The Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, Ohio is the last big tournament before the U.S. Open. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are the top seeds of the ATP Masters 1000 event and Serena Williams and Simona Halep top the field for the Premier WTA event. Here's a preview of the week's action.
Novak Djokovic goes for history: The top seed looks to rebound from his early exit in Toronto at the hands of eventual champion Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to win the Cincinnati Masters for the first time and become the first man to win all nine ATP Masters 1000 titles. He's been on the doorstep four times, most recently making the final in 2012. He leads the top half of the 56-man draw, which includes No. 4 Stan Wawrinka, No. 6 David Ferrer, No. 8 Grigor Dimitrov, and No. 10 Tsonga. He opens against either Gilles Simon or Bernard Tomic and could face either Tsonga or Ferrer in the quarterfinals.
Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga look to build: Both men had positive weeks in Montreal, with Tsonga becoming the first man to beat four top 10 players en route to a title since 2002 and Federer making his third ATP Masters 1000 final of the year. Federer has not won a Masters title since Cincinnati in 2012 and the courts here should suit him. But I'm more curious about Tsonga. Did his Toronto win leave him hungry or satiated?
Andy Murray tries to get back on track without Amelie Mauresmo: Even though he lost in the Rogers Cup quarterfinals to Tsonga, it was a confidence-boosting week for Murray. He played good tennis and was the only man to break Tsonga's serve and take a set off him last week. The No. 8 seed here, he's been drawn into Roger Federer's quarter. If that quarterfinal happens it would be a big opportunity for Murray to prove himself ahead of the U.S. Open. He's without Mauresmo this week, as she returns home for a pre-planned respite before reuniting before the U.S. Open.
Tomas Berdych is slipping: Though he's ranked No. 6, the Czech has been disappointing since making the Sony Open semifinals in March. In the eight tournaments since then Berdych has lost to a player ranked outside the top 10 seven times. Last week it was a three-set loss to Feliciano Lopez in Toronto. The week before that he got routined by Vasek Pospisil in Washington D.C. Berdych made the fourth round of the U.S. Open last year, losing to Wawrinka in four sets, and the semifinals the year before. Drawn into the bottom half, he has a very workable draw until a possible quarterfinal against Milos Raonic and then a potential semifinal against Federer or Murray.
Players who need to get on track...fast: The two names that jump out are John Isner and Ernests Gulbis. The Cincinnati courts could play a little to fast for Gulbis' game -- he needs time to set up for that lengthy forehand preparation -- but he's a confident player who can do damage on the hard courts. A good run of form could spell the difference between an early round loss at the U.S. Open or a legitimately deep run. He's won just two matches in three tournaments since the French Open. As for Isner, he's defending finalist points from last year and his two early exits from Washington D.C. and Toronto were surprising after winning the title in Atlanta. Ranked No. 15, he's on the bubble of a top 16 seed in the U.S. Open. A drop of a couple of spots would completely change the difficulty of his draw in New York.
Potential early matches to watch: Gilles Simon vs. Bernard Tomic (first round), Jack Sock vs. Tommy Robredo (first round), Marin Cilic vs. Feliciano Lopez (first round), John Isner vs. Kevin Anderson (first round), Novak Djokovic vs. Simon/Tomic (second round), Stan Wawrinka vs. Ivo Karlovic (second round), Milos Raonic vs. Dominic Thiem (second round), Fabio Fognini vs. Lleyton Hewitt (second round), Andy Murray vs. Isner/Anderson (third round), Milos Raonic vs. Ernests Gulbis (third round).
Serena Williams still looking to establish her dominance: Winning Stanford seemed to put her on the right path but her semifinal loss to sister Venus in Montreal was a setback. A finalist last year, this is Serena's final warm-up tournament before she tries to defend her U.S. Open title. For the first time in what feels like months, she's been given the softer half of the draw, with Montreal champion Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 7 Angelique Kerber, and No. 9 Jelena Jankovic the other top seeds in her half. She'll open against either Samantha Stosur (who she demolished in the second round last week) or fellow American Varvara Lepchenko. A potential rematch of last year's final looms in the quarterfinals against Victoria Azarenka, though Azarenka is dealing with an injured right knee that has required heavy strapping.
Simona Halep returns to competition: The No. 2 seed, Halep is playing her first tournament since the Wimbledon semifinals. She leads a loaded bottom half of the draw that has Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, No. 6 Maria Sharapova, and Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard. Bouchard in particular will be as motivated as ever to make a deep run here after her embarrassing 6-0, 2-6, 6-0 loss to Shelby Rogers in Montreal. Halep could face Venus Williams in the third round, her on-court nemesis Sharapova in the quarterfinal (the Russian has won their two meetings in finals this year), and then Bouchard, Kvitova, or even Ana Ivanovic in the semifinals. That's a very tough test.
The Caroline Comeback: There's no denying that Caroline Wozniacki is playing top 10 tennis these days, especially after she played her best match in years in pushing Serena in the Montreal quarterfinals, losing 4-6, 7-5, 7-5. Wozniacki is in the Radwanska/Kerber quarter and if she makes it out of there she could face Serena again, this time in the semifinals. Could this finally be the week Wozniacki notches her first top 10 win of the season?
Thomas Hogstedt might be the answer to Sloane Stephens' woes: I liked what I saw from Stephens in her 6-7 (7), 6-4, 7-6 (4) loss to Jankovic in Montreal. Encouraged by her new coach to be more expressive on court and up her intensity level and aggression, Stephens wasn't her lackadaisical self. She stepped into the court, went for big winners, and exhorted herself on. Here's hoping she can build on that. She has a tough first round match against Andrea Petkovic with the winner playing Azarenka in the second round.
Players who need to get on track...fast: Aside from Bouchard and Sharapova, both of whom lost early in Montreal, Ivanovic and Kvitova need a good week. Ivanovic has take two tough three set losses in her two U.S. Open lead-ups so far, the first to Serena in the Stanford quarterfinals and then last week to CoCo Vandeweghe 6-7(7), 7-6(7), 6-4 in a high-quality second round match. In her first tournament since Wimbledon, Kvitova lost 6-4, 1-6, 6-2 to Ekaterina Makarova in the third round.
Potential early round matches to watch: Sam Stosur vs. Varvara Lepchenko (first round), Taylor Townsend vs. Klara Koukalova (first round), Victoria Azarenka vs. Barbora Zahlavova Strycova (first round), Sloane Stephens vs. Andrea Petkovic (first round), Camila Giorgi vs. Svetlana Kuznetsova (first round), Ana Ivanovic vs. Sorana Cirstea (first round), Madison Keys vs. Alize Cornet (first round), Venus Williams vs. Lucie Safarova (first round), Taylor Townsend vs. Flavia Pennetta (second round), Victoria Azarenka vs. Petkovic/Stephens (second round), Garbine Muguruza vs. Jelena Jankovic (second round), Eugenie Bouchard vs. Kuznetsova/Giorgi (second round), Maria Sharapova vs. Cornet/Keys (second round), Simona Halep vs. Venus Williams (third round), Eugenie Bouchard vs. Ana Ivanovic (third round), Angelique Kerber vs. Caroline Wozniacki (third round), Jelena Jankovic vs. Victoria Azarenka (third round).