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Steve Flink: Murray Takes Cincinnati; Djokovic Still US Open Favorite

8/22/2011 8:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

As the curtain closed at the Western & Southern Championships on the hard courts of Cincinnati, the game’s standout performer found himself in a strangely listless state, his body worn down and compromised, his agile mind not operating with anything like customary efficiency, his seemingly limitless supply of resourcefulness just about gone. Novak Djokovic had won nine of the ten tournaments he had played on his way to Cincinnati, and had raised his 2011 match record to 57-1 by the time he confronted Andy Murray in the championship match. He has been so unshakable all year long that despite all of his woes, regardless of the circumstances, come what may, we simply expected him to rise automatically to yet another important occasion and collect another prestigious crown.

But for the 24-year-old Serbian, it was not to be. Djokovic was a strikingly depleted figure, and he collided with a top of the line Murray, who deservedly came away with a seventh career Masters 1000 title—and a second in Cincinnati—building a 6-4,3-0 lead, going ahead by two service breaks in that second set before the Serbian retired with a shoulder injury that had made it impossible for him to serve with his customary power and authority. Having won 41 matches in a row to start his astonishing 2011 season, Djokovic had secured 16 match victories in a row since his lone defeat against Roger Federer in the semifinals of Roland Garros. Djokovic had been idle for four days in a row leading up to his loss to an inspired Federer in Paris, and he played only sporadically well on that occasion. Against Murray in Cincinnati, he was clearly hampered by the serve, and the depth of his fatigue was also apparent as he labored to reach balls from the baseline that he would normally handle with aplomb.

And yet, the fact remains that Murray is at his very best on hard courts, and he played excellent strategic tennis from start to finish, missing only rarely from the baseline while driving the ball with telling velocity and accuracy off both sides, serving remarkably well, displaying court sense that few players in his field can match. Even if Djokovic had been at full strength, Murray in this form was going to be tough to beat. But, at the outset, Murray needed to be no more than solid as Djokovic made a cluster of unforced errors. Murray rolled to 2-0, sweeping eight of ten points in the process. At the start of the third game, Djokovic made his seventh unforced error on only the eleventh point of the match, an ominous sign that the Serbian was not moving with the alacrity required to topple a primary adversary, nor was he executing off the ground with precision.

Serving in that third game of the first set, Djokovic stood at 30-40, one point away from falling behind two service breaks. He released an unstoppable serve to save the break point, and then played two aggressive points in a row, cracking his forehand with accelerated pace to close out that game. The rest of that set was hard fought and well played on both sides of the net, although Djokovic continued to work inordinately hard to hold serve. After two deuces, he held on for 2-3, and then he played his best return game of the match to break back for 3-3. At break point, Djokovic won a challenge on a serve from Murray, and he sealed that point by chasing down a scorching backhand down the line from Murray, answering with a well struck forehand crosscourt that rushed Murray into a forehand down the line mistake.

But Djokovic remained deeply vulnerable. On the first point of the seventh game, he made his 16th unforced error, netting a backhand down the line. At 30-40, the two players had their most strenuous and absorbing backcourt exchange of the contest, and the rally lasted no fewer than 42 strokes. Djokovic was in command, but his inside out forehand approach was easy prey for Murray, who laced a backhand pass down the line to force Djokovic to volley up. Murray easily passed him on the next shot. The British player held easily for 5-3. Two games later, ahead 5-4, Murray served for the set, racing to 40-0. Djokovic saved two set points, but the world No. 1 erred off the forehand on the third, and the set belonged to Murray.

Djokovic was visited by the trainer at the changeover to examine his ailing right shoulder, but the three minute injury timeout was only delaying the inevitable. At 15-40 in the opening game of the second set, Djokovic pressed again off the forehand to lose his serve, and then a confident Murray held at love, connecting with four first serves in a row, acing the Serbian on the last one. Djokovic battled gamely through two deuces in the third game, but when he drove a backhand down the line wide to lose his serve, he knew there was going to be no way out of this bind for him. Moments before heavy rain fell from the darkening sky, Djokovic hugged Murray and wisely elected not to continue.

It had been an intriguing tournament in many ways for all of the leading players in Cincinnati. Murray bounced back emphatically after losing his opening match in Montreal to Kevin Anderson, sweeping through the draw without the loss of a set in five matches. Djokovic had never looked entirely content all week, casting aside Ryan Harrison and Radek Stepanek in straight sets in workmanlike yet uninspired fashion, then recouping for a three set win over Gael Monfils. That match was a revelation from the standpoint of the highly charged and immensely entertaining Frenchman, who has too often played to the crowds rather than playing to win.

Monfils was 0-7 against Djokovic heading into this clash in Cincinnati, and precisely one week before in Montreal he had been humiliated 6-2, 6-1 by a Djokovic who was at his absolute zenith. But this time around, exhaustion was setting in for Djokovic, as is often the case for the player who has been victorious in Canada the week before. These two Masters 1000 events come back to back to the detriment of both the players and the public. To win them both back to back, a player must capture ten matches in a row over a grueling twelve or thirteen day stretch and the fields in Montreal and Cincinnati are magnificent. To be sure, there are back to back Masters 1000 tournaments at other junctures in the year, and Djokovic did manage astoundingly to win Madrid and Rome in successive weeks during the spring, taking both titles with final round triumphs over Rafael Nadal.

Yet the view here is that the summer heat of Canada and Cincinnati is much harder for the competitors to navigate than springtime on the clay in Europe. Be that as it may, Djokovic was caught off guard by the Monfils who showed up with such resolve and purpose to face him in Cincinnati. Monfils was disciplined to a degree I have seldom seen from him before. He was attacking purposefully, serving-and-volleying selectively, volleying with extraordinary feel and conviction. But he also rallied patiently with Djokovic from the baseline, waiting for good openings before going for winners, resisting the impulse to blast forehands recklessly from poor positions, refusing to steer his shots timidly rather than playing with controlled aggression.

Monfils broke Djokovic in the first game of the match, and then gamely fought off break points as he held for 3-1 and 4-2, and he closed out the sixth game by prevailing in a 34 shot rally. Djokovic served at 3-5, but an obstinate Monfils broke him again as the Serbian misfired off the forehand on an inside out approach. Djokovic looked essentially spent, even after breaking for a 3-2 second set lead. Monfils retaliated with a break of his own for 3-3, held on for 4-3, and a Djokovic departure seemed not only possible but probable.

And then the game’s dominant player found another level of resolution. It was as if Djokovic made up his mind unequivocally, and proclaimed, “There is no way I am going to lose this match.” He commenced the 3-4 game with a thundering inside-in forehand that Monfils could not possibly handle, and he went on to hold at love. At 4-4, a shaken Monfils fell behind 0-40, took the next two points, and then gambled with a big second serve that was well long. Djokovic had the break for 5-4, served out the set, and never looked back, taking the final set 6-3, breaking a debilitated Monfils in the first and last games and holding comfortably throughout. Djokovic willed his way to a 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 triumph against the best Gael Monfils he had ever played.

Monfils was not the only player to give the fans in Cincinnati a larger sense of what he could do under optimum circumstances. Tomas Berdych has not been the same player this year that he was a year ago, when he was one set away from the final of the French Open, and then eclipsed both Federer and Djokovic to reach the final of Wimbledon. One of the cleanest and most potent ball strikers in tennis, Berdych has not done himself justice this season despite a reasonably consistent record.

But in Cincinnati he lifted his game to heights he had not explored in quite a while. After crushing Nicolas Almagro in the round of 16, he took on Federer in the quarterfinals. They had not played each other since Toronto last summer, when Berdych came exceedingly close to defeating the Swiss for the third time in a row before Federer pulled out a clutch victory in a final set tie-break. In this encounter, Berdych came out absolutely blazing, driving his returns with extreme pace, depth and precision, rocking Federer back on his heels from the outset. He blew Federer right off the court in that set, breaking twice, taking command of his own service games with meticulous care, immense power, and supreme location. Set to Berdych, 6-2, and the man seeking a fourth crown in five years at Cincinnati never really knew what had hit him.

In the second set, Federer remained strikingly vulnerable on his returns. He had gotten away with the short, low chipped backhand return against Juan Martin Del Potro in his opening round match, casting aside the 2009 U.S. Open champion with ease. But that tactic was not going to work against Berdych. Still, Federer inevitably made his move in the second set, serving with more authority yet still struggling mightily to hold on. At 5-5, Federer fought valiantly through seven deuces, saved two break points with an ace and a service winner, and soon the two players moved into a tie-break to settle the outcome of the match. That sequence was locked at 3-3, but Berdych captured four points in a row to complete an impressive 6-2, 7-6 victory. In that tie-break, Federer’s forehand was his undoing; he made four damaging unforced errors off that side.

Berdych did not lose his serve in the match, never faced a break point, and gave Federer all kinds of taxing problems with the potency of his unrelenting returns. A staggering statistic was this one: Federer won only 7 of 28 points on his second serve for a dismal 25%. Berdych outplayed him across the board, and so for the second week in a row on the hard courts, Federer had been essentially blasted off the court by a big hitter; the previous week in Montreal, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga struck him down in the quarters, 6-1 in the final set.

Federer will come into the U.S. Open with his longest losing streak in a decade. He has been beaten in eleven consecutive tournaments since taking his opening event of 2011 in Doha, and only twice in that span has he made it to a final. Meanwhile, the 30-year-old has not won a major since the Australian Open of 2010, falling in six straight Grand Slam events to five different players. In that span at the world’s premier events, Federer has gone through to only one final—Roland Garros this year—while losing three times in the quarterfinals and twice in the penultimate round.

Clearly, this great champion has his work cut out for him in New York. Winning a sixth title at the U.S. Open is going to be one of the tallest challenges of his illustrious career. He did beat the odds considerably in 2008 after a distressing summer hard court season that included a loss to James Blake at the Olympic Games. There was an unmistakable sense of urgency in Federer that year as well because had not won a major heading into Flushing Meadows. The 2008 Open was one of the most important wins ever for Federer.

But it will be even more arduous for Federer to reverse his fortunes this year than it was in 2008 as he attempts to become the first man ever to secure at least one major for nine consecutive years. He is a strong-minded character, highly underrated as a competitor, still supremely motivated despite his record number of majors—16—and his altered life as the father of two-year-old twin daughters. To dismiss his chances at the Open would be foolhardy, yet the fact remains that he will need everything to break his way to survive that singularly difficult fortnight. He needs this major as much as any big tournament he has played for a very long time, but Federer was surely was not boosted by his Olympus U.S. Open Series campaign.

Nor was Rafael Nadal. After his jarring loss in Canada to Ivan Dodig when he blew a 6-1, 3-1 lead and served for the match before bowing out, Nadal played in Cincinnati with a few fingers on his right hand burnt after touching a hot plate in a restaurant. In the round of 16, he met countryman Fernando Verdasco in a three hour, 38 minute skirmish that boggled the mind. Nadal held an impeccable 11-0 career record over Verdasco, and had lost only three sets to his fellow left-hander in their entire series.  But Nadal was at first somewhat lethargic and later was inexplicably nervous down the stretch of an improbable showdown. The world No. 2 escaped in a first set tie-break after Verdasco thoroughly miss-hit a second serve for a double fault at 5-4. Yet Verdasco took the second in another tie-break before going up a service break in the third. Nadal asserted himself decidedly to break back, and on they travelled to another tie-break.

At last, Nadal seemed to break free of his timidity and began raising the level of his aggression and playing the kind of tennis that had eluded him for most of the match. He was up 5-1 and seemingly destined to succeed comfortably. But Nadal’s anxiety resurfaced disturbingly, and his self inflicted wounds thereafter were painful for all of his admirers to witness. He played the next four points abysmally, making four unprovoked mistakes in a row. Verdasco was back to 5-5, and Nadal was holding on for dear life. But he refused to let go. The tie-break went to 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, then 9-9. A jittery Nadal wasted four match points, but never allowed Verdasco to get a match point of his own.

Finally, at 9-9, Nadal made a deep forehand return that forced Verdasco into a mistake, and on his fifth match point Nadal sealed the victory, moving forward to make a forehand drop volley winner. He won 6-7, 7-6, 7-6, but escaped by the skin of his teeth and took an awful lot out of himself in the process of achieving a victory. The next day, Nadal was ushered out of the tournament, beaten for the first time by the increasingly estimable Mardy Fish. Fish—who clinched the top spot in the Olympus U.S. Open Series by virtue of winning Atlanta, reaching the finals of Los Angeles and Montreal, and then advancing to the semifinals in Cincinnati—knew that Nadal had worked inordinately hard to get past Verdasco, and felt that the fast hard court conditions in Cincinnati were ideal to pit his game against the Spaniard’s.

The American was absolutely right. He won 6-3, 6-4 without losing his serve.  Nadal actually performed at a much higher level in this contest than he did the previous afternoon against Verdasco. His ability to use the right-hand on his double-fisted backhand was markedly improved, his consistency and sustained aggression off the forehand was more than up to snuff, and he moved his serve around skillfully, serving often enough to Fish’s weaker forehand wing to keep the American honest. But Nadal could not convert on any of the four break point opportunities he had in the match, most importantly in the opening game of the match when he had two chances.

Fish was unbending on the big points. He saved the first two break points in that opening game with an excellent forehand crosscourt approach that was unanswerable, followed by a forehand that hit the edge of the line. Serving for the set at 5-3, Fish faced another break point, wiping it away unhesitatingly with an ace at 118 MPH down the T. At 4-3 in the second set, Nadal earned his last break point. This was one of the few moments when Nadal pressed. He netted a forehand return off a second serve kicker, and once more Fish escaped. Serving for the match at 5-4, Fish held commandingly at love. His combination of going on the attack judiciously and defending with tenacity got him over the finish line for the first time ever against the Spaniard, and it was a win well earned.

In the semifinals, Fish attempted to record a fourth consecutive head to head victory over Murray, but Murray was the better man from the back of the court, and his returning was often exemplary. Fish had not lost his serve in three previous matches, but Murray was on the mark repeatedly with his return game. Fish won only 63% of his first serve points and 45% of his second serve points. Fifteen times he found himself down break point, and Murray broke him four times. That was the fundamental difference.

And yet, it was a hard fought battle. The first set essentially came down to one critical game. Serving at 1-2, Fish fought off four break points, had a game point, but then lost his serve for the first time all week when he double faulted off the net cord and then drove a flat backhand long down the line. Serving for the set at 5-3, Murray saved two break points but stood his ground ably and ran out the set 6-3. Three times in the second set—at 1-0, 3-2, and 4-3—Murray was up a break, but he fell into a self defeating pattern of rolling his first serve in without much on it, allowing an opportunistic Fish to break back every time.

The end of the second set was suspenseful. Fish rallied from 0-40 at 5-5 with magnificent serving under pressure, and then had Murray in jeopardy. Murray served at 5-6, 15-40, double set point down. He had apparently been cramping during the latter stages of this set, but he calmly erased the set points as Fish drove a forehand return long and then missed a difficult forehand pass. In the ensuing tie-break, Murray made it to match point with Fish serving at 5-6, but Fish rifled a brilliant backhand winner down the line into the clear. Fish had a set point with Murray serving at 6-7, but the British player saved it with a service winner wide to the backhand.

The drama was not over. Murray had apparently won the match with a forehand return into the corner with Fish serving at 7-8, but Fish challenged the call, although he was not really convinced he was right. The ball was indeed narrowly wide, and the American was back to 8-8. In the 21 stroke rally that followed, Murray was the man who prevailed, earning a third match point, and gaining a 6-3, 7-6 triumph as Fish pulled a forehand wide.

So let’s leave Cincinnati behind, and look ahead to the last major of the year. Djokovic should have time to allow his shoulder to heal, and, assuming that is the case, he will surely remain immensely confident about himself and his chances. He has won two of the three majors this year, and his loss to Murray will not be much of a blow. Djokovic has been totally reliable at the Open for the past four years, reaching the 2007 final before losing to Federer, making it to the semifinals in 2008 and 2009 before Federer got in his way again, then toppling Federer a year ago after saving two match points in a stirring semifinal. Nadal ousted him in a four set title match, but Djokovic had a terrific tournament.

Unless the shoulder acts up considerably, Djokovic is almost surely going to win the U.S. Open for the first time to underline his supremacy with a third major crown in 2011. In my view, it is Murray who has the next best chance to win the title. For the fourth year in a row, he has captured one of the summer hard court tournaments at the Masters 1000 level, and he is the only player other than Djokovic to be a semifinalist or better in every major this year. Murray is fully capable of putting the 2011 U.S. Open in his victory column.

My No. 3 candidate for the Open title is the defending champion Nadal, an indefatigable competitor if ever there was one. The hard courts in New York do not suit his game like the clay of Roland Garros or even the grass at Wimbledon, but Nadal will give himself a substantial chance if he can find the same formula that worked so well for him a year ago when he changed his grip and added significant velocity to his serve. I place Federer as the fourth most likely candidate to succeed in New York. He has, after all, won five U.S. Opens, and despite his long slump across 2011, Federer will approach this major with steely determination, knowing the consequences for him are enormous.

Almost surely, one of the four remarkable men mentioned above will secure the 2011 U.S. Open. But one other man has at least an outside chance. His name, of course, is Mardy Fish. He now has the tools to beat anyone in the business on any given day. He was impressive at Wimbledon in reaching the quarterfinals, but knows he can do better than that with the American crowds getting behind him fervently in New York. Fish has reshaped his philosophy significantly, and is no longer selling himself short. He will be seeded among the top eight for the first time. He comes to the Open for the first time as the leading player in his nation. Under the right set of circumstances, Mardy Fish could win the U.S. Open.


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