Cincinnati Masters 2018

Cincinnati Masters 2018: Old guard hits back, as unseeded Wawrinka, Haase, Djokovic into Round 3

Stan Wawrinka, Robin Haase and Novak Djokovic are among the players into round three at the Cincinnati Masters

Stan wawrinka
Stan Wawrinka Photo: Marianne Bevis

One statistic in the Cincinnati Masters draw captured in a nutshell one of the most debated subjects in men’s tennis in the last couple of years. When will the next generation of players begin to elbow the old guard out of the way?

That statistic stated that the oldest man in the draw was Roger Federer, age 37, and the youngest Denis Shapovalov, age 19. It represented not one generation—in tennis terms—but almost two, almost 20 years.

Meanwhile, Cincinnati’s sibling, the Toronto Masters, was winding up to its finale, where 32-year-old Rafael Nadal took on 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, and won.

Yes, two of the most successful men this century—arguably in tennis history—have featured large this season, exchanging the No1 ranking several times, winning a Major apiece, and notching up eight titles between them.

They dominated last year, too: 13 titles, all the Majors, five Masters, four 500s. And before that, the other three members of the ‘big five’, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, won all the Majors and the vast majority of the Masters for two straight years.

Yet slowly, slowly the bright young talents were starting to emerge, first among them Alexander Zverev, who began his three-strong haul of Masters from five finals last year, and hit No3 in the ranks this season with a total of nine titles.

Yet despite extended injury absences first by Federer and Nadal in 2016 and then by Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka over the last 12 months, there had been only flashes of brilliance by Zverev’s young associates this year.

Daniil Medvedev won Sydney, Karen Khachanov Marseille, Frances Tiafoe Delray Beach, Matteo Berrettini Gstaad, and Borna Coric Halle—the only one to win above the 250 level aside from Zverev. And when it came to the Masters glass ceiling, Zverev stood alone among other older debutants, John Isner and Juan Martin del Potro.

That was until the tour headed to the hard-courts of North America last month. And while over-30s Isner and Fabio Fognini took the first two titles, in Atlanta and Los Cabos, at the Washington 500, four #NextGen players filled the final four places—Zverev among them. One of their number in particular made a huge impression: Tsitsipas.

Then still a teenager, the young Greek had made inroads through the whole season, finishing runner up to Nadal in Barcelona, missing out to Zverev in DC, but then beating four top-10 players before going down to Nadal again in the Rogers Cup final. It was enough to take him to a career-high No15.

The progress of the talented 21-and-under band stood out elsewhere in Toronto, too. Four featured in the third round there, and they were leaving older and higher-ranked men in their wake.

Zverev and Tsitsipas now led the ATP’s #NextGen Road to Milan, and the two would meet again, this time in the quarters, and this time a win for Tsitsipas.

Tiafoe beat Milos Raonic and took Grigor Dimitrov to a final-set tie-break before losing. Khachanov beat No12 seed Pablo Carreno Busta, then No8 seed Isner, and made the semis via another over-30 player, Robin Haase.

But come Cincinnati, there have been signs that the over 30s are beginning to reassert themselves—including Haase again. Having taken out wunderkind Shapovalov in Toronto, the unseeded 31-year-old Dutchman was showing, not for the first time, what a dangerous player he can be. Inconsistent and unpredictable, certainly, but as many have discovered before, when he is feeling the pace and in the mood, he is good.

Twelve times Haase has taken big opponents to deciding sets this year alone, including Federer in Rotterdam, del Potro in Miami, David Goffin at Roland Garros, and Shapovalov in Rome.

And beat Zverev in stunning style in Cincinnati—this time showing both physical and mental fortitude to seal victory in a 7-5 decider after losing the first set 5-7. Haase got the first break in the final set, before facing a storming come-back by Zverev, and the odds were certainly in favour of the young German, but Haase rose to the challenge to break again, describing the moment thus:

“At a certain moment, I came into a flow and I kept it. Although, of course, in the third set it really could have gone either way. He had so many break points already in the beginning of the set, but I kept playing, I did my thing, and in the end, it worked out.”

He next plays Carreno Busta for a place in the quarters.

Elsewhere, there have been other familiar faces firing warning shots across the #NextGen bows. A slew of young guns may have made hay while the sun shone, but the old guard has been returning in big numbers and in ever-improving form to rain on their parade if they were not ready for the challenge.

Stan Wawrinka was ranked then No4 in Cincinnati last year but was now 195 as he worked his way back from double knee surgery. After a stop-and-start season, that old pugnacious form showed itself in a three-set win over Nick Kyrgios in Toronto, followed by a marathon win over Marton Fucsovics. The Swiss lost to Nadal in a tough two sets.

In another difficult draw in Cincinnati, with a wild card, he faced and beat No12 seed Diego Schwartzman to set a match against Kei Nishikori, also unseeded at 22 after repeated injury problems. The Japanese man was also showing glimmers of his former class, beating dangerous youngster Rublev in his opener. But the 33-year-old Wawrinka dominated Nishikori with perhaps his best tennis since his comeback.

The Japanese started the more strongly, taking a 4-1 lead in the first set, but Wawrinka began to hit the ball with his trademark clean power to break not once but twice, and served out the set, 6-4, having stacked up 12 winners to just three from Nishikori.

Wawrinka broke in the first game of the second set, and did not face a single break point in return. He finally served out an impressive win to love, 6-4, dropping only four points on serve in the set, and made 24 winners to only eight by his opponent.

He said afterwards: “I’m really happy with the match, with the level… For sure one of the great matches I played…

“There were some really tough moments [after the surgery]. It’s been a year now. Today, for sure, I’m smiling, I’m happy.”

Wawrinka next has arematch with Fucsovics, but in the quarters, he could meet old rival and compatriot Federer for a 24th time—old being apt.

For self-preservation has increasingly become Federer’s watchword, as he again bypassed the clay swing to focus on grass—though he was able to defend either his Halle or Wimbledon titles. So he took another extended break by pulling out of the Rogers Cup, trained at home in Switzerland, and arrived in the US a fortnight ago to prepare for the US Open.

And Cincinnati comes with a certain expectation, for it has been one of Federer’s most successful tournaments. Seven times he has won, including in his last two appearances, and he continued that winning streak over Peter Gojowczyk. But instead of either wild card Andy Murray or No16 seed Lucas Pouille, he will next play the 31-year-old Leonardo Mayer, who beat 20-year-old Michael Mmoh before moving onto Pouille.

So the over-30s proliferate in Cincy, not least in the shape of Wimbledon champion and No10 seed Novak Djokovic. And this tournament represents the chance for 31-year-old Djokovic to build on his formidable reputation by winning the title for the first time—thereby becoming the first player to win the complete set of nine Masters.

He is clearly determined to make that big milestone. He was under huge pressure against Adrian Mannarino, who took the first set, 6-4, and almost got a quick lead in the second set, but Djokovic held his long opening serve, and then powered his way to the third round, 6-2, 6-1, to set a meet with Dimitrov.

Still representing the #NextGen is teenager Shapovalov, who takes on compatriot Raonic, after beating Tiafoe and then No14 seed Kyle Edmund.

Khachanov continues his good form by beating Sam Querrey to meet No7 seed Marin Cilic. Another 22-year-old Hyeon Chung, has a chance to join the third round but will have to beat del Potro in the last rain-postponed second-round match.

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