Even in a typical season, the U.S. Open Series is largely a battle of attrition. As Rafael Nadal said earlier this week, injuries are going to happen when your sport plays most of the season literally on concrete. Throw in the Rio Olympics and players are struggling to get to Flushing Meadows in one piece.
As Nadal, Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils and others ran out of gas in Cincinnati, it’s made the perseverance of Andy Murray and Angie Kerber even more impressive. Kerber is the only player, man or woman, to seriously contend at all three events…
Kerber is the only player on either tour to have reached the quarters in Canada, Rio and Cincy, let alone SF, F, SF. Fatigue incoming…
— Tumaini Carayol (@tumcarayol) August 19, 2016
and while Murray skipped Canada, he had to play a best of five match to win the singles gold in Rio and also tallied three doubles matches there.
Despite both clearly running on fumes (something Murray’s coach Jamie Delgado flat-out admitted, per ESPN’s broadcast), Murray and Kerber find themselves into the weekend at one of the sport’s most humid and taxing tournaments.
Murray has dealt with back and shoulder problems, while Kerber has fought past a pair of very physical affairs in wins over Barbora Strycova and Carla Suarez Navarro.
For their troubles, they’re both making their own versions of history. Kerber can take the No. 1 ranking from Serena Williams with a title (or set herself to take it after the U.S. Open) and Murray continues to extend his career-long winning streak, currently at 21 after his 6-4, 6-4 quarterfinal win, a very Federer-and-Sampras-esque performance in which Murray somewhat coasted and patiently waited for a single break in each set, knowing Tomic would be unlikely to break serve.
Here’s how the rest of the tournament has unfolded going into the weekend:
Milos Raonic has cruised into the semis, other than a dropped set in the round of 16 against Yuichi Sugita. Taking a page out of Nishikori’s book from the Olympics, Raonic took a long bathroom break before the third set, coupled with treatment on his back from the trainer. With Raonic feeling better and Sugita’s rhythm disrupted, the big Canadian rolled in the deciding set. A win over Murray on Saturday would put Raonic up from sixth to a career-high third in the rankings.
Marin Cilic overcame coughing up a lead against Tomas Berdych en route to his first ever Masters semifinal. Cilic admitted playing Berdych was strange, as it also meant facing his former coach, Goran Ivanisevic, who Cilic had split with just weeks prior. Cilic faced fellow Croat Borna Coric in the quarters who had saved match point to upset Nick Kyrgios in what is the match of the tournament thus far. Coric followed that up with a steady performance over a totally-spent Nadal to make his first Masters quarterfinal.
Coric’s mini-breakthrough was another reminder of how stagnant growth has been for young male players:
Hard to believe that Coric is the first teenager to reach a Masters 1000 QF since Gulbis in 2008. 2008! Also, Gulbis.
— Blair Henley (@BlairHenley) August 18, 2016
The fourth semifinalist is Grigor Dimitrov, going through a resurgence since bringing Dani Vallverdu into his camp. Following a quarterfinal showing in Canada, so far in Cincy, Dimitrov has thumped Gilles Simon, won a third set tiebreaker over Feliciano Lopez, avoided choking in a routine victory over a misfiring Stan Wawrinka, and dismissed new American No. 1 Stevie Johnson.
Nadal was brilliant in his opening 6-1, 7-6 win over Pablo Cuevas, but had no energy in the Coric loss. He emphasized in press that his injury timeout (for left tricep and left ankle) is just about wear and tear and that his left wrist is fine, if still uncomfortable while adjusting to tennis again. He needs Murray to beat Raonic to remain a top four seed in New York, as well as to remain in the top five (though Roger Federer’s impending drop means a slip would be short-lived for Nadal).
Nishikori also saw his tank hit empty. After a run to the final in Canada and the medal rounds in Rio, he lost his third round match to Tomic in a pair of tiebreakers. Nishikori served for the first set in that match, but didn’t convert, and looked like the more sluggish player, a which is saying something when Tomic is the opponent.
Rounding out the Rio carnage was Monfils, who beat Marcos Baghdatis handily, but withdrew before facing Dominic Thiem. It’s been a long summer for La Monf, with a D.C. title, semis in Toronto and quarters in Rio. Playing Cincinnati at all was a headscratcher for both him and Nishikori.
Serena Williams took a wildcard to re-enter Cincinnati after preemptively withdrawing months ago, though her shoulder problems forced her to re-withdraw. Since it was after the draw was created, that left three of the top four players in Kerber’s half of the draw.
This is the rare event where the men’s bracket fell to shambles and the women’s held nearly according to form. The top womeen mostly upheld their seeding this week, an interesting development heading into the U.S. Open.
Simona Halep remains on fire, winning her 13th match in a row on Friday night over Aga Radwanska. Halep lost the first four games but won 13 of the final 15, cruising to the finish line, 7-5, 6-1. If she beats Kerber for the second event in a row (not counting Rio for Kerber, where there was no points awarded), Serena owes Simona a nice thank you gift for preserving her top ranking spot.
The bit of bad news for Halep is with so many points to defend this summer (2015: Canada final, Cincinnati final, U.S. Open semifinal), all these wins aren’t boosting her ranking. However, this block of success could set her up to possibly reach No. 1 in the middle of 2017 (after Australia but before her Madrid title points drop in May) if things break the right way.
Never a great U.S. Open Series performer, Garbine Muguruza is the favorite to get to the final on the other half, facing Karolina Pliskova in the first semifinal. Though all the attention is on Kerber, Muguruza has a brief window to take No. 1 before her points from winning Beijing last fall drop off.