Good Morning Cincinnati: Friday

Friday, August 16, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Peter Bodo reviews action from Cincinnati and preview upcoming matches in his "Good Morning Cincinnati" posts. We encourage you to discuss the day's play—along with Pete's thoughts—in the comment section below.


Yesterday, WTA: Simona Halep is having one heck of a week in Cincinnati. Two days ago, she knocked Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli into an unexpected retirement, and yesterday she bounced No. 11 seed Samantha Stosur out of the Western & Southern Open.

Halep is at the spear-point of an unexpected rise in the fortunes of Romanian tennis. She’s one of three Romanian women in the Top 50 and one of five in the Top 100. Ranked No. 25, Halep is just four ticks behind the finalist in last week’s premier event in Toronto, Sorana Cirstea. The third woman in the Top 50 is No. 43 Monica Niculescu.

Cirstea has been particularly effective since Wimbledon, and woe unto she who takes her lightly in the upcoming U.S. Open. Since Wimbledon, she’s been was a semifinalist in Stanford, a quarterfinalist in Washington D.C., and a finalist in Toronto (l. to Serena Williams). She earned her way into that championship match, too, knocking off four women who were either Grand Slam champs or former No. 1s: Caroline Wozniacki, Jelena Jankovic, Petra Kvitova and Li Na.

At 5-foot-9 and 130 lbs. Cirstea a middleweight with a heavyweight punch. She has no fear of engaging any woman on the tour in a ball-belting contest. Cirstea took this week off, but Halep stepped right in and picked up where she left off.

A pugnacious baseliner with a surprisingly good serve for a woman who stands just 5-foot-6, Halep has been on fire since Rome, where she made the semifinals (l. to Williams) as the world No. 64. In the ensuing weeks, this unapologetic grinder collected three titles — Nurnberg (clay), ‘s-Hertogebosch (grass), and Budapest (clay).

Niculescu, who’s just slightly off the pace of Cirstea and Halep, had a solid win over Yanina Wickmayer in Cincinnati but lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the second round.  None of these women has penetrated deeply into a Grand Slam (Cirstea reached the quarterfinals of the 2009 French Open), but one or the other just might before too much longer. The Romanian’s success is especially striking in comparative terms. Vaunted Serbia and Italy each have but two women in the WTA Top 50, and France has just three.

In perhaps the most intriguing match-up of the WTA day, No. 10 Wozniacki upended No. 7 seed Petra Kvitova, 3-6, 6-2, 6-3. This was a clash of two women who sorely need a few confidence-building wins. The added incentive is that each of them is 4-2 against the woman the winner would play next — No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka. But there’s a significant caveat attached: neither has played Azarenka since her breakthrough year of 2012.

Wozniacki has struggled to hold onto her No. 10 ranking, and hasn’t won a tournament since Moscow in the fall of 2012. Just last week, she lost to Cirstea in the first-round at Toronto. But things haven’t been all that great for Kvitova lately, either. She did win Dubai early in the year, but the former Wimbledon champion’s ranking has dipped all the way to No. 9.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that in the fall of 2011 —  the year Kvitova stunned everyone by winning Wimbledon at age 20 — these two women were engaged in a bitter duel for the prestigious year-end top ranking. Wozniacki would end up holding that spot for a second consecutive year, albeit without ever having won a Grand Slam event and clearly hanging on by the skin of her teeth. In fact, early in 2012 Kvitova was ranked No. 2 and within a few swings of the racquet of the top spot.  But she shrank from the task and Azarenka took it from Wozniacki instead.

The bittersweet reward for Wozniacki is that the win over Kvitova yesterday leveled their head-to-head at four matches apiece, and it ended a three-match winning streak by Kvitova. If nothing else, this has become one of the more unconventional rivalries of the tour; each woman owns a great distinction (Wozniacki’s two consecutive years at No. 1, Kvitova’s Wimbledon win), and each has a serious shortcoming (Wozniacki never won a major, Kvitova is mentally frail).

***

Yesterday, ATP: On the men's side, John Isner is playing like a man whose pride has been stung, perhaps by the news late last week that his fall out of the ATP 20 (he slipped to No. 22) marked the first time in the 40-year history of the ATP rankings that no American man was ranked in the elite Top 20.

Yesterday he handled Montreal runner-up Milos Raonic to earn a quarterfinal slot, and he did it with success in both departments of his two-prong strategy for winning. Hold serve and look for the door to be left ajar just enough to sneak out a break; failing that, fall back plan B, which calls for winning a set in a tiebreaker when you can’t break serve.  Isner won this battle of the monster serves, 7-6 (5), 6-4.

On a day when No. 5 seed Roger Federer and No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro survived serious scares (from Tommy Haas and Feliciano Lopez, respectively), the most authoritative win — and the biggest upset — was Dmitry Tursunov’s overwhelming defeat of No. 3 seed, David Ferrer.

Tursunov is a player made with the same blueprint as James Blake (whom Tursunov mastered in the second round). He takes huge cuts and risks going down in flames when those relatively flat laser-like bullets don’t fall inside the lines. That’s not a bad strategy to employ against everyone’s favorite grinder, even if it only works, oh, 1.3 percent of the time.

Actually, the strategy of taking the game to Ferrer seems to be working better and better all the time, now that Ferrer is on the far side of 30 years of age. His isn’t a game that age treats kindly, mainly because it requires such sustained focus — and that’s one of the first attributes that a highly successful player loses as the walls of time close in.

***

Today, WTA: It’s hard to imagine Halep giving Serena Williams much trouble, and Azarenka and Wozniacki have been players traveling in two different directions since early 2012 (Azarenka has been heading north, Wozniacki south). Agnieszka Radwanska's withdrawal to return home to Poland for her grandfather's funeral gave Li Na a walkover into the semifinals. The most competitive quarterfinal is likely to be the clash of No. 14 seed Jelena Jankovic and No. 12 Roberta Vinci.

Given the wild-west flavor of Jankovic’s win over Sloane Stephens yesterday ( a festival of 18 breaks, nine by each player), you can expect more drama and abrupt shifts of momentum; it seems to be when Jankovic is happiest.

***

Today, ATP: It’s gut check time for Roger Federer, the all-time Grand Slam singles title champ who was nearly knocked out of the tournament yesterday by Tommy Haas (the 35-year old German was up a set and a break, 4-2). But Federer found his game and rallied — with a little help from a suddenly timid Haas.

Nadal, by contrast, has allowed his racquet to declare him the man to beat at this event, and perhaps even at the U.S. Open, barring some dramatic loss of form or injury. Given the once-glorious and unpredictable nature of this historic rivalry, it hurts all but the most jaded partisans to see that Federer now trails 10-20. The Swiss icon has gotten four games in a set against Nadal just once in their two meetings this year, and this one also is shaping up as a blow-out by Nadal.

Novak Djokovic and Isner have no comparable rivalry, but they may produce a more competitive match. Once again, Isner will rely on the aforementioned two-prong approach against the world No. 1 and top seed. Heck, it worked once (in four tries) back at Indian Wells in 2012, when Isner won a three-set match by sweeping a pair of tiebreakers.

Isner may have an interesting advantage in this one: Djokovic is gunning to complete what the ATP marketing guys have dubbed the “Career Golden Masters.” You’ve got to be a real tennis junkie to appreciate the contortions someone went through to arrive at such gobbledy-gook.

I can understand the ATP trying to find a unique, tennis-relevant catch-phrase to describe Djokovic’s attempt to become the first man to win every Masters title at least once.  But why not call it, simply, a “Career Masters Grand Slam?” That sounds better and clearer, and it directly conveys an idea most sport fans instinctively understand. Is it that the ATP is reluctant to infringe on the ITF “Grand Slam” brand?

Whatever the case, Djokovic has his work cut out — not just because he’s been somewhat snakebit in Cincy (four finals, zero titles), but also because Isner is capable of smothering Djokovic under a blanket of aces and service un-returnables. See you in the tiebreaker!

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