Cincinnati Sizzler: Setting the scene at the last US Masters
Toronto laid out the wares of the men’s tour as it headed towards the climax of the US Open Series.
Andy Murray, thriving in the absence of a coach, stormed through the competition to take his first Masters title of the year and preserved his No4 ranking.
Roger Federer was back in fighting form after six weeks away, and had a new face in his box, trial coach Paul Annacone. Federer wreaked revenge on Tomas Berdych in a seesaw thriller, then repeated the exercise against Novak Djokovic in the semis. Only Murray, in a rain-disrupted final, brought him to a halt, but not before he had reclaimed his No2 ranking.
Rafael Nadal, shimmering in dayglo pink, was made to work hard on his return from his Wimbledon triumph, but looked fit and strong as he chipped away at the rust. It was Murray who felled him, too, but the Spaniard’s eyes are set on New York.
All these men are now competing in the final Masters of the year on American soil, and all are hoping to fine-tune their preparations for the last Slam of the year.
And all but Berdych -who opened his account Tuesday with a straight sets win -play in what must be one of the finest line-ups for a single day’s play in the entire season.
For those lucky enough to hold Stadium Court tickets at this century-old tournament will see the top four seeds plus home hero Andy Roddick.
Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and Murray are in great shape and fast-improving form -they contested the semifinals in Toronto -so there should be tennis of the highest order on display from mid-morning, though the heat of the 300C afternoon, to the floodlit warmth of late evening.
Before that, though, there have already been some headline-hitting results. And each one, this close to Flushing Meadows, is redolent with significance.
First, Flying Fish: Mardy looked in fine form in his opening match against the higher ranked Gilles Simon. The likeable American, newly modelled, newly trim, and newly confident, has reached three finals since June, and won two of them. His flowing serve-and-volley game could take him deep into this Masters and maybe even to the second week in New York.
Next up, Magic Marcus: Baghdatis, the genial, enthusiastic, and gifted Cypriot has also put injury behind him and climbed the rankings at some pace this year. At No20, it’s his highest position in nearly two-and-a-half years. The hard courts suit him, too. He reached the final in Washington just a fortnight ago, and has already beaten the No11 seed Marin Cilic and Thomaz Bellucci in Cincinnati. Baghdatis has the misfortune to next meet the in-form Berdych, who must be one of the outside chances for success at Flushing.
One of seven Frenchmen in the draw, the Graceful Gasquet is the stand-out so far. Richard has blown hot and cold this season, winning back-to-back titles in May and reaching the final of Gstaad in July. When he’s good, he’s very, very good. All court shot-making, a superb single-handed backhand, and timing to die for make him one of the most watchable men around. He is, though, in Murray’s quarter, and that bodes ill for the gifted Gaul. However, he’s already one up on countrymen Simon and Gael Monfils, who made ignominious exits in the first round.
Other men making a splash in the early stages have been Stanislas Wawrinka -also on the coaching merry-go-round before settling with Peter Lundgren -who took out No14 seed Nicolas Almagro.
In a battle of the big serve-and-volley games, Taylor Dent got the better of Feliciano Lopez, who showed such promise in June on the grass of Queens but has fallen short since the hard-courts kicked in.
Dent is one of eight Americans lined up in this home Masters event, and the Cincinnati crowd will have high expectations of their men. Sam Querrey came through his first round in easy straight sets, and showed some considerable form in beating Murray in Los Angeles three weeks back. His game should flourish on the remaining hard courts of the US swing.
John Isner is in a challenging quarter of the draw -David Nalbandian, Djokovic and Robin Soderling lurk -but he too suits the fast US conditions where his big serve will have some extra zip.
Then, of course, there is Roddick. The popular American finds himself outside the top 10 for the first time in four years, and his recent weak form has now been confirmed as the result of mild glandular fever. It’s a bitter blow to what looked to be one of his best ever seasons.
Roddick reached the finals of both of the spring Masters events in North American, winning his first shield in four years in Miami. His previous Masters title was in Cincinnati 2006, and he also won in 2003. It would be some achievement if Roddick were to take his third title in the aftermath of such a debilitating condition. If truth be told, it’s unlikely that he will. But if graft, determination, and the support of the crowd have any say, he’ll be fighting to the death.