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Steve Flink: Cincinnati Reflections

8/22/2010 8:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

It had been a long time coming, but Roger Federer finally won another tennis tournament. He ended a nine tournament losing streak--- his longest drought by far since he won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2003--- and captured only his second title of 2010 by capturing the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati. Since Federer had not secured a title anywhere in the world after opening his annual campaign in style by claiming the Australian Open crown, this victory will send him to New York for the U.S. Open feeling somewhat better about himself and his game. But the fact remains that his Cincinnati triumph was largely a product of Federer’s resilience, willpower and coolness under fire rather than a startling turnaround in form.

Mardy Fish concluded one of the best weeks of his life with a stirring performance against the 16 time Grand Slam tournament champion in the championship match. Fish held his serve 16 times in a row before the Swiss maestro broke him at 4-4 in the final set and then served out the match. Federer ultimately prevailed 6-7 (5), 7-6 (1), 6-4 in a high quality final. Winning must have been gratifying for the 29-year-old world No. 2, who had been beaten in his last three finals by Rafael Nadal in Madrid on clay, by Lleyton Hewitt on the grass in Halle, and by Andy Murray a week ago on the hard courts of Toronto. But his victory was not entirely convincing. He served quite well the entire match, facing only one break point, never losing his delivery, backing it up capably with some solid play from the backcourt and some timely visits to the net. The fact remains that Fish could well have recorded a win had he believed in himself just a shade more late in the second and third sets.

Federer was the man creating the opportunities all through the first set, yet Fish was boldly up to the test. The first moment of consequence occurred with Fish serving at 1-1. Had he been broken there, Federer would have been off and running, and might well have moved inexorably toward a comfortable straight set victory. But Fish was composed and as disciplined as possible in that crucial nine deuce game, which stretched through 24 points. Federer only had two break points at that juncture, but Fish thwarted him admirably. He saved one break point with an unstoppable 127 MPH first serve to the forehand, and Federer could not make the difficult return. On the next one, Fish held his ground and Federer drove a forehand well out from the middle of the court. On his ninth game point, Fish released a service winner to Federer’s backhand.

That game altered the course of the match markedly from Fish’s standpoint. He knew that the first set was a must win situation for him, while it was not imperative for Federer. At 4-4, Fish was down break point again at 30-40, but up he came with an ace down the T. At game point, he aced Federer with the identical serve. Federer had dropped only three points in his first four service games, but at 4-5 he struggled for the first time. Federer had a 40-15 lead in that tenth game but Fish made some good returns and pushed the favorite twice to deuce. Federer was imperturbable. He attacked successfully on the first deuce point and rolled a forehand pass into the clear on the second after Fish chipped a forehand return off a second serve without enough on it. Federer made his way back to 5-5.

Fish was under pressure again at 5-5. For the fourth time in the set--- in a third different service game--- Fish found himself down break point. But he had not fought off 15 of 18 break points against him throughout the tournament for no reason. Fish aced Federer out wide in the Ad court at 133 MPH. He eventually held with a cagey kick first serve ace which caught Federer thoroughly off guard.  The 28-year-old American had worked exceedingly hard to reach a tie-break, and that was all right with him. He had won 15 of 22 tie-breaks during the 2010 season; moreover, Fish had taken five of the six tie-breaks he had contested all tournament long in Cincinnati.

There was no rhyme or reason to this one. Fish got the mini-break lead at 4-3 with one of his deep, piercing backhand returns rushing Federer into an error. But Federer answered back forcefully by taking the next two points on Fish’s serve to move ahead 5-4. Federer now had the chance to close out the set on his delivery, but his first serve let him down badly here. At 5-4, Federer did not get the first serve in and Fish seized control of the point, winning it with an overhead set up by a forehand drop volley down the line. Then Fish took his backhand return off another second serve early, driving the ball deep and coaxing Federer into a backhand chip into the net.

Fish was up 6-5 with a set point, and he sealed it quickly with a deep first serve that Federer could not handle. He had won that set by serving beautifully under pressure, and by surprising Federer repeatedly with his ability to win long rallies with great defense and good shot selection. He was doing two things that confounded Federer: staying in extended rallies by not overplaying his shots, and covering the court better than he ever has before. Federer was not missing much himself, but when he did it was the resourcefulness of Fish that made the difference. Even when Federer made effective approach shots, Fish did not go for broke. Fish kept rolling his passing shots low and forced Federer to dig out impossibly low volleys. That was a sign of deep match playing maturity on the part of Fish. But Federer did not help his cause in the tie-break by missing five out of six first serves.

In any case, both men maintained their high standards in the second set. At 2-2, Fish earned his one and only break point chance of the match, and here the clarity of his judgment was questionable. He was rallying comfortably with Federer and trying to take charge. On a high, relatively deep ball off the forehand, Fish went for an outright winner that wasn’t really in the cards, and he pulled the shot wide. Had he been more patient and waited for a better opening, Fish might have negotiated a service break that could have carried him to victory.

But Fish was serving even more skillfully than he had in the opening set. He conceded only nine points in six service games during that second set, did not face a break point, and was strikingly sure of himself in the crunch. At 5-6, Federer chipped and charged to set up a forehand volley winner for deuce, but Fish retaliated with a flat backhand crosscourt approach, with Federer hurried into a down the line passing shot error. Federer looked to come in himself on the next point, but anxiously netted a sliced backhand approach. Fish was right where he wanted to be, back in another tie-break with a chance to close out the biggest tournament win of his career.

He never got close. Federer lifted his game decidedly, did not make one careless mistake, found his range off the forehand and took utter control. At 6-1 in the tie-break, Federer aced Fish to make it one set all. He had played like a champion when it counted, while Fish had been found wanting at a critical stage of the contest.

But Fish regrouped impressively in the third set. Both men continued to serve magnificently on the fast hard court, and by then the sun had broken through the clouds and made the conditions even quicker. Up until 4-4, Fish was holding more comfortably. He swept 16 of 19 points in four service games. Federer had a deuce game at 2-3 and held at 30 three other times. But in the ninth game, Fish lost his nerve ever so slightly. He was serving at 30-15, looking to move ahead 5-4, displaying a confident air. At 30-15, though, Fish was beaten cold by a backhand pass at his feet. At 30-30, Federer miss-hit a ball flagrantly off the forehand but his shot stayed in the court. Understandably thrown off his rhythm, Fish drove a forehand long. Suddenly, it was 30-40 and Federer seized the moment, hitting a trademark inside-out forehand that provoked Fish into netting a backhand. Federer held at 30 to close out his much needed win. Remarkably, he had won only 2 of his previous 22 Masters 1000 events, but he got the job done this time professionally.

That Fish was even in the final was an extraordinary feat in itself. Fresh and energetic after skipping the Rogers Cup Masters 1000 event the week before in Toronto, Fish dealt with a relatively tough draw remarkably well. He defeated the Frenchman Gilles Simon in the opening round, then ousted No. 8 seed Fernando Verdasco, taking both encounters in straight sets. Fish won three of the four sets he captured in those straight set triumphs in tie-breaks. Next he accounted for the gifted Richard Gasquet in straight sets, earning a quarterfinal appointment with Andy Murray.

Murray had lost his last two meetings with Fish earlier in the year. But the world No. 4 had knocked off Rafael Nadal and Federer to win in Toronto, recording his first tournament victory of the year, ending a long and debilitating slump. But Murray had struggled in the midday Cincinnati sun two days in a row before he took on Fish, gaining long three set triumphs over Jeremy Chardy and Ernests Gulbis, holding off Gulbis in a final set tie-break. He had hoped to play Fish either late in the day on Friday or that evening, but his request was denied, and he faced his American rival in the early afternoon when the heat was overwhelming.

Yet Fish and Murray put on a terrific show under the circumstances. They both held sedulously into an opening set tie-break, which Murray captured after saving two set points. But then he lost his way in the second set as the 100 degree heat made him feel weak and unstable. Fish admitted later he found the conditions awfully difficult as well, but he never showed any sign of fatigue. In any case, Murray was swept aside by an unerring and sound Fish 6-1 in the second set. But the third set was hard fought on both sides of the net, and was settled in another tie-break. Murray was in command, serving at 4-2. Fish hit a deep crosscourt backhand that a television replay later confirmed was long, but Murray did not challenge the call. Fish would win that point with a backhand drop volley winner.

That was the pivotal moment in the match. Murray managed to stay with Fish until 5-5 in that tie-break, when Fish came forward to force Murray into a passing shot error. Fish wrapped up a well deserved 6-7 (7), 6-1, 7-6 (5) victory with a clutch first serve down the T that Murray could not get back into play. After an arduous three hours, Fish had pressed on to the semifinals, setting up an appointment with his old friend and frequent practice partner Andy Roddick. Roddick, who missed Toronto after discovering he was in the latter stages of a mild case of mono, had carved out some crucial wins to take his place in the penultimate round. He had overcome No. 5 seed Robin Soderling 6-4, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (5) in the round of 16.

Roddick won the first set of that absorbing clash 6-4 and was up a break at 3-2 in the second, seemingly on his way to a commanding straight set victory. It turned out to be anything but comfortable. Roddick played a loose game on serve to allow the dangerous Soderling back to 3-3. In the second set tie-break, Roddick had a match point, but was undone by caution, missing a passing shot after giving Soderling an invitation to attack. In the third set, Roddick had Soderling down 3-4, 0-40, but squandered five break points there. Then Roddick failed to convert two match points with Soderling serving at 5-6, 15-40. And yet, after all of that anguish, he came through in the end on his fifth match point. A day later, Roddick halted an abysmal Novak Djokovic 6-4, 7-5 with ease, although he failed to serve out the match at 5-4 in the second set, double faulting at 30-40 down the T. That would be an ominous sign of things to come.

When Roddick and Fish squared off in the semis, it seemed as if Roddick was going to avenge his recent loss to Fish in Atlanta. In the semifinals of that event back in July, Fish had ended a nine match losing streak against his friendly adversary with a straight set win. But this time around, in a match disrupted by three rain delays, Roddick had the upper hand for a long while. After a rain delay with Fish about to serve at 4-5 in the opening set, Roddick came right out and took charge, breaking Fish to seal the set and building a 5-2 second set lead. After another rain delay, Roddick served for the match at 5-3.

Roddick had not yet lost his serve in the match, so the circumstances were identical to when he played Djokovic. In this case, Roddick played the most timid of games. At 30-30, two points from a place in the final, poised for a victory that seemed all but certain, he got involved in a 21 stroke rally, and never seized the initiative. Fish found a way to approach behind his sparkling two-handed backhand and Roddick missed the passing shot. Then Roddick came forward at 30-40, and netted a backhand volley off a ball that might have been going out. In the ensuing tie-break, Roddick had a quick mini-break and was ahead 2-1, but lost his last four service points and Fish prevailed 7-3 as Roddick played like a man who was afraid to lose rather than someone fully expecting to win.

Almost inevitably, a revitalized Fish raced to a 5-0 final set lead, and came away with a 4-6, 7-6 (3), 6-1 victory. Fish was magnificent once he got his nose out in front, and served exceedingly well in the latter stages of the contest. But Roddick was his own worst enemy. To say he did not put the clamps down is putting it mildly. He seemed perhaps too aware of his abysmal service game at a set and a break up against Soderling, and too conscious of his wasted opportunity at 5-4 in the second set against Djokovic. It all caught up with him against Fish, who realized how easily he could have been gone in two routine sets, but then performed beautifully in the final set as Roddick uncharacteristically seemed to give up.

Meanwhile, tennis fans had eagerly awaited a Federer-Nadal showdown in the semifinals, hoping to witness the first meeting at an American tournament in this rivalry since Federer rallied gamely after being two points from defeat in the third set to topple the Spaniard in a five set final at Miami six years ago. It was very close to happening. Federer had stopped Nikolay Davydenko 6-4, 7-5 in an afternoon quarterfinal, and then Nadal took the court that evening to face Marcos Baghdatis in a clash under the lights. Nadal had a 6-0 career record against the charismatic Cypriot, but three of their previous four meetings had gone the distance.

Nadal has not yet found his best hard court game since returning after a long layoff the week before in Toronto. He always seemed unsettled in Canada despite reaching the semifinals, and on the faster courts in Cincinnati his struggles continued. After a 6-2, 7-5 win over Taylor Dent (who led 4-2 in the second set), Nadal confronted the Frenchman Julien Benneteau, who can be a tough customer when he is playing well. He played quite well against Nadal, but the world No. 1 was out of sorts and nearly suffered a major upset. Nadal lost the first set and came from a break down at 3-2 in the second to reach a tie-break. Nadal was up 4-1 but Benneteau, who would cramp badly in the final set, charged forward to make a couple of winning volleys.

Nadal still advanced to 5-3 in that tie-break, but overanxiously netted an inside-in forehand. Benneteau got back to 5-5 with an ace, and served another ace to reach match point. Nadal wiped it away by taking control with a first serve down the T, followed by a pair of penetrating forehands. Benneteau wearily sliced a backhand long. Nadal survived 5-7, 7-6 (6), 6-2, but it wasn’t pretty. He raised his game to a much higher level against Baghdatis on serve and off the forehand, but his two-handed backhand was still not functioning well. Nadal tried to drive it relatively flat or roll it with heavier topspin, but either way he was missing badly. All too frequently when Nadal was trying to add pace to the backhand or drive it hard with more topspin, his execution was not nearly up to par.

Baghdatis, meanwhile, was serving better than he ever has against Nadal. In the second game of the match, the die was cast. Baghdatis saved five break points and held from 0-40, closing out that game with consecutive aces. At 4-4, Nadal was up 30-15 on his serve but he missed a forehand down the line, and then made a pair of glaring unforced errors off the two-handed backhand to lose that critical game. Nadal was executing his sliced backhand well, but his two-handed drive off that side was a serious liability. Baghdatis served out the set at 15, releasing two more aces.

Nadal forcefully rallied from a break down at the start of the second set to make it one set all. Both players were excellent up until 4-4 in the final set. At 1-2, Baghdatis held at love, releasing three straight aces to close out that game. Nadal settled into a nice rhythm on his serve. And then came the crunch. Baghdatis was down 3-4, 0-30, second serve. Inexplicably, Nadal netted an easy backhand return. Baghdatis eventually held. In the following game, Nadal was ahead 30-15 when he approached on an inside-out forehand. Baghdatis whipped a forehand passing shot winner crosscourt, then made Nadal volley up on the next point, setting up a clean pass off the backhand. Now, at 30-40, Nadal double faulted into the net to lose his serve. Baghdatis served out the match to win 6-4, 4-6, 6-4. Aside from his woes off the backhand--- which the Spaniard will inevitably rectify when he joins forces again with his invaluable Uncle Toni in New York--- Nadal was still on the right track heading for the U.S. Open.

As for Baghdatis, he could not replicate his often dazzling play against Nadal in his contest with a rested Roger Federer in the semifinals. Federer was sharp and authoritative from the outset, crushing a more subdued Baghdatis 6-4, 6-3 without coming close to losing his serve. Federer looked excellent under the lights, chipping and charging off backhand second serve returns, driving his inside-out forehand with more gusto than he has for some time, going for his backhand down the line at the right times,  and serving magnificently. His second serve had more bite than has been the case for a long time. He threw in some timely serve-and-volley combinations, and gave away very little. Not once did a listless Baghdatis even reach deuce on Federer’s serve, and the world No. 2 won 40 of 51 points on his delivery.

With the Cypriot serving at 4-5, 40-15 in the first set, Federer caught Baghdatis off guard with a deep return down the middle. Baghdatis reacted as if he thought the return was going long, and hastily tried to make a desperate half-volley response off the backhand. He missed, and Federer came back to get the break to seal the set. In the second set, Federer got the only break he needed for 5-3 and handily served out the match from there.

No wonder Federer seemed so eager and quick on his feet. He had admittedly arrived from Toronto somewhat worn out from a string of tough matches in that event, but good fortune came his way in abundance. In his first match against Denis Istomin in the second round, Federer was up 5-2 in the first set when his opponent had to retire with an ankle injury. Due to meet Philipp Kohlschreiber in the round of 16, Federer got a default as the German withdrew with a shoulder injury. So on his way to that Friday appointment with Davydenko, Federer played a grand total of seven games and only 28 minutes all week. It was just what the doctor ordered.

In the end, Federer surely benefitted immensely from the unexpected rest time he got up until the weekend in Cincinnati. That allowed him to rest his weary body and clear his mind, and he came away with his first title since the end of January at the Australian Open. The schedule worked entirely in Federer’s favor, and even the draw broke his way. He could hardly have expected to meet a still struggling Davydenko in the quarterfinals, Baghdatis in the semifinals and Fish in the title round. In the last analysis, however, that really doesn’t matter. He needed a tournament win more than a big triumph over a premier rival. But the narrowness of his final round victory over Fish will be a stark reminder to Federer that nothing comes easily at this time. He is surrounded by rivals who no longer believe he walks on water, although they know he remains a great player who is driven by the most powerful of private engines to secure more majors.

As for Fish, it seems as if he has at last moved to another level. His record across the summer has been almost stupendous, including tournament wins in Newport and Atlanta along with his final round appearance in Cincinnati. With a strong finish down the stretch this year, Fish could make it inside the world’s top ten for the first time at the end of this year. None of the leading players will be anxious to meet Fish at the upcoming U.S. Open, and that includes Roger Federer.

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