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Cincinnati preview: After reversing history vs. Medvedev, can Rublev do the same against Zverev?
After Saturday's Western & Southern Open men's semifinals, who needs the Big 3 for drama? A look ahead to a final showdown between the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds.
Published Aug 22, 2021
TC DESK: Zverev breaks down his semifinal comeback for Prakash
We began the Western & Southern Open lamenting the absence of the ATP’s old guard, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. By Saturday night, we were singing the praises of the tour’s young guns, Alexander Zverev, Andrey Rublev, Daniil Medvedev, and Stefanos Tsitsipas. They were the tournament’s top four seeds, and they lived to their billing by reaching the semifinals and putting on a show when they got there.
The day began with Rublev earning his first win in five tries against his friend and countryman Medvedev. Coming in, Rublev had lost all 10 sets they had played. As relentless as his baseline barrage is, it hadn’t been enough to break down Medvedev’s clever defenses. The same scenario seemed to be unfolding on Saturday, when Medvedev won the first set 6-2. This time, though, Rublev stayed focused, stayed determined, and eventually found a way to build points that created an open court for him to hit into. He was also helped by a collision between Medvedev and an on-court camera that left the top seed with a hurt left hand. Medvedev threatened to sue, but he wasn’t a threat to Rublev after that.
The nightcap between Zverev and Tsitsipas was even better. The German was coming off the best week of his professional life at the Olympics, and he hadn’t lost a set in his first three matches in Cincinnati. He carried that momentum through the first set of the semifinal, pushing Tsitsipas back with his high-bouncing ground strokes and holding serve without a hitch. But again, a mid-match collision changed the atmosphere in the arena.
This time it was between Zverev and chair umpire Adel Nour. At the end of the first set, Tsitsipas grabbed his bag and walked off court. Zverev told Nour that Tsitsipas was going to get coaching advice, “on his frickin’ phone,” from his father Apostolos while he was in the bathroom. Nour said there was nothing he could do about it. Tsitsipas came back a much more aggressive player in the second set, while Zverev, feeling sick, lost his energy and the direction on his shots. Tsitsipas won the second set and ran out to a 5-2 lead in the third, before Zverev decided it was his turn to leave the court. He walked down a tunnel, presumably vomited, and then returned to catch and pass Tsitsipas in a third-set tiebreaker.
Who needs the Big 3 for drama, right?
The Next Gen has made the most of its time at center stage so far this week. Can they close it out on Sunday with one more show-stopper? To start, let’s hope both guys are at full strength. Rublev has played three three-set matches in four days, all in the heat of the day. While Zverev had an easier road early, he didn’t finish his semifinal until 8:30 or so on Saturday night, and he was ill for much of it. But each of them should be motivated: Rublev will be going for his first Masters 1000 title; Zverev will be trying to build a bridge of momentum between Tokyo and New York that could take him to his first Grand Slam title.
As far as who will win, the question might be: Can Rublev make lightning strike twice? He came into his semifinal with an 0-10 record in sets against Medvedev. Now he’ll come into the final with an 0-9 record in sets against Zverev. In both cases, the 23-year-old Rublev has always been the younger-bother figure in the relationship. He finally found a way to beat his older countryman on Saturday. What will it take for him to do the same thing against Zverev?
In the past, Rublev hasn’t been able to make inroads against Zverev from the baseline. Rublev hits hard from both sides, but the taller and rangier Zverev hits a heavier, bouncier, spinnier ball, one that he can lift out of Rublev’s strike zone. That said, so much of tennis comes down to the serve, and this is doubly true in every match Zverev plays. Over the course of a set, his serve can veer from unstoppable weapon to cringe-worthy liability and back again. Against Tsitsipas, Zverev had his serve when he needed it; at 5-6 in the third set, he fired four straight aces, and he hit 15 overall. You’d have to think Zverev’s serve will be the most crucial shot of the final. If he’s hitting it well, he should win; if he’s not, Rublev has a chance.