A fine third day at the Cincinnati Masters yielded the best selection of professional men’s tennis matches in months. As ever in North America this wondrous congregation of talent was witnessed by a formidable array of half-empty stands. Even by the night-match, which featured Roger Federer, the stadium appeared barely two-thirds full. For some reason, Americans collectively find it hard to get excited by a tennis tournament until the later rounds, an apathy shared by their main television networks. CBS doesn’t even show up to the US Open until the last weekend, which it then more or less ruins for everyone. It won’t grace Cincinnati until the last Sunday, while even ESPN won’t trouble itself until Thursday. In the meantime there’s the redoubtable Tennis Channel, as ever a mixed blessing. On the one hand live coverage is hard to fault. On the other hand there’s Justin Gimelstob.
It could be that the long decades of dominance have taught the American sporting public to assume that their countrymen will always feature in the later stages. Why trouble yourself earlier? We Australians long ago learned to cease making such assumptions. If we want to see our compatriots, we tune in early, preferably for qualifying. Now that there are no American men inside the top twenty, it might be wise for them to do the same. Of course, it could be that from my current vantage, precisely one Pacific Ocean and half a continent away, I’m totally misreading it and Cincinnati’s stands are actually jam-packed. Perhaps it’s merely a trick of the telecast: as well as adding twenty pounds, the camera subtracts a thousand spectators.
Dimitrov d. Baker, 6-3, 6-2
CBS and ESPN viewers certainly won’t catch any sight of the reliably inspirational Brian Baker, who today went down easily to Grigor Dimitrov. This is a shame, since he’s worth watching and hasn’t been spotted in months. Having cruelly fallen in the second round of this year’s Australian Open – on a day of sustained carnage his injury was at once the worst and the least surprising – Baker was away from professional tennis for almost seven months. Numerically-gifted readers will note that this is the same amount of time that Rafael Nadal missed. Baker’s absence generated considerably less interest. Of course, Baker being absent from the men’s tour is hardly remarkable; it has been one of the constants of professional tennis for the last decade, like top four domination, or the microwave radiation that saturates the cosmos. The anomaly wasn’t that Baker was away, but that he had – and has – returned.
Naturally, I’m pleased he has, since I enjoy the way he plays: at his best slightly reminiscent of Nikolay Davydenko in a way that Davydenko himself rarely is anymore. Beyond that, though, I enjoy the way Baker encourages me in my fantasy that he’s a club player on history’s greatest roll. The truth of the matter is decidedly different, if not completely opposite – he is a talented pro who has had to do everything the hardest way, and whose body boasts only slightly less metal than Wolverine’s. But I still experience a slight thrill every time he puts away a simple volley. Good for him, I think, knowing I might well have duffed it into the back fence.
Sadly today he missed too many simple volleys against Grigor Dimitrov, along with just about everything else. It was probably to be expected. Given his modest earnings over the years, it’s not as though he could afford authentic adamantium for his metal joints. He was compelled to go with cheaper base metals. Rust was thus inevitable. As is often the case it doesn’t cause a consistent loss of quality so much as wildly oscillating inconsistency. Baker comfortably saw off Denis Istomin yesterday, but might not have today given the chance. Instead he faced Dimitrov, for whom the phrase “wildly oscillating inconsistency” might well have been coined. Still, he was on his game today, and looked a clear class above his opponent. Baker will get better. For now it’s just a pleasure to see him back, and a pleasant surprise to see he still boasts a full complement of limbs. His matches are only ever one mishap away from recreating the Omaha Beach scene from Saving Private Ryan.
(3) Ferrer d. Harrison, 7-6(5), 3-6, 6-4
Speaking of Private Ryan, or at any rate Senior Cadet Ryan, Harrison managed to lose his nineteenth straight match to a top ten opponent a short while later, against a curiously vulnerable David Ferrer. The Spaniard’s lofty ranking was only apparent from the number next to his name, and not from the quality of his play. The Spaniard has been injured for some time, and has barely looked himself since Roland Garros. If ever Harrison was going to beat him, it was today. Still, the American might take some solace from getting so close: he led by a break in the third set, and was briefly magnificent in breaking back late in the match. One doubts whether he will be consoled by that, however, since he continues to give a strong impression that he hates losing far too much to find it merely instructive. The game in which Harrison was broken back in the final set featured an ace clocked at 152 mph, as they measure such things in the Cayman Islands, or 244 kph as measured elsewhere. If this was an accurate reading, then it would be the seventh fastest serve of all time. But I doubt whether it was an accurate reading. The serve even had topspin on it.
(5) Federer d. Kohlschreiber, 6-3, 7-6(7)
Roger Federer rounded out the schedule by defeating Philipp Kohlschreiber for the seventh time, so far without a loss. Neither man appeared to be brimming with confidence, and based on their combined unforced error of sixty-five they had every reason not to be. Federer thoughtfully commemorated each of his previous six victories over Kohlschreiber with a squandered break point early in the first set: performance art of the very highest order, as Robbie Koenig might say. But he mostly served well himself, and broke in Kohlschreiber’s next game. Even if Federer somehow defends his Cincinnati title, he won’t be reprising last year’s heroic effort, in which he took the event without ever dropping serve. He gifted a non-crucial break away in the second set, a favour the ever-courteous German repaid immediately. They went back to scrappy holds. Mercifully this couldn’t continue indefinitely, and the tiebreak came around. A match that had been defined mostly by forehand errors thus found its apotheosis. Federer led by 5-2, then saved a set point at 7-8 with an out serve. He finally took the match on his second match point, ironically with a forehand that landed in, a development so miraculous in the circumstances than Kohlschreiber could merely stare at it, dumbfounded.
In other news, Feliciano Lopez won his first Masters level match this year, over Kei Nishikori. Milos Raonic, the first Canadian player ever to enter the top ten, nearly became the first top ten player to lose to Jack Sock. Mikhail Youzhny and Ernest Gulbis turned up dressed identically, a deplorable faux pas that left the crowd aghast. All twenty-five of them.