Of course we see predictability this week in Cincinnati as this dramatic USO series gets closer and closer to New York City. Of course, we’re all excited about the big apple’s men’s major tennis opera starring Novak and Andy in leading roles, with Roger playing the older, more subdued crowd favorite.
Nothing really “off” course at this point. We are in a kind of waiting game, anticipating (some of us anxiously) the direction of the ATP narrative. Of course, this tennis story involves the current and immediate future of U.S. Open tournament series play, as well as the career arch of some of the players.
Cincinnati is the second of the two significant Masters 1000s that precedes the U.S. Open and naturally we get a chance to see who’s finding meaningful form, the kind that will translate to the best-of-five-under-the-big-spot-light-major-championship kind of tennis. New York is a storied venue with some of the best to ever play this game playing their best tennis. We should agree that the hard courts make a compelling argument for the best surface to determine the best, most complete game. It’s not a coincidence that two of the GOATs have five a piece in Flushing Meadows, a venue rich in tennis championship history – where the U.S. National Championships began in 1881. Of course, this tennis championship now has massive international significance.
Glance at a list of past USO champions and you see the importance of these late season hard courts; you see the correlation between play at the Western & Southern Open and the U.S. Open – what makes what’s happening on the courts this week so intriguing. The list of past champions at the U.S. Open, of course, is a who’s who of men’s tennis history, the stories of brief periods of brilliance or extended periods of dominance. In more recent tennis history, the list recalls particular characters like Marat Safin. I remember that U.S. Open final where the prodigious 20-year-old Russian dominated Sampras in straights. Anyone who saw him play knows his game was scary natural and should have translated into much more tennis championship success. Character and other factors somehow derailed this tremendous talent. Pat Rafter is another U.S. Open memory, who’s game fit nicely on the North American hard courts. 1998 marked a great year for this particular Aussie. He beat Sampras at the final in Cincy and went on to claim his second straight U.S. Open crown. Take a look at the history of Cincy and compare it to Flushing Meadows. A very interesting walk down memory lane and a reminder of how significant these hard courts are in determining who is the best in the world.
Cincinnati at the Quarterfinals
So, what’s been happening in Cincinnati this week? Well, things are going fairly according to plan, of course. Let’s start with Rafael Nadal. The bizarre Nadal-Federer relationship reared its ugly head again. How totally mesmerizing is this pair? Nadal, as we all know, has owned this rivalry dating back to that 2004 Miami Masters. The seventeen-year-old Spaniard, ranked #34 in the world at the time, beat Roger in 3rd round play in straights. Of course, Roger was #1 at the time and we were all off on our merry amusement park ride of tennis intimidation that Roger so agreeably went along with. What in the world was that? No question in my mind that this first Miami 2004 impression affected the two forever. That’s what this relationship seems like: forever. Forever Nadal to dominate the Swiss great.
As Cincy began to roll-out, the tennis peanut gallery began to whisper “Roger Rafa quarter final.” Uhg. Here we go again. Of course, the Nadal camp saw this as a perfect opportunity for the struggling Spaniard to sharpen his tools into much more convincing form. Despite my stance that Nadal is done, I actually lent one ear to this bizarro world that is Roger-Rafa H2H. It’s disturbing.
But, in deed, I did already reiterate Nadal is done. I used my eyes to make this pretty outspoken statement. His game, without his aggressive (even angry), bullying ground strokes and clutch-point play, is so uninspiring. This is the origin of my particular bias. I have nothing against Nadal himself; he seems like a decent guy. But his tennis is anything but classic. Sorry. His other uncle is a professional futboler. Rafa’s game is similarly athletic, big, bruising, running down balls, burying them into his opponent’s backhand corner rather than the back of the net. He’s a tremendous athlete.
And yet his most important trait may be his mental game. As rough and unrefined as is his tennis, his clutch gene is predominant. How many times have you seen him out-think his opponent? It’s unbelievable. An interesting dichotomy for sure: unrefined yet sneaky intelligent, even competitively sublime.
Well, as I said (no, I am not saying I told you so – oops, I just said it), his days of dictating a match appear to be long gone. The only surprise from this 3R loss to Lopez is the fact that he was beaten by one of his minions. The rise of Spanish tennis under Nadal has been impressive (there are several legitimate players from this not so much championship tennis factory), but he always has his way with them. Not in Cincy 2015. He’s done for the tournament and, as I have suggested, for all time.
What happens now to Rafa? Talk is of hope for a coaching change (from Nadal Nation). I have already said a big reversal in form will be suspicious. He is not injured; rather, he is inept. With the tennis power that now graces these tournaments, especially in later rounds, Nadal can not possibly find the form to compete. How? Can he develop a serve and volley game? A bigger serve?
As I clumsily tried to clarify in my article about Roger, his longevity and class will keep him way out-front of Nadal despite their bizarre H2H that only Freud can explain, I’m afraid. Roger at 34 is playing beautiful tennis. Another Cincy title this week would be very impressive.
How will the subdued crowd favorite fair with Djokovic and Murray still alive? His form looks convincing and likewise the two leading men of the ATP have been winning in light of some pedestrian tennis. A win is a win, but Nole and Andy have done, seemingly, just enough to get past some less-than-stellar opposition. Dimitrov would have done himself many favors by closing-out that 3R match vs. Murray. Wow. And how does the exhausted Djoker go down 0-3 in the third and reel-off six straight? Ha. Is there a silver-lining for Dimitrov and Goffin? Is there a moral victory in there? #1 and #2 continue to impress.
We see that Djokovic is finding his game. His straight-set dismantling of Stan this morning is just want the Djoker needed. Perhaps he had a couple of drinks with Boris in order to find that killer instinct he’s been missing. Again, like Wimby (as one of my favorite commentators pointed-out), Nole is finding form late in a tournament, shedding some of that flabby tennis in early play, arriving at the final four in closing-the-deal shape. Is Cincy giving us, as it has historically, insight on New York City? We’ll have to wait and see, but this early QF result seems awfully ominous for the rest of the ATP cast.