Cincinnati Masters: Roger Federer Draws the Short Straw

Marianne BevisSenior Writer IAugust 15, 2011

Cincinnati Masters: Roger Federer Draws the Short Straw

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    The Canadian Open was anything other than Rogers Cup as Federer followed Murray and Nadal out of the Montreal Masters. The three of them have one more chance to build their hard-court momentum in time for the US Open at this week’s Cincinnati Masters.

    The shocks in Canada came almost at once and turned the bottom half of the Montreal Masters on its head. Two of the top quartet in the men’s game, slated to play one another in the semifinals, lost their opening matches: No. 2 and semifinalist last year, Rafael Nadal; and No. 4 and defending champion, Andy Murray.

    All eyes therefore turned to the standout contest of the third round between No. 3, last-year’s finalist Roger Federer, and No. 13, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. This one had scores to settle, both fresh and old.

    Federer suffered his first Grand Slam loss from a two-set advantage at this year’s Wimbledon—to Tsonga. But at the forefront of Federer’s mind, judging from his pre-match comments, was their quarterfinal meeting in Montreal two years ago. In that, too, Tsonga made a remarkable comeback from 1-5 down in the final set to win the match in a tie-breaker.

    Their meeting, once again, lived up to expectations as the sparkling Frenchman, finding his old uninhibited tennis without the help of a coach, beat Federer, this time surging through the final set, 6-1.

    One man, though, stood by his ranking, form and reputation all the way to the Montreal title. Novak Djokovic, like his elite colleagues, was making his first return to the tour since Wimbledon and he, like them, looked a little rusty in his opener against Nikolay Davydenko.

    He avoided the dangerous waters of Del Potro—Marin Cilic found his rhythm in a rain-disrupted match to beat the Argentine, but then fell to the Serb.

    With some matches under his feet, Djokovic then hit cruise-mode to take out an in-form Gael Monfils in just 73 minutes and an injured Tsonga in the semis. He saved the best for last in an impressive and resilient three-set victory over Mardy Fish in the Final.

    So, the Serb’s 2011 record continues to build: 53 wins and just one loss, nine ATP titles (Robin Soderling is next with four) and the first player to take five Masters 1,000 titles in a season.

Montreal Winners, Cincinnati Losers

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    Montreal has seen several other significant achievements, too.

    Janko Tipsarevic, reaching his first Masters semifinal, will break into the Top 20 for the first time.

    Richard Gasquet won his 250th tour match victory and is poised to rejoin the Top 12 if he does well in Cincinnati.

    Another ranking story that has run since Wimbledon also has resolution in sight. With David Ferrer back from injury, Soderling is the only man in the Top 16 to miss Cincinnati. It means the Spaniard could rise above the Swede to No. 5.

    Cincinnati has a strong field of qualifiers who could also play a significant role in the main draw.

    Radek Stepanek was awarded a Special Entry to Montreal after winning the Legg Mason title, but found himself having to qualify this time.

    Another US Open series winner, Ernests Gulbis, who won a Wild Card after taking the Los Angeles title, is in the same position.

    Both find themselves in the Djokovic quarter with difficult first rounds against John Isner and Ivan Dodig, respectively. Meanwhile, Murray and Nadal will breathe a sigh of relief that Gulbis and Stepanek did not fill the qualifier gaps destined for their own second rounds.

The Money Machine

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    Cincinnati holds the biggest remaining key to the Olympus US Open Series Bonus Challenge.

    The three men who score the most points in the US series of tournaments that leads to the Open itself will have whatever prize money they win in New York increased by up to $1 million.

    Thus far, Fish leads the field, followed by Djokovic and Gulbis, and there remains a huge financial incentive to keep—or break into—those standings.

    Apart from Cincinnati, only the Winston-Salem 250 remains. And while most will be focused on making the best possible runs from here to New York, prize money on this scale certainly helps to oil the wheels.

Quarter 1: Novak Djokovic

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    If there was any doubt about the level at which Djokovic would begin his hard-court campaign after his post-Wimbledon holiday, it has been roundly dismissed.

    Through each round in Montreal, he reasserted his superiority, finally curbing an aggressive attack from Fish in the Final. And if the Serb’s tennis alone is not intimidating enough, the aura he now exudes completes the job.

    His first challenge of note in Cincinnati arrives in the third round in the substantial form of Stan Wawrinka, who made David Nalbandian look pedestrian and almost derailed Fish in a see-saw quarterfinal in Montreal. Resilient and powerful as the Swiss is—assuming he overcomes the serving of Isner in the second round—he lacks the speed and vision to outplay Djokovic.

    It may fall to Monfils to try his luck again in the semis, although Roddick, making his return to the tour from injury, has much to prove—and all nine of his Masters finals have come on North America’s hard courts. Four of them were in Cincinnati, where he won the title in 2003 and 2006.

    The Roddick/Monfils section is highly competitive, however, boasting Juan Carlos Ferrero, Feliciano Lopez—who beat Roddick at Wimbledon—and Ivan Dodig. To this list has now been added Gulbis, who has also been enjoying some good form during the U.S. swing.

    In theory, Djokovic’s biggest test should come in the quarters: He is in Federer’s half yet again. But that quarter is an altogether less predictable story.

    Matches to watch out for: Ferrero vs. Lopez, Round 1; Gulbis vs. Dodig, Round 1; Roddick vs. Monfils, Round 3.

    Semifinalist: Djokovic

Quarter 2: Roger Federer

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    Federer’s loss to Tsonga in Montreal was not of itself a huge upset: The Frenchman, when on song, can overturn most players and he is currently playing with huge freedom and confidence. More surprising was the fall-off of Federer, after two tightly contested sets, to a 6-1 loss in the third.

    He will need to increase his energy and concentration levels in Cincinnati, not least because, as defending champion, he has a lot of points at stake, especially after losing runner-up points in Montreal.

    He does, however, face one of the most daunting openers of the draw.

    Del Potro, in a bizarrely-scheduled Sunday first-round match, eased through, courtesy of a retirement by Andreas Seppi at 1-4 down in the opening set. It sets up a second-round encounter between Federer and the Argentine, their first meeting since the Swiss lost his US Open title from a two-sets-to-one advantage in 2009.

    Del Potro went on to beat Federer in the World Tour Finals at the end of that year, too, though his form has since been dogged by injury and he has lost to lower-ranked players a number of times, including a sharp-looking Cilic in Montreal.

    That said, Del Potro has the measure of Federer’s game as well as a champion’s mentality, and against a match-starved Federer, this has the makings of another major upset.

    Whoever wins is likely to find Viktor Troicki in the third round and either Nicolas Almagro or Tomas Berdych in the fourth. The latter pair made good fourth-round runs this week and Berdych, in particular, with a new racket in hand, seems to be finding a little of his 2010 form.

    So, for the second week on the bounce, Federer heads into dangerous waters. If he is to make it three Cincinnati tiles in a row, he will eventually have to hand Djokovic only his second defeat of the year. But as Federer delivered Djokovic’s last two defeats, it would be a show-stopping match.

    Matches to watch out for: Baghdatis vs. Blake, Round 1; Federer vs. Del Potro, Round 2.

    Semifinalist: Del Potro

Quarter 3: Andy Murray

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    With a new diet, a new training regime and a new haircut, Murray looked and sounded full of confidence ahead of his Canadian title defence.

    He was bidding to become the first man since the '80s to win three consecutive Rogers Cups but, in the event, he suffered his third opening-match loss in a row at American hard-court Masters: He lost in both Indian Wells and Miami to players outside the Top 100.

    His Montreal defeat may, however, help Murray achieve his longer-term goals. He scaled back his schedule this year to exclude Los Angeles—where he reached the final last year—to ensure he kept enough in reserve for the climax of the swing and his ultimate goal, a first Grand Slam title in New York. A strong showing in Cincinnati, which he won in 2008, would build his form nicely for that target.

    If he hoped for an easier opening opponent than the fast-rising Kevin Anderson, however, he has been disappointed. He is slated to meet Nalbandian, who has suffered another year dogged by injury.

    The Argentine lost to James Blake in his opener in the Legg Mason and then to Wawrinka in Montreal with a very undercooked performance. But Nalbandian can produce wins from thin air on the right day, so it will be a good test for Murray that he should nevertheless win.

    Murray next faces one of the men of the moment, Tsonga, whose run to the Montreal semifinals will see him re-enter the Top 10 this week. The good news for Murray, however, is that Tsonga retired against Djokovic at a set and 0-3 down with an arm injury.

    It’s just possible, therefore, that Cilic will get the better of a less-than-fit Tsonga in a tasty first-round meeting.

    The top of the Murray quarter is full of interest, not least in the shape of the returning Ferrer, eager to take that No. 5 ranking. The Spaniard’s form on hard courts has improved steadily in the last year—he won Auckland, was a semifinalist at the Australian Open and beat both Roddick and Fish on their home ground in the Davis Cup in July.

    He has some tough competition, though: Grigor Dimitrov, a returning Jurgen Melzer and then Tipsarevic.

    So, Murray’s quarter is wide open and the Scot will have to hit the courts running if he is to advance further than last year, when he reached the quarters.

    Matches to watch out for: Tsonga vs. Cilic, Round 1; Murray vs. Nalbandian, Round 2; Ferrer vs. Tipsarevic, Round 3.

    Semifinalist: Murray

Quarter 4: Rafael Nadal

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    Nadal’s opening-round loss to Dodig was arguably the biggest shock of Montreal, not least because of the pattern of the match.

    Nadal started perhaps the best of the Top Four, looking sharp and fast after this six-week lay-off.

    He ran to a 6-1, 3-1 lead only to see Dodig level the match in a tie-break. Once again, Nadal asserted his superiority, 3-0, but was broken back. Then, with another break in the bag, he served for the match at 5-3, but conceded a break again and went on to lose the third-set tie-breaker.

    While credit must be given to Dodig, who has risen 100 places to No. 41 in the space of a year, it was uncharacteristic of Nadal to let a match-winning advantage slip not once, but four times. However, Nadal thrives on match play and, although he lost his opening doubles match, he went straight back to practise on Montreal’s courts before heading off to Cincinnati.

    He will undoubtedly hit back strongly and should progress with relative ease to the quarters—though it’s worth noting that his likely opening opponent, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, beat Nadal the last time they played: in Bangkok 2010.

    Nadal’s third round poses a floundering Verdasco—who may not even make it past No. 35 Tomaz Bellucci. Meanwhile, Youzhny has a second first-round match against Michael Llodra—he lost their meeting in Montreal.

    The upper section of Nadal’s quarter is rather more challenging. The man of the US Open swing so far, Fish, has reached three finals in row: Atlanta, where he won; Los Angeles; and now Montreal.

    It’s been a demanding month, and an early loss to one of Davydenko, Anderson, Alexandr Dolgopolov or Gasquet would be no bad thing for his US Open preparations. And any of them, on a good day, could make a run to the quarters.

    Matches to watch out for: Verdasco vs. Bellucci, Round 1; Youzhny vs. Llodra, Round 1; Dolgopolov vs. Gasquet, Round 1.

    Semifinalist: Nadal

    Final: Djokovic defeats Nadal.