Cincinnati 2020: Former champs Djokovic, Murray, Medvedev return from coronavirus shutdown

Western and Southern Open becomes first Masters of 2020—but played in New York

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

Tennis fans have something to celebrate this week as main-tour competition finally sees the light of day after a closure of almost six months.

It was back at the start of March that the showpiece Indian Wells tournament—one of the most prestigious in the men’s and women’s tennis calendar—was cancelled as the coronavirus pandemic began to take hold across the globe. Month by month, the entire tour shut down, sweeping aside not just Indian Wells and Miami but the whole clay and grass seasons, including Wimbledon.

Indeed, the devastation continues into the future, with the Asian swing and a number of indoor autumn events already abandoned. But a ray of light has been cast across the tennis landscape from New York, a place that, for many weeks, was one of the most severely hit places in the world.

Now with infection rates in the Big Apple under control, the home of American tennis—the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows—will be focus of attention for almost four weeks as the Western and Southern Open switches from Cincinnati to one of the biggest tennis venues in the world

Not that this is like any Major or Masters tennis event in living memory. The vast grounds at Flushing are virtually deserted, even though play is under way. For it is only the players and their immediate entourages who are allowed to break out of the strict confines of their hotel, via sanitised transportation, to the site.

Once there, they will be guided by a minimal line up of officials and support staff, alongside just a handful of media, who must all follow strict COVID-19 protocols. As for the fans, they will have to watch from home.

But while things are very different for all concerned, the quality of the competition is not in doubt. It is certainly rare for seven-time Cincinnati champion and world No4 Roger Federer to miss the tournament that he has played 17 times. It is somewhat less rare for world No2 Rafael Nadal to miss Cincinnati: He has won once in 12 visits—his lowest tally for any Masters except for end-of-year Paris-Bercy.

However, after some uncertainty, No1 Novak Djokovic has made the journey to the event that sealed his ‘career golden Masters’ achievement—all nine Masters titles—in 2018.

And the rest of the top 10, aside from Gael Monfils, is also in the 56-man draw, including defending champion and world No5 Daniil Medvedev, who beat Djokovic in the semis last year. They could meet at the same stage this year, too. Few will forget, too, the Russian’s remarkable comeback against Nadal in the final of last year’s US Open. Medvedev ultimately lost in five sets but went on to win a second Masters in Shanghai.

He and Djokovic are drawn in quarters with Roberto Bautista Agut and David Goffin respectively.

And while Marin Cilic lurks unseeded as a possible alternative to Goffin in the top seed’s quarter, it is in the bottom half that the draw has thrown in some big challengers. Not least, this is the first tournament in more than 10 months for another former champion, Andy Murray, who played just 11 main-draw matches last year after succumbing to further major hip surgery in January.

He made his return on the doubles court, winning Queen’s with Feliciano Lopez, and closed his season—give or take one rubber in Davis Cup in November—with an emotional win in Antwerp.

Ranked 129, Murray has just about made the main-draw cut-off for the US Open courtesy of a dozen withdrawals [at the time of writing], but he needed a wild card to make the Cincinnati draw. And as luck would have it, he has drawn fellow wild card Frances Tiafoe in his opener, in a first-time meeting.

If Murray wins, he will face No5 seed Alexander Zverev in Round 2. The young German, who is still only 23, has met Murray only once before, more than four years ago. Since then, he has won three Masters titles and the ATP Finals in London—though perhaps tellingly, he has yet to win a match in Cincinnati in five visits.

Things get no easier in this tough segment of the draw. Round 3 could bring No10 seed Andrey Rublev—another youngster who has shot up the ranks since their only previous match in 2017, and beat both Federer and Stan Wawrinka to reach the semis in Cincinnati last year while ranked just 70.

Alternatives here, though, are Milos Raonic and the top-ranked Briton, Daniel Evans, who looked in fine fettle in the recent Battle of the Brits tournament in London. Ranked at a career-high No28, Evans will enjoy a seeding at the US Open for the first time.

This bottom quarter is headed by No2 seed Dominic Thiem, who could face 2017 winner Grigor Dimitrov in Round 3, though the health and fitness of the Bulgarian after contracting COVID-19 in early summer is uncertain.

The winner of this quarter is scheduled to meet either No4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas or Matteo Berrettini, but some strong outliers here include Kevin Anderson, playing with a protected ranking, and Kyle Edmund, plus the big serving Reilly Opelka and John Isner.

Stand-out opening matches are scattered throughout the draw, however. World No16 Denis Shapovalov plays former champion Cilic. Anderson and Edmund face one another in Round 1. Rublev versus Evans should be a cracker, while Borna Coric against Benoit Paire, who is close to a career-high No22, should also be lively.

But the big unknown is just what condition every player will be in after such a prolonged break from competition. It will be not just those who have trained hard through the long months who thrive, but those with the mental resolve and confidence to hit the ground running.

So when it comes down to it, Djokovic must surely be the favourite. After all, he was unbeaten, 18-0, when the curtain came down on the tour in February, having taken back-to-back titles in the team-based ATP Cup, at the Australian Open, and in Dubai.

MORE: Cincinnati 2020: Former champs Williams, Keys, Pliskova begin build-up to US Open

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