Each day this week, Peter Bodo will review action from Cincinnati and preview upcoming matches. These "Good Morning Cincinnati" posts will be published around 10 am EST, and we encourage you to discuss the day's play—along with Pete's thoughts—in the comment section below.
Yesterday: Some territory on the tennis landscape is terra incognita for every promising young player, no matter how hard she works, or how great a game she has. It’s the place where that player finds herself at the brink of a resonant victory against an elite player.
Sloane Stephens found herself in that region yesterday at the Western & Southern Open, when she served for the match at 5-3 in the third set against Maria Sharapova. Stephens had just one win over a Top 10 player before last night—against Serena Williams at the Australian Open earlier this year—so she hasn’t had a lot of similar experience to draw on. And Sharapova is just as bellicose and menacing a rival as Williams.
It didn’t help when Sharapova started that game with a pair of un-returnable service returns. But Stephens rallied to go up 40-30, and over the ensuing points twice reached match point—and double-faulted the chance way each time. Yikes!
But Stephens was lucky; Sharapova made over 60 unforced errors on the night. The last two were—respectively after the second match-point double-fault—a backhand service return error and a down-the-line forehand that flew out, ending the final rally of the night.
“I never double fault,” Stephens said afterward, somewhat absurdly. “And I double-faulted twice on match point. I can’t believe it.”
Others found it difficult to digest that that Sharapova was unable to put her foot on Stephens’ neck in that critical game to get back on serve, but there it is. It looks like Sharapova and her new coach Jimmy Connors have a lot of thinking to do before the U.S. Open, because the world No. 3 has been off for five weeks and had officially scheduled nothing between Cincinnati and the U.S. Open. I still say this partnership is headed for disaster, and was from day one.
Stephens’ win comes at a propitious moment, because she’s been engaged in an effort to rebuild her confidence since the European clay-court season, and the U.S. Open is quickly bearing down on us. This victory will add to her confidence and make her a more comfortable competitor in the crucial situations she’ll have to learn to master if she’s going to be counted among the elite.
While that was the big news of the day on the women’s side, it wasn’t the only noteworthy result. In fact, this was one of the more competitive WTA days in recent memory. Jelena Jankovic, seeded No. 14, outlasted Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki; Alize Cornet upended No. 15 seed Ana Ivanovic; and Jamie Hampton got by enigmatic Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in three sets. In addition, Polona Hercog stopped diminutive dynamo Dominika Cibulkova in her tracks. Cibulkova has been on a roll these last few weeks, so this result may have been the most surprising of all—after the Stephens win. All told, eight of the 14 WTA singles matches played yesterday went to three sets.
On the ATP side, only four of the 15 matches went to three sets, the most notable of them No. 3 seed David Ferrer’s 6-4 in-the-third win over Ryan Harrison. Harrison got off to a great start in the third set with a break, but then fell behind 1-4. He would break again—after fending off a match point—but then Ferrer took control for good.
Between them, the two men created 29 break-point opportunities over the course of the two-hour-and-45-minute match. Harrison remarkably saved 16 of the 19 break points he faced, while Ferrer proved a tough out as well, saving seven of Harrison’s 10 break chances.
Another young American struggled valiantly but in vain as well. Canada’s Milos Raonic certainly was tired, emotionally as well as physically, after having played the Montreal final just two days ago. But he had enough gas in the tank to subdue 20-year-old wild card Jack Sock. That one ended 6-3 in the third.
The night ended with Roger Federer back in action (against Philipp Kohlschreiber) after his ill-fated excursions on European clay after Wimbledon. He’s ditched the racquet with the bigger, 98-square-inch head, and gone back to his old frame. Wouldn’t you, given that Federer was beaten using the new stick by No. 55 Daniel Brands in his last tournament, while his former racquet poured forth 17 Grand Slam titles?
Federer was something like a Big Four warm-up act, the only player (as well as the most successful) in that elite group to start on Tuesday. He did a good job but for one glitch, a double fault on break point that allowed Kohlschreiber to threaten to make a match of it with a 4-2 lead in the second set. But Federer leveled the score and won the second-set tiebreaker. As he said later, “I felt I needed to have a clean win.”
Maybe what Federer really needed to do to get his mojo back after that early loss at Wimbledon was to try a racquet with a smaller head!
Today: No. 8 seed Marion Bartoli makes her Cincy debut against Simona Halep—the Romanian player who’s won three of the last five tournaments she’s played (Nurnberg, ‘s-Hertogenbosh, Budapest). One that she didn’t win among that quintet was Wimbledon; that crown was plopped on the head of Bartoli.
This will be Bartoli’s third match since she won Wimbledon. It’s hard to read too much into her second-round departure from Toronto last week, because she was forced to retire with an abdominal injury after winning the first set against No. 42 Magdelana Rybarikova. But it’s about time for Bartoli to show us what she’s got. Her game is ideally suited to hard courts, but can she let her success at Wimbledon go for long enough to be a legitimate contender at the U.S. Open?
Halep has very quietly slipped up to No. 25 in the rankings. She and Sorana Cirstea have hit career-high rankings in the past few weeks—Halep was No. 22 in July; her compatriot is a very quiet but efficient No. 21. So what if thus far they’re more inclined to win at Budapest than London? They’re firing on all cylinders and making something magical happen in their shared homeland.
Petra Kvitova, who’s playing the unpredictable but talented Marina Erakovic, can tell you all about that—she lost to Cirstea in the quarterfinals of Toronto. She also lost, in the same round, to No. 131 Virginie Razzano in Carlsbad. Given that Kvitova is a former Wimbledon champ, that just plain stinks—but it’s par for the course for the gangly, insecure 23-year-old. It makes you wonder if Kvitova’s dazzling triumph at Wimbledon at just 20 years of age three years ago doesn’t personify the “too much, too soon” threat few are lucky enough to face.
On the ATP side, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal will play their opening matches. Why these guys prefer to play five matches on successive days is beyond me, and it makes complaints about the demanding schedule and physicality of the game seem hollow. You’d think they’d all be vying and jockeying to get a day off—like Federer now will get—if it’s such a tough slog.
The member of that elite crew who seems in the most precarious position is Murray, who has the toughest match of the three. He meets Mikhail Youzhny, a talented hard-court player who’s coming off a quality straight-sets win over Ernests Gulbis—the man who upset Murray in the second round last week in Montreal.
Murray has won just one match since his triumph at Wimbledon. I’m sure he wants to get a few more hard-court matches under his belt before he begins his title defense at the U.S. Open.
Nadal, meanwhile, is on a mission to build further on an already excellent hard-court foundation (his win in Montreal). He should have no trouble with Benjamin Becker. And Djokovic? Well, it’s hard to tell where his head is at. Sometimes it seems to be everywhere but on the task at hand. Can a great champion be too relaxed, and too free of stress? Juan Monaco probably intends to find out. But it’s hard to call for an upset of Djokovic, or any of his peers. After all, the top three are a combined 11-0 against the men they will meet.