Doesn’t it all look so familiar. A big Masters Series tournament in Cincinnati where all the top players compete, but where half of them suffer from playing the week before, and a top tier WTA event without most of the tour’s stars. Federer wins the men’s event, while Henin prevails as the top lady. Is there a better sport for traditionalists than tennis?
Winning a tournament is always a respectable achievement, but when you’re the number one men’s or women’s player, fans tend to expect a certain greatness in the way you play. Neither Federer nor Henin was able to fulfill those expectations last week.
Not only did Federer fail to play his best, he was vulnerable throughout the week, and could well have been taken out by either Marcos Baghdatis in the third round, or Lleyton Hewitt in the semifinals. Nicolas Almagro took a set from the Swiss as well, but with the inexperienced and up-and-down Spaniard you never truly felt he could pull the upset.
That was not the case with Baghdatis, who had the first set for the taking, but choked trying to close out on his own serve. The Cypriot was the dominant player throughout the encounter, but Federer escaped when more inexplicable mistakes from Baghdatis near the end of the second set cost him the match. Federer’s forehand was shockingly erratic and he was slow on his feet. It carried over to his match against Hewitt in the semifinals, but Federer again came back from behind to win. This time in a third set tiebreak. Hewitt had led 3-2 and with a break of serve in the final set, but the Aussie faltered when it mattered most, just like Baghdatis did.
In the final, Federer pulled off a better performance, but was helped when James Blake, who had played brilliantly against Juan Carlos Ferrero earlier in the tournament, was shanking shots all over the place, never troubling the No.1 in a 6-1 6-4 loss.
Last week was a perfect example of the fact that no matter how well or poor Federer plays, the intimidating factor of being one of the greatest athletes the sport has ever seen is enough for the Swiss to get him through the majority of his matches. As Baghdatis said after losing to the No.1: ‘He won because of his name’.
That intimidating factor certainly plays a role in a match featuring Justine Henin and Jelena Jankovic. When Jankovic speaks about her rival, whom she is now 0 for 7 against, you get the sense that she doesn’t truly believe she has what it takes to beat her. How many times have we seen the following now? Jankovic takes an early lead in a set, but starts to become more defensive each game she gets closer to winning. Henin finds a way to turn previous unforced errors into winners at the right time and comes back to edge out the set.
Such was the story on Sunday, where at times, Henin would hit three or four forehands halfway into the net, or terribly wide, but kept going for the shot and made it count every time it mattered. Jankovic has to learn to stay aggressive throughout the course of a match against Henin, or she will never get a W over the Belgian. Also, that serve is nowhere near Top 10 standards.
Still, Jankovic will be one of the biggest contenders at the US Open, now that Sharapova has reinjured herself, Serena Williams hasn’t played a match since Wimbledon and Mauresmo sits one out. Having finally taken some good time off to recharge the batteries after Wimby, Jankovic might get her first Slam singles trophy in New York. Someone will likely have to take out Henin for her though.
Full US Open previews coming this weekend.
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