August 22, 2009

A Day of Firsts

Welcome to Ohio!

My trip this weekend to watch the semis & finals of the Western & Southern Financial Group's Masters Tournament in Cincinnati is one of many firsts for me: the first time I've been in the state since my parents moved me away in 1983, the first time I've taken a plane solely to watch a tennis tournament, the first time I sat in an actual press box (with A/C and shelter from the looming rainclouds!), the first time I ever watched the #1 and #2 players in the world play live.

And another first, at least of what I can remember -- they aren't doing so in the finals. Yes, this is the first time in a long time, if ever -- I'm sure some of my Twitter followers will let me know for sure! -- in which such a significant change in positioning happened just before such a big tournament. And with the draws announced late last week, that meant former third-ranked Andy Murray was put in the same half of the draw as current top dog Roger Federer.

Despite my prejudices I have to admit I was a little more excited to watch this battle than I thought I'd be. Though I've seen Murray in action once before -- at the quarterfinals of last year's U.S. Open -- this was actually my inaugural Federer performance, and one that I knew would showcase his best. It's not everyday the draws work out so you really do get to watch the highest quality tennis on the final weekend. And with the last Grand Slam of the year barely a week away, both had something to prove.

Murray of course had the weight and confidence of a new #2 ranking and Roger, the devastating memory of losing a match in which he had been ahead 5-1 in the third. And to further complicate things, Federer hadn't defeated Andy since last year in Flushing Meadows, losing their last four meetings in three sets each.

Today, however, Roger came out swinging. He took the early lead in the first set, breaking Murray in his second service game and got to a 0-40 lead in the sixth. In the first set he broke Andy twice while only allowing six points total on his own games, easily taking the set in thirty minutes.

But he was careful not to get ahead of himself. In three of his last four losses to Murray, Roger had run off to an early lead, only to fall apart in the end. In his post-match press conference, he was asked how his recent history against the Scot affected his game today.

"In the last few times I'd played against him, very often I won the first set and ended up losing the second set, then can't find my way back into the match in the third -- that's kind of how he started running away with it. To me it was always important, this time around, that the same doesn't happen again. I stayed aggressive, I was always looking to make the plays, and in the end I deserved to win because I wasn't scared to go after my shots."

While he certainly did let Murray back into the match again today -- the new #2 raised the level of his own game infinitely in the second set, serving eight aces and never allowing a break point -- Roger kept his level of play up as well. Murray never could get under Federer's skin and never scored more than two points on his opponent's service games.

The resulting tiebreak was surprisingly a nail-biter. Roger again took the early lead 4-1, but a barrage of power from Murray gave him the first set point at 5-6. The two stayed on serve for several more points until a tentative double fault at 9-8 gave the match to Roger and sends a frustrated Murray home to train for New York.

So Federer advances to his fifth final of the year -- he won the title in Madrid as well as, of course, Roland Garros and Wimbledon -- where he'll meet the winner of the Rafael Nadal/Novak Djokovic match being played later tonight. While Roger acknowledged that either would be a tough opponent, he admitted he'd like to see Rafa come through with the win, especially since he's coming back from an injury.

I'm "not that surprised that he's doing so well just because -- I mean the guy's only lost like six matches this year…Of course he's looking for his game. I hope he's feeling well now. At the end of the day, he's a great player and an unbelievable competitor. He's got that image, too, which the players know about. He's obviously going to make it hard for the opponent. It seems like things are coming back together for him, which is great to see."

For so long I had been waiting for the fated fight between a #1 Rafa and a #2 Roger. Now that we've been there and seen that, I'm aching to witness the first time a #1 Federer plays a #3 Nadal.

Interestingly, if Nadal does win the title tomorrow, he'll reclaim his previous ranking from Murray and enter the U.S. Open as the second seed.

And while that might not set up the first meeting between Rafa and Roger in a Grand Slam final -- I certainly hope it won't set up the last.

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