The Champion's Test: Pass or Fail? - UBITENNIS
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The Champion’s Test: Pass or Fail?

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Marin Cilic at the US Open (image via tv2.dk)

September 4th, 2015
By: MJ

 

The modern game requires more mental fortitude than ever, and it is often said that the pressure lies mainly with the one favored to win. This is the case because the underdog have virtually nothing to lose, and thus the ability to swing freely away in a tennis match translates to an advantage. Today was a prime example of such forces at work, which saw the defending champion pushed to the edge over and over again in a roller-coaster marathon match.

Towering over his opponent at 1.98 meters, Marin Cilic’s game is superior to Mikhail Kukushkin’s in every aspect. But one thing they share is very much the same: the human mind. And for both players today their mental game played havoc throughout their 4 hours, 11 minute match, which is the longest for the tournament so far.

It began routine enough, with both men holding serve. Cilic showed his nerves first by giving the break to the #56 ranked player. In true champion’s fashion, the 9th seed immediately broke right back to level the set. He continued the momentum by breaking again for a 5-3 lead. For those watching in Armstrong, it looked like the champion was going to pass his test easily. Instead, the unseeded Kukushkin battled right back to level the set once more at 5-5. Up to this point, Cilic was a mere shadow of his championship form from last year, choosing to hit rally balls and hope for the error instead of making it happen. This was a classic case of playing not to lose. The only element that kept Cilic in close contention was his big serving on several crucial points. The first set tiebreak continued to reveal both player’s nervous play, until the Croat went for a weak drop shot to gift wrap the set away. Immediately, Marin smashed his Head Prestige in one efficient swing on his way back to the chair.

The 2nd set unfolded to more of the same: uninspired tennis from the Croat, a stark contrast to his coach Ivanesevic’s playing style. Kukushikin looked comfortable and cruised to a 5-2 lead. The champ was going to fail his test after all. Then out of nowhere, Cilic began to serve big for easy hold and break back to 5-5. The crowd was treated to a roller-coaster ride. For Cilic, the ride was on its upswing as he dominated the ensuing tiebreak and snatched the set right out of Kukushikin’s hand.

The 3rd set proved to be more routine. Both players still struggled with finding good form, but the more experienced player managed to make it a 2 to 1 set lead. The test was finally close to being over. Or was it?

In the 4th set the two traded leads with each other as if it were an auto racing event. The low percentage of break point conversions told most of the story. Any momentum gathered by either player quickly dissolved into the humid afternoon. For the fans who stuck around, one could say neither player wanted to hold, or break the other’s serve. So the match went to yet another tiebreak. This time, the 27 year old from Kazakstan prevailed. The roller-coaster ride was not over, and for the defending champion himself, the test as well.

With backs to the fence for both men in the final deciding set, it was as if a light bulb finally turned on inside Cilic’s head as he faced the daunting last portion of the test before him. Rising to the challenge, he proceeded to win 5 straight games. Despite the seemingly impossible, Kukushikin secured himself a moral victory by winning the 6th game. The ball back on Cilic’s racket, there remained one game to ace the test, and he did exactly that. The champ passed his 3rd round test.

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Cincinnati Daily Preview: Serena Williams Plays Emma Raducanu, Venus Faces Karolina Pliskova

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Serena Williams practicing on Monday in Cincinnati (twitter.com/cincytennis)

In what is expected to be the next-to-last event of her storied career, Serena Williams will play her opening round match on Tuesday.  And in a blockbuster matchup, she faces reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu.  Can the 19-year-old defeat the GOAT, or can Serena pull off one more high-profile victory before her career comes to an end?

 

Tuesday’s schedule in Cincinnati features many other top names as well.  Center Court alone also includes Naomi Osaka, Daniil Medvedev, Nick Kyrgios, and Venus Williams, who takes on Karolina Pliskova in a battle between two of the WTA’s all-time best servers.

Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule.  Tuesday’s play gets underway at 11:00am local time.


Karolina Pliskova (14) vs. Venus Williams (WC) – Second on Center Court

This will only be Venus’ third singles match of the season, as multiple injuries have hampered the 42-year-old in recent years.  Williams has only earned one singles win in the last 18 months.  Pliskova has struggled this season since a hand injury caused her to miss the first two months of 2022.  But Karolina had her best run of the season last week in Toronto, where she reached the semifinals, which included a three-set win over fourth-seeded Maria Sakkari.  Venus and Karolina played three times between 2015 and 2017, with Pliskova taking two of those three encounters.  Their most notable match was in the fourth round of the 2016 US Open, which Karolina won in a third-set tiebreak.  In 2022, Pliskova is a considerable favorite to prevail.


Serena Williams (DA) vs. Emma Raducanu (10) – Not Before 7:00pm on Center Court

This will only be Serena’s fourth singles match of the season, and she’s 1-2 since returning at Wimbledon.  Last week in Toronto, she made a tearful exit from the court after her straight-set loss to Belinda Bencic, as the Canadian crowd gave the 23-time Major singles champion a standing ovation.  With this mini-retirement tour being new territory for Serena, how will she react to what will be a boisterous American crowd on Tuesday?  She’ll surely feel nervous, but Raducanu will as well, as she likely assumed she would never get to play Serena.  Emma has understandably struggled since her shocking, life-changing run a year ago at the US Open, as she’s just 11-14 on the year.  But she’s still played a lot more tennis of late than Serena.  This match was originally scheduled for Monday evening, and reports indicated it was postponed until Tuesday due to an injury concern regarding Serena.  That’s advantage, Emma.  But as we’ve learned over the course of the last several decades, Serena is fully capable of willing her way to victory even when she’s far from her best.


Other Notable Matches on Tuesday:

Naomi Osaka vs. Shuai Zhang – Osaka is just 1-2 this summer, and was forced to retire last week in Toronto due to a back issue.  She is 3-2 against Shuai, though they haven’t played in nearly four years.

Nick Kyrgios vs. Alejandro Davidovich Fokina – Kyrgios has won 14 of his last 16 singles matches, and is on an eight-match win streak in doubles.  Davidovich Fokina is only 4-9 this season on hard courts.

Coco Gauff (11) vs. Marie Bouzkova (Q) – Gauff is now the new world No.1 in doubles, and is on the brink of making her top 10 debut in singles.  Bouzkova has claimed 18 of her last 22 matches at all levels. 

Mackenzie McDonald (WC) vs. Carlos Alcaraz (3) – McDonald was a finalist last year in Washington, but arrived in Cincinnati on a three-match losing streak.  Alcaraz was upset last week in an extended affair with another American, Tommy Paul.  Earlier this year at Indian Wells, Carlitos beat Mackie 6-3, 6-3.

Daniil Medvedev (1) vs. Botic van de Zandschulp – Medvedev needs to win at least two matches this week to ensure he maintains his No.1 ranking.  He’s 2-0 against van de Zandschulp, taking seven of their eight sets contested, all on hard courts.


Tuesday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Cincinnati Daily Preview: Major Champions Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka Square Off

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Andy Murray practicing this past week in Cincinnati (twitter.com/cincytennis)

For the second consecutive week, a combined ATP Masters/WTA 1000 event is being staged in North America.  This week, it’s the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio.  The singles draws in American’s heartland are loaded: the ATP draw features 14 of the world’s top 16, while the WTA draw features all 16 top-ranked players.

 

Most notably, Serena Williams will play what is assumedly the next-to-last event of her career, and will face reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu in the first round.  And Rafael Nadal will play his first match since withdrawing from the Wimbledon semifinals due to his ongoing left foot issues.

Monday’s action is headlined by Major champions Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, who will play each other for the 22nd time. 

Each day, this preview will analyze the two most intriguing matchups, while highlighting other notable matches on the schedule.  Monday’s play gets underway at 11:00am local time.


Stan Wawrinka (PR) vs. Andy Murray – Third on Center Court

Their rivalry dates all the way back to 2005, when Wawrinka defeated Murray in Davis Cup.  Their most prominent encounter took place in the 2017 Roland Garros semifinals, when Stan outlasted Andy in a five-setter that lasted over four-and-a-half hours.  And neither man has been the same since that grueling battle.  Just weeks later, Murray’s hip problems derailed his career, while Wawrinka would undergo knee surgery.  Both men have now battled multiple serious injuries over the last five years.  Overall Andy is 12-9 against Stan, and 8-4 on hard courts.  Murray has gritted his way to 22 victories this year, while Stan is only 3-7 since returning from foot surgery this spring.  Based on current form, as well as Murray’s history at this event, where he is a two-time champion, the Brit is the favorite on Monday.


Matteo Berrettini (12) vs. Frances Tiafoe – Not Before 7:00pm on Center Court

Berrettini returned from surgery on his right hand in June, and promptly went on a 12-match win streak.  However, he unfortunately missed Wimbledon due to testing positive for COVID-19.  And last week in Montreal, Matteo lost in the opening round, though that one-sided loss to Pablo Carreno Busta doesn’t look quite as bad after Pablo’s fantastic run to his first Masters 1000 title concluded on Sunday.  Meanwhile, it’s been a disappointing year for Tiafoe, who is only 20-17 and has suffered some painful losses.  At Wimbledon, he lost a four-and-a-half hour fourth round match to David Goffin despite having a two-sets-to-one lead.  And just last week in Montreal, Frances was up 4-0 in the third over Taylor Fritz before losing the last six games of the match.  Their only previous meeting occurred four years ago on clay in Rome, where Matteo was victorious in his home country in straight sets.  Can Tiafoe avenge that loss in his own home country?  Frances often excels during night matches in the United States, with his five-set win over Andrey Rublev at last year’s US Open serving as a prime example.  But Matteo has been the much stronger performer for a few years now, and his potent serve/forehand combo makes him the favorite.


Other Notable Matches on Monday:

Amanda Anisimova vs. Daria Kasatkina (9) – Anisimova has reached the second week of every Major this season, while Kasatkina has won 18 of her last 24 matches, which includes a title run this month in San Jose.  Amanda leads their head-to-head 2-0, and dominated Daria 6-2, 6-0 at the beginning of this year.

Jil Teichmann vs. Petra Kvitova – Teichmann was a surprise finalist here a year ago.  Kvitova is only 17-15 this season, though she did win a title on grass in June.  They’ve played three times since last year, with Jil claiming two of those three matches.

Denis Shapovalov vs. Grigor Dimitrov (16) – Shapovalov has now lost nine of his last 10 matches dating back to May.  Meanwhile it’s been over four months since Dimitrov has won more than two matches in a row.  Grigor is 2-1 against Denis, and 2-0 on hard courts.

Sloane Stephens (WC) vs. Alize Cornet – It’s been a streaky season for Stephens, with nine of her 11 victories coming at just two events.  Cornet has achieved two noteworthy results this season: reaching her first Major quarterfinal in Melbourne, and ending Iga Swiatek’s 37-match winning streak at Wimbledon.  This is their first career meeting.


Monday’s full Order of Play is here.

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Canada Daily Preview: Championship Sunday Features Halep/Haddad Maia and Hurkacz/Carreno Busta

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Hubi Hurkacz this week in Montreal (twitter.com/OBNmontreal)

On Sunday in Toronto, Simona Halep plays for her third title at this event.  She faces a surging 26-year-old in Beatriz Haddad Maia, who has already defeated four top 15 players this week, including world No.1 Iga Swiatek.

 

In Montreal, Hubi Hurkacz is vying for his second Masters 1000 title, after winning his first last year in Miami.  In Sunday’s championship match, he plays Pablo Carreno Busta, who at 31-years-old has reached his first Masters 1000 final in his 52nd appearance.


Beatriz Haddad Maia vs. Simona Halep (15) – 1:30pm on Centre Court in Toronto

What a season Haddad Maia is having.  She started the year ranked 83rd in the world, but with 43 match wins and three titles at all levels, she will debut inside the top 16 on Monday.  She is the first Brazilian to reach a WTA 1000 singles final.  Beatriz credits her 2022 success to focusing on being more aggressive.  But Halep is a player who has achieved much success by absorbing her opponents’ power and using it against them.  And after a solid yet underwhelming season, Simona says her fire is back this week in Toronto.  This will be her fourth meeting with Haddad Maia, and her third this year.  She leads Beatriz 2-1, though they split their two 2022 encounters.  In a match of this magnitude, which is new territory for Haddad Maia, Halep’s experience and more consistent style make her the favorite to win her third title in Canada.


Hubert Hurkacz (8) vs. Pablo Carreno Busta – Not Before 4:00pm on Court Central in Montreal

Hubi’s path to this final has been a complicated one.  All four of his matches went the distance, and he even had to save a match point against Albert Ramos-Vinolas.  Meanwhile, Pablo had advanced to his first Masters 1000 final rather decisively, only dropping one set to this stage.  Hurkacz and Carreno Busta are 1-1 at tour level, as each earned a hard court victory over the other last year.  Three of the four sets they contested were decided by tiebreaks, which is not surprising given their contrasting styles.  Hubi will look to dictate matters with his serve, while Pablo will look to extend points and force Hurkacz into long baseline rallies.   However, Hubi often doesn’t mind participating in long rallies.  As impressive as Carreno Busta’s level has been this week, Hurkacz has been the better player this season.  Hubi’s serve and powerful groundstrokes make him a slight favorite to win his second Masters 1000 crown.


Other Notable Matches on Sunday:

Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula (3) vs. Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez – Gauff and Pegula were finalists this year at Roland Garros.  If they win on Sunday, Gauff will become the new world No.1 in doubles, and be the youngest player to do so since Martina Hingis.  Melichar-Martinez and Perez have already defeated three seeded teams this week.

Wesley Koolhof and Neal Skupski (3) vs. Dan Evans and John Peers – Koolhof and Skupski lead the year-to-date doubles rankings, and are playing for their sixth title of the season.  This is only the second event in 2022 for Evans and Peers as a team.  Evans was also a semifinalist this week in singles.


Sunday’s full Order of Play is here.

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