W&S Open: Days Three and Four

A sparse crowd arrives early on Center Court for the first match of Day Three (Aug. 16), which features one of the more intriguing players on the WTA roster thus far in 2011: Li Na, who reached the finals of the Australian Open and became the first native-born Asian player to capture a Grand Slam title when she won the French Open. Kicking things off here, the tournament was proud to recognize a group of young girls from the Mountain Flowers Chinese Youth Tennis Academy in attendance. Although light, the crowd warmly greeted Li during the player introductions; a sign that the dedicated fans of the game wanted an up close look at her. —-

The match itself, with Li facing Lucie Safarova, found Li battling a sluggish start as mounting errors lead to her falling behind 0-2 before her serve settled a bit (more pace and better placement than Safarova) for her first hold. An immediate break of Safarova and Li seems to have hit a groove, but she never looks as crisp or clean throughout the match as one would hope. She snags the first set 6-3 and jumps on Safarova in the second with two quick breaks, but lets her sneak back in before finally dropping the hammer for a 6-4 set and match. Of course, this is an early round match — she should certainly be sharpening her focus for the next round. Despite all this, Li still has the look and feel of a dangerous opponent who will lurk around and strike whenever the opportunity presents itself.

Next on Center Court is Jo-Wilifried Tsonga against Marin Cilic in what appears to be a true clash of the titans. Tsonga is a burly but graceful 6 feet 2 inches, while the slimmer Cilic stands at 6 feet 6 inches. A gregarious presence, Tsonga, like Prometheus, aims to bring his fire to the crowd, which has swelled in appreciation of his good-natured antics. But he also sets the courts ablaze with scorching serves.

Cilic brings the heat as well, although he starts off slower, possibly attempting to lull Tsonga and the crowd with his initial off-speed placement. Both players flash more than hints of solid net play, either through selective serve and volley or coming in behind approach shots, but Tsonga proves better at repelling Cilic thanks to exceptional passing shots. In fact, one such pass secures the only break he will need (to go up 5-3) on his way to claiming the first set. The second set features another pass to set up an early break (for a 2-1 lead), but Cilic refuses to fade. Even when he loses the random point, Tsonga works the crowd. But here it's only a matter of time before he lowers the boom, boom, boom, which he does for a 6-3, 6-4 match and his patented celebratory bouncing around the court.

By evening, the spotlight turns to none other than defending champion Roger Federer, who's flying under the radar this year despite extending his record streak of deep second-week appearances at Grand Slams and stemming the dominant tide that is Novak Djokovic (over 50 wins this year and one defeat, at the hands of Federer). It has been longer than anyone might have suspected since Federer won a Slam, but he remains a quiet force, and he’s apparently not ready to surrender the throne here in Cincinnati.

Two aces in his first service game and the crowd, packed for the evening session and the return of the king no doubt, responds with rousing cheers of support. “C’mon, Roger,” and “Go, Roger” pepper the night air, whether he wins or loses points. From the court-side photographer’s section, his grace impresses, but what stands out is his laser-sharp focus. Federer stands no more than a foot or two behind the baseline when receiving serves that, in this case against Juan Martin Del Potro clock in over 115 mph, and he rarely lets one slip by without getting a racket on it. He’s able to block many of them into play and start in on his game plan, which can be to either stay back and trade baseline shots or slide forward to end things from the net, where he displays surgical precision and the steadiest of hands.

Although he breaks Del Potro early, what matters more is the sense that he doesn’t have one truly dominating skill on court — he doesn’t have the most powerful serve or the strongest game from the baseline — rather he simply has reached peak levels across the board. He does everything far above average and he has harnessed the mental aspect as well.

For instance, for a player who hates the challenge system, it seems now that he uses it, not to argue close points, but as a means of refocusing his occasional frustrations. During the first set, he signaled to challenge one of his shots that was obviously out along the side alley, but while the shot replayed, he attended to his racket and re-establishing his game. It was more of a timeout and with three of them, if well-timed, they could settle a rattled psyche.

This is not to say that Federer needed such recourse during this opening round match, even against an opponent like Del Potro, who interrupted his run of U.S. Open titles back in 2009. Del Potro is working his way back after a wrist injury, which explains their early match-up.

Federer ended up taking the match 6-3, 7-5, and slipped quietly into the night. (View Brian Taylor's Day Four photos here.)

On Day Four (Aug. 17) the plot starts to thicken as a stew of matches simmers during the day.

On Court 3, Gael Monfils takes on Croatian Ivan Dodig, while the Grandstand plays host to women’s No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki vs. American hopeful Christina McHale. And over on Center Court, the resurgent American Mardy Fish faces veteran Nikolay Davydenko.

I start with Monfils who, two points into his match, calls for the trainer to stretch and eventually wrap his thigh. Fearing this will be called, I dash over to Center Court for a glimpse at Fish, a seeming late-bloomer who has had an exceptional year, which he credits largely to his renewed commitment to fitness.

The face-off with Davydenko captures him in tip-top shape, both physically and mentally. By the time I arrive, he has already broken twice and serves with efficient conviction, using serve and volley, solid placement to move his opponent around at will and a Zen-like presence that lets you know that he realizes that it will take phenomenal play and shotmaking to beat him. A curious on-court trait speaks to power of presence. When serving, Fish takes three balls, but ends up keeping only one to serve, which could indicate a desire to focus on the point and moment at hand and to play it like it is the last opportunity. He certainly seems to here against Davydenko, dispatching him 6-0, 6-2 and looking more than ready, not only for his next opponent but also like a man ready for a deep run at the U.S. Open.

Monfils fights through his early injury, although he loses the first set 6-4. He breaks Dodig in the second (at 4-3) and takes the second, before Dodig is forced to retire during the third. It will be worth watching out for Monfils in the next round to see if the injury flares up again.

Speaking of injuries, Serena Williams, having routinely walked through her opening round match, withdraws today, citing a swollen toe that needs rest before the U.S. Open. Williams won the WTA event in Toronto prior to her arrival here, but the Grand Slam is the real prize she has her eye on. And later in the day, Victoria Azarenka pulls out of her match against Shahar Peer with an injury to her right hand. Lucky loser Pauline Parmentier replaces her, but loses to Peer (6-2, 6-3).

The rest of the afternoon follows suit. Rafael Nadal punches his way to the next round against Julien Benneteau of France (6-4, 7-5) and Andy Murray of Great Britain continues to mystify me. He handles Argentine David Nalbandian routinely, at least when considered from the score (6-4, 6-1), but his opening set is littered with moments where he drifts and lets his frustrations get the better of him, which makes it equally aggravating for his legion of fans waiting for him to finally break through and claim a Grand Slam title. He has all of the skills; what he lacks is a certain intangible, an essence that might separate him from the rare pack above him.

(View Brian Taylor's Day Five photos here.)