August 19, 2013

Business as Usual?

Things got pretty interesting last week in Cincinnati as the sport's stars tried to make their last big statements before heading to the U.S. Open. We saw players exit early, players announce surprise retirements and players prove they're not quite ready to fade away.

Even on champions' Sunday, when those ultimately left standing have consistently been some of the strongest in the field this summer, things didn't go down quite as smoothly as you might expect. And the results might just show how nothing is set in stone in New York.

While the road to the men's final may not have been as externally dramatic as that for the women, there were still plenty of upsets to rock the field. Third-seeded David Ferrer, winless in non-Majors since his historic French Open run, lost his second match here to qualifier Dimitry Tursunov, and Roger Federer and Andy Murray -- who've combined to win seven of the last eight titles here -- both fell in the quarterfinals this time around.

Meanwhile, some of the strongest men this summer season were busy causing their own drama. American John Isner, winner in Atlanta and finalist in DC, put together one of his most successful weeks ever -- after defeating Montreal finalist Milos Raonic in the third round, he stunned world #1 Novak Djokovic and came back from a set down to beat 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in a rematch of the Citi Open final. It was just his second Masters 1000 championship match but, with wins over three top-ten players to get there, might have been the biggest accomplishment yet of a man who'll likely only be remembered for one thing.

His opponent didn't have to endure as many challenges on his way to the final, and Rafael Nadal, fresh off a win in Montreal, should have been the clear favorite on Sunday. Yes, he'd survived a scare from Roger Federer in the quarters and played two long sets against one-time Wimbledon finalist (and the man with whom I'll potentially have to split my Powerball winnings) Tomas Berdych, but with just two losses on the year and a perfect 14-0 hardcourt record going into the final, it should not have been a contest. Still, Isner put up a hell of a fight yesterday, holding set points in the opening tiebreak before finally ceding the trophy in a two-hour battle. Nadal may have established himself as a favorite in New York, but Isner's proven he might just be in the running too.

Most of the noteworthy surprises on the women's side came early, of course, but the consistency that came from those causing the upsets was nevertheless noteworthy. Simona Halep followed up a career-ending win over Marion Bartoli by taking out Carlsbad champion Sam Stosur, and 2009 champion Jelena Jankovic put herself back within a stone's throw of the top ten with wins over Wimbledon Cinderella Sabine Lisicki and Maria Sharapova's vanquisher Sloane Stephens, and even took a set off Victoria Azarenka in the semis.

But ultimately it was the top two seeds that made the final. World #1 Serena Williams, riding a fourteen-match win streak since her Wimbledon loss, had a couple hiccups on the way -- she lost a set to Canada's Eugenie Bouchard in her opener and dropped serve five times to defending champion Na Li on Saturday night -- but powered through for a chance to play for her ninth title of the year. Meanwhile Azarenka, struggling with injury since her Wimbledon first round, worked her way to a second straight final, surviving a scare from pink-hot Magdalena Rybarikvoa and being pushed by on-the-rebound Caroline Wozniacki in the quarters.

The two ladies have been some of the strongest in the sport over the past eighteen months, trading the #1 ranking back and forth and reaching six Grand Slam finals between them. But history has been squarely on Serena's side, and other than a couple losses on the books, the American had been on a role against the NextGen star. She seemed to be in control Sunday, too, storming through the first set, but Azarenka held tough forcing a decider and, when Williams had a shot to serve out the championship, breaking back and reaching a tiebreak. She came back from deficits there, too, and after two and a half hours -- thanks to a netted return from her opponent -- ended a streak that threatened to continue for months to come.

You may have thought that this weekend's championships were cut and dry, but whether the favorites eventually won or lost, neither did so without a touch of drama. It's become clear that plenty of players in the field can cause a stir while even the surest things have some questions around them. And with less than a week left before the first balls of the U.S. Open are hit, all these guys and gals have thrown the door wide open as they race for the year's last big trophy.

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