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Rafael Nadal conquers Cincinnati; Victoria Azarenka stops Serena Williams

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Rafael Nadal beat John Isner on Sunday for his first-ever title at the Western & Southern Open. (Jim Owens/Icon SMI)

Rafael Nadal beat John Isner on Sunday for his first-ever title at the Western & Southern Open. (Jim Owens/Icon SMI)

MASON, Ohio — Rafael Nadal finally broke through at the Western and Southern Open to win the tournament for the first time in his career, beating John Isner 7-6 (8), 7-6 (3) in Sunday’s men’s final to capture his 26th ATP Masters 1000 title. But top-ranked Serena Williams was unable to join him in the first-time winner’s circle, losing to No. 2 Victoria Azarenka 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6) in the women’s final.

With his Cincinnati win, Nadal extended his hard-court winning streak to 15-0 this season, winning three hard-court ATP Masters 1000 tournaments and he’s the first man to win both Montreal and Cincinnati back-to-back since Andy Roddick in 2003. That year, Roddick went on to win the U.S. Open three weeks later. But Nadal isn’t one to prognosticate about his chances at the U.S. Open, where he’ll go in as the favorite.

“If you ask me which way you want to enter the US Open, I will tell you that’s the perfect way to enter the US Open,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to play a great US Open. Only thing it really means is I was playing great during these two weeks.”

Nadal will rise to No. 2 in the rankings, an incredible achievement considering he didn’t play the U.S. Open, Australian Open, and the ATP World Tour Finals due to the knee injury that ruled him out for seven months. Returning to the tour in February, Nadal has made the finals of 11 of 12 tournaments, winning nine of them. The rankings move is an important one, as it means Nadal will go into the U.S. Open as the No. 2 seed placed on the opposite side of the draw from No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

Nadal will go into the U.S. Open with two key wins under his belt, after defeating top-ranked Djokovic in Montreal 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2) and Roger Federer 5-7, 6-4, 6-3 here. To get two tight wins over two of his primary rivals on hard courts speaks to his confidence level at the moment. He’s now 53-3 on the season.

“Winning back‑to‑back tournaments is, first of all, difficult because, first thing, the courts are not exactly the same,” Nadal said. This is the first time he’s won back-to-back hard court tournaments in his career. “The weather conditions are not exactly the same. The rivals brings your body and your tennis to the limit. You need to be 100 percent focused during the two weeks and playing every day.”

“So I was lucky. I was close to losing against Roger the other day. I was close to losing against Novak in Montreal. I was close today.”

Indeed, despite the straight-set win, Nadal knows the match could have easily flipped the other way in favor of Isner. Unseeded for the tournament and into the final after beating three top 10 players, Isner executed his simple but effective game plan perfectly: hold serve, play out the tiebreak, and hope for the best. Nadal was unable to earn a single break point in the match, a testament to how well Isner served. When he had a chance to finally get one in the second set at 4-5, 0-30, Isner dug out of it to hold thanks to some gutsy hitting off his forehand side. The difference came down to just a handful of points, including a volley Isner bricked in the first set tiebreak to give Nadal the mini-break and a big backhand miss in the second set tiebreak to give Nadal the edge there.

“If I’m dialed in and I’m focused, I’m very tough to beat, no matter who I’m playing,” Isner said after the losing in his second ATP Masters 1000 final. “So I expected a close match today. That’s exactly what it was. A lot of those key points just didn’t go my way, but I have absolutely nothing to complain about. I caught a lot of breaks this week, and sometimes that’s just how it goes.”

Here’s Nadal saving a break point with a perfect sliding volley. Not much Isner can do about that.

“I didn’t face a break point against one of the greatest returners of all time. That’s super encouraging. I went out there and did everything I could do to win the match. It just wasn’t enough.”

Isner walks away from the loss, his fourth to Nadal, with a bevy of confidence heading into the U.S. Open. Rising to No. 14 in the rankngs, he’s scheduled to play the Winston-Salem Open next week in his home state of North Carolina. The conventional wisdom says he should take the week off to rest before the U.S. Open begins in a week but he says he hasn’t made a decision yet. Isner has already played 20 matches this summer, more than any other ATP player. The only significant blemish on his post-Wimbledon results is a first round loss to Vasek Pospisil in Montreal. But even that might have been a blessing disguise.

“It gave me some time to rest up and come here and get ready to go. That’s what I did, and I played extremely well all week.  Thought I played well again today.  Unfortunately, it just wasn’t good enough. Going to hold my head up high after today’s match and after this whole week.”

Slim margins also defined the women’s final, which saw Azarenka overcome a slow start to hand Williams just her fourth loss of the year. Behind her clutch returning and aggressive play, Azarenka out-competed Williams, who struggled to elevate her game from a general state of sluggishness. Despite not playing her best, Williams served for the match at 5-4 in the third set only to get broken. Then at 5-4 in the tiebreaker, Williams missed an easy backhand into the empty court that would have given her match points.

That mistake was the only reprieve Azarenka needed. At 6-6, Azarenka played a perfect volley after a long side-to-side rally that stood out as the point or the match and then she converted her second match point after Williams sent a forehand into the net.

Here’s video of Azarenka’s key volley:

It was a well-earned victory for Azarenka, who had not won a title since Doha. The win snapped Williams’ 14-match win streak, though the defending U.S. Open champion didn’t seem too concerned.

“It makes me more relaxed and almost happy that I lost because now I don’t have to worry about every day someone asking me about some silly winning streak,” Williams said after the match. “So maybe it was for the best.”

Even with the loss, Williams still leads Azarenka 12-3 in their head-to-head but Azarenka has now won two straight hard-court finals over the American, having beaten her earlier this year in Doha. Despite the lospided head-to-head, Serena admits this is a rivalry, albeit a friendly one.

“We have good matches,” she said after the loss. “We go against each other really tough. It’s a good rivalry. I’m No. 1. She’s No. 2.  So we have that rivalry which consists of meeting in the final, which makes it even more so exciting. I personally was thinking it is a good rivalry and it’s good to have someone out there that can play hard and fight so tough.”

  • Published On Aug 18, 2013
  • 32 comments
    p_promet
    p_promet

    I agree heartily  with Ms. Williams regarding the rivalry between herself and Ms. Asarenka.  Vigorous, "friendly" competition between a world champion and an up-and-comer puts a lot of life into the sport.

    rrrz_jr@yahoo.com
    rrrz_jr@yahoo.com

    Since rafa is doing great in hard courts, his chances of winning more grandslams would increase.  Being great on hard courts can win him 2 GS a year, and a 3rd from the French Open...IMO

    OraReed
    OraReed

    Serena seemed to be pretty lethargic after a awhile.  I think she wanted to practice and get ready for the Open. However, I'm glad to see Azarenka dig her heels in with Jankovic and again against Serena. She really worked hard for both wins. Hopefully, she won't have as many unforced errors in the Open and Serena will be ready so that we can watch a true match of rivals that enjoy playing against each other. Wonder what it would be like if Serena and Azarenka played doubles ?(No, I did not forget about Venus). Just wondering.

    KennethGooswit
    KennethGooswit

    John Isner should have won the match! Too bad, he has great potentials that should be unlocked!

    KennethGooswit
    KennethGooswit

    Serena was playing like she didn't want to play. It is very un respectful to behave like that. Someone should have shout to her: If you don't like to play, give up and go home, but don't walk on the court like you are doing somebody a favor. It is like saying to Asarenka, I let you win. She was always my favorite, but after this exposure, I wonder!

    lloydsed12
    lloydsed12

    Both Serena and Vika played great, wonderful for the WTA ..I love competitive matches. Serena had more opportunities in this match than Azarenka but was too sloppy, give credit to Azarenka.


    trilly3807
    trilly3807

    Okay, we get it. Tennis players make goofy faces in the middle of a shot. Do media outlets strive to find the goofiest, most unflattering pics possible every time all the time? 

    I would much prefer to see the smiling Rafa after his win over Isner. (And NOT one of him biting a trophy. Thank you for not running another one of those!) Great match, btw.

    And where is the photo of a happy Azarenka next to Rafa at the top of the story. She won her match, too! I was also disappointed to see "Williams drops final" in the side links as opposed to "Azarenka takes final". Why should Williams get the headline when she LOST? She certainly gets plenty for all of her wins.

    Vinny Cordoba
    Vinny Cordoba

    Good effort by Big John. He did what he had to do -- hold serve, get it into the tiebreaks. Just came up short. Rafa was only a few points better, but that's all he needed to be. Wish Isner would take a week off to let his body rest ahead of the US Open instead of play Winston-Salem, but it's his hometown tourney, so he's gotta do it. Would love to see him make a run in Open, though.

    nbaberry
    nbaberry

    Serena Williams is a steroid junkie. 

    Tom14
    Tom14

    Being a bit off topic but.....Last week the NY Times who's sports department feels title 9 is the only sport related event to be news worthy, chronicled  complaints from the WTA players that in duel events that the men are always given preference for the show courts. Well, did any one watch this weeks matches in Cincinnati? Well Isner/Nadal played in front of a packed house, on Saturday Andy Murray out drew the women's match. I've been to many tennis events and when they have the choice spectators chose the men matches.

    DamiánMartínez
    DamiánMartínez

    @KennethGooswit There wasn´t a moment in the entire match where it looked that Isner had an opportunity to win. Nadal was pretty much in control in spite of Isner´s sevice and he proved his talent in the tie breaks.

    medgabite
    medgabite

    @KennethGooswit At least she doesn't win titles and quit.  Even Venus as sick as she is, has not quit.  It is the stuff champions are made of.  Serena has earned the right to be tired, mentally and physically after travelling from time zone to time zone and literally kicking butt!

    lloydsed12
    lloydsed12

    @KennethGooswit I'm a fan of both, Serena was visibly tired! Try to play 3 events in 4 weeks & see how your feel physically and mentally. I predicted that Serena would win in 2 or Vika in 3 because Serena is tired and a little tired. But the match was really great compared to others in the same tourney

    shelley
    shelley

    @trilly3807 True, but it was pretty much the same for the men's quarterfinal. You would have barely known that Rafa was on the court because it was all about Federer. He had one good set and the media went into worship mode. The headlines in every site were about Federer losing, not about Rafa winning. It gets so tiresome.

    lloydsed12
    lloydsed12

    @trilly3807 The media is interested in super star players, especially Americans! Azarenka is a star but not 'super' like Serena, Nadal, Roger

    spystud
    spystud

    SI didn't even run the AP story for the women, the absolutely shameful "Williams drops final" headline just links to this blog which is also mostly about the men's final. Terrible, terrible job by this site not giving the actual winner of the event her proper due.

    JohnPain
    JohnPain

    @nbaberry You're a jealous retarded crack addict, lay down the pipe & stay off-line, piggy face!

    trilly3807
    trilly3807

    @Tom14 I noticed the empty seats at the women's final. I think one reason may be "Serena's going to win. She always does." I, for one, am not interested in watching another lopsided Williams match. I am hoping that with Azaranka's top notch play, and now her second win over Serena, things will change. I tuned in during the second set and saw excellent tennis from both players. 

    I would add that you don't see the empty seats at the majors

    Vinny Cordoba
    Vinny Cordoba

    @DamiánMartínez @KennethGooswit , there was never an opportunity Isner had a chance to win? Are you serious? Did you see the score? It was 7-6, 7-6. Isner had two set points on Nadal in the first set with Nadal serving at 15-40, 5-6. It was that close to Isner's set. Isner also had a break point at 3-3 in the second set. The way Isner was serving, if he breaks serve once it's his set. All he had to do was convert a couple of points, and he wins.

    KennethGooswit
    KennethGooswit

    That is true, but luck was not on his side. Nadal is great, but Isner has potentials that should be unlocked by training.

    KennethGooswit
    KennethGooswit

    Well, you could see it like she was tired, but imo it was not being there and not being interrested if she lose or win. Imo she showed no respect whatsoever for her oponents game! But I hope Iam wrong and that she was sick or tired of some sort. She was only blowing in her hands when she hit a bad shot, just like Murray in the past when he hit a bad shot. He was doing it with his legs/knees. Replay the match if you can and look at the way she walked or react. Even my wife, who is an aboluut fan of Serena, noticed her behaviour which was expressing lack of interrest, lack of motivation. The language was Iam doing you all a favor of being here.

    spystud
    spystud

    Let's also not forget the "Serena Williams wasn't so lucky in Cicinnati" headline across the tennis home page either. Unbelievable. Did Vika even play in this match? You sure as hell wouldn't know it.

    lloydsed12
    lloydsed12

    @JohnPain @nbaberry Serena and Rafa have been accused of all sorts of things, I'm glad they're keeping the haters on edge and suicidal lol

    lloydsed12
    lloydsed12

    @trilly3807 @Tom14 Partly agree with you, in that non-tennis fans had already  handed the trophy to Serena because of her dominant year and H2H vs Azarenka. But Serena if you all noticed played so bad throughout the week so was Vika, so it made for an intriguing final which should have sold tickets. But sport is sport that's why matches are played out. 

     Vika is great but Serena's such a fierce competitor that is hard to bet against her in finals, so its true fans probably decided to go to the nearby fabulous amusement park instead of coming to watch this match which turned out to be a thriller lol






    Vinny Cordoba
    Vinny Cordoba

    @annienj, try reading the thread before commenting. I never said Nadal wasn't the better player. I was responding to someone who said, "There wasn´t a moment in the entire match where it looked that Isner had an opportunity to win." That is complete and utter BS. Just ask Rafa, who knew his back was up against the wall.

    annienj
    annienj

    @Vinny Cordoba @DamiánMartínez @KennethGooswit  Yes, if Rafa didn't serve incredible 1st serves at 15-40 and at 30-40, and if Rafa missed that incredible volley at 30-40, yes, Isner would have won a set, but he didn't, because Rafa was the better player in that final.  Isner threw everything but the kitchen sink at Rafa, but Rafa was mentally stronger and won. That's he's #2 in the world.

    shelley
    shelley

    @Vinny Cordoba But he didn't. Because Rafa is the superior player. Isner didn't lose, Rafa beat him and that's why Rafa is the #2, soon to be #1 player in the world.