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Top Four Players Advance to Rogers Cup Semi-Finals

The top four players in the world took to the court today in Toronto offering fans a terrific line-up of ATP action. By the end of the day, they did not disappoint.

During the day session reality set for David Nalbandian as his career best win streak was halted at eleven. Beaten with ease by fourth seeded Andy Murray 6-2, 6-2, it appeared as though the Argentine simply ran out of gas.

A day after taking care of fifth seed Robin Soderling, Nalbandian’s ground strokes missed the mark with regularity against Murray and his foot work seemed stagnant as well. It was a case of too much tennis in a short period of time as he admitted to after the match.

“I feel a little tired for all the weeks, for the last week and this one, and I didn’t get a rest,” Nalbandian said.

Murray played his best match so far in the tournament and broke early in both the first and second set to take control of each frame.

Going into the match I’d have given Nalbandian a 50/50 chance to pull off the upset, given his 2-0 career head-to-head record against the Scot along with his stellar play of late. He has been playing top-15 tennis since coming back to the tour in July which is where his ranking should be when healthy.

On the positive side for the veteran ball-striker, he will now very likely be able to squeeze out a seeding at the U.S. Open in two week’s time which should help him at his first Grand Slam appearance since the 2009 Aussie Open.

Murray now advances to the semi-finals where he will meet Rafael Nadal a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 winner over Philipp Kohlschreiber in the second match of the day.

Nadal struggled in making the transition to the daytime session as his previous two singles and one doubles match have come after sun-set.

Kohlschreiber stunned the crowd by taking the first set 6-3 and utilizing his one-handed backhand to his advantage.

As he so often does, Nadal fought back hard in the second set and broke early to go up 2-0. The Spaniard always seems to find a way to play his best when he is behind in a match or even within a specific point. He turns his defence into offence just when you think he might be on the edge of losing. He pulled the match even at one set apiece and there was little doubt at that point that he would continue towards the finish line.

Kohlschreiber was having success when he would come to the net and pressure Nadal to hit a perfect passing shot, but unfortunately for the German he chose that strategy to few times during this match. As his backhand began wavering, Nadal broke him for a 4-3 lead and eventually won on triple match point when a Kohlschreiber backhand hit the net. The final score was 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

In the evening session, the match of the day on paper and in execution was clearly the Wimbledon re-match between Tomas Berdych and Roger Federer.

With the suddenly confident Czech having won their last two encounters, the buzz around the press room was leaning towards a Berdych victory.

While Roger has gotten past Juan Ignacio Chela and Michael Llodra with relative ease this week, they represent a cake-walk for a player of Roger’s calibre. Tonight was the true test of where Federer’s game is at and the result would have an enormous impact on his chances moving forward to the U.S. Open.

Should Federer win it would represent a confidence boost for him personally and also for the media with regards to his chances at taking a run at his second Slam of the season. Another loss to Berdych and he would have been taken to task for another missed opportunity and as a glimpse into his continued decline. Talk about pressure!

Federer played wonderfully in the first set mixing up his shots and appearing as composed as ever. For his part, Berdych was struggling with his serve, and ended up down 0-30 during each of his four service games. Mentally he appeared to be totally unprepared for the match.

Tape on his left knee and thigh made me wonder if he was struggling with the physical part of his game as well. That injury – which he would not discuss following the match – was sustained yesterday in his third round victory over Alex Dolgopolov.

Just when it looked liked the old Roger was back, things turned in Berdych’s favour. He finally had an easy hold to take the first game of the set and generally began to serve a much higher first serve percentage. Midway through the set the impact of Berdych’s groundstrokes was also felt across the net for the first time in the match.

At 5-6 and after several tenuous holds for the world No. 3, Federer would double-fault twice en-route to handing the second-set to Berdych.

Things then fell apart quickly for the Swiss player in the third set. Federer had a crucial chance when Berdych was serving at 1-1, 0-40, but he squandered all three break points. As is so often the case in tennis, Federer then came out and was unable to hold his own serve following his golden opportunity. Berdych then held serve and before the crowd could comprehend what was happening it was 4-1.

With Federer serving at 2-5, the crowd tried its best to inspire their hero. As one fan aptly screamed, “this is Roger’s Cup!”

A rare chant of, “Don’t give up Berdych” was followed by, “Give up Berdych!”

Federer held his serve and then it was up to Berdych to close it out while serving at 5-3. Instead, Berdych allowed Federer a total of four break point chances in that game, and on the fourth one he hit a forehand wide which sent the crowd into a frenzy as Federer was suddenly back from the dead.

A final set tiebreak was then upon us and Roger mounted a 4-0 lead before faltering and allowing Berdych to tie it all up at 5 apiece.

A Berdych backhand then gave Federer his first match point at 5-6. Berdych was serving on the next point but it didn’t matter as Federer pressured him into sending the ball long. Miraculously Federer avoided his third successive defeat against Berdych but it sure was close.

The usually polite Canadian crowd got a bit unruly at times throughout the match. Serving at 0-4 in the tie break, someone yelled just as Berdych was about to serve, “Berdych are you nervous?”

Asked about it after the match, Berdych was unwilling to make up excuses or use the crowd’s intimidation as a crutch.

“…it’s all right. I’m happy that so many people just come to see, and they were enjoying, so just let them enjoy, and that’s it,” he concluded.

The final match of the night was unfortunately a dud as Novak Djokovic sent Jeremy Chardy packing 6-2, 6-3 in an hour and twelve minutes. If only all of the Serb’s matches could be played in such cool conditions.

The day’s results allow Canada to have the top four players in the world in the semi-finals of the Rogers Cup for the first time in tournament history.

The Nadal/Murray match goes Saturday at 3pm and the Federer/Djokovic will be at 7pm.

While the Soderling’s and Berdych’s of the world are making the top-ten more competitive this year, the top-four are showing us this week that they are still the serious contenders for the final Slam of the season.

Check back soon for semi-final analysis and of course you can also follow me on Twitter for timely updates throughout the day.

Photos by Bob McIntyre © 2010.

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Murray Brings Nalbandian Back To Earth

Reality set in today at the Rogers Cup in Toronto as David Nalbandian’s career best win streak was halted at eleven. Beaten with ease by fourth seeded Andy Murray 6-2, 6-2, it appeared as though the Argentine simply ran out of gas.

A day after taking care of fifth seed Robin Soderling, Nalbandian’s ground strokes missed the mark with regularity against Murray and his foot work seemed stagnant as well. A case of too much tennis in a short period of time perhaps.

Murray played his best match so far in the tournament and broke early in both the first and second set to take control of each frame.

Going into the match I’d have given Nalbandian a 50/50 chance to pull off the upset, given his 2-0 career head-to-head record against the Scot along with his stellar play of late. He has been playing top-15 tennis since coming back to the tour in July which is where his ranking should be when healthy.

On the positive side for the veteran ball-striker, he will now very likely be able to squeeze out a seeding at the U.S. Open in two week’s time which should help him at his first Grand Slam appearance since the 2009 Aussie Open.

Murray now advances to the semi-finals where he will meet the winner of the Rafael Nadal/Philipp Kohlschreiber match in his attempt to defend his Rogers Cup title.

Keep checking back for more updates from a fantastic day of tennis here in Toronto. The evening matches of Roger Federer vs. Tomas Berdych should answer a lot of questions we all have about the status of the Swiss star’s game. Later, Novak Djokovic will try to take advantage of the cool night time conditions to play against Frenchman Jeremy Chardy.

You can also follow us on Twitter for timely updates throughout the day.

AROUND THE CORNER

Open 13 – Marseille, France

With six players in the top-fifty of the ATP rankings system, France is certainly well represented in the upper echelon of the men’s game. The tournament in Marseille enjoys a significant French presence that starts with number two seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The defending champion from a year ago has had a solid start to 2010, reaching the semi-finals of the Australian Open where he lost in straight sets to Roger Federer. France enjoyed a sweep in this tournament a year ago with Arnaud Clement and Michael Llordra taking the doubles title as well.

Top seed Robin Soderling will be trying to prevent a Frenchman from hoisting the trophy and is currently experiencing a deep-run in Rotterdam where he knocked-off Nikolay Davydenko in the semi-finals. Soderling has a first-round bye in Marseilles, and could encounter Marcos Baghdatis in the quarter-finals.

Other locals to keep an eye on include Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon.

Expect a Frenchman to hoist the trophy in a week’s time.

Regions Morgan Keegan Championships – Memphis, Tennessee

Andy Roddick will make the move from San Jose to Memphis for back-to-back hard court tournaments. With so many top players skipping these smaller events, it is nice to see regular appearances from Andy. The only World Tour 500-level tournament this coming week, there is some serious prize money to be had and I’m surprised we are not seeing more top-ranked players in attendance.

Roddick faces fellow-American James Blake in a tough first round match. Blake has dropped to 52nd in the world and is realizing how tough it is to enter tournaments without a seeding. He faced Del Potro in the second round of the Aussie Open, and Baghdatis in the first round last week in Rotterdam. Things do not get any easier for him here in Memphis.

Roddick leads their career head-to-head meetings 6-3, however Blake has won their last three matches in a row. They have only met once in the last three years, with Blake winning by default at the Queen’s tournament in 2009 when Roddick pulled-out with injury at 4-4 in the first set. With the way he has played thus far this year, Roddick should prevail in straight sets in this one.

Fernando Verdasco is the number two seed and has a pretty good draw in the bottom half. He;ll have to keep an eye on big-servers John Isner and Ivo Karlovic as well as veteran Tommy Haas. Haas has not looked sharp thus far in 2010, and faces a stiff challenge from veteran Xavier Malisse in the first round. The German might finally be showing his age – although he has won this very tournament three times before, in 1999, 2006 and 2007.

Copa Telmex – Buenos Aires, Argentina

David Ferrer takes the pole position in Buenos Aires but has lacked the consistency so far this year to lead him to the title. Ferrer has lost to lower ranked players such as Stephane Robert, Marcos Baghdatis and Arnaud Clement in his three tournament appearances up to now.

The tournament has quite the interesting mix of players including clay court specialists such as Juan Monaco, Nicolas Almagro, Albert Montanes and even wildcard entry Gaston Gaudio. Having dropped off the radar in recent years, Gaudio’s name still pops up from time to time on the challenger circuit and he is obviously benefiting from the hospitality of his local Argentinian Tennis Federation. He’ll always have his lone Grand Slam title to look back on, from Roland Garros in 2004.

Gaudio isn’t the only former French Open winner present, as Juan Carlos Ferrero and Carlos Moya are also in the draw. Richard Gasquet is also lurking, which is a surprise since you would think he would be playing in his home country’s tournament in Marseille. Perhaps he is not yet ready to face the French press over his doping suspension from a year ago.

Also showing in the draw as of right now is Argentinian David Nalbandian who has been off the tour since May 2009 due to a serious hip injury. Nalbandian was supposed to return to play a month ago at the Australian Open but had to withdraw after sustaining an abdominal injury in practice. Nalbandian will ease back into competition with a favorable first round opponent in Italian Potito Starace.

JUSTINE HENIN MAKES TRIUMPHANT RETURN

Justine Henin made a triumphant return to the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour in Brisbane on Monday with a 7-5, 7-5 win over second seeded Nadia Petrova.

In her first competitive match since retiring eighteen months ago, Henin showed no signs of rust as she advanced against an opponent she has dominated 11-2 in their career head-to-head meetings.

Henin also defeated Petrova last month in an exhibition match in Cairo by a score of 7-5, 6-2, so the result should come as no surprise.

The crafty Henin only lost five points on her first serve in the opening set and broke Petrova at 5-5. She would later close out the frame with an ace.

In the second set Petrova staked an early 2-0 lead before Henin fought back and again broke at 5-5 to march towards victory.

Petrova seemed to take the defeat in stride and had nothing but praise for Henin in her post-match press conference.

“I think she is a better player than before she retired. She’s more aggressive,” Petrova said. “Previously, she was more of a clay court player, but now I see her a hardcourt player as well. She’s certainly playing high level of tennis.”

Personally, I would be embarrassed as a professional tennis player to lose to someone who has been away from the game for a year and a half. Henin however is not just any returning player. The Belgian has won 7 Grand Slams, an Olympic Gold as well as 41 other WTA titles in her career. At only 27 years old, there is still plenty left in the tank both physically and emotionally for Henin.

“I feel better today than when I retired, that’s for sure,” Henin said. “Better emotionally, mentally, better with myself—and that makes a big difference that I will enjoy being on the tour again.”

Under normal circumstances, a win over a top-twenty player like Petrova after such a sustained absence from the game would garner more attention and praise. While many eyes are on Henin, the bar has been set high by her compatriot Kim Clijsters. Winning a couple of rounds will not suffice and anything short of a title in the near future may be deemed a disappointment by some – a fact that would have seemed ridiculous before Clijsters’ incredible run at Flushing Meadows in August.

The comparisons to Clijsters are inevitable and not simply because of their shared Belgian heritage. Both took approximately the same amount of time away from the game and both are former top level players who have enjoyed Grand Slam success. The immediate returns that Clijsters enjoyed during the summer spoke volumes about the immense talent that she possesses. As much, if not more, will be expected from Henin.

Henin now advances to the second round where she will face qualifier Sesil Karatantcheva.

Federer Doubters Beware

Even after winning his sixth Wimbledon title, his record-breaking 15th major singles title and completing the career Grand Slam by winning the French Open, people are still writing off Roger Federer. Many experts and observers have pegged Andy Murray and Andy Roddick as the favorites to win the US Open – assuming that Federer has lost his competitive zest after achieving his major goals of winning in Paris and eclipsing the all-time major singles title record set by Pete Sampras. Throw in the fact that Roger is now a father of baby twin girls post-Wimbledon and you could theorize that this guy has enough distractions and lack of motivation that he may as well pick out his plot on the grounds of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. and start to work on his golf game.

Federer, however, is still very much to be reckoned with – his 6-2, 7-6 (8) win Saturday over Andy Murray in the semifinals of the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters in Cincinnati on Saturday as proof.

In a rare – and perhaps unprecedented – semifinal match between the world No. 1 and world No. 2, it was the top-ranked Federer who controlled the match from the outset, ending a four-match losing skid to the Scotsman and closing gap in the career head-to-head with Murray to 6-3. Federer did, however, dump Murray 6-2, 7-5, 6-2 in the final of the 2008 US Open final last September.

Murray, so frustrated with his play Saturday against Federer, punched his fist against his racquet strings enough to cause bleeding and call for treatment from the ATP trainer.

Federer will be seeking his sixth straight US Open title in New York starting August 31. A win Sunday in Cincinnati will give him a 61st career title, which, according to the book THE BUD COLLINS HISTORY OF TENNIS, will move him ahead of Andre Agassi into seventh place alone for most men’s singles titles won in a career. (He will be two shy of overtaking Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas, who each won 62 titles, in jumping into fifth place, and five shy of overtaking Pete Sampras and his 64 titles and moving into fourth place by himself. Jimmy Connors holds the record with 109 singles titles, followed by Ivan Lendl with 94 and John McEnroe with 77.

“He deserved it,” said ESPN2’s Darren Cahill on-air after the match of Roger’s win. “He came out of the blocks on fire. This means something to him…There was a lot for him to prove in this match.”

“It was a tough match,” said Federer on the air on the ESPN2 set after the match. “I have had a tough head to head with Andy in the past… Today, I never really gave him a chance, I didn’t really allow him to play his game and I ended up hanging on to win.”