We look ahead to the last important matches of the US Open Series, which include one installment of a rivalry long established and one installment of a rivalry perhaps in the making.
Federer vs. Djokovic: Usually the prelude to a climactic battle between Federer and Nadal or Djokovic and Nadal, these matches generally have unfolded at the semifinal rather than the final stage. In fact, Federer and Djokovic have met in only six finals and in none of significance since 2009. But their sequence of major semifinals have contributed plenty of thrilling matches, most notably consecutive five-setters at the US Open when the Serb rallied to win after saving match points. While illustrating the extremely even balance in this rivalry, those matches also have testified to the defending US Open champion’s recent supremacy over the Swiss on outdoor hard courts. Early in his brilliant 2011 campaign, Djokovic defeated Federer at the Australian Open, Dubai, and Indian Wells, admittedly all courts slower than where they will play in Cincinnati. Their encounters have dwindled sharply this year as Federer finally began to draw Nadal more often in semifinals, and they have diminished in quality as well. Not only have none of their three 2012 meetings reached a final set, but none has contained a meaningful span during which both men showcased their best tennis at the same time. After Federer appeared to surrender midway through their Roland Garros semifinal, Djokovic appeared to do the same midway through their Wimbledon semifinal. This dispiriting trend probably owed much to the Swiss star’s depleted confidence on the former occasion, not having won a major since early 2010, and the Serb’s post-Roland Garros fatigue (physical and mental) on the latter occasion.
In Cincinnati, on the other hand, spectators can expect a Federer brimming with confidence from a summer full of exploits and a Djokovic reinvigorated following his title in Toronto. Having regained the #1 ranking from the Serb as well as capturing his Wimbledon crown, the 17-time major champion has not suffered visibly from the disappointment of failing to complete the career Golden Slam at the All England Club. To the contrary, he has swept through his first four matches without dropping serve and moving just as smoothly as he did on grass this summer. Federer typically has relished his visits to Cincinnati, at least when he does not fall early, for he has won the title every time that he has reached the semifinals and now will seek a record-breaking fifth trophy. Somewhat in the opposite position is his rival, who has found this tournament uniquely frustrating in its imperviousness to his assaults. Djokovic reached three finals in Cincinnati from 2008-11, only to lose in straight sets each time to a fellow member of the top four. Like Federer, however, he has not lost his serve or a set throughout the tournament and earned a satisfying measure of revenge on Saturday by dismantling Del Potro, the man who cost him an Olympic medal.
Even sweeter than that victory, surely, would taste revenge on the Swiss for a Wimbledon semifinal that appeared to signal a temporary reversal in the momentum of their rivalry. There, Federer stifled the Serb by producing first serves at timely moments and using the fast surface to take time away from an opponent fond of stretching the court and rallies. While a similar strategy might work in Cincinnati, faster than the early-season hard courts where Djokovic stymied him last year, the world #2 has looked progressively more comfortable during the last two weeks in the fusion style of offense and defense that he epitomizes. Likely to hammer his two-hander into Federer’s one-handed backhand, the Serb will aim to either break down that wing or force his rival to expose too much court by running around that shot to hit forehands. When the Swiss star strikes his first serve-forehand combinations consistently, though, Djokovic cannot build rallies as methodically as he would prefer. In a contest of pure shot-making, Federer would fancy his chances against anyone in the world, except Nadal on clay. In a contest of physicality and athleticism, Djokovic would fancy his chances against anyone in the world, except Nadal on clay. With the Spaniard out of the conversation for the moment, the two principal contenders for the US Open crown (apologies to Andy Murray) eye a tantalizing rehearsal for the last match of the major season in three weeks.
Li vs. Kerber: Admiring Li’s crisp baseline game at its fluid best, one wonders how the 30-year-old veteran has managed to win only five career titles. Injuries have played a role in stalling her progress at unfortunate junctures, to be sure, but her lack of self-belief also has hampered her in such situations. In each of her three finals this year, Li has won a set before eventually resigning herself to the runner-up trophy. Under the guidance of Carlos Rodriguez, however, she already has improved not only her consistency but her body language in adversity. A few episodes in her gritty three-set victory over Venus Williams on Saturday demonstrated the steely version of Li whom we have seen too little since her title at Roland Garros. After losing her serve at 5-4 in the first set, for example, she rebounded to break serve again immediately and close out the set at the second opportunity. Rather than letting the match spiral away from frustration as Venus mounted a miraculous second-set comeback, she stayed focused on each point and exacted too heavy a physical toll for her battered opponent to sustain. For just the second time in her career, she has reached finals at consecutive tournaments, and these two weeks in North America have transformed her from an intriguing dark horse at the US Open to a genuine contender there.
If Li is an offensive-defensive hybrid with the emphasis on offensive, Kerber might be an offensive-defensive hybrid with the emphasis on defense. While she certainly can finish points with a nasty hooking forehand when presented with the opportunity, she frustrated fellow lefty Kvitova in their semifinal by lurking far beyond the baseline to constantly force the erratic Czech into hitting one more ball. The picture of consistency in 2012, Kerber has won 53 matches and the first two titles of her career, and at Wimbledon she defied those who considered her US Open semifinal an accident of fate by reaching that round at a major again. Arguably the most significant match of her career to date, this final should not expose many nerves from a woman usually impervious to them. (On grass, she did suffer a few notable wobbles and did not recover from all of them.) A long period of obscurity deep in the ranks of the WTA may have inoculated Kerber against the giddiness experienced by a newcomer bursting onto the scene. At a similarly significant moment in an Indian Wells quarterfinal, she responded far more sturdily than Li to the circumstances with a commanding victory. As the Chinese star approaches her tenth match in eleven days, then, she may need to confront fatigue and muster an additional layer of patience to progress a round further than she did in Montreal.
Somewhat depleted by withdrawals from Sharapova and Azarenka, as well as a tepid effort by Serena, the women’s draw in Cincinnati harbors fewer implications for the US Open than does the men’s draw. No matter the outcome, most prognosticators would label Serena the favorite in New York with the other two prominent absentees and probably Kvitova directly behind her. For these two women, though, this prestigious Premier Five title would represent a worthy accomplishment in itself. While Li aims for her first title of 2012, Kerber seeks her first title of this magnitude. After a series of lackluster WTA finals this year, the Rogers Cup firefight last week started the second half in promising fashion. Accustomed to three-set thrillers in their recent women’s finals, Cincinnati audiences will bring high expectations for these feisty competitors to satisfy.