Verdasco sinks as the cream rises to the top in Cincinnati
It’s the half way stage in the final major tennis event before the US Open, and the top ten seeds -all except one -are still in the mix.
At stake is a quarter-final place in the Cincinnati Masters and it is entirely possible that most of those eight spots will be filled by seeds one to seven. Only Fernando Verdasco has fallen early, part of a despairing pattern for the man from Madrid.
Verdasco could barely put a foot wrong in April. He reached the final of the Monte Carlo Masters, won the Barcelona 500, and made the semis of the Rome Masters. He twice beat Novak Djokovic and also took the scalps of Robin Soderling, David Ferrer, and Tomas Berdych.
But since Rome, Verdasco has failed to beat anyone inside the top 35. On the hard courts, he is not even making headway within the top 50. Against Mardy Fish this week, just as last week in Toronto, the big Spaniard looked frustrated and lack-lustre.
Verdasco’s bearing and expression speak of a heavy cloud weighing on his shoulders. It’s a cloud that started to descend at Roland Garros and raises serious questions about his scheduling decisions during the build-up to the two summer Slams in Paris and Wimbledon.
Why, for example, did he squeeze in the Nice 250 after his long and successful clay run in April? He reached the finals, but had to play four matches -two of them tie-breakers -to get there, and within days had to open his campaign in Paris.
The demands of clay’s long rallies started to show in Verdasco before the season was out. He fell in the first round of Wimbledon and then lost his only Davis Cup match. He looks match tired and tennis weary. One must hope he is not tempted to seek a wild card into the Pilot Pen event next week and instead opts to rest in readiness for the demands of Flushing Meadows.
Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, the cream of the remaining top 10 is joined by a set of men who, on their day, are more than worthy to join this elite band.
Ernests Gulbis fought past No13 seed Jurgen Melzer is a tight three-setter, saving match points along the way. The 21-year-old has begun to show that his huge potential is starting to mature. He seems more focused, more committed and, possibly most important of all, appears to be enjoying playing.
He has started to notch up significant victories: Roger Federer in Rome -where he also pushed Rafael Nadal to three sets -and Berdych in Memphis. He has won his first career title on the hard courts of Delray Beach, and could pose a major challenge at Flushing Meadow.
There are elements of Andy Murray about Gulbis. Like Murray, he seems to have left behind his surly adolescence and grown into his rangy physique and multi-faceted talent.
Interesting, then, that these two compete for a quarterfinal place in Cincinnati. Gulbis has risen to a career high of 27 from around a 100 this time last year. A win here will gain him a ranking for the US Open and a good chance to make it to the second week.
Philipp Kohlschreiber is hovering on the very edge of seeding territory, too, but he faces the daunting prospect of Roger Federer in the third round. The German is a classy player, able to play crisp ground-strokes and volleys on either wing. He’s taken sets off Federer before, and gave Nadal a shake-up in Toronto last week.
Federer only played seven games before Denis Istomin retired in his first match, so has had little time to get the measure of the very fast Cincinnati courts. Kohlschreiber has been Federer’s practice partner over the summer, so this is perhaps the best chance of the German’s career to score his first win in five meetings.
Also lurking in the draw like a barracuda is David Nalbandian, who took out No15 seed Ivan Ljubicic with ease in the first round and saw American John Isner retire with injury in the second. Next up is Djokovic, who matched Federer blow for blow last week, and then the big guns of Andy Roddick or Robin Soderling. After that, he meets Murray, who sailed through the tired Nalbandian in the Toronto quarters.
The Argentine is making ranking points from every round as he missed this entire season last year with injury, but he has half a dozen men ahead of him who happen to be doing well, too, including Kohlschreiber and Fish.
And so full circle to Fish, who continued his good form in beating Verdasco. The American, now 36 in the rankings, won Newport and Atlanta back to back, but has paced himself through the rest of the season and missed Toronto last week.
He is one of only two Americans left out of the eight who entered the Cincinnati draw. The other is Roddick who won here in 2006 and in 2003 -when he beat Fish in the final.
Fish’s next hurdle this year is Richard Gasquet, yet another gifted player who was as high as No7 in the world three years ago. He, like Nalbandian and Marcos Baghdatis -who faces Berdych in the third round -is fighting back after prolonged absence.
They may not be the creme-de-la-creme in the current rankings, but all these men have the potential to sour the tournament for anyone who ends up on the other side of the net.
This promises, then, to be one of the best day’s tennis in the entire US Open Series.