August 19, 2012

Rally the Vote

Here in the States we're approaching a very important period of the year. No, not the lead-up to the Presidential election, but the last stages of preparation before the final Grand Slam of the year. And while recent attention may have been placed elsewhere, this week's action in Cincinnati refocused us on a couple candidates that may have fallen a bit under the radar in recent weeks.

It's a little disingenuous to pretend world #1 Roger Federer is anything but one of the top contenders for the U.S. Open title. But after his shockingly one-sided defeat at the hands of Andy Murray in the Olympic final, momentum seemed to be shifting slightly. But things seemed to revert this week at the Western & Southern Open, where the great Fed, four times a champion before, was back in form. In his first four matches, he allowed just three break chances to his opponents and never conceded one -- and these were no second tier players he faced: Bernard Tomic, compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka, 2010 finalist Mardy Fish.

But never during the week did he look as good has he did in this afternoon's final. Against second-seeded Novak Djokovic, riding his own hardcourt win streak with titles in Toronto and Miami, he had lost six of his last eight meetings, three of which had come at Grand Slams. Nole had looked surprisingly good since loosing a heartbreaking Bronze medal match, too. In Cincinnati he'd been perfect on serve too and reached the final with a drubbing of Juan Martin Del Potro, the man who'd denied him a second spot on the Olympic podium.

After the most recent stretch, Djokovic had pulled just shy of even with the world #1, but Roger was quick to pull back ahead. In a twenty-minute first set, he made good on three of four break chances and held his opponent to just over a third of his service points. Nole was able to raise his game in the second set, but it wasn't quite enough -- neither man was able to make a perceivable dent in his return games, but when they made their way to the tiebreak, Roger was the one holding ever-so-slightly stronger. On his second championship point he hit a winner that Djokovic couldn't get to and sealed his spot as champion again.

The ladies' draw didn't pan out quite as expectedly -- the top three seeds were all eliminated in the quarterfinals, but the two who made the final nevertheless represented some of the best of this year's hard court season. Angelique Kerber, who made her breakout on Tour just about a year ago, has been playing some of the most consistent tennis of the year, making three finals before arriving at Cincinnati, and taking a couple titles in the process. At the Western & Southern, though, she really raised her game, pulling off some of the biggest wins of her career over red-hot Serena Williams in the quarters and Petra Kvitova in Saturday's semi.

Meanwhile Na Li, who hadn't won a title since taking the French last year, nevertheless compiled a strong 17-6 record on hardcourts this year and made the finals in both Sydney and Montreal. At thirty years of age, it would've been easy to write her off, but she pulled off a second win over top seed Aggie Radwanska in the quarters and stayed strong against veteran Venus Williams in the semis to make her second final in as many weeks.

Kerber seemed in control of the match early. In a first set just slightly longer than that of Roger and Nole's she broke twice and won about two-thirds of the total points. But the tide turned in the second and the players traded breaks early. It was in the eighth game of the set, though, that things got interesting. In a twenty-four point game, Li converted on her eighteenth break chance of the match and after that things went entirely in favor of the Chinese. Kerber couldn't get any hold in the decider, losing the first four games of the set and almost before you realized what happened, it was Li walking away with the trophy.

It was a nice time for both this week's champions to come up with their wins -- with just a week left until the U.S. Open, there might not be a better opportunity to reassert their strength. It's not as though we could really, truly forget about them, but especially while the rest of the fields look a little bruised and battered, there's no harm in reminding us all what they're made of. And with the latest salvos they've delivered in their debates, there's sure to be a lot more support in their camps when they make the move to New York.

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