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Monday, August 11, 2014
How much does Cincinnati matter?

By Peter Bodo


The promoters of the Cincinnati Masters are going to be hard put to top the show the ATP and WTA put on in Toronto and Montreal, respectively, last week during the Canadian Open. Each tournament was like a jack-in-the-box; you just never knew when a high-quality match or stunning upset would pop up. Yet both tournaments were won by blue-chip players, each in his and her own way needing a big win.

No. 13 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga won the men’s event; No. 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska won the women’s. OK, fate was rough on the Homecoming King and Queen, Milos Raonic. He was stunned by unseeded Feliciano Lopez, but at least Raonic survived to the fourth round. Eugenie Bouchard met her very own Carrie in the first round in the form of Shelby Rogers.

Eight of the final 14 WTA matches in Toronto were three-setters, the casualties including seeds No. 14, No. 11, No. 8 and, of particular note, No. 1 -- that was Serena Williams. The men put on some barn burners, too, not all of them thanks to No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov.

The one tower of consistency still standing when the smoke cleared was Tsonga’s victim, No. 2 seed Roger Federer. If the 33-year-old, all-time Grand Slam singles title champ isn’t careful, people are going to give him a nickname along the lines of “Old Reliable” or “Old Faithful.”

So once again, seers are suggesting that we’re coming to an end times in the ATP (how else would you describe the fracturing of the Big Four?) and witnessing an equally disruptive transition on the WTA Tour. The latter is much easier to imagine because -- let’s be frank about this -- that turnover will occur if and only if and when and only when Serena Williams is deposed.

The men are ruled by a committee; the WTA, however, is a simple and pure dictatorship. It’s a Big One -- not a Big Four.

But let’s not get carried away. We’ve had similar signs of transition in the recent past, including Stan Wawrinka’s win at the Australian Open, Rafael Nadal’s unexpected failures on the Euroclay circuit and the emergence of the hard-charging Bouchard and Simona Halep. But look at how all that worked out this summer: Nadal and Maria Sharapova won the French Open while Petra Kvitova and Novak Djokovic each won another Wimbledon title.

Some skeptics suggest that the real reason the Canadian Open proved such a shootout is that nobody wants to go all out in back-to-back Masters/WTA Premier events -- not just a few weeks before the long, hot summer hits the high point of the US Open. The tradition of playing “tuneup” tournaments (even one, never mind a slew of them) may be vanishing. Top-ranked Djokovic in particular seems comfortable tuning up for the majors on the practice court.

It may be counterintuitive, but having a number of options going into the US Open may even work against players looking to round into shape for a major. All players would rather win than lose; it’s a fact. But you can play plenty of tennis in the weeks leading to the US Open, take a few losses and feel like you have plenty left in the tank come the Open in New York. And the better you are, the less urgent it is for you to win one of the run-up events. At the top of the game, it’s not really about the rankings points anymore.

Given that, it will be interesting to see how Cincinnati will play out. All the top 10 women with the exception of out-of-commission Li Na are entered in the Western & Southern Open. All the elite men are playing there, too, with the exception of No. 2 Nadal, who’s out with a bad wrist. They all are there for a number of reasons, but getting ready for the US Open isn’t the towering one. The events are mandatory for most of the men and a staple for the top women, and while rankings points aren’t the end-all, be-all for top 10 players, it’s pretty hard for the ATP stars to ignore the value of 1,000 rankings points.

Any player who feels a great sense of urgency about making a statement before the US Open is down to his or her last big opportunity -- even if the only player who really seems to be in a must-win situation of her own making is Serena Williams.