MASON, Ohio -- Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams will go for their ninth titles of the year on Sunday when they both try to do something they've never done in their long and storied careers: Conquer the Western & Southern Open.
Nadal beat Tomas Berdych 7-5, 7-6 (4) in the semifinal to advance to his 11th final in 12 tournaments this year, where he'll face top American John Isner. After winning the Rogers Cup last week in Montreal, Canada, Nadal is seeking to become just the fourth man since 1990 to complete the rare Canada-Cincinnati double, and the first since Andy Roddick in 2003.
Prior to this year Nadal had never played well in Cincinnati and he admitted his inability to summon his best tennis here was beginning to play with his mind.
"In Cincinnati I never felt that I was playing well, and this year the situation is different," Nadal said after his semifinal win. "I feel that I am playing well, and this is something special when you play well in a place that you never did in the past.... I started to think that Cincinnati is a tournament that something happens on me that I cannot play well, but this year the situation is different. I am having the right feelings on court. I'm playing aggressive, and the crowd here is great."
Nadal is 3-0 against Isner but the two haven't faced since 2011, when Isner pushed him to five sets, losing 6-4, 6-7 (2), 6-7 (2), 6-2, 6-4. Isner goes into his second ATP Masters 1000 final playing some of the best tennis of his career. Behind his big serve and improved play from the baseline, Isner has defeated three top 10 players in three days, including wins over No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals and No. 7 Juan Martin del Potro in the semifinals.
"He's a really tough opponent for us," Del Potro said after the loss. "His serves are unbelievable, and nobody wants to play against him." Nadal is well aware of the particular challenges of playing the 6 foot 10 inch Isner, who is able to hold his serve better than any other player on tour.
"I expect a very difficult match," Nadal said. "Nobody likes to play against a great player, and nobody likes to play against a player who you will not have the chance to be on rhythm for most of the time. So John is this kind of player that, in my opinion, he should be fighting for the Masters, for the top 10. Of course, with his serve, [the] advantage is huge."
"It's the kind of match that the only thing that you can try is what is in your hands. What is in your hands is serve well and play solid from the baseline and play aggressive. The rest of the things depends on him because, if he serve very well, you're going to feel it on the return."
Once again, Isner has proven he's at his best on home soil. In ten American tournaments this year he has made the semifinals or better at seven of them, compiling a record of 26-8 in American tournaments and 4-9 outside of the States. With his run to the finals this week, Isner will rise to No. 14 in the ATP rankings and a spot right outside the top 10 at No. 11 is his if he's able to win. "Playing tournaments of this magnitude and being able to get wins like that on a packed stadium court full of American fans cheering me on, it's an unbelievable feeling," he said.
The ladies final will feature No. 1 vs. No. 2 as Williams takes on Victoria Azarenka. Williams, who leads the head-to-head 12-2, is into her 10th final of the season and carries an 8-1 record in finals into the match. That lone loss was to Azarenka in February, where she lost 7-6 (6), 2-6, 6-3 on hard court in Doha. Into her first Cincinnati final by beating defending champion Li Na 7-5, 7-5 in the semifinals, Williams revealed she was bothered by an abdominal injury during the match.
"I got a little tight in my stomach," she said after the match. "It's been tight this week, though. I knew what to do. I just kind of released those muscles, and it immediately got better."
While Williams was dealing with physical issues, Azarenka was trying to overcome her own serving woes to defeat Jelena Jankovic. The two combined for 23 breaks of serve in 27 games, in an error-strewn match. Azarenka finally came out on top, securing a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 win on, what else, a break of serve. Relieved to be through, Azarenka is looking forward to taking on Williams, though she's treating it as a tune-up match for the U.S. Open.
"I'm just looking forward to go out there and try to do my best," she said. "Obviously, I want to win, but I'm just going to try to stay in that moment and work on the same things that I've been working and trying to put together throughout this US Open Series."
Regardless of Sunday's results, Williams clinched the U.S. Open Series race with her semifinal win, meaning she'll earn an additional $1 million if she captures the U.S. Open next month. What will she do with that extra cash if she wins it? "I just was thinking about getting a new place in Paris because mine's so small," she said. "I was going to upgrade. But I'm really ‑‑ I'm just one of those girls that like to invest and do things like that, one of those bonds and stock, really boring."