By Nick McCarvel
How tough is the Emirates Airline US Open Series? Just ask Venus Williams and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
A finalist and champion, respectively, at the Rogers Cup in Canada, Williams and Tsonga combined for an 11 match wins in the span of seven days.
But they were both bundled out of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati in opening-round matches, victims perhaps of fatigue but also of the packed draws that accompany the U.S. hard-court swing.
“This is one tournament out of many,” Venus, 34, said after her loss. “That's pretty much how I see it. I didn't think I played badly. I just think my opponent played better and I wasn't able to capitalize on my opportunities when I had them.”
Her first-round opponent was world No. 17 Lucie Safarova, a semifinalist at Wimbledon just last month. Tsonga, the 12th seed, drew Mikhail Youzhny, a two-time US Open semifinalist (2006 and 2010) and a current world No. 25 that has been ranked as high as No. 8.
“I just gave everything last week,” Tsonga said of his Toronto triumph, in which he beat four Top 10 players en route to the title. “Before the match I believed I was able to play, you know, at the good level, but on the court I realized that it's going to be impossible. And it was.”
Unlike the majors, when top players often face qualifiers or opponents outside the Top 50 to start in order to work their way into a tournament, champions like Williams and Tsonga have no respite during Series events. This week in Cincinnati, main draw cutoffs were No. 43 (women) and No. 57 (men).
Venus’ conqueror in Montreal, No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, said this part of the season is as tough as any.
“It’s never easy,” Radwanska said of the Series. “Everyone is fighting for US Open [Bonus Challenge] points. From the first round you’re pushing yourself 100 percent to win those matches. There are no easy matches anymore.”
Only four times since 1995 has any man won Canada and Cincinnati – the biggest events of the Series – back to back: Andre Agassi (1995), Patrick Rafter (1998), Andy Roddick (2003) and Rafael Nadal (2013). The latter three went on to win the US Open.
In the five-year span that Canada and Cincinnati have been Premier (read: big) tournaments for the WTA, no player has been able to capture both titles in the same summer.
For evidence, look at the early rounds in Cincinnati. In the first round, Andrea Petkvoic, a semifinalist at the French Open this year, faced Sloane Stephens, the rising American star and former world No. 11. That came after five-time Slam champion Maria Sharapova bested up-and-comer Madison Keys, albeit in a second-round battle. It wasn’t easy, however, Sharapova needing three sets to take down the world No. 28.
Sharapova was upset a year ago here in her first match. Her opponent? Stephens.
“Yeah, it's never easy,” Sharapova said.
Added five-time US Open and five-time Cincinnati champion Roger Federer: “I’m just hoping to get through the first round. … Of course if I do win that first round, I have higher hopes to going really deep into the tournament. But right now the focus is getting through the first round. Seeing what happened to Jo, that's not very good for me. The fear is always there from the first round.”