The Cincinnati Masters have come and gone and a winner has been crowned.
Andy Murray claimed the title and sounded a warning shot ahead of the US Open, Novak Djokovic proved yet again that he is the man to beat and Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer showed that they were making the necessary improvements to challenge at their very best.
The players are off for a break, but here are the seven things we've learned over the past week in Cincinnati about the upcoming US Open.
In every Grand Slam tournament, there are bound to be rumblings among tennis aesthetes about "easy" draws and lucky wins, and as Fernando Verdasco showed us in his defeat to his fellow compatriot Rafael Nadal in Cincinnati last week, the U.S. Open will likely be no different.
Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on your point of view, players will choke at some stage or the other—some specialize in doing it at lesser events, while others just don't have the temperament for the big stage; either way there's usually a lacklustre top player who will benefit.
I believe there will be a few top players who will get favors at the U.S. Open from chokers.
In contracting a shoulder injury and subsequently retiring from his semifinal match in Cincinnati, Tomas Berdych is a doubt for the US Open.
The Czech world No. 9 played a great tournament in Cincinnati, defeating Roger Federer en route to the semis, however his chances—even if he is fit—are still overrated.
Defeating Rafael Nadal in straight sets is no small feat and the fact that Mardy Fish pulled it off at all will be cause for concern to the top players.
In winning the Olympus US Open Series after capturing the Atlanta title and reaching finals in Los Angeles and Montreal, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that with a good draw at the US Open, Mardy Fish has got what it takes to do some serious damage at Flushing Meadows.
Speaking on his form, Fish said:
I've played great all week. I beat a lot of good players this week. I've just been trying to solidify my spot, trying to make guys think that I belong, and trying to convince myself I belong as well. It's been great. Semi-finals of a huge event like this is a good result for anyone. So it's been two great weeks. I'll take two, three, four days off and regroup and get away from the court and then get back mid next week.
Relatively speaking, Roger Federer has had a pretty decent Cincinnati Masters. Despite coming into the tournament as defending champion, expectations weren't high for the Swiss world No. 3.
Federer had exited earlier than usual in Montreal and his draw in Cincinnati did not look very appealing. However, Federer displayed some of his very best form in his victories over Juan Martin Del Potro and James Blake and he showed that he could—on occasion—produce the goods.
The big caveat though is "on occasion". In his loss at the quarterfinals to Tomas Berdych, there was a lack of fluency to Federer's game that is symptomatic of age and the various associated slowing-down processes. Now in his 30s, Federer can be great on any given day—however, he seems to struggle to maintain his form through consecutive matches and this will be a worry for the US Open.
After a terrible early round defeat at Montreal two weeks ago, Rafael Nadal came into Cincinnati hoping that he could right the ship—and he has to a degree. There was a bit more verve about him, there was some purpose and he seemed to recognize and actively try to correct the faults in his game.
Going into the US Open, Nadal will have his sights set firmly on defending his title. It is a big task, but the need is even greater.
Winning the US Open will ensure that Nadal ends 2011 with more than one slam and it would keep him on track to reaching Roger Federer's record Grand Slam tally of 16. Not winning the US Open—although it wouldn't be the end of the world—would hark back to the pains of his 2009 season.
Simply put, whatever it is that drives Nadal is in desperate need of some fuel and the US Open is that fuel.
If Nadal doesn't win the US Open this year and never equals/surpasses Roger Federer's record, the blame will lie squarely on his 2009 and 2011 seasons—two years during his prime—where he won just one Grand Slam title.
Earlier in the year, Andy Murray competed against Novak Djokovic in the semifinals of the Rome Masters on clay—incidentally Murray's worst surface and arguably Djokovic's best—and it was telling that Murray was a just couple of points away from winning the match.
In coming so close, despite being at a disadvantage in that tournament, Murray showed that he could compete with Djokovic at a level that other top players seemed unable to do—and in winning the Cincinatti Masters, he's promptly proved it.
However, in spite of this victory, Andy Murray will be hoping that he hasn't peaked too soon—nevertheless, he represents Novak Djokovic's biggest threat at the US Open this year.
Novak Djokovic has had a wonderful 2011 so far. He's won nine tournaments, losing just two matches and he's the world No. 1 by a considerable margin.
Going into the US Open, Novak Djokovic is head and shoulders the favorite for the title in New York, and it was only proved in Cincinnati. Although the Serb suffered from shoulder problems in the final against Andy Murray, it is worth noting that Murray was made to work harder than he did against previous opponents who were fit.
Unfortunately for Novak Djokovic, there is a Pyrrhic victory in having won so many tournaments this year: burnout.
Inherent in winning all the tournaments that Djokovic has won is the accrual of more mileage than his rivals and this will be Djokovic's biggest concern heading into the US Open. There is a possibility that the shoulder injury that hurt his chances in the Cincinnati final is just a sign of things to come.