Recapping Cincinnati and Previewing NY

The famous cliché "you win the important points and you win the match" proved once again its validity in the last few days of the Western & Southern Open ATP Masters Series and WTA Premier events in Cincinnati, the last major tournament prior to the U.S Open.

There were several examples of the cliché at work, notably in the quarterfinals between Novak Djokovic and John Isner, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki. For example, while Federer produced by far the best tennis in his otherwise dismal 2013 season against Nadal, when he was up a set and on serve in the second set at 4-5 down and 40-30 up, he missed by about a yard an easy sitter on his forehand, from inside the court.

It was a shot that he has been making routinely throughout the first set and most of the second. In fact, it was major part of his winning strategy up to that point. Following that miss, Nadal broke, subsequently raised the quality of his shots, hitting with even more confidence, while Federer fizzled for a few games, never recovering from the early third break in the final set.

In the semi-finals, the same pattern continued. Juan Martin Del Potro won the first set against John Isner, went up a break in the second, and never came within any danger of having his serve broken, until the 5-4 game. In that game, he unexpectedly made two unforced errors from the middle of the court, then double-faulted on match point to lose his serve. He never managed to regain the control that he had until that point and went on to lose the match 6-3 in the final set.

In the second semifinal, Thomas Berdych played toe-to-toe with Nadal for most of the match, producing some terrific tennis, as he has all week. The players arrived to a tiebreaker in the second set. Out of nowhere, Berdych quickly made one unforced error to start the tiebreaker, and then double faulted two points later (one of his only four double-faults for the match). He added two more unforced errors, and before you know it, Nadal won the tiebreaker more comfortably than probably any other game in the match.

In the Na Li vs. Serena Williams semifinal match, Li played several sizzling shots against Williams to come back from 1-4 down in the first set to 5-4 up and serving. Although she won the first point in that game, she then proceeded to hit a forehand sitter in the middle of the court out, and followed it with a double-fault to go down 15-30. She still won the next two points to go up 40-30 and earn a set point. Then once again, she double-faulted, and two points later, hit a high sitter forehand at the service line out by about two yards, a shot that she would normally make in her sleep. She consequently lost the game and the set.

Up 5-4 again in the second set, and once again playing well and controlling the rallies, Li played perhaps one of the worst games of the summer, losing it in less than two minutes to find herself at 5-5 again. The match finished two games later 7-5, 7-5 in favor of Williams who won the match without really playing any better than her opponent, but benefiting from her mistakes on crucial points. In the final match between her and Azarenka, she found herself in the reverse position, as she double-faulted at 5-5 in the final set tiebreaker (her only double-fault of the long set), and two points later, made a forehand unforced error, losing an otherwise entertaining match 2-6, 6-2, 7-6.

There are several conclusions that anyone can be pull from these meltdowns. But most will agree on this: as the week progressed, more and more matches were decided by few points here and there, and those points were won less by the winner raising his/her level of play than benefiting from uncharacteristic mistakes by his/her opponent. The string of tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open and the many hours of practice on hard courts for the last few weeks no doubt prove to be physically taxing on most of these champions.

Hence, those players who are able to raise their mental toughness and concentration to superhuman levels under tension compensate more efficiently for the physical wear and tear. They somehow manage to remain level-headed in the turning points of a match, and stay cool under pressure, and show an extraordinary ability to drive themselves mentally where they cannot physically go. Others succumb to the pressure, feel the fatigue in their bones, become irritable, or simply in this case, commit unforced errors that are unusual by their standards due to a combination of the above factors.

In other words, they crack, like Djokovic did in the last few points against Isner at 5-6 down in the third, or like Li did in the 5-4 games both in the first and second sets. The winners in the cases mentioned earlier, had a tad more left in them at that moment to generate the necessary mental energy and motivation to overcome the increasing possibility of committing an unforced error and subsequently break down.

In any case, this week off will be welcomed by the top players. Isner and Berdych, the only two big names signed up for the Winston-Salem ATP 250 event this week, cleverly called the tournament and pulled out. It would have been a big mistake if they did not. Andy Murray already said that he would take at least two days off in the week leading up to the U.S. Open.

Then, of course, there is Rafa. He keeps on ticking and ticking, regardless of the pressure, surface, and the number of consecutive match days. Although she lost today, I would like to include Serena in this category. Those who follow Serena would agree that what happened today was very rare. Players like Serena and Rafa bring a new meaning to the term "competitor," seem to find that extra little push where none seems to exist, and do not allow their levels to drop down as match after match roll on to one crescendo after another.

This precisely why, in my opinion, even more than their record on hard courts this year, these two players will enter the U.S. Open as the two clear favorites to raise the trophy at the end of the two weeks of Slam competition in Flushing Meadows.

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