Last weekend we witnessed the resumption of the best rivalry in tennis at the moment, that being Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. Friday night we’ll take a walk down memory lane with what use to be the best show in the sport as Nadal takes on rival Roger Federer for the 31st time, their first in the Great Midwest.
But it very nearly didn’t happen. And arguably shouldn’t have happened.
Earlier in the day Tommy Haas led a faltering Federer 6-1, 4-2. Federer look out of it, Darren Cahill on ESPN2 was hinting Roger might be injured. That before the German, who’s been known to combust, did combust.
Haas fell apart at just the right time and the wily Federer took advantage winning five of the last six games to steal the second set.
The 35-year-old Haas regroup a little in the third but eventually succumbed to his good friend 1-6, 7-5, 6-3 in a stunning turnaround.
“I think I had too many of those small hiccups that kept on adding up, because overall I wasn’t playing terrible. I was just missing by a margin or putting myself in a tough spot,” said Federer who was playing terrible at the start. “Then on top of that, Tommy took advantage of it, played well when he had to… I was just hanging on, and I’m happy I did because it paid off. At the end, I’m very happy I was able to turn a match around like this.
“Those are the matches I knew just kind of what I need right now,” said Federer, a 5-time Cincinnati champion. “Every minute more in a match court is a good thing right now. It gives me a lot of opportunity in the next match to do better.”
In the evening, Nadal held up his end against Grigor Dimitrov knocking off a spirited Baby Federer 6-2, 5-7, 6-2.
Rafa had a break lead in the second, but couldn’t hold on like Haas. But unlike Tommy he took care on business in the final set.
Nadal leads Roger 20-10 with two wins this year at Indian Wells and Rome, both relatively easy. Since the start of 2011 Rafa’s won six of eight on overall on outdoor hardcourts he’s ahead of the Swiss 6-2.
Based on form this year – Nadal is 12-0 on hardcourts whereas Federer’s been struggling on all surfaces (remember ONE top ten win this year!) – I think it’s going to be another straight sets victory for the Spaniard.
“I saw a little bit of the Darcis match at Wimbledon,” Federer said looking ahead to Nadal. “But the rest of the year for him has been unbelievable, how he came back and how successful he’s played, almost always achieving finals really,” said Federer.
“If I play him tomorrow, it’s clearly going to be a difficult match because he comes in with a lot of confidence again.”
Even when Roger was at his best he had trouble beating Nadal. Now, at 32, well off his peak and with just one single Top 10 win this year (Tsonga in Australia), he’s asked to replicate level? I don’t see it.
“Always play against Roger is a special feeling,” Nadal said. “We have a great history behind us in our confrontations, so it’s another quarterfinals. It’s a special one because you’re playing against a very special player. Our matches were very special always.”
To have any chance Roger will have to serve well and serve big because I just don’t think Roger has the speed nor the strength anymore to chase down Rafa’s shots to the corner and respond with any weight or interest. Off the ground, unless Roger comes up with something very special (maybe a super racquet!), it’s going to be one-way traffic for Rafa.
Roger’s best hope? His friend Rafa gives him a belated birthday gift. And really, I didn’t think Nadal would play Cincinnati after his Montreal win. To his credit he has and has played well. Might he be content?
Also on a very busy Thursday, Novak Djokovic dominated David Goffin 6-2, 6-0. He’ll next meet American giant John Isner who was a straight set winner over Canadian Open finalist Milos Raonic.
Djokovic, a 4-time runner-up in Cincinnati, needs the title to complete the Masters set – winning all nine. “I have an extra motivation and an opportunity to make history in this tournament, so I’m very inspired to play well day after day,” Djokovic said.
Isner’s a tough cookie on any surface, but I think if he can avoid suffering another bad patch in a tiebreak then Novak should pull through.
“It’s going to be a very difficult match for both of us,” said Djokovic about Isner’s serve. “I need to return well tomorrow and try to get as many balls into play.”
My early tournament pick Andy Murray also cruised hammering Julien Bennteau 6-2, 6-2. A 2-time Cincinnati champ, Murray now faces Tomas Berdych, a 6-3, 6-0 victor over Tommy Robredo. In this US Open semi rematch, Berdych leads 5-4 but Murray has won the last three on hardcourts. I’ll go with the Scot here again.
In the first quarterfinal of the day, it’s Juan Martin Del Potro against Dimtry Tursunov. Delpo needed three sets to turn away lefty Feliciano Lopez while Tursunov also beat a Spaniard, No. 3 David Ferrer, 6-2, 6-4 in one of the hard-hitting Russian’s best wins in a while.
“He’s playing well, is very dangerous and plays really fast from the baseline,” said Del Potro about Tursunov. “I have to serve better than today and play harder than him.”
If Delpo’s fit and recovered (wrist, back, knee?) after the Lopez match he should take out Dimitry.
In the women’s field tomorrow, 2012 champ Li Na is already into the semifinals after her quarterfinal opponent, Agnieszka Radwanksa, withdrew to attend her grandfather’s funeral this Saturday.
Former champion Jelena Jankovic, who won an ugly affair over Sloane Stephens, meets Roberta Vinci. Victoria Azarenka clashes with Caroline Wozniacki in a battle of former No. 1 and Simona Halep will test Serena Williams, who like Nadal and Djokovic, has never won in Cincinnati.
“I wasn’t happy with the way I served today – there were a lot of breaks – but I was really happy with my returns today,” Jankovic said after her 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 win over Sloane. “I’m not sure why we had trouble serving today. Maybe it was the wind, my toss was all over the place, and I wasn’t too happy with my game overall, but I’m happy with the way I fought. She’s an up-and-coming player with a bright future, so I’m happy to win.”
ESPN2 has live coverage starting at 11am.
FRIDAY CINCINNATI SCHEDULE
CENTER COURT start 11:00 am
[Q] D Tursunov (RUS) vs  J del Potro (ARG) – ATP
 N Djokovic (SRB) vs J Isner (USA) – ATP
Not Before 3:00 PM
 S Williams (USA) or M Barthel (GER) vs  S Stosur (AUS) or S Halep (ROU) – WTA
Not Before 7:00 PM
 R Federer (SUI) vs  R Nadal (ESP) – ATP
Not Before 8:30 PM
 C Wozniacki (DEN) vs  V Azarenka (BLR) – WTA
GRANDSTAND start 11:00 am
M Fyrstenberg (POL) / M Matkowski (POL) vs  M Granollers (ESP) / M Lopez (ESP) – ATP
Not Before 1:00 PM
 R Vinci (ITA) vs  J Jankovic (SRB) – WTA
Not Before 3:00 PM
 T Berdych (CZE) vs  A Murray (GBR) – ATP
Not Before 7:00 PM
J Goerges (GER) / B Zahlavova Strycova (CZE) vs  A Groenefeld (GER) / K Peschke (CZE) – WTA
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