capture the only major he hasn’t won yet, and who ought to do so now that he’s in his mid-20s and is at the summit of the sport.
His best hope is that, like at Wimbledon, he can face a tough match early to play himself into shape. We’ve seen him do that on the grass more than once, but not at the US Open yet, so I remain unconvinced that he can.
Andy Murray: The Toronto champion appeared fatigued from his run there, so his loss to Fish in Cincy wouldn’t be that discouraging. With his play in Canada still a fresh memory, Murray makes the shortlist of Open favorites, but I can’t place him above Federer.
Not until proven otherwise.
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