Yesterday: It looked somewhat bleak for James Blake when he found himself down 15-40 while serving to stay in the second set of his first-round match with Jerzy Janowicz. The 33-year-old American appeared to have shaved a decade off his life in the first set. He slapped forehand winners and unreturnable serves, and he attacked the 23-year-old’s second serve with impunity, much like he might have in days of yore.
In fact, Blake blitzed Janowicz in the first set, 6-1, and that’s no small feat against a guy with a monstrous serve. But when Blake was down that double set-point, it appeared that father time was reeling him in, much like he does many other veterans who allow a match to go long enough for attrition to set in.
But Blake wouldn’t blink. Playing with as much verve and risk as if he were double set-point up, he quelled the insurrection during a nine-minute game, and soon thereafter efficiently closed out Janowicz, 6-1, 7-5. That outstanding effort highlighted and ended a satisfying and in some ways wonderful day for American tennis.
Given the impact of native players in last week’s Canadian Open, I thought that the chauvinism motif had run its course for another year. But Cincinnati also awards wild cards galore, and the unique Midwestern flavor of the event tends to inspire homegrown talent. The upshot was a banner day for the American women, and a pair of resonant wins by American men.
Remember, Ryan Harrison kicked off the tournament on Sunday with a quality win over Alexandr Dolgopolov. Yesterday, Blake continued the trend. Brian Baker also did his best to bump along the narrative when he put together an artful win over a guy who’s been playing some terrific tennis lately, Denis Istomin.
Blake and Baker both are wild-card entries (Blake is ranked No. 97, Baker is No. 185) and, most striking, both have dealt with severe injuries and managed to rebound from them to play great tennis. Baker’s injuries have been serial as well as more recent; this week marks his main-tour return from four months away with a torn meniscus in a knee. “I don’t want to be known as the guy who keeps coming back,” the mild-mannered 28-year-old said after his match. “I’d rather be known as the guy who’s always out there, playing.”
But it wasn’t an entirely rosy day for American men. Slumping Sam Querrey lost a tense, bitter tug-of-war with slumping Janko Tipsarevic, 6-4 in the third. And Mackenzie McDonald, the unranked 18-year-old who stunned us with wins over two Top 100 players in qualifying, was crushed by fellow qualifier David Goffin, 6-1, 6-1.
The American women wrote a different sort of story with a happier ending. The only loser among the five in action was Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who once again battled through three sets but ultimately lost to Roberta Vinci. The four winners were Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, Vania King, and Lauren Davis. It’s difficult—and perhaps unnecessary—to say which one had the best win. But in truth none had what you would call a ho-hum sort of result (after all, it wasn’t Serena Williams out there).
I was impressed that Venus attacked so frequently and successfully despite having very little match play lately. Diminutive Davis (she’s just 5’2”) handled WTA No. 34 Klara Zakopolova, who at 5’5” is no Amazom herself. The crafty veteran King sliced and diced powerful Kristina Mladenovic of France in straights, and Stephens struggled but managed to subdue Petra Martic in three.
What I really like about Stephens toughing out that win is that she must have known that the winner would play Maria Sharapova in the next round. This was the equivalent of the youngster saying, “Bring it on!”
Today: King fans might take umbrage to my thoughts on Stephens' win, rightfully pointing out that their girl was probably just as conscious of her next opponent, who happens to be seeded even higher than No. 3 Sharapova and has something the Russian does not: A 2013 Grand Slam title.
Of course, I’m talking about No. 2 seed Victoria Azarenka, the high-profile diva with the lowest profile. Azarenka goes about her business quietly, and always seems to withdraw from the limelight with some sort of injury just when many people are expecting her to ramp it up (she withdrew from Wimbledon before her second-round match with Flavia Pennetta, then returned at Carlsbad to make the final).
She’s an elusive one, that Azarenka. And if anyone has a firm feeling about what the next few weeks has in store for her I’d like to hear it. I keep thinking back to what might have been a transformational match for Azarenka—that epic, tight battle with Serena Williams in last year's U.S. Open final. But I don’t see much of a transformation.
Sharapova still gets more than her fair share of attention, and not just because she has the title of “highest paid female athlete in the world.” It’s also her new relationship with coach Jimmy Connors. It may be too early in that partnership to see much change in Sharapova’s game, but it will be interesting to view how she responds to having the former champ in her player-guest box. My feeling is that it’s an awkward match at all kinds of levels, starting with the difference in nationality. I think Connors will succeed mostly in making Sharapova feel uptight and insecure.
For pure entertainment value on the WTA side, I have two picks: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Jamie Hampton, and Jelena Jankovic paired with recent Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki.
Among the men, most of the speculation will swirl around the only member of the Big Four in action, Roger Federer. Everyone knows that Federer has been struggling mightily since his early exit at Wimbledon, and that unexpectedly entering all those clay-court tournaments in the weeks after Wimbledon didn’t help much, if at all.
We don’t know how much of Federer’s newfound, persistent inconsistency results from a loss of confidence, and how much can be put down to the difficulties he has had adapting to a new racquet with a considerably larger head—a concession to the No. 5 seed’s advancing years, as well as a quest for a frame that gives him more power yet is also more forgiving of hiccups in his timing or reactions, now that he’s turned 32.
Whatever the answer, Cincinnati is as good a place as any for Federer to make a stand; he’s the defending champ, and he’s won this tournament five times (going backwards in time, his victims have been Novak Djokovic, Mardy Fish, Djokovic again, Blake, and Andy Roddick). But his first opponent is no easy out—Philipp Kolhschreiber is a well-rounded and adaptable player, even though he’s 0-6 against Federer.
At some point, a poor head-to-head record can become more of an asset than it ought to be, because it offers the player who’s been mercilessly pounded an opportunity for a little payback. You know what they say: “Every dog, even the ones whipped by Federer, has his day.”
Okay, so I twisted the popular saying a bit. But the bottom line is that there’s a long list of guys who would just love to get that one win over Federer, if for nothing than to have something to tell their grandchildren. This will be tough on Federer, but he’s got even bigger problems. No. 6 Tomas Berdych and No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro are breathing down his neck, both of them less than 1,000 ranking points behind in the rankings.
The other intriguing men’s match is the pairing of No. 12 seed Milos Raonic and American wild card, Jack Sock. It’s a great chance for Sock, mainly because Raonic must be spent, emotionally if not physically, following his stirring performance in Montreal.
Sock, just 20 and already No. 87, lost in Montreal before Raonic even began his assault on the championship match—in qualifying—but this time he will be the one drawing energy from the crowd. It’s hard for mature adults to grasp how much of an impact an adoring crowd can have on someone who is still an impressionable kid.
Also, I’m glad Tommy Haas is healed up sufficiently to play this week and continue his quest to crack the Top 10 as a 35-year-old. He’s up against angular ace machine Kevin Anderson in a match that pits pretty tennis against brutal tennis in what can be a pretty brutal game. Just ask Sam Querrey.