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Cincinnati Scene Setter, August 16

Andrew Burton

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Aaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports

Greetings from Cincinnati!

It’s quarterfinal day here; both the WTA and ATP draws feature 4 seeds and 4 unseeded players, after a day of play that saw one top seed crash out on the ATP side and one top WTA seed scrape stage a great escape. Meanwhile qualifiers Andrey Rublev and Yoshi Nishioka continued to have an impact on the ATP draw, pointing perhaps to a shift in the tour’s tectonic plates.

One of these qualifiers was Andrey Rublev. I wrote a match report on Rublev’s win over Roger Federer in my Cincinnati Snapshot yesterday: some 18 hours later, the one thing that comes through most strongly about the match is just how dominant Rublev was. Federer didn’t play very well by his standards, but he also didn’t play poorly for most of the match; he did get off to a slow start, and was broken twice by the young Russian in his first two service games. When Federer’s game isn’t yet dialed in his unforced errors aren’t misses by inches – he buries the ball halfway up the net or sends a shot yards long. Then he typically finds his range and settles down to find weaknesses in his opponent’s game that he can exploit to get back into the match.

Sadly for Federer and his fans, Rublev covered every hole in his game. One point stands out for me: Federer attacked well to deuce, and got a medium length ball which he drove hard to ad with his backhand, transitioning in to the net. Rublev was moving to his left and hit a clean down the line backhand pass for a winner.

By that point we expected Rublev to pull that shot off. During my Twitter match call I began writing tweets along the lines of “Andrey is unimpressed,” and that was the theme of the match – given any opportunity Rublev gave the ball a ride.

The decisive moment in set 2 was at 3-3, Federer serving. Here are the four points Rublev won: 15-0, Federer attacks the net behind a slice approach (too short), Rublev hits a forehand pass winner. 15-15, Rublev hits a forcing forehand return, attacks the net behind a forehand to the deuce corner, then hits a superb forehand stop volley winner off a well hit dipping Federer forehand pass. 30-30, Rublev hits a wrongfooting forehand up the line, gets a short defensive backhand return, and hits a tight up and down forehand winner onto the ad sideline. 30-40, Rublev drives a deep backhand return off a second serve to Federer’s feet, and Federer’s attempted forehand pick up lands in the tram lines. 3 winners, 1 forced error.

After the match, Rublev said that Federer’s failure to hit first serves in his first two service games gave him a chance to start well. But in the second set he said both men were serving well:

ANDREY RUBLEV: Sometimes he was serving wide really short, not hard, not really hard. Sometimes he was serving wide really hard. So in the end — I don’t know. His serve is unbelievable, and when I broke him, I don’t know, it was just a little bit lucky and I took the chance.

As I said above, I didn’t see a lot of luck in the shots Rublev hit. And though he looked nerveless from where I was sitting, he didn’t feel that way – but he found a way to play through the emotions:

Q. When you’re serving out the match, is it in your mind that it’s Federer on the other side of the net, or at what point were you able to just kind of block it out?

ANDREY RUBLEV: I mean, you start to think, and then of course, like, you start to shaking another level. But, I don’t know, in my head I was just trying to don’t look at my team, don’t look at the score, don’t look on Roger. I don’t know. I was just trying to put in my head that it’s not — the score is, I don’t know, I’m losing or something like that, just to be more relaxed. And in the end it works. It was good (smiling).

The top seed on the WTA side, Ashleigh Barty, was staring down a gun barrel with Anett Kontaveit serving at 30-15, 5-4 in set 3. It had been a very enjoyable contest between the two players, with both employing a lot of variety of shots, although Barty seemed below her best level. Kontaveit hit what looked like a serve winner, and she was moving to collect the balls to serve her first match point when Barty challenged the serve. On replay, the ball was a few millimeters long, and (if my memory serves) Kontaveit then double faulted. Barty was able to break back, then take the next two games for the escape.

Here’s Barty’s assessment of her play:

ASHLEIGH BARTY: Yeah, I think today I certainly had some challenges. My tennis probably wasn’t at its best level but proud of the way we were able to fight and hang in and kind of make a match of it at times when I probably didn’t deserve to be able to stay in the match. I think that’s the best thing is to just fight and hang around as best that I could. And towards the end, I started to find a little bit more rhythm but certainly struggled early on. It was more about the fight today than the tennis.

Naomi Osaka, banished to court 10 by slightly bizarre scheduling, ws taken to a decisive set by Su-Wei Hsieh but came through it 6-2. And in the first evening match on Center Court Novak Djokovic was tested by Pablo Carreno Busta but was never in danger of losing, finishing with a 6-3 6-4 win.

Both Federer and Djokovic were asked to comment on the other big story of the day, the Kyrgios-Khachanov match and subsequent whopping $113,000 fine handed out to Kyrgios, with the threat of further sanction. Both men effectively ducked the question: Djokovic, asked about the fine, used lots of words to say “no comment:”

Q. Last night was rather eventful. I don’t know if you saw the match between Nick and Karen. What were your thoughts on what happened there? As a part of the players council, are these fines and the amount of the fines, is that a topic for you guys at all?

NOVAK DJOKOVIC: Well, we have not talked too much about fines in the past, as I can recall, to be honest. It’s more of a decision of, I think, combined between ATP and the tournament, I think, depending on the severity of the behavior of the player. So it’s tough to really judge, to say what’s right, what’s wrong, whether it should be more or less. The match was, I thought, a great quality match in terms of tennis for a couple of sets. And then Khachanov just was tougher in the end.

Federer was more concise:

Q. I was wondering if you have seen any of the match from last night, if you have any comments about what happened?

ROGER FEDERER: There was a lot of matches going on. I don’t know which one you are talking about.

Q. Kyrgios and Khachanov.

ROGER FEDERER: Yeah, I watched it and I’m not going to comment on it because I’m not just really in the mood.

I reported those comments in real time on Twitter, and got a number of responses suggesting that a) Federer was protecting a golden goose for the Laver Cup in September or b) all the tennis players had gone out of their way to criticize Serena Williams last fall, and silence about Kyrgios owed to gender or skin color bias. I’ve seen Federer after losses before: basically, he was still processing getting hammered by Rublev 15 minutes before, and he had no interest at all in saying anything in public about the Kyrgios cluster-wotsit. I also suspect he’d have similarly deflected any tennis politics questions.

All the singles quarter finals are played today on Center Court or Grandstand. Richard Gasquet must be owed a large amount of money from a poker game by someone at the tournament, because he earns another match on Center, this time against Roberto Bautista Agut. Both Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka also play their matches on Center, as do Novak Djokovic and Americans Venus Williams and Madison Keys. The pick of the matches on Grandstand, for me, is the all Russian clash between Rublev and Medvedev, not before 7 p.m.

Enjoy today’s tennis!

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