The main reason has been the singular dominance of Roger Federer at the last Masters before the US Open. Seven times in the last 11 years he has been champion—three times beating Djokovic in the title match.
However, neither defending champion Federer nor last year’s finalist Djokovic is in Cincinnati this year as both battle injuries. It’s an ill wind, though, that blows nobody any good, and the door swung wide to the only other men in the draw to have won the Ohio title: No1 seed Andy Murray and No3 seed Rafael Nadal.
For the Spaniard, who won Cincinnati in 2013, this would prove a step too far and too soon in his own journey back from wrist injury. With no matches and precious little practice since withdrawing after the second round of the French Open three months ago, he played his heart out at the Rio Olympics to win gold in doubles but fell just short of a medal in singles.
For Murray, on paper, this also looked a step too far. Since he had last set foot on a North American hard court, the world No2 had won 36 matches from 39, had reached the final of his last six tournaments—including his first French Open final—and won the Rome Masters, Queen’s, Wimbledon and Olympic gold.
With each week, it seemed, he set a new record: the first man to win the historic Queen’s trophy five times; the first British man to make the final at Roland Garros and to win multiple titles at Wimbledon since Fred Perry 80 years before; the first man to win back-to-back Olympic singles gold medals.
Yet within hours of winning in Rio in a demanding four-setter over Juan Martin del Potro, Murray was jetting to Cincinnati. And there, the winning continued.
Make no mistake: Murray has always thrived on North American hard courts. Before he was 20, he had reached the semis of Toronto, Indian Wells and Miami and the quarters of Cincinnati. Seven of his 12 Masters titles have come at the same quartet of Masters. And twice he denied Djokovic in the title match in Cincinnati.
Indeed, as he told ESPN after his late-night progress to the quarters this week, this also happened to be the first Masters he ever played: “I got a wild card here when I was 18… and I also won my first Masters here… It’s a place that means a lot to me.”
For the Murray machine, as well-oiled a piece of engineering as it has ever been, has dropped just five games apiece to Juan Monaco and Kevin Anderson.
And with those two wins, Murray has extended his personal-best winning streak to 20 and his tally of match-wins to 600. What’s more, he has put together those last 100 wins in a shorter time and with fewer matches than any of his other centuries.
Murray has already qualified for the World Tour Finals behind Djokovic, but his biggest target—and the ultimate challenge in his sport—is the No1 ranking, and while the mighty Serb still has clear water between himself and Murray in the rankings, the Briton is increasing his margin over the rest of the field.
With Federer out of action for the rest of the year, Nadal still working to regain his form after a disrupted season, and Djokovic feeling the effects of an astonishing first six months of the year that saw him drop only three matches on his way to the French Open title—one of seven titles so far in 2016—Murray is in prime condition and position to make his move.
Djokovic, in pulling out of Cincinnati, cited a left wrist problem. World No4 Stan Wawrinka had to pull out of the Olympics after picking up a back problem in Toronto, and he went out this week to Grigor Dimitrov. So Murray is shaping up to be one of the favourites to win his second US Open title as well as Cincinnati.
But if the usual big names are no longer in contention this week, who else could halt Murray’s run? In the quarters, he faces unseeded Bernard Tomic, who has put out two of the year’s strongest players, Kei Nishikori and David Goffin, but who has not won a set against Murray in four meetings.
The semi-final brings sterner competition. Milos Raonic has come close to beating Murray twice in their four matches this year, first in a five setter in the Australian Open semis, then in a three-set final at Queen’s. He also contested his first Major final with Murray at Wimbledon.
The bottom half of the draw remains intriguingly open, with three unseeded players plus No12 Marin Cilic bidding for the final. Teenage Borna Coric was particularly impressive against Nadal, even taking into account the Spaniard’s arm problems. The 19-year-old is the youngest quarter-finalist in Cincinnati since Murray in 2006, but compatriot Cilic has downed strong opponents in Viktor Troicki, Fernando Verdasco and Tomas Berdych.
The fast-improving Steve Johnson, who won his first title in Nottingham this June, could have broken the top 20 if he had beaten Dimitrov in the quarters. However, after a hot-and-cold season that took Dimitrov down to 40 for the first time in three and a half years, the Bulgarian is newly tied up with coach Daniel Vallverdu and put in a good showing in Toronto before a first-round loss in Rio. He had already put two seeds to the sword in Cincinnati—Feliciano Lopez and then Wawrinka. Victory over Johnson, who beat him in four sets in the third round of Wimbledon, took him to the semis.
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