We review the most intriguing developments from Wednesday at Cincinnati.
Wawrinka d. Ferrer: After an outstanding first half of 2012, Ferrer has dipped lately with losses to Nishikori at the Olympics and a fellow clay specialist here. Winning a clay tournament in Sweden after Wimbledon, he signaled a relative lack of commitment to the North American hard courts. When he lost the first set, he quickly capitulated against an opponent who had lost four straight matches. Ferrer’s return, probably the best in the ATP outside those of Djokovic and Murray, garnered him no breaks and only two break points on a solid but not overwhelming server. The good news that he will claim a top-four seed at the US Open hopefully will spur him to worthier efforts when it matters more.
Nishikori d. Blake: Years past relevance, Blake still manages to generate a sporadic flurry of winners that cause one to understand why he has not yet retired. Those flurries come more often than not on American soil, in part because few tournaments in other countries would grant him the wildcard that he needs for the main draw. Blake came within range of the third round in Cincinnati, most improbably, by winning the first set from Nishikori and battling him through every stage of the second and third. But the Japanese star persevered in the hostile surroundings, raising his first-serve percentage in each set although playing far from his best tennis. A much more challenging test lies ahead, however.
Raonic d. Baghdatis: Another player who rallied to win after losing the first set, Raonic played the inverse of the script in his previous victory over Gasquet, when he took control by winning a first-set tiebreak. This time, having lost that tiebreak, he did not lose heart against this mercurial foe but battled back to win the next two sets by single-break margins. (Rarely does Raonic win or lose a set by a double break.) The Canadian saved a break point in the final game and held his nerve when the more experienced Baghdatis threatened to slip away with their encounter. With Ferrer gone from this section, Raonic might look ahead to the prospect of a first Masters 1000 semifinal, should his large frame continue to withstand the heat.
Del Potro d. Haas: Registering his first victory since claiming the bronze medal, Del Potro eased comfortably past one of the draw’s most dangerous unseeded men. A straight-sets dismissal of a man who had won two sets from Federer and one from Djokovic this summer suggests an ominous sign for the former US Open champion’s rivals. Del Potro tightened his grip on the match after a tight first set and exploited the German veteran’s horrific first-serve percentage (41%) throughout the match. Haas did not lose a single point on his first serve in the second set—which he lost 6-2, having won just three second-serve points.
Murray d. Querrey: Just when the circumstances seemed ripe for an upset, Murray stifled any such thoughts with an emphatic opener to his Cincinnati campaign. The gold medalist punished Querrey regularly for hitting forehands from his backhand corner by reversing direction with his backhand down the line. Even more impressively, Murray forced his opponent to finish the point more than once by connecting with sparkling passing shots, and his returning prowess limited the American to far fewer free points from his serve than he normally earns. Frustrated by the apparent absence of any hole in the defenses across the net, Querrey conceded a rising number of routine errors that speeded the end of this routine match.
Stephens d. Giorgi: Dismantling Pironkova in her first match, this home hope cruised with equal ease by this Italian rising star. Stephens impressed at the US Open last year by defeating Peer en route to the third round, where she competed creditably on Arthur Ashe. This year, she reached the second week of a major for the first time at Roland Garros, continuing a steady upward trend as some of her young compatriots have stagnated. Awaiting her in the next round is an intriguing test from the top seed, the cunning Radwanska, almost certainly too stern a challenge for her to master but a useful experience from which she can learn.
Li d. Cirstea: Two days after Peng and Jankovic dueled deep into a decisive tiebreak, these two women delivered another rollercoaster under the lights. This match marked the third meeting between them since this spring, of which Li had triumphed at Roland Garros and Cirstea at Wimbledon. Testifying to the counterpunching virtues of one and the offensive potential of the other were those two results, so the latter should have felt confident on the fast court of Cincinnati. Cirstea did in fact accumulate a brief lead at the outset, only to see Li storm through the next six games. Having failed to win a single game in her Montreal loss last week, the Romanian might well have surrendered then, but instead she fought through a turbulent second set in which she dug out of one difficult service game after another. Early in the deciding set, each woman climbed out of 0-30 holes on serve before Li earned the only break in the fourth game. Broken in serve but not in spirit, Cirstea dogged the veteran’s footsteps thereafter, saving a match point at 2-5 and earning a break point when Li served for it. Only a final burst of pinpoint forehands carried the steadier player across the finish line.
Venus d. Scheepers: Extended to a third set for the second straight match, Venus continued to deliver her most imposing tennis at that stage. She reeled off the last four games from the overpowered South African by clipping the lines with the same groundstrokes that had veered wildly astray for much of the first two sets. Not serving as efficiently as she had against Kirilenko, Venus relied upon her return game to reverse the momentum after losing a sloppy first set. Despite the fast court, she scrambled with such agility during rallies that the modest weapons of Scheepers simply could not hit through her.
Pavlyuchenkova d. Goerges: Much to the relief of Wozniacki, she will not need to solve one of her repeated nemeses in the next round. By contrast, the Dane has dominated her Russian peer throughout their previous meetings by capitalizing on the ebbs and flows in the accuracy of her shot-making. Haunted by a wayward serve for much of her career, Pavlyuchenkova survived another indifferent performance in that regard by winning as many points on her opponent’s serve as on her own. Typically a formidable server, Goerges held only twice and never established a rhythm as the match rushed past.
Kvitova d. Barthel: The epic of the day, this match featured the Rogers Cup champion less than 48 hours after she had won that tournament for her first title of 2012. In the wake of her exploits north of the border, Kvitova understandably sagged against an ambitious German armed with almost as many weapons as hers. Unlike Goerges, though, she found a way to survive long enough for her inexperienced opponent’s scorching game to cool after she stood halfway to the upset. The victim of many such upsets this year, Kvitova deserves credit for avoiding that narrative on the continent where she has played her least stirring tennis. When the match hung in the balance at 5-5 in the final set, her confidence from last week likely allowed her to tread the line between aggression and recklessness better than before. That said, Kvitova cannot afford to wallow through a series of sweltering afternoons while staying fresh for the later rounds.