The 2009 quarterfinals at Cincinnati's premiere tennis event was just too good to pass up. With the Western & Southern ATP Master event occurring every August here in my own backyard as the last big tune up to the US Open, I somehow managed to not attend a single match this year... that is until I saw the men's quarterfinal schedule.
The top 4 players in the world all playing on the same court that day made it a must see event, so I took a half-day of vacation and sprung for box seat tickets to go see Andy Murray play Julien Benneteau, Roger Federer play Leyton Hewitt, Novak Djokavic play Gilles Simon, and Rafael Nadal play Tomas Berdych--all on a sun-filled day in Mason, OH.
First, this event is outstanding. The amount of access to the greatest players in the world is mind-boggling. The crowds are large, but not overwhelming...with easy access to watch players warm up on the side practice courts, interact with them, get autographs, etc. Try doing this at the US Open where you are lucky to catch a glimpse of the top players... let alone interact with them.
The Murray match started things off with a surprise, as Andy's serve really let him down in losing the first set. He scrapped back against Benneteau to win the second set (with set point being a monster 53 stroke rally that ended with a standing ovation--even though Benneteau completely choked on an easy overhead to win the point), and simply wore down Julien in the third set. Murray's serving woes would continue to exist the following day in his semi-final match against Federer (double fault on match point!), and unless he gets more consistent with his serve in the next two weeks, I can see Murray getting ousted in the 4th round of the US Open. He is moving well, and hitting his ground strokes as fluidly as ever, but hitting only 50% of his first serves and double digit double faults will be his downfall if it continues in New York.
After some quick shopping in the vendor tent area, I settled in for the 2nd quarterfinal match. Roger Federer playing former #1 Leyton Hewitt was the big draw of the day, and the Swiss flags were out in force. Watching Roger in person does not disappoint, as his effortless groundstrokes (always with pace and depth) are just amazing...and he makes it look so easy. Leyton put up a good fight, but ultimately Roger wore him down for a straight set win. I was actually surprised at how many unforced errors the Australian had on his backhand side--once his most consistent side. Leyton's patella injury also seemed to slow him down a bit, but I expect him to play into the 3rd round of the US Open. Roger, on the other hand, appears to be back in top form. Approaching the net to shake Hewitt's hand after winning match point, Roger lobbed a ball into the upper stands directly into the middle of a section that was holding a "Shhh...Genius at Work" bed sheet plastered with the Swiss cross--an obvious message of 'thank you for your support' from Roger. Federer's precision with this lob was just as impressive as his man-handling of Hewitt.
The Djokovic-Simon match was close throughout, with "The Joker" winning the pivotal points for a straight set win. I was surprised at how skinny Simon is, and wonder about whether he has the endurance to go deep in the US Open. He also has an awkward starting stance with his knees locked... can't be good over the long run. Novak wasn't overpowering, but just did not make many mistakes and was moving extremely well. I'm expecting a deep run at the US Open for Djokovic.
The final match with Nadal-Berdych was a coming out party for Rafa, as he finally showed some of his 2008 form and movement. Didn't appear that his knees were bothering him any longer, and he wore down a sprite Berdych in straight sets. Although Rafa would lose the next day to Djokovic, I think he'll make it to the semi-finals at the Open... but don't expect him to win his first Grand Slam in Flushing Meadows.
On a side note, I cannot say enough about this event and, specifically Roger Federer. I have always been a Federer admirer, as I truly believe that he is the greatest player in tennis history (15 Grand Slams...and counting!). But watching him spend nearly a half-hour after the match signing autographs for the sea of fans awaiting his exit from the player's lounge was impressive and surprising. Many players rushed through the autograph-seeking masses with nary an acknowledgment (Tsonga got a resounding 'BOO' from the crowd when he rushed through after his doubles match without signing anything, not even for a little boy wearing a Tsonga shirt holding a new oversized tennis ball for signatures), the amount of time and the level of interaction from the world's #1 was amazing (even though I'm sure he wanted to get back to his wife and baby twins at the hotel). Roger is truly a class act in every way.
I highly recommend this event to the avid tennis fan, as it would be hard to find a tournament with the amount of fan access to all of the world's best women and men tennis players in the world. Practice courts are never overwhelmed with gawkers, and where else can you chat up with Brad Gilbert (left image) as he's hitting balls with fellow ESPN commentator Darren Cahill (Brad won this tournament in 1989, defeating Stefan Edberg in the final). The Cincinnati ATP event claims to be the oldest professional tennis tournament in the United States (to have not moved to another city), and it is truly a gem of an tennis event.
The results from my day of tennis gawking brought dream semi-final matchups between the top 4 players in the world, with over 20 grand slams between them all!! With each player playing well, this sets up for an exciting 2009 US Open!