MASON, OHIO—Li Na entered the Cincinnati final with a 4-1 record against Angelique Kerber, who took down the past two Wimbledon winners, Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova, just to make the final. Li Na hadn’t shown quite enough bite in letting Venus Williams back into their three-set semifinal last night, and so this match intrigued. And it largely did not disappoint, with Li clinching a 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory.
Kerber rushed to a 3-0 lead and Li played tactically deficient tennis for the set’s duration, letting go a dreadful drop-shot at 3-1, 40-0. One point later, she found herself down 4-1. If Kerber’s year to date were an album title, it’d be No Doubt’s Rock Steady. Li wasn’t playing poorly, but Kerber became an impregnable, one-woman fortress. This was a fortified castle on two sturdy legs, and she took the set, 6-1. Kerber doesn’t get enough credit for the force of her hitting—defender, pusher, wall, etc.—when the truth is that her backhand can be a bullet and, when the opportunity arises, she will clothes line a forehand, too.
Her coach, Torben Beltz, called encouragement constantly to Kerber from his perch just to my left in the photo pit. He joined her between sets, as did Li’s new coach, Carlos Rodriguez. Beltz told me that his player’s strategy for the match was to move the ball around and hit more to Li’s forehand. "The backhand is good," he said. To begin the second stanza, Li sought to come in and volley behind her shots, but she dropped serve. Still, she stuck with it, breaking back as the beneficiary of Kerber errors and her own untouched backhand drives.
But Kerber broke back for 2-1, and then enjoyed a 3-1 advantage courtesy of Li’s errors. At this point, Li began an aggressive campaign that showcased well-executed forehand swing volleys. She hit that shot successfully much of the rest of the way. After leading 6-1, 3-1, Kerber won just one more game, giving up 11 of the final 12. Li stepped up, and errors crept into the German’s game. Both rifled backhands at will in a marathon game at 4-3, with at least a half-dozen deuces giving way to Li seizing a 5-3 stranglehold on the set and, as it soon became obvious, the match itself. She served it out at 15, 6-3.
In the third set, Kerber did rely on pushing for the most part, but not by choice. Her coach refused Pam Shriver’s interview request, saying he wouldn’t talk until after the match, but he told me that Kerber’s right leg was hampering her movement. This hadn’t been the case before the match, Beltz said, but it was glaring for how Kerber ran to balls without gusto for the remainder of the match. Still, she didn’t retire. Beltz assured me that she wouldn’t. Li did she needed to, what she should have done against Venus the night before. She was ruthless, pushing her opponent around the court and lashing winners off of both wings. The third set—and the tournament—ended in a near-flash, 6-1.
Kerber enters the U.S. Open with much to prove. She has semifinal points to defend in New York, and she’s also the sole member of the WTA Top 10 to have not yet appeared in a Grand Slam final. That said, she was 0-11 against her Top 10 peers prior to 2012, and she’s 8-7 against them this year. With this win, Li herself beat back the ghosts of previous 2012 Premier-level finals this year that saw her lose thrice—to Victoria Azarenka in Sydney, to Maria Sharapova in Rome, and to Petra Kvitova in the Monday night Montreal final. Now the Cincinnati champ, she will answer a lot of questions about potential front-runner status as momentum goes into Flushing. Time will tell, and time—for these two pros and more—is short.
The ovation that embraced Roger Federer as he stepped onto court resounded like a homecoming cheer. The top-seeded Swiss barely uttered a word during his 87 minutes on court, but his feet just wouldn't shut up and his shots spoke volumes of self-belief.
Commanding the court as if playing in his backyard, Federer spent the first set deconstructing the game's best hard-court defender and closed with conviction to capture his record fifth Cincinnati title with a 6-0, 7-6 (7) victory over Novak Djokovic.
It is Federer's 21st Masters championship, which equals rival Rafael Nadal for most Masters crowns. This match marked the first time the world's top two squared off in the Cincinnati final and is believed to be the first time in the Open era two men reached an ATP final without being broken. All the elements were in place for a thriller pitting four-time Cincy champion Federer against four-time finalist Djokovic; the game's most dangerous attacking player against a defensive improvisor. Djokovic was bidding to become the fourth man since 1990 to capture Canada and Cincinnati in succession, but Federer came out in brilliant buzz-kill mode to snuff out the Serbian's hope and snap his 15-match hard-court winning streak.
The top seed brought the magic in the opening game, deadening a gorgeous backhand drop volley winner. A disengaged Djokovic dumped a double fault to face double-break point and scattered an inside-out forehand wide to drop serve for the first time in the tournament. Djokovic's streak of 31 consecutive service holds was snapped and his serving confidence looked shattered as he won just seven of 20 points played on his serve in the first set, failing to hold in all three service games.
Federer slammed an ace down the T and rifled a forehand winner down the line to consolidate at 15. A listless Djokovic spun a loopy second serve that strayed long to drop serve again. Federer struck successive aces, a slice serve winner and a side-spinning ace down the T for a 4-0 lead. The Wimbledon winner won 16 of the first 21 points before Djokovic answered with an ace. But a fourth double fault put Djokovic in another break-point bind and Federer pounced, whipping a forehand into the corner to break for 5-0.
It took Federer just 20 minutes to complete a first-set thrashing with a flat forehand winner down the line. Teasing Djokovic with the slice backhand and tormenting him with timely drop volleys, before blasting his iconic forehand into the corners, Federer served more effectively and hit 13 winners to 1 for his opponent in the shut-out set. Federer's array of spins and his skill at changing the height and depth of his shots while still straddling the baseline and taking the ball early can be downright disorientating. At times, Djokovic looked like a man who came home after a late-night to find all his furniture rearranged: The dimensions of the space hadn't changed but everything looked oddly out of place and unfamiliar.
To his credit, Djokovic began to turn his hips and shoulders into his forehand and strike that shot crosscourt with much more authority. At 4-all, 15-all, Djokovic snapped a biting serve, moved forward quickly and unloaded a crunching forehand winner crosscourt. It was his first winner of the second set. He hit another crosscourt forehand winner to hold at 30 for 5-4. In the ensuing game, Djokovic leaned into a backhand and buzzed the ball right back at Federer, who slipped the shot like a boxer bending back his torso to avoid a blow, surviving the brush for 5-all.
Federer took a 3-0 lead in the breaker, but Djokovic responded, smacking a forehand pass for 4-3. A bold Djokovic forehand down the line saved match point at 6-5; Djokovic earned a set point but paid the price for a timid lob off his strong backhand wing; Federer's smash made it 7-all. Fittingly, Federer closed with the serve-forehand combination that worked so well throughout the match.
"I will have to win this kind of matches against the biggest rivals — Roger, Andy and Rafa — in order to be on top of the men's game," Djokovic told CBS' Mary Joe Fernandez afterward. "I'm aware of that. It's been a busy couple of weeks for me so I'm happy the way I've played [on hard courts]...Obviously he was a better player today."
Suffering gut-wrenching losses to Djokovic in each of the last two U.S. Opens, Federer will arrive in New York empowered by his performance in taking the title without losing serve.
"I really expected myself to be broken," Federer told Fernandez. "I actually announced yesterday: 'Someone will be broken.' For sure, I thought it would be me and that it didn't happen is pretty amazing."
MASON, OHIO—From the start, the Cincinnati semifinal between Venus Williams and Li Na was different. In her previous match against Samantha Stosur, Venus began with two aces. In this one, she chucked in a pair of double faults. It showed even in the warm-up that she was stretching her back a bit. She proceeded to take a lot off of her first serve soon enough, and ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, beside me in the photo pit, launched into talk of an injury. Shriver spoke with Venus’s coach David Witt courtside, and he then took to encouraging his charge with phrases like "Good play, way to move up" and "Put the work in here." Even so, she double-faulted five times in the set.
In the midst of this, Li Na was hardly cutthroat. Still, she prevailed, 7-5, 3-6, 6-1. Venus’s forehand was not at all the weapon that she wielded against Stosur. "Too flat," she complained to herself as she sent one shot long to give Li 5-3 in the opening set. Two errors from the Chinese gave Venus 0-30 at 5-4, and it seemed that if anyone could manage to go off the rails at this point, it was indeed Li.
But she didn’t. Venus did break for 5-all, nicking both lines with a backhand and hitting another winner of the same stripe. Li Na uncoiled her tension to take the final two games for 7-5. Still, it shouldn’t have been that close. She ran out of challenges, and her mental walkabouts may not be fixable by way of any new coach, and not the one she is debuting in Cincinnati, Carlos Rodriguez. She repeatedly shot glances to him (and her husband) when in her near-baseline corner.
Venus’s ground game became more penetrating and forceful in the second set, but she could not serve with power, as many first and second attempts landed at 75 mph or lower the rest of the match. She called the trainer for a medical timeout to knead her back, down 1-2 in the second set. Meanwhile, sister Serena Williams laughed along as the Center Court Kiss-cam turned on two camera men. The audience lapped that up, also singing along cheerily to "Sweet Caroline" during the break. This scene made for quite the dichotomy as juxtaposed with Venus’s injury session.
After the medical timeout, Venus was better. She broke with the aid of Li Na’s double fault and down-the-line backhand missiles. She then held courtesy of nothing spectacular for a 3-2 advantage. With that, we had a Li Na mini-implosion. And Venus continued to hit great off the ground, seizing the second set with a shout, 6-3. At this point, her three-set record seemed to come in to play: 8-1 on the year, and 3-0 just this week.
Still, Venus regressed at the start of the third set. She lacked the intensity shown in taking the previous set, and Li went up 3-1 on her opponent’s errors. Li also punished short balls mercilessly, and Venus later told the press that her back started hurting on her ground strokes as well as her serve midway through the final set. The American was on defense constantly in the third, and she eased in first and second serves as slow as 64 mph, though she proudly noted later that she was still reaching 90 mph at times. She also charged for a few swinging volleys as in days gone by, but it was too late. Li won the match in two hours and nine minutes. And an ace remains the most stylish way to end a match.
Now Li can dispatch the hex that has plagued her in 2012: She is 4-0 in semifinals this year, but 0-3 in finals to date. Petra Kvitova or Angelique Kerber lurks in the final. The former topped Li last weekend in Montreal. Each is a lefty, which Li mentioned later she did not look forward to, having played right-handed foes all week. She must make do or else keep paying dues.
MASON, OHIO—An all-Swiss semifinal match in Cincinnati began with the truth that nothing was going to take either Roger Federer or Stanislas Wawrinka by surprise. "I don’t need to see Stan play, really. He doesn’t need to see me play. We know each other very well," Federer said.
Too well, Wawrinka may think. He had lost 10 of his 11 to Federer, including eight straight. Seven of those were on hard courts at that, with Federer staking his claim to 18 of 19 sets. So Wawrinka might have felt it futile coming into this, but he hardly played like it, to the delight of a sellout crowd if not to his countryman, who went on to win 7-6 (4), 6-3. A few times along the way, Federer appeared irked that the win didn’t come easier.
Wawrinka served as if he had something to prove in the first set—and then he did just that. His service winner struck a cameraman’s headset, and the unseeded Swiss dealt an ace and an overhead smash to his superior to even the proceedings at 3-all. Wawrinka cracked his backhand to great effect, basically matching Federer’s own seemingly improved one-hander. The world No. 1’s ace saved a break point, one of two that Wawrinka earned but failed to capitalize on in the match. It’s notable that Federer had to frown upon just one break point in his past three matches, saving one against Alex Bogomolov, Jr., and not even granting one to Bernard Tomic or Mardy Fish.
Natalie Merchant’s "Kind and Generous" played on a changeover at 4-3 in the first set. That could very well be Federer’s tribute song to Wawrinka to date, but Stan didn’t feel so giving on this day. Instead, he dusted a nifty drop-shot that, while Federer glazed the net with a typically brilliant forehand in response, showed Wawrinka was heady and in tune. "Grin and bear it" has been Wawrinka’s mantra historically to his compatriot, but he reached 4-all on the back of big serving and 5-all on the strength of a (whiffed) second-serve ace and another to boot.
So Stan served better than Roger: 55 to 54 percent on first serves for the match, with an ace-to-double-fault count of 6 to 2 compared to Fed’s 5 and 5. It wasn’t enough. Wawrinka hardly moves the same and has fewer, lesser arrows in his quiver. Despite this, he continued riding his massive serve (clocking a 139 mph service winner) in recovering from 0-40 to force the opening-set tie break. In doing so, he saved three set points.
In that tie break, Wawrinka hit a net-cord-snapping shot that gave Federer a 6-3 lead. That came after a sterling point that saw both finishing at the net, Wawrinka the Olympic flag bearer for Switzerland looking over at the man in whose shadow he abides. (“He gets recognition, but sometimes in Switzerland we do have a hard time showing that,” Federer said on Friday.)
These two held serve through 7-6, 2-1, and before long, Federer had held at love with a second-serve ace of his own and a deft volley suffocated cross-court. All it took was a couple more holds and Stan slipping on this Center Court for Federer to find match point. And that’s what he does: Roger reduces other players to faked-out near ankle breaks. No one glides around nor disguises his shots quite like this one.
Now Federer faces down his nemesis Novak Djokovic in the final, the man he defeated here in the 2009 title round. The greatest player ever still owns a 15-12 head-to-head record on the Serb. This final—Cincinnati’s first in the Open era between the No. 1 and No. 2—will be different.
Novak Djokovic will make his fourth attempt at capturing the Cincinnati Masters title, one of three Masters’ series titles which have eluded him so far, after defeating Juan Martin del Potro 6-3, 6-2 to reach the Western & Southern Open final today.
The last time these two played, Djokovic slipped and stumbled to a straight sets defeat on the Wimbledon lawn as del Potro played dazzling power tennis to deny the Serb the Olympic bronze medal. Today, back on his preferred hard courts, Djokovic had his feet firmly under him, raising his defense from merely very good to phenomenal and del Potro could not summon the accuracy or aggressiveness to penetrate it. The match started promisingly and with Djokovic serving at 1-1 and yet to get his serve clicking, del Potro had four chances to take an early break. He saw a second serve from Djokovic on each of the four but despite playing with some aggression to get to those break points, he approached them with curious tentativeness, retreating deep behind the baseline, failing to capitalize on good, if not winning, second serve returns and short balls and overall, letting himself be drawn into the kind of marathon rallies Djokovic excels at.
He paid dearly for such passivity as Djokovic held and started to serve and play better. Del Potro held from 0-40 at 1-2 but couldn’t repeat the feat at 2-3, pegged back to 30-30 after a double fault, then giving up a break point on a rally which illustrated a major problem for him in this match-up – hampered by an injury to his left wrist, del Potro was even less inclined than usual to dictate with his backhand, something Djokovic does superbly, and by running around his forehand he repeatedly left the court open for Djokovic. Another double fault gave up the break for Djokovic to lead 4-2 and the match quickly assumed an air of inevitability.
Del Potro took some pain killers late in the first set and made a good start to the second, holding to love and playing with all the aggression that was lacking in the first set. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the accuracy today to match his attacking intent and Djokovic repeatedly stepped smoothly inside the baseline, allowing him to redirect the ball for short angles and pressure errors from del Potro, who was broken to 30 at 1-1.
Del Potro’s last chance came with Djokovic serving at 3-2 when he found an inside-in forehand winner for two break points, but he couldn’t get through Djokovic’s defenwe on the first and the second was saved with a service winner. Del Potro was broken to love shortly afterwards and although an unlucky net cord saw Djokovic’s first match point go by, another errant forehand by del Potro gave up a second and Djokovic struck an ace for an ultimately easy and convincing victory. Del Potro must consider whether or not to play the U.S. Open despite his injured left wrist and Djokovic will attempt to complete the Canada-Cincinnati double with only one Swiss man standing in the way.