Following his Australian Open victory in February, Roger Federer’s game had been in a tailspin. In his best form since Melbourne, Federer made the final at the Rogers Cup last week, but went down to Andy Murray. However, today, Federer edged out wildcard Mardy Fish 6-7,7-6,6-4 at the Western and Southern Financial Group Masters for his second straight Western and Southern Financial Group Masters title and his 17th Masters’ shield.
This hardcourt season, Fish has positioned himself as a man to fear. After a grass title in Newport, Fish claimed the initial trophy of the Olympus U.S. Open series in Atlanta. In Cincinnati the first three rounds, Fish dismissed Gilles Simon, 9th seed Fernando Verdasco and Richard Gasquet in straight sets. Subsequently, in the quarterfinals, Fish defeated Andy Murray for the third consecutive time. Then, in the semifinals, Fish collected his second successive win over Andy Roddick by erasing a 4-6,2-5 deficit and improved his record to 16-1 since Wimbledon. Thus, with these results, Fish’s confidence was astronomical.
Moreover, with Fish in the most outstanding physical shape of his career and an easy triumph over Federer in their last meeting at Indian Wells in 2008, the chances were excellent that in his fourth attempt, Fish would gain his first Masters’ shield. Conversely, despite advancing to two other finals besides Toronto, Federer was denied in Madrid and Halle this year. In his 90th career final, Federer was hungrier than ever to capture his 63rd career title and gain momentum heading into the U.S. Open.
Subsequent to a comfortable hold by each player, Fish got embroiled in a 15 minute plus game. After surviving two break points, on the ninth deuce, Fish obtained a game point with a backhand volley winner and sealed the game with a strong serve for 2-1. Thereafter, both men cruised on serve until the tenth game when Fish misfired on a forehand up the line to give Federer set point. With an ace, Fish wiped out Federer’s advantage and later tied the set at 5 all. At 5-6 on Fish’s serve, Federer arrived again at set point when Fish’s stroke hit the net and flew long. Once more, Fish repelled his opponent and forced a tiebreaker.
On Federer’s backhand crosscourt error, Fish got a mini-break for 4-3. But, with two forehand winners, Federer stole both points off Fish’s serve for 5-4. Still, Fish reversed the tides with an overhead winner and a backhand error by Federer to fabricate set point at 6-5. With Federer unable to catch up to Fish’s serve, the American bagged the tiebreaker.
Yet to face a break point, Federer continued to coast on serve in the second set. However, Fish had no problem matching the defending champion. In fact, Fish’s first serve percentage improved as the set progressed. At two all, Fish pushed Federer to a deuce game. But, Federer guarded serve to stay ahead 3-2. After holding at love for 6-5, Federer got to deuce on Fish’s watch with a forehand up the line winner. By readily finding his first serve, Fish held for a second tiebreaker.
With a forehand crosscourt winner, Federer inched ahead with a mini-break for 2-0. After stretching his lead to 4-1, Federer provoked two errors from Fish to take command of the tiebreaker at 6-1. Next with an ace, Federer leveled the match at one set a piece and forced a decisive set.
Most of the ultimate set had a pattern similar to the prior two with neither person giving a millimeter on serve. Following a quick hold, Fish caused Federer to flub a forehand for 30 all. Yet, this was the extent of the American’s progress. With two unreturnable serves, Federer maintained serve for 4 all. At this point, a third tiebreaker seemed eminent. But, at 30 all, Fish sent a forehand out of play giving Federer a break point. Finally, on his fifth break opportunity, by staying patient in a long rally, Federer capitalized as Fish’s backhand sailed wide for a 5-4 advantage. Then, with Fish’s miscue on a backhand return, Federer had double match point. Although Fish salvaged one, on the next chance, Federer bagged the championship when Fish failed to accurately stick another backhand.
The last wildcard to prevail in Cincinnati was Boris Becker in 1985. Fish would have been deserving of the title and a note in the history books after coming so close in the 2003 final against Roddick. As he collected his second finalist trophy, Fish received a huge round of applause. Fish recognized the crowd and expressed his appreciation for its support in saying “this is one of my favorite tournaments . . . I gave it everything I had . . . Roger is the greatest of all time . . . I’ll be back next year”.
Federer was also impressed with Fish’s performance citing “Mardy played fantastic. . . It could have gone either way”. Federer also acknowledged that without the fans the week would not have been as gratifying commenting “you made it special”. With this win, Federer equals Mats Wilander’s all time record in Cincinnati with four titles and becomes the first person since Andre Agassi in 1995-96 to repeat at this event.
For both athletes, it was a banner week. By vanquishing Marcos Baghdatis in the semifinals, Federer assured a second place seeding at the U.S. Open. Last week, Federer reclaimed the number two ranking by overcoming Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. In Fish’s case, his status as a finalist means that his ranking will shoot up from 36 to 21 thereby locking his spot as a seed in New York.
Unlike the Rogers Cup where the top four seeds reached the semifinals, three crashed out in the quarterfinals. Rafael Nadal was stopped by Baghdatis, Murray by Fish and Djokovic by Roddick.
Interestingly, since the Australian Open final, both Federer and Murray, the runner-up, have struggled. But, the last couple of events in North America, these two appear to have rediscovered their form with each successfully defending his respective title. As such, Federer and Murray will certainly be two of the favorites in New York. However, with the likes of David Nalbandian, Fish and Baghdatis excelling this summer, the plot thickens as the U.S. Open approaches.