Western & Southern Open, ATP Third Round Novak Djokovic def. [Q] David Goffin 6-2, 6-0
 Roger Federer def.  Tommy Haas 1-6, 7-5, 6-3
 Andy Murray def. Julien Benneteau 6-2, 6-2
 Rafael Nadal def. Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 5-7, 6-2
ESPN, Inc., formerly the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network Rulers of the Universe, has a way of making its fellow cable network, The Tennis Channel, look like it has the earnings potential of an independent bookseller—an independent used-bookstore with a leaky roof and a big CD section. I could watch Cincinnati tennis on two different ESPN stations today, while the Tennis Channel was stuck re-airing the Kooyong Classic from 2004. But, I could watch ESPN today, because today was a happy work-at-home paperwork-day. (This is a special kind of day, similar to a holiday. Sadly, it is also a type of day that has become all too rare in recent months.)
Aside from making the Tennis Channel feel bad about itself, ESPN also has a way of reminding American tennis fans exactly how unimportant their sport-of-choice is in the grand scheme of chosen sports. Today they managed it by regulating Rafael Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov to ESPN3, an online stream, while airing Little League on television. Yes, a 1000-level ATP tournament contested on U.S. soil (specifically in the Western & Southern portion of the U.S.) took a back seat to eight-year-olds standing in a meadow chewing bubble gum. A match featuring one of the best players in tennis history versus the only active player on tour to be nicknamed after one of the other best players in tennis history was shunted aside by actual baby athletes.
But I digress. Hmm. Why was I telling you about the ESPN programming schedule? Oh yes, for metaphorical purposes! And I’ll come to those in a moment, I promise. Everybody loves a metaphor. But first, since I’m on the subject of ESPN, I want to say a few words about ESPN commentator, Darren Cahill.
In fact, you can consider this post my formal petition for Darren Cahill to take full coaching responsibility for Marion Bartoli’s post-retirement commentary career. Because, really, with Cahill in the booth, the video stream is almost optional. It isn’t simply that Darren Cahill mostly confines his commentary to the match at hand; it’s that his comments are so sensible. Indeed, when he has nothing sensible to say, he seems to say nothing at all. (Psychotherapists love this trait in their sportscasters.)
For instance, during set one of Roger Federer’s three-set victory over Tommy Haas, Cahill wasted little time in the usual speculation about whether Roger was actually Federer, or if this Roger might not be an imitation version of the Swiss who had never learned to play tennis. Instead, he commented that Federer was more than typically nervous, rushing himself into poor decisions, mostly involving losing points at the net. Cahill also noted that Tommy Haas’s court position on the return was taking the out-wide serve from Roger forcing him into uncomfortable choices, and that Haas’s returns—flat and hard, down the middle of the court—were the best strategy to draw errors from Papa Fed.
At some point in the middle of Nadal/Dimitrov match— the point when the Bulgarian ran down a drop shot, hit a winner, and then jumped into the air with glee—Darren Cahill chortled warmly, saying, “Goodness me, he’s fun to watch.” With Cahill in the ESPN booth, it’s also fun to listen.
OK. That turned out to be an official second digression, which might be some type of digressive record, if such records were tracked. (I tried to keep track once, but I kept getting distracted.) So, without further ado, the metaphorical section of the post, wherein I compare the Big Four—defined herein as Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Federer*— to ESPN, or perhaps Amazon.com, and their opponents to a cross between the Tennis Channel and various indie booksellers.
Novak Djokovic d. David Goffin 6-2, 6-0
The first men’s match on Center Court today was Novak Djokovic versus David Goffin. During Djokovic’s match, morning-time for me, I listened to my voicemail, ate a bagel, and blinked, twice. By the time I’d finished, it was all over. The second set took approximately five minutes and Goffin won exactly zero games. Djokovic, on the other hand, won six. Every time I had the opportunity to glance at my monitor I was treated to the sight of a blonde Belgian standing roughly fifty feet behind the baseline, and lunging in the general direction of a tennis ball.
Goffin made his way to the third round via a 6-1, 6-1 win over Mackenzie McDonald, who is the first non-ranked ATP player to qualify for the main draw in Cincinnati. Ever. Mackenzie hails from Piedmont, California, an American hill-town so wealthy that it seceded from its surrounding city-state, which is a rough-and-tumble place called Oakland. Piedmont has a very tidy set of public courts. It is doubtful Mackenzie makes much use of them. In the second round, David Goffin bested last week’s Rogers Cup semifinalist Vasek Pospisil, 7-5, 1-6, 7-6. Neither of these victories offers exquisite insight into Goffin’s current form. Nor did today’s loss. Djokovic didn’t let him near the tennis ball. The Serb is looking fearsome.
Djokovic has never won the Western & Southern Open. Conquering Mason, Ohio, would make him the only ATP player to win all nine of the Masters titles. I Googled No. 9 and it turns out to be – according to the internet’s most reputable numerology sites — “the number of destiny.” Wikipedia also defines nine as the number that follows eight and precedes ten. Make of that what you will.
Roger Federer d. Tommy Haas 1-6, 7-5, 6-3
Given that Federer spent a goodly portion of his third round match looking as if he were concerned that sustained rallies might damage his antique tennis racquet, you might be surprised that I’ve listed him among the metaphorically ESPN-esque players of the day. But—and I think I’m right about this—part of the reason Federer was able to come back and win the match from 1-6, 1-3 down is precisely because he is Roger Federer, or RF, Inc., for short. No matter how low the RF stock plunges, there is always a chance that his opponents will remember that they are up against a 17-time slam champion. (Sometimes, there is even opportunity for Federer to remember this, too, especially when he’s not wearing his special “warming shirt” and is therefore capable of hitting serves.)
In Tommy Haas’s case, he must have also been aware of his 3-11 (now 3-12) career head-to-head against Federer. A tennis fan doesn’t need a numerology site to tell her that numbers like that can get in a player’s head. Nonetheless, the German got off to a stellar start, and looked as if he could continue being outstanding all day. Meanwhile, Federer proceeded to go from OK, to distinctly not OK, to much worse than that. By the end of the first set even his serve had abandoned him, protesting its owner’s wild net-rushing ways.
But, midway through the second set the Cincinnati fans got to witness one of the marvels of today’s interdependent tennis economy. At very nearly the same moment in time, Federer began to produce his money shots, while Tommy’s currency took a sudden nosedive. Haas started his descent by re-gifting an early break back to Roger, leveling the set at 4-4. Federer consolidated, making one small fist pump in the process. Haas then gave away three straight points, which turned out to be set points, so he changed his mind and took them back. The set was still level at 5-5, but the momentum now rested with Federer.
By the time the No. 5 seed closed out the match—an excellent drop shot to bring up match point, and a forehand winner to end it—Roger Federer looked like he had some measure of his aura back. (If you looked closely, you could even see it, shimmering in the Cincy sun — a pretty cornflower blue.) After the match, Federer was quoted as saying he is a “strong believer” he’s on the right path. Should Federer lose in the quarters, there’s still no proving him wrong. Even the most vintage version of Roger Federer could be excused for losing to Rafael Nadal at his most passionate™.
Andy Murray d. Julien Benneteau 6-2, 6-2
OK, I admit I did not see one ball of Murray’s win over Julien Benneteau. (I had to do some actual work today.) Andy Murray had to do some work, too — exactly one hour, nine minutes, and two seconds’ worth. Since I have no observations to make about this match, I’ll guess (blogger prerogative): the Scot is much improved this week from last. He is also the reigning Wimbledon Champion and the defending US Open Champion. He is a factor, whether he is happy about it or not.
Rafael Nadal d. Grigor Dimitrov 6-2, 5-7, 6-2
Nadal’s three-set defeat of Grigor Dimitrov was an exciting match, or might have been if I weren’t watching it while also trying to cook dinner for four. It is not easy being a Rafa fan, chopping vegetables, and watching a 6-2, 5-3 lead slip entirely away. In such moments one needs to be especially careful not to accidentally include small pieces of oneself in with the chopped kale and beans. (It’s what people like to eat in Northern California, I swear.)
At some point during the first set, Darren Cahill said (sensibly), that, under pressure, Grigor Dimitrov had a tendency to abandon a winning strategy. As if Dimitrov knew he was being discussed, he demonstrated the truth of Cahill’s observation by gaining a hard-fought advantage in a long rally and proceeding to back it up by backing up, way up—deep into Goffin territory—losing the point because he couldn’t track down an inside-out forehand from Nadal. Case in point.
However, when the Bulgarian made a mighty last stand, which came, as last stands will do, near the end of the second set, it turned out to be Nadal who abandoned his winning strategy. Instead of aggressively going for winners off his forehand, backhand, serves, and volleys, he mostly did not go for winners off all those same shots. When he did, he missed. Grigor, meanwhile, became good fun to watch.
Fortunately for Rafa, he is, at the moment, well in touch with his trademark inner-passion for the game. As with Federer, you can see it in his aura, which shines bright yellow, and looks not unlike an incandescent tennis ball in the shape of a T-shirt. Even at night, the brilliant glow helps Rafa find anything from a moth resting its wings on the service-line to an aggressive baseline strategy. Having located his strategy Rafael Nadal, being Rafael Nadal, broke to open the third set. There were close games and see-saw moments in Set No. 3, but Nadal never relinquished the break. Why should he? He’s Rafa.
At the beginning of Roger Federer’s match he was pronounced by many (many times over) to appear “not at all like Federer.” By the time he won, his play was dubbed “vintage Federer.” True Federer. (Though he was still far from full-flow-Federer, which is even truer than truth.) It fascinates me how often top players are defined as playing “like themselves.” It isn’t just linguistic laziness, or I don’t think it is. The technique is descriptive. If you tell me Djokovic was playing like Djokovic, I don’t picture baseline errors. No, I think it’s to do with how frequently the Big Four are able to channel their best selves, which — and this applies to all of us — is the truest version of the self. I am a strong believer in that.
And because I’ve used up my entire allotment of words, including half my allowance for next week, I’ll end with mentioning players who deserved more mention: John Isner, Dmitry Tursunov, Juan Martin del Potro, and Tomas Berdych. Each man won a match today, and tomorrow they play Novak Djokovic, each other, and Andy Murray, respectively. I wish every one of them strong belief. I also wish tomorrow were another special stay-at-home-paper-work-day. So I could watch.
*The Top Four (as opposed to the Big Four) includes Djokovic, Murray, Nadal, and David Ferrer, who is having a terrible time moving around tennis courts lately. I have to think it’s at least partly due to the damage done to his ankle at Wimbledon. The Spaniard tried so hard to give his second round match away to Ryan Harrison, but the American refused to take it. (Respect for his elders, and whatnot.) As a consequence, David Ferrer has now been Tursunoved twice this season. But it’s worth noting that last time he lost to the Russian was in Barcelona, mere weeks before he reached the French Open final.