Good Morning Cincinnati: Thursday
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: You have to hand it to Marion Bartoli, she’s certainly an original. Barely a month after fulfilling a lifelong dream with her victory at Wimbledon, the iconoclastic Frenchwoman with the double-handed game and oddball mannerisms announced that she’s retiring from tennis.
The No. 8 seed in the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, she made the announcement in a stunning (to those assembled in the interview room), tearful press conference shortly after losing to Simona Halep in a second-round match. She said she’s tired of the grind and doesn’t feel like she wants to put in all the hard work and effort required to remain competitive in the game.
The big question, of course, is: Will Bartoli be back in, say, January, professing to miss the game the joys of hard physical exercise, international travel (and extensive pampering), and—most important—the sound of applause cascading down all around her in stadia around the world?
That’s too tough a call to make. But the reality is that Bartoli’s win at Wimbledon was so unexpected, almost magical in its improbability, as much because of as in spite of the fact that she was a “surprise finalist” in 2007. Perhaps she realized down deep that she couldn’t hope to match or exceed the feat she recorded when she mastered Sabine Lisicki a few weeks ago. And just a few months out from her 29th birthday, it isn’t as if she’s just coming into her own as a player.
Still ranked No. 7 (her career high), Bartoli won one match before retiring—with an injury—in Toronto last week, and lost yesterday in three sets to a woman who hadn’t taken a set off her in two previous matches. My gut reaction: Bartoli knows what’s in her heart. She could have milked her newfound fame for a few more months even if her heart wasn’t in the game. Instead, she faced reality and made a very, very tough decision—and one that is by no means irreversible if she learns in a few months, or a year or two, that this was some sort of rash, emotional over-reaction to having fulfilled an impossible dream. Because that’s the other, real possibility here.
That bombshell aside, the women had another intensely competitive day in Cincinnati. Nine of the 14 singles matches went the three-set distance, but perhaps none raised as many eyebrows as Serena Williams’ fight-back against Canada’s rapidly developing 19-year-old, Eugenie Bouchard.
In reality, the match wasn’t as close as the score (4-6, 6-2, 6-2) indicated. Williams couldn’t find the court in the first set. As she said, describing one particular point: “I thought I'd never hit a shot like that professionally. I have maybe in practice and with my eyes closed, but I’ve never hit a shot like that when I'm conscious.”
Can you say “bulletin board material?” Given that Williams will be 32 in just a few weeks and is thus destined to find the Ws harder and harder to nail down, it would seem that humility (false though it may be) would be a better reaction to days like this.
On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic took his first, firm step toward becoming the first player in tennis history to have won each of the Masters tournaments at least once. He looked impressive in a 7-5, 6-2 win over Juan Monaco, but don’t jump to any conclusions here: While Djokovic has an exemplary record in Cincinnati, he’s been in four finals in the past five years without ever winning the title.
Whatever problems Djokovic has had in Cincinnati have been compounded for this week by Rafael Nadal, who’s playing wonderful tennis lately. So brilliant, in fact, that he denied Djokovic a shot at the Canada Masters title last week by decisively eliminating him in the semifinals. I know that a short memory is a critical asset for any tennis player, but even Djokovic’s memory can’t be that short.
Nadal rolled through Benjamin Becker yesterday, 6-2, 6-2. Both Djokovic and Nadal probably are relieved that this week, they can only meet in the final. But you have to wonder, is this prospect of completing his set of Masters trophies a mental drain and handicap or a motivational asset?
One theoretical break for Djokovic is that the balls used in Cincinnati are said by some players to be surprisingly “light,” meaning they really zip through the air. The Serb, along with few others, have pronounced the transition as challenging, but in the long run the faster game would suit Djokovic more than it does Nadal—should it come to a meeting in the finals.
Today: The prime-time clash will be between Serena and Germany’s volatile Mona Barthel, who upset No. 16 seed Maria Kirilenko yesterday. Williams needs to find her game because Barthel, now ranked No. 32, has the versatility and attacking sense to trouble the world No. 1. The two women have never met, which is almost always an advantage for the underdog. At 6’1”, Barthel has the physique and strength to match Williams shot-for-shot.
Sloane Stephens will have a good opportunity to back up her impressive win over Maria Sharapova when she meets Jelena Jankovic. Sure, Jankovic is a former No. 1, while Stephens is ranked No. 17. But Jankovic has struggled with confidence issues for so long now that it’s impossible to say whether she’s in a slump or lull. It’s more like Jankovic has settled into her niche—that of a gifted, dangerous but inconsistent player whose athleticism ensures that she can keep up with anyone. Her defense is superb, and it will be interesting to see if Stephens, a shotmaker, has the patience and precision to survive it.
So let’s get back to that Djokovic Career Masters Quest. The three men most likely to frustrate him in Cincinnati for a record fifth time (enabling him to break his tie with Stefan Edberg, the other four-time runner-up) are his fellow travelers in the Big Four.
Among them, the most dangerous and perhaps most imminently in danger is Nadal. He plays Grigor Dimitrov in the first evening match. Nadal has won their two previous meetings, but Dimitrov has pocketed a set in each of those best-of-three-set matches. Furthermore, the closer of those was a high-quality, 6-4 in-the-third quarterfinal just a few months ago on Rafa’s beloved clay in Monte Carlo.
Dimitrov is a 22-year-old who has appeared to be on the cusp of a breakout all year. True, people have said his time is coming for a while now, and he’s fooled us before. This is another opportunity for him to punch through, and let’s be frank about this: Time’s a wastin’. Unfortunately for Dimitrov, Nadal is playing superb tennis and he’s been the best player—hands down—on any surface other than grass so far this year.
The other man who may have his hands full is Roger Federer, who will meet Tommy Haas in a match that promises the most eye-pleasing tennis imaginable. Federer has dominated their rivalry, 11-3, but Haas has really been on a mission in the past 18 months.
Although Haas is 35 years old, he’s back up to No. 13 and playing some of the best tennis of his life. He’s healthy, and learned to appreciate the process and the opportunity afforded by his career now that the finish line is in view. Federer is 32, and he’s struggled in recent months, but he’s not about to give away anything without a fight. The men split their most recent matches, both in Halle on grass. This one will be just plain fun.