August 23, 2009

Sweet Sixteen

Today is an important day in tennis history.

Thirty-six years ago, on August 23, 1973, the very first ATP rankings were released with Romanian Ilie Nastase claiming the top spot. Since then twenty-four different men have held the position, and today one of them took the court on the road to claim his sixteenth Masters title.

In the finals of the Western & Southern tournament in Cincinnati, Roger Federer, who first became #1 in February of 2004 took on Serbia's Novak Djokovic, who achieved his career high ranking of #3 a little more than two years ago. Both players have been a regular fixture at Masters events in recent years -- Federer of course has won fifteen titles while Djokovic has quietly made his way to three finals already in 2009 (he lost twice to Rafael Nadal and once to Andy Murray).

From the get-go Roger looked like he was out to show the world why he's been #1 for so long. Nole was looking to win his first championship in Cincinnati, Roger his fourth, but after last night's trouncing of Rafael Nadal, the twenty-two year old got off to a slow start. His first service game was a marathon thirteen minutes long, comprised of eight deuces, two game points and seven break opportunities. Eventually Roger converted, helping him get off to a quick 5-0 lead in the set.

Djokovic seemed to regroup in the second, this time coming up the winner in another long second game. He took the early 3-0 lead, and I wondered, however briefly, if we were about to see a mirror image of the first few games. Though he did allow Roger to get back on serve, Novak held another set point at 5-4.

Instead Roger played like he almost always does when a title is on the line. With Novak serving at five-all, the best player in the world took advantage after his opponent's drop shot stopped short of the net and turned up the pressure on a second serve. Federer's fourth break of the match gave him the opportunity to close out the championship, a task he completed in just a few minutes, holding Djokovic at love in the next game.

Nole was given credit for his much improved level of play in the second set, but knew that he was just out-matched beginning to end. When the Western & Southern CEO accidentally presented him with the champion's cup, he very appropriately djok-ed, "the closest I was about to get to the first place trophy was now."

So with his sixteenth Masters trophy in hand, Roger sets off for New York and the U.S. Open, where he seeks to win his sixteenth Major title. It's already been a year of records for him, and now once again playing at his best, there's no reason to believe he won't set another one. Looking ahead to Flushing Meadows, Roger is confident and is hoping the fans of the great city get behind him again. At his post-match press conference he said:

"I was lucky enough that when I got to New York (last year), the fans were really there trying to push me back to #1 right away. They were great, you know. Like all the cab drivers and everybody was stopping to wish me luck. It was something that I've never really experienced before in New York. I think that really helped turn it around for me after having the disappointment at Wimbledon."

With support like that it's hard to believe that Roger's second sweet sixteen won't be long away.

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