There was poignancy about the results in the final major warm-up tournament for the US Open, the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Each singles final featured an American, and both of the U.S. players lost. ATP No. 22 John Isner lost the men’s final to Rafael Nadal 7-6 (8), 7-6 (3), while Serena Williams, the top-ranked player on the WTA Tour, No. 2 Victoria Azarenka in three sets.
That seems to be a biting comment on the state of American tennis, but it also provided a realistic preview of what we might expect at the upcoming Grand Slam, for these two players clearly are the nation’s best hope. And in some ways, the forecast for the immediate future is certainly brighter than it was a few weeks ago.
Isner has said during these past few weeks that he’s pleased with the way he’s playing and hasn’t felt so sharp in a long time. But because of the way the ranking system works, he dropped out of the top 20 a few weeks ago -- dropped like a bomb, in fact, when pundits figured out and broadcast that his fall represented the first time the U.S. had no male player in the top 20 since the ATP rankings were launched 20 years ago.
Thanks to Isner’s high level of play these past few weeks, though, he’s back up to No. 14 -- just five ticks below his career-high ranking. He seems to be peaking ideally for the US Open, although you have to wonder whether it’s wise for Isner to play (as planned) this week in the Winston-Salem Open.
Granted, Winston-Salem is right in Isner’s backyard. And he’s the two-time defending champion, so the ranking points and available prize money at this most cozy ATP 250 are delicious incentives to play. But Isner has just played in three tournaments in as many weeks (two of them high-effort Masters 1000 events), and as runner-up played the maximum number of matches in two of them.
You have to wonder if that won’t prove too much come next week in New York. Although he’s rarely as tired as he looks on court, Isner could become a victim of his own success. It’s a nice problem to have, but it would certainly be a bummer for American fans if Isner ran out of gas at the US Open and bowed out meekly in the first week.
Remember that Isner has yet to crack the US Open code. His best result was a quarterfinal (l. to Murray) in 2011, so hopes that he’ll break through to another level are running high in his camp. Mike Sell, his coach, has done some really good work on two areas of perpetual concern, Isner’s footwork and movement, and it’s starting to pay off.
Also, it’s encouraging that while Isner lost the final to a re-energized Rafael Nadal (who’s playing the best hard-court tennis of his life, and is on track to finish the year at No. 1), his serve wasn’t broken once in those two, tight sets. Isner makes his living by the tiebreaker (he was 32-12 going into the Cincy final), and this time around, Nadal outfoxed him twice. Next time, who knows?
As for Serena Williams, a wag might look at that loss to Azarenka and scoff, “Serena has her right where she wants her.” The win by Azarenka improved her still dreadful head-to-head record with Williams to 12-2, and the lingering question is who will the result help more?
The win by Azarenka will put her under pressure to repeat that feat at the US Open, while the loss ought to act as a sort of wake-up call for Serena. The loser admitted that after she won the first set in the Cincy final, she took her foot off the gas and allowed Azarenka to assert herself with just the kind of aggressive play that is one of the two ways to bring down Williams (the other being extreme consistency combined with great defense).
Serena now knows she’ll have to be sharper and more energetic if she hopes to defend her US Open title. But given that this is Williams’ home Grand Slam and the surface is ideally suited to her game, there seems to be another factor at play here. She’s often felt pressure in New York and perhaps lost some matches because of it. (Samantha Stosur, Kim Clijsters, anyone?)
Serena doesn’t feel like she’s found her best tennis on a consistent basis yet, and the sands in the hourglass are running out. What happens next will surely be entertaining, as Williams and Isner have stoked both hopes -- and concerns.
And if neither Williams nor Isner can come through, not to worry -- there’s always the Bryan twins, who won the 25th Masters 1000 title of their career Sunday and continue to shatter doubles records left and right.