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Cincinnati Scene Setter, August 17

Andrew Burton

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Aaron Doster - USA TODAY Sports

Greetings from Cincinnati!

It is semifinal day at the Western and Southern Open; the number 1 seeds are still in contention, but neither the WTA nor the ATP singles draws have gone with seeding beyond Ashleigh Barty and Novak Djokovic.

The first WTA SF features Barty and Svetlana Kuznetsova, the Russian veteran who got a wild card entry to the tournament,. Kuznetsova is warming up on Center, practicing her serves as I type this. Kuznetsova has scrapped her way through a very tough draw to get to the semis, beating No. 11 seed Sevastova in three sets in R64, Yastremska in three sets in R32, 8th-seeded Sloane Stephens in R16 in straights, then taking out the No. 3 seed, Karolina Pliskova yesterday on Grandstand in three sets. With luck she’ll have enough in the tank to take on Ash Barty in the first matchup today. Barty also needed three sets yesterday to hold off Maria Sakkari. Sakkari overturned an early break deficit to take the first set but then Barty went up a gear and won the next two sets comfortably.

The second WTA semi final is an all American affair, with unseeded Sofia Kenin playing Madison Keys, the No. 16 seed. Kenin split sets with Naomi Osaka yesterday afternoon in their quarterfinal match. Early in set 3, Osaka stopped play to call for a trainer, who applied some heavy strapping to Osaka’s right leg around her knee. Osaka played a couple of points with the strapping on, then retired from the match.

In press after the match, Osaka said she felt pain in her leg in that service game, and she didn’t know what was causing it or how it would affect her chances of defending her U.S. Open win last year. Here’s part of the press conference:

Q. You mentioned you’re worried. How much does it hurt compared to other injuries you have had? What kind of worries are now in your head?

NAOMI OSAKA: Yeah, the thing is my pain tolerance is really high. So that’s usually why I play through things that apparently I shouldn’t. So I really don’t know what’s going on with my leg right now.

Q. You wanted to keep playing today. I couldn’t hear all the conversation you had with the trainer, but it sounded like she was warning you that it could be bad but you wanted to go back out. Is that fair? What was that conversation like?

NAOMI OSAKA: No, literally we don’t know what was going on. They were trying to figure it out. So I was asking her if it was safe to play, because I really hate withdrawing. Like, I don’t know. I feel like we were playing such a great match, too. It’s not fair to her to just, like, withdraw, because I feel like I’m bowing out. Then I was asking her, like, if she thinks it’s safe to play. Then I went out there. I wanted to finish the set. But I felt this, like it wasn’t safe.

I have no inside information on Osaka’s prognosis: Like all fans, I hope her injury isn’t serious and she’s fit to compete in 10 days’ time.

Only one of yesterday’s ATP quarterfinals was remotely competitive, the afternoon tie between Richard Gasquet and Roberto Bautista Agut, and it was the only match to go against seeding. Gasquet is here on a protected ranking: He’s a longtime former top-10 player with a career high of No. 7 in the ATP, so it’s not that remarkable that he was able to get the win, but I was still a bit surprised. Bautista Agut beat Gasquet in straight sets last week in Canada, and enjoyed a 4-1 edge in their head to head rivalry. A consolation prize for the Spaniard is that he’s due to enter the ATP Top 10 next week for the first time, continuing a trend of male players over 30 reaching the Top 10 for the first time (Fabio Fognini joined the club earlier this year). I thought Bautista Agut had a good chance to get to the final in the bottom light half of the draw, and if I were taking a flutter at a non-Big 3 player winning in New York he’d be worth a look.

The other player I’d be tempted by is Daniil Medvedev, who’s backed up his Montreal final last week with some very impressive play here. Medvedev did the tennis equivalent of a “Stay! Sit!” gesture to Andrey Rublev last night. I wrote up the match for the site: Medvedev took the ball about 2 meters further back than Federer had the day before, and just soaked up the aggressive forehands that had pierced Swiss defences. I was musing about analogies to Napoleonic or German armies being ground down by deep Russian defense, but couldn’t make it work.

Medvedev has the evening match against Novak Djokovic, solid again in a 7-6(2) 6-1 win over Lucas Pouille. Pouille had some success with drop shot – pass combinations in the first set, and took the number 1 seed to a tie break. Here Djokovic’s consistency proved decisive.

As in the three tiebreaks against Federer at Wimbledon, Novak committed no unforced errors in nine points, and the second set was more straightforward, though Djokovic had to save three break points to consolidate an early break. The only shadow on his performance was treatment at the 4-1 changeover for a sore right elbow, which didn’t seem to show up in Novak’s play, as he went on to take the final two games. The match ended late and Djokovic didn’t have a full press conference after the match, but one of my colleagues tells me Novak confirmed that he’d felt some pain but hoped he’d be fine to play today. As with Osaka, I hope the twinge isn’t serious and we get a good match with Medvedev tonight.

I’ve left David Goffin until last. Goffin didn’t need to hit a ball to get through yesterday, because breakout Japanese no 2 Nishioka got a stomach virus and had to withdraw. Goffin made the semi finals here last year, so there’s something about these quick courts that agrees with him. This is far and away Goffin’s best M1000 result so far this year, with a R16 in Miami being his best showing before he came here (Goffin was eliminated by Pella in R64 in Montreal last week). A Gasquet-Goffin match feels to me like the kind of random semifinal we might have expected from the bottom half of the draw when it was made, while a Djokovic-Medvedev semi for the top half is a not improbable pairing (Djokovic-Federer would have been the pairing according to seeding).

I got to sit with @yalrawimusic for much of Djokovic-Pouille last night, which was a great pleasure. He asked me what were my favorite matches so far this week: Wawrinka-Dimitrov came out top, with Struff-Tsitsipas second, though I don’t think either match will be anyone’s Year End Top 10 list. Maybe one of today’s matches will. Hope springs, etc

Enjoy today’s tennis!

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