As a film critic moonlighting as a sportswriter, I attend my hometown ATP 1000 event searching for the important narratives to follow. There’s always an intriguing subhead lurking to define the week of matches that serve as a tune-up / preview for the final Grand Slam of the year – The US Open. Which players look ready to take New York by storm? The idea that the tennis world could look to Cincinnati for answers is fascinating, in that we’ve not been able to promote this aspect of the Western & Southern tournament better.
This year the stakes, as De La Soul would say, are indeed high. On the men’s side, injuries have taken a heavy toll, decimating the ranks. Coming into the W&S, top seeds like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and defending champion Marin Cilic pulled out before the start, opening the door for the two Grand Slam winners thus far – Roger Federer (Australian Open, Wimbledon) and Rafael Nadal (French Open) – as not only the favorites, but pitting them in a battle for the top rank, a position neither has held in years. These two legends are supposed to either be in their twilight years or fast approaching them, but Federer, in particular has not only found a version of the fountain of youth, he’s offering up an example of what happens when elite athletes rest and play freely.
Federer and Nadal are not merely playing for love of the game. They are showing us that you can continue to play to win, if you manage the your physical resources. That they are doing it in such a sustained way leading into the final Slam of the season is a treat for tennis fans.
It seems inevitable though that something had to give. Monday morning’s news that Federer was withdrawing from the W&S Open due to a back injury after his loss in the Montreal final alters the epic narrative line that was to be – the clash of these two titans in the final here. Now, Nadal all but clinches the top spot in next week’s rankings regardless of how he performs in the tournament, but he will likely use the weakened field as practice run.
But what about the other players? Were they here, intent to observe the pre-ordained match-up or now, that Federer is gone, will someone rise up to challenge Nadal, especially after witnessing his defeat in Montreal? What will John Isner and Sam Querrey (American players I have heavily scouted in the last few years during the W&S Open) do to make a case for themselves? Or how about Gael Monfils who takes Center Court later tonight?
The potential exists for a changing of the guard.