It feels just like old times around the ATP Tour these days -- that is if 2006 can be said to be a long time ago. You remember 2006, when Roger Federer was busy winning everything in sight. Sunday in the Cincinnati Masters 1000 final, the Swiss once again spanked the man he recently deposed as No. 1, Novak Djokovic, without allowing the chest-thumping Serb a single game in the first set.
Ho-hum. What am I going to say that hasn't been said a thousand times in the past month or so, since Federer won his 17th major, at age 30, at Wimbledon? Well, there is this: Federer is now 31. That's new. He now has 21 Masters titles, the same as Rafael Nadal. It's an almost obscene number. But it also demonstrates the extent to which the two men, plus Djokovic, have utterly dominated the game in recent years.
So let's switch to something a little more unpredictable and suddenly far more intriguing than it was a few months ago -- the WTA Tour. Li Na, the No. 9 seed, won Cincinnati, quelling an insurrection mounted by Angelique Kerber -- the German who, a year ago, was playing in the qualifying event for an obscure International-level tournament. Today, Li is No. 6 in the world and a Premier-level tournament runner-up.
This was a fairly typical Li match; she fell behind 6-1, 3-1, then woke up and -- presumably -- began to remember some of the things she's recently learned from new coach Carlos Rodriguez (who hasn't coached anyone since his previous and only protege Justine Henin -- a fair little player herself -- retired for the second time about two years ago). Li then reeled off nine games in a row to lead 4-0 in the third, and she even found a way not to blow the lead. It was Li's first tournament win since she became the French Open champion in 2011.
But Cincy wasn't compelling simply because Li, who blows hot or cold at the best of times, suddenly caught fire. It was noteworthy because the results all week suggested that the U.S. Open will be a wide-open tournament. Suddenly, we've rekindled the atmosphere that prevailed on the WTA Tour at the end of last year.
If you remember, there was this sense then that anything was possible, with a solid half dozen or even eight legitimate contenders for the No. 1 ranking to which Caroline Wozniacki clung with a thread no more stout than a strand of spider web.
Serena and Venus Williams were great big questions marks instead of exclamation points. Petra Kvitova closed 2011 on a terrific hard-court winning streak (12 matches), Samantha Stosur seemed to have leaped to elite status, Li was still basking in the afterglow of her win at Roland Garros, Agnieszka Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka were coming on strong, and Maria Sharapova was beginning a productive comeback.
Azarenka looked like the new queen of the hive in the early part of the year, but by the clay-court season, she'd lost a little steam. By then, Kvitova, Li and Stosur seemed to be going nowhere, while Sharapova and Serena re-established the old order starting on the European clay and grass -- much like Federer would do.
Now, though, you have to wonder. Sure, Serena (now No. 4) was as cranky as an overtired toddler in Cincinnati as she lost to Kerber. What would you expect of someone who was on a 19-match winning streak and had barely had a day off since the start of Wimbledon? And Sharapova was resting, while Azarenka was either hurt -- or the dog ate her homework again -- I forget which.
No. 3 Radwanska is a continuing force on hard courts, and Kvitova is undoubtedly getting dialed in once more. She's been to the quarters or better since Wimbledon and was runner-up last week in Montreal and a semifinalist in Cincinnati. Under Rodriguez, Li seems newly inspired despite her age of 30 and ranking of No. 9. Kerber, who was just beginning her drive toward the top at this time last year, is a legitimate contender at majors now. Even Venus Williams has gotten into the act again since the Olympics. Only No. 6 Stosur, the defending champ at the U.S. Open, continues to disappoint.
You can say that this sudden flare-up is due largely to the fact that Azarenka and Sharapova skipped Cincinnati. While the cat's away, the mice will play and all that. But I think those less-familiar stars are good enough to whip the top two if they can get a little traction, confidence-wise.
They may have gotten that purchase this week, which is why the U.S. Open could become a wild affair on the women's side even if we all know who's going to win the men's title.
Kidding. Sort of.