Cincinnati Masters preview: Federer’s Cincy magic, Djokovic’s Master plan, Murray’s return, surge of young guns
Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the Cincinnati Masters, where Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray are all in action
What a difference a year makes.
The prestigious Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati dates back to 1899, and reunites the men’s and women’s tours in one of the biggest tennis events of the calendar.
But last year, just days before the Cincinnati Masters got under way, fans and sponsors much have wondered what they had done to deserve so many blows.
Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori had all withdrawn from the rest of the season with injury. Andy Murray continued to rehab the painful hip that dogged his grass season, and then Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic also pulled out with injuries. Gael Monfils fell ill, and finally, the most successful Cincinnati champion of all time, Roger Federer, withdrew with a back problem picked up in Montreal—after missing the previous year following knee surgery. In short, seven of the top 10 men did not even make the draw.
There followed an early culling of many remaining seeds, too: Tomas Berdych, Jack Sock, Sam Querrey, David Goffin and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga lost their first matches: Only five of the 16 seeded made their allotted third round. And the top two seeds, the new world No1 Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem, lost in the quarters.
Fast forward to this weekend, and how different is the picture.
For the first time since Wimbledon 2017, Nadal, Federer, Djokovic and Murray all appear in the same draw. Nadal is still No1, though he and Federer swapped the top spot six times in the first half of the year and are the top seeds. But below them, there are many significant changes to the order of things.
Wild cards for old champions, high ranks for new
Murray, No1 until Cincinnati last year, is now 375; Wawrinka, then No4, is now 195. Both needed wild cards to enter this year’s main draw. Nishikori, then No9 and now 22, is another dangerous unseeded man, as is Milos Raonic, down from last-year’s 10 to a current 29.
Djokovic, who last year had contested the No1 ranking with Murray through the previous 12 months, returns this year as No10, so despite his considerable gains following his comeback on clay and grass—including the Wimbledon title—does not get the first-round bye awarded to the top eight.
And that top eight—indeed the entire set of 16 seeds—boasts some significant new names who have gone from strength to strength in the interim.
Kevin Anderson was ranked 32 in Cincinnati last year, but two Major finals later, he is at No6. Grigor Dimitrov won his first Masters in Cincinnati, and later the World Tour Finals, so is now ranked No5 instead of 11. Alexander Zverev, who had surged to No8 with two Masters titles in 2017, has gone on to reach No3 courtesy of 43 match-wins so far in 2018. Briton Kyle Edmund has risen from No43 to become this week’s No14 seed, while Diego Schwartzman, No36 last year, is the No12 seed, and rounds out a complete top dozen—plus, of course, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori and Raonic.
Federer fires up for Cincy return
Federer began 2018 just as he had when he returned from his long injury absence in 2017, first winning his 20th Major in Australia and then reclaiming the No1 ranking with the Rotterdam title. But then he lost some traction, finishing runner-up at the defence of his Indian Wells title, and losing even bigger points in Miami.
Self-preservation has increasingly become his watchword, and he again bypassed the clay swing to focus on grass, though that did not go entirely to plan. His fans perhaps had visions of a clean sweep after he won title 98 at Stuttgart, perhaps even foresaw a 100th title if he defended at Wimbledon. But it was not to be: he won neither Halle nor Wimbledon, and took another extended break by pulling out of the Rogers Cup.
So for the now-37-year-old, Cincinnati comes with a certain expectation, for it has been one of his most successful tournaments. Seven times he has won, including in his last two appearances, so the ‘defending’ champion will hope to reassert himself in the ranks before the final Major of the year in New York.
Nadal has opened clear water over Federer at the top, but the Swiss cannot lose his No2 ranking before the US Open, even if the Juan Martin del Potro, from his new career-high of No3, wins the Cincinnati title. But for Federer, this will be about more than ranking.
Unfortunately, the draw has done him few favours. After a decent opening test against No48 Peter Gojowczyk or No63 Joao Sousa, he could face Murray, a two-time former champion, in the third round. And it so happens that Wawrinka and Nishhikori have also fallen in his quarter as highly dangerous additions to the seeds. Look ahead to the semis, and Federer could find two big men who have scored big wins over him this season: del Potro in that Indian Wells final, in a final set tie-break; and Anderson, who beat him 13-11 in the final set at Wimbledon.
Revived Djokovic pursues Golden Masters
Cincinnati represents the chance for Djokovic to build on his formidable reputation. After a long period of lost confidence and injury problems following his Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 2016, he won his next Major at Wimbledon this July, and now has another unique milestone in his sights. No-one else has ever won all nine Masters titles, but Djokovic could become the first with the Cincinnati title.
He has come very close: Five times he has reached the final, and he knocked off his eighth different Masters in Monte-Carlo in 2013. But the Ohio event has eluded him, even in the remarkable 2015 season when he won six of the nine Masters and made the final of two more.
There is no doubt that his form has taken a significant upward turn since his attempted return at the start of the year and subsequent elbow surgery: strong runs in Rome, Roland Garros, Queen’s and, of course, Wimbledon. He played both singles and doubles in Toronto to hone his fitness—with some success—and is renowned for his hard-court reputation: His 22 Masters on hard-courts is an Open era record.
So while his draw puts him in Nadal’s quarter, he will surely feel confident against his first seed, the struggling defending champion Dimitrov—Djokovic has a 7-1 winning record—while Nadal may have to battle Raonic, Frances Tiafoe, Denis Shapovalov or Edmund to make their allotted quarter-final meeting. And Djokovic won their recent Wimbledon encounter.
Murray on the comeback trail
Twice Murray has won the Cincinnati Masters, and was losing finalist to Cilic in 2016. And while the Briton may have taken a long time to recover from his long-delayed hip surgery in January, his Washington performance, three three-set wins, boded well, given that the last match finished at gone 3am.
It marked only his third tournament in well over a year, and after opting to rest rather than force the body through Toronto, he should be fresh and confident. His opener against No16 seed Lucas Pouille will reveal much, but he will need to be in prime condition by his third match—likely to be against Federer. Make no mistake: this is a taxing half of the draw, and if he negotiates his way to the final, it will be a huge step on the road back to the top.
Ignore Nadal at your peril
Nadal, who plays the Toronto final this weekend and is guaranteed the No1 ranking through to the US Open, could well achieve a truly exceptional double. The Spaniard is one of only four players ever to win the Canada/Cincinnati double, which he did in 2013. What is more, he became the only man to sweep the Cincy/US Open double since Federer in 2007. Could he do either again?
It is worth remembering that Nadal missed two months between his retirement with hip problems at the Australian Open and his return to his beloved clay in April, so is arguably as fresh now as he has been in many a year. He faces some big hitters early on in Ohio—notably unseeded Raonic in his opener, with Tiafoe, Shapovalov or Edmund next, followed by Djokovic or Dimitrov. But he is, too, the reigning US Open champion.
Is the new generation ready for the ‘big four’ challenge?
The rankings are beginning to say yes.
It is easy to forget that Washington champion Zverev, owner of three Masters titles and the most match-wins this year, is still among the #NextGen brotherhood, age just 21, but he is no longer alone among a new wave of young players that is going deep into the big tournaments. In Washington, the other three semi-finalists were even younger, and two of them reached career highs last week.
Andrey Rublev had one title from two finals before injury knocked him back this season—but his run to the semis in Washington was memorable.
Alex de Minaur, Washington runner-up, was ranked 208 in January and hit 45 this week while Tiafoe broke inside the top 40. Shapovalov, age 19, made the semis of the Madrid Masters, is the youngest player in the top 100 and the draw, and is up to 26 from around 140 a year ago.
One of last year’s #NextGen, Karen Khachanov, still only 22, won his first title in 2016 and reached a career-high 29 a year ago. He won Marseille earlier this year and made the fourth round at both the French Open and Wimbledon. With an impressive semi-final run in Toronto, he is set to break new ground at No26.
At just 21, Borna Coric beat Federer in the Halle final, having made the semis in Indian Wells, and despite knee surgery at the end of 2016, is now ranked 20.
But it is the charismatic StefanosTsitsipas who has been breaking ranks with the most verve and variety in recent months. From 91 at the start of the year, he made the final in Barcelona, the fourth round at Wimbledon, the semis in Washington and, this weekend, the final of his first Masters in Toronto.
In Canada alone the young Greek beat four top-10 players, three of them in three-setters. The biggest questions is whether the newest entrant to the top 20 will have enough physical reserves to take on perhaps the toughest quarter in the draw: first David Goffin, another showdown with Anderson, then Nick Kyrgios or del Potro, just to reach the semis and the survivor from that blistering Federer quarter.
The facts and figures
Former champions in draw: Federer (seven), Murray (two) Nadal (one), Cilic (one), Dimitrov (one)
Hard-court champions since Wimbledon: Isner, Zverev, Fabio Fognini (withdrawn), Nadal/Tsitsipas in Toronto final
Oldest/youngest: Federer 37, Shapovalov 19
Draw size 56; 16 seeds; Top eight have byes to second round
Top Nadal half
R2 Qualifier or Raonic
R3 First seed Edmund; Shapovalov and Tiafoe also here
QF Seeds are No10 Djokovic, No5 Dimitrov
SF No3 Zverev and No7 Cilic are top seeds; Isner and Pablo Carreno Busta also here
Bottom Federer half
R2 Sousa or Gojowczyk
R3 First seed Pouille; Murray also here
QF Seeds are No8 Thiem, No12 Schwartzman; Wawrinka, Nishikori, Rublev also here
SF No4 del Potro and No6 Anderson are top seeds; Goffin, Kyrgios, Coric, Tsitsipas, David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco also here