Subdued Roger Federer hangs tough to defend Cincinnati title
There was a feeling of dejÃƒÂ vu as the two finalists took to the blue and green Centre Court for the final Masters event of the US Open Series in Cincinnati.
Exactly seven days ago, the same pink-clad man emerged with his characteristic leonine gait to challenge for his 17th Masters title: Roger Federer.
Alongside him in Toronto was an angular, blue-and-white figure, a fraction taller and a fraction slimmer than the sinuous Swiss. Andy Murray had demolished a resurgent David Nalbandian, the talented Gael Monfils, and the top seed Rafael Nadal. Murray, world No4 and potential pretender to the US Open title, downed Federer too to defend his Canadian title.
Alongside Federer a week later was another angular, fractionally taller, and slightly slimmer man -also in blue and white -whose progress to the final was just as impressive. In his wake were Gilles Simon, No8 seed Fernando Verdasco, Murray, and the No9 seed Andy Roddick.
But this man was no young pretender. The 28-year-old Mardy Fish was an unseeded wild card and unquestionably the underdog in what looked like a David-and-Goliath contest.
The stats said it all. For Federer, this Cincinnati match was his 90th ATP final and his 28th Masters final. For Fish, it was his 17th final and only his third Masters final.
Federer was targeting his 17th Agassi-equalling Masters title, and had already outstripped Agassi in Masters match wins -215 -in Toronto. By winning Cincinnati, he would equal yet another record. Only Mats Wilander had managed four titles here before.
Fish, on the other hand, was after his first Masters shield after a full 10 years on the professional tour.
But Fish was taking the tour by storm. He had returned from knee surgery less than a year ago with a new urgency, a trimmer body, and a new training regime. Coming into this final, he was on a 16-1 winning streak since July and had two titles in the bag. Thus far, he had also topped the tournament for aces -70 -and for first serve points won -85%.
The main worry for Fish, though, was the game that Federer had launched against Nikolay Davydenko and Marcos Baghdatis, a game in which he attacked relentlessly and effectively, and to a standard rare even for Federer. In short, the fruits of his off-season activities with Paul Annacone were ripening.
But the Federer who had dropped just three points on his first serve against Baghdatis, and streaked to the net at every opportunity, seemed to have stayed in the locker room for the final. It was Fish who took the initiative, much as he had throughout the tournament.
Federer came close to breaking him in the third game of the match -a gut-busting 15 minutes and 9 deuces long -but the American held firm with the same resilience that had turned round his semifinal match against Roddick from a set and 5-2 down.
It quickly became clear that Federer’s focus was shaky as he hit error after error, especially on his crosscourt backhand. Although the match stayed on serve, the Federer of the quarters and the semis would have capitalised on at least one of the four break points that came his way. Good serving from Fish saved a couple, but Federer’s chip-and-charge tactic, used so effectively against Baghdatis, was in short supply.
The match ground its way to a tie-break, and once more Federer conceded an early advantage. His service percentage was just 51% and that was compounded by difficulty in reading his opponent’s serve. Another ace from the American sealed the set, despite Federer winning marginally more points over the 13 games.
The second set progressed in a similar vein: Fish looking confident, Federer introspective. The latter found himself a break point down in the fifth game but his service percentage crept up to compensate for his continuing unforced errors, and he held. The set ended, with no breaks, in another tie-breaker. At last, Federer went on the attack to win it with 7-1 streak.
His success elicited the first “come on” of the match and it looked as though the aggressive Federer had arrived. But once again, his intensity dropped and the errors came. In the opening game of the final set, Fish missed four first serves yet took the game with relative ease.
It was not until 4-4 that Fish faltered, and Federer saw his moment to attack, much as he had at the end of the second set. It was the only break of the two hour 40 minute match, but it was enough. Federer held serve and looked -well, relieved rather than jubilant.
This was far from an illustrious performance from the champion, and of a markedly poorer quality than last year’s victory. But he managed to equal that Wilander record of four titles, and will be encouraged to have stolen the win with grit and experience.
For those are the qualities that can count the most when it comes to the big stakes, and there are few bigger than the US Open. Federer will, based on the totality of his Cincinnati matches and the gamut of qualities he exhibited, still be one of the favourites for New York.