August 21, 2011

Final Arguments

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would like to remind you of some pieces of evidence crucial to the outcome of this case.

Er, something like that.

There may still be a few more titles to hand out before the start of the U.S. Open, but it was really the men's and women's events at Cincinnati where players made their final statements before heading to New York. And the four that worked their way to finals Sunday did what they could to plead their cases.

The men's final was shorter than you might expect. Red-hot Novak Djokovic, fresh off a title in Montreal (and Wimbledon, and Rome, and...), made his way to his tenth final of the year with some continually impressive play. But a shoulder injury that had been nagging him for over a week and nearly caused him to withdraw from his semi against Tomas Berdych eventually got the better of him. Down a set and two breaks today, he ultimately retired, slightly sullying his record to a dismal 57-2. I'm sure it's not the last memory he wants before heading east, but he's certainly built up enough of a defense to keep the jury in his favor.

Of course, I begrudgingly admit, we cannot discount the efforts of his vanquisher in Cincinnati. Andy Murray, a winner here in 2008, came to Ohio with some bizarre results -- despite a runner-up showing in Melbourne and making the semis at the two other Majors, the world #4 had only compiled a middling 29-10 record on the year and failed to defend his Rogers Cup title, falling in his opener. But he was in much better shape this week and fought of real challenges from David Nalbandian, Gilles Simon and Mardy Fish -- who'd trounced him in their last three meetings. He may not have had a full match against Djokovic today, but he's shown he's able to throw his name in the ring with all the big guys.

The ladies' final held a little more drama with two former #1's colliding for the Cincinnati title. The 2009 winner, Jelena Jankovic, hadn't won a match since the French Open and had seen her ranking drop out of the top ten for the first time in more than four years. But she seemed to find her game again at the Western & Southern Open, coming back against Jie Zheng in the second round and surviving a nearly three hour slugfest against Francesca Schiavone a round later. She then held strong against a feisty but ailing Andrea Petkovic in Saturday's semi to make her second final of the year. And when she came back from two breaks down to take the first set in the championship match, she reminded us of the damage she can do when she's on her game.

Her opponent, Maria Sharapova, has been trying to remind us of her power all year too. Having started the year just in the top twenty, she broke back into single digits with a runner-up finish in Miami and a title in Rome. She didn't quite live up to expectations at Wimbledon, but her one-sided defeats of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sam Stosur, and a solid comeback against world #2 Vera Zvonareva last year, got her season back on track. That confidence and experience must have helped her when she found herself in a deficit -- she fought back from a break down in the second set, won the tiebreak, and stayed steady through six straight breaks of serve before finally securing the hold and winning the trophy. It's not a bad stretch of momentum to take with her as she tries to win her first Major since 2008.

Of course it's not a given that any of these four players will ultimately hoist the crown in New York, but any opponents they face in their upcoming trials will have more than reasonable doubt when they step up to the service line. And the strong offensive each have put up in Cincinnati sure do a lot to make their cases for them.

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