They're known as the "dog days" in baseball, and they are not to be trusted. Late August means blast-furnace heat, stifling humidity, mirage-like developments and a ballplayer confiding to friends, "I'm draggin'." Only in September, when the fresh breezes of autumn grace the stretch drive, will things begin to gain clarity.
Tennis had a dog-day week in Cincinnati. A number of fatigued players treated the event as an afterthought, if they competed at all, and you had to feel bad for the fans and organizers of a tournament that dates back to 1899. They didn't experience the game's top level as it truly exists.
By the time Serena Williams reached the quarterfinals, she seemed resigned to defeat. She somehow got past Ursula Radwanska, then lost to Angelique Kerber, all the while playing a listless, dispirited brand of tennis complete with frustration and the occasional loss of cool. It was perfectly explainable, given Serena's whirlwind schedule since Wimbledon, but it hardly meshed with the pre-tournament media hype declaring her unbeatable and the most dominant player in history.
As for Novak Djokovic, the man who took such awe-inspiring command of the tour last year, there wasn't much to be said for his competitive drive in Sunday's final against Roger Federer. It was totally nonexistent.
"Good stuff by Federer, but who gave Novak a dozen sleeping pills last night?" Matt Cronin wrote on Twitter after the 6-0 first set took all of 20 minutes. "Playing as if in coma."
Jim Courier, calling the match on CBS with Mary Carillo, was appalled, saying, "he's a shell out there" and "he's not engaged at all, mentally." But in Cincinnati and, to a degree, Toronto the week before, the stories were all about depleted fields and wide-ranging agendas. Like baseball, however, things will begin to make sense by Labor Day. The U.S. Open begins next Monday, and that's when everyone intends to peak.
Checking in on certain key participants and other issues with less than a week to go:
How to Watch
ESPN is the primary rights holder and will feature its usual crew, plus John McEnroe (in his third year with the network) and considerable depth, including Tom Rinaldi (one of the best interviewers in sports television), Mike Tirico, Hannah Storm and espn.com columnist LZ Granderson. (Little-known fact about anchor Chris McKendry: She attended Drexel University on a tennis scholarship.)
CBS will be the heavy hitter, as usual, on weekends, airing live from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the middle Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Bill Macatee has replaced Dick Enberg as the lead play-by-play announcer, and he'll work alongside Carillo and John McEnroe on the biggest matches.
Tennis Channel may be the third wheel at this event, but its coverage will be relentless. Jim Courier has been hired as the lead analyst on men's matches, and he joins a stellar crew including Carillo, Macatee, Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport and one of the sharpest-ever analysts among ex-players, Mats Wilander. Tennis Channel has an exclusive prime-time window of 7-11 p.m. on the middle weekend, and it will also feature daily weekday coverage (10 a.m. to 7 p.m.), a nightly wrapup show (11 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.) and "Breakfast at the Open" each day from 6 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.
Courier was at his best on Sunday's CBS telecast as he worked the Cincinnati final. Aside from calling out Djokovic for his first-set apathy, Courier took viewers back to the semifinal of last year's U.S. Open, when Djokovic, facing a match point, took an absurdly ferocious swing at a forehand service return and drilled a stunning cross-court winner. (Federer's postmatch reaction was bitter and dismissive.)
At 7-all in Sunday's second-set tiebreaker, Federer hit a punishing first serve out wide to Djokovic's forehand, winning the point with ease. Courier's immediate take: "Federer almost dares Novak, every time they get in a situation like this now, to hit that same forehand from the U.S. Open again. That's the same serve. He did it at Wimbledon, and he did it again right here. I think Federer's trying to prove a point to himself, like, 'That guy got lucky last year.' That's what he's trying to say."