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The 2004 Western & Southern
Financial Group Masters
by Vince Barr

When the men's 2004 Western & Southern Financial Group Masters tournament (August 2-8, 2004) started, everyone seemed to be talking about the play of World’s No. 1 Roger Federer. Specifically, could anyone beat this guy? With his win in Toronto over Andy Roddick (just prior to playing here), Federer became the earliest qualifier for the season-ending Masters Cup in Houston since at least 1990 when record keeping began. Given his phenomenal play this year, it was a well-deserved honor. For the year, Federer was 57-4 with eight titles: two Slams (Australian Open & Wimbledon), three Masters Series titles (Indian Wells, Hamburg & Toronto) and three International Series titles (Dubai, Halle and Gstaad). That overall record was the best start to a season for any touring pro since Hall of Famer Ivan Lendl went 58-4 to start the 1989 season.

It wasn’t that he was merely dominating; it was how he went about doing it. Coming to Cincinnati, where he had not played especially well (1-3) in three previous appearances, he maintained a 23-match winning streak. That was the best on Tour since Pete Sampras won 24 in a row in 1999. If that wasn’t enough, Federer’s three previous titles came on three different surfaces: grass (Wimbledon), clay (Gstaad) and hard court (Toronto). That made him the first player since Bjorn Borg (1979) to win three consecutive titles on different surfaces.

ESPN wanted to know the secret to his success. Federer replied "I know what it takes to win a tournament now where in the past, I was not quite sure what I needed to do; how professional to be, how relaxed to be off the court and now, I’ve found the right balance for everything and it makes life much easier." Well, easier for him and a nightmare for his opponents. Did he feel any undue pressure to keep the streak going? In a word, no. "What’s going on is incredible, for four titles in a row on three different surfaces; it’s amazing" Federer said. "Since the French Open, I haven’t lost. Hopefully, I can keep it alive, but I’m exhausted. Maybe you can see that a little bit but I have to find some energy from somewhere and hopefully, I’m ready."

Because Federer really doesn’t spend a lot of time in the United States, he’s not as well known in this country compared with other tennis players. The ATP has been quietly prompting Federer to raise his profile with the American tennis-watching public. But nothing would spark interest here more than a possible rivalry between Roger and Andy Roddick. At first glance, you could not call their head-to-head series a rivalry since Roger has won seven of their previous eight encounters. To his credit, Andy didn’t want to talk about a rivalry with Federer until he started winning against him more often. So Roger was asked if he worried about Roddick as a potential rival. The answer was a bit surprising in his direct response.

"I’m in the driver’s seat. I’m No. 1 in the world. I’ve won the last couple of meetings, I’ve won the big tournaments lately," Federer said. "For me, whoever comes, I’ll try to beat him. But it’s almost up to me to decide who’s my rival, isn’t it?" Federer said with a smile without the slightest hint of arrogance. It is an old truism that success breeds confidence (and occasionally, arrogance) while failure produces self-doubt and a lack of confidence. Federer believes that when he brings his "A" game, no one can beat him, at least on anything resembling a regular basis. Having climbed to the pinnacle of his profession, Federer is planning to have a lengthy stay at the top. Unless you catch him on a bad day (for instance, when he’s tired or not mentally into a match for whatever reason), you’re going to have a very difficult time beating him. If Roddick is going to challenge for the No. 1 ranking, he’s going to have to have more success against Roger as well as plant a tiny doubt in Federer’s mind that he can beat him.

It is probably safe to conclude that of Federer’s prospective rivals, Dominik Hrbaty (his first round opponent here) wasn’t on his mind when he made those statements on his only scheduled off day of the tournament. They had only played once against each other and that was nearly four years ago in the Paris Indoor tournament (a match which Dominik had won in three sets). Since Federer was without a coach, he was probably unaware that Hrbaty had a winning record against No. 1-ranked players. The first set went by very quickly (20 minutes) as Hrbaty was broken twice in his second and third service games as Federer won the first set 6-1. It looked like it was going to be an easy day for Federer and ESPN-2 started to fill time with an interesting graphic that showed the longest winning streaks of all time.

Since 1990, Thomas Muster had the longest streak at 35 consecutive matches without a loss but going back through the Open era, Bjorn Borg topped the list at 49 matches back in 1978. ESPN tennis analyst Cliff Drysdale asked MaliVai Washington to compare the difficulty level of putting a long winning streak together now as compared to 30 years ago. "What’s more difficult is that you have more players…that are better out on Tour," Washington said. "Now, you think back to the 70s and 80s — there were really a handful of players that I considered (to be) great players and now, on any given day, there’s a lot of guys out here who can produce great tennis and come up with a great win," Washington continued. "But right now, Roger Federer as well as Andy Roddick, I think those two, are playing head over heels above anyone else on Tour right now."

The second set of Federer’s match with Hrbaty did not have any breaks of serve until the tiebreaker, when both players exchanged breaks early. Then Federer dumped a volley into the net on his serve at 7-7 and followed that up with a forehand that went long on Hrbaty’s serve, which cost him the second set 7-5 (7). Both players again held serve in the third set until 4-4 when Dominik got the break on a return winner and two unforced errors by Federer then closed out the match. Just like that, Federer’s winning streak was over. Federer blamed his loss on fatigue as well as the fact that Hrbaty is a good player. "But the conditions are tricky here," Federer said. "Very humid and hot…obviously, it’s a little bit of a disappointment to leave so early, but it gives me a few more days of rest that I badly need."

Hrbaty noted that one reason Roger beat him so badly in the first set was because he was rushing his play, so as not to give Federer a lot of time to play but also because he was playing with many different shots. "He played with a lob, sometimes with a lot of spin. Then he changed for slice. He can play flat. So I had to get used to it…And I couldn’t find a rhythm on my first serve." Hrbaty thought that Federer had some difficulty returning his second serve. Trying to out-hit a player of Federer’s capabilities is foolish because of Roger’s great hand-eye coordination. "If you hit (the serve) fast, he (just sticks his racquet out) and you have it right back," Hrbaty said. "If you play a slow serve, he has to hit the ball himself. Sometimes, it is much more difficult than to wait for the fast ball."

Once Federer was out of the tournament, all the attention naturally turned to America’s Andy Roddick. He came to Cincinnati on the heels of his loss to Federer in the title match in Toronto with an overall record of 54-10, including four tournament titles this year. Roddick’s first match was not an easy one as he was drawn to play the Beast of Belarus, Max Mirnyi. They had faced each other here last year in the semifinals, which Andy won 7-6 (5), 6-4 in a match where Andy recorded 39 winners against only one unforced error the entire evening. What made this match so interesting was the contrast of playing styles. Mirnyi likes to serve and volley whereas Andy prefers not to come to the net unless he has to, usually to greet the player he has just beaten at the end of the match. Both players have rocket launchers for arms as their serve speeds routinely exceed twice the national speed limit (at least in most parts of the country). For a big man (6’6"), Mirnyi moves surprisingly well.

There were no breaks of serve in the first set outside of the tiebreaker and Max was the first to convert his opportunity there. After Roddick hit a few service returns long to fall behind 1-4, he angrily slammed his racket to the ground in disgust. Andy actually might have played a better first set than Mirnyi; posting a better first serve percentage (68% vs. 63%) and out-aced him 12-9. Although both players recorded 23 winners in 45 minutes of work, the difference for the set was that Roddick also had three more unforced errors (6-3) than Mirnyi. The second set featured a consistently high level of tennis from both players. As was the case in the first, there were no breaks of serve until the second set tiebreaker. Mirnyi jumped out to 4-2 lead in that breaker but couldn’t hold on as Andy rallied to win 7-5. Roddick finally gained control of the match with a break of Max’s serve in his 2nd service game of the third set and obtained an insurance break to close out the match, 6-3.

Roddick was not entirely pleased with his performance. "I played a really sloppy forehand at 4-all (in the second set tiebreaker) and at that point, I felt like I maybe deserved to lose," Roddick said afterwards. "He was doing such a good job of getting first serves in that I really didn’t feel like I was doing much out there. He was definitely taking it to me and that’s a credit to him…It’s a little frustrating when you feel like you’re hitting the ball well but you just can’t get your feet into a match."

Andy’s second round opponent was Nicholas Kiefer. Just as Roddick has played well against everyone not named Federer, Kiefer has played very well against everyone not named Roddick. They had played each other three times prior to their 2004 match here (including a second round match here two years ago). Kiefer had lost all three times, in straight sets. And they were playing each other for the third consecutive week (with Kiefer’s losses this year coming to him in the finals at Indianapolis and semifinals in Toronto). Roddick noted that "…we’ve seen a lot of each other the past couple of weeks…It’s funny…I played him once in my whole career and then three times in ten days or so." Although the match was a straight set win for Roddick, Kiefer did have his chances. He was unable to capitalize on three consecutive break points early in the first set and only had two more opportunities the entire match.

The turning point of the match and the best shot of the entire tournament came on Kiefer’s serve at 30-15 with the score tied at 3-3. Nicholas served the ball to Roddick’s forehand, which was returned deep in the ad court. Kiefer responded with a nice short volley on the ad court, which Roddick had to come to the net to retrieve. Kiefer then hit a shot fairly deep into the deuce court, which looked like a winner. The feeling was that even if Roddick, who has very good speed, could reach the ball in time, he would not be able to control the return. Roddick didn’t give up and took off on a full sprint towards the back of the court. Without even looking back to Kiefer’s side of the net, he drilled a winner right along the doubles alley. Kiefer was stunned and the crowd erupted with a convulsion of cheering. Roddick then turned to the crowd, threw up his hands and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, "I don’t know how I did that, either." It should have been ESPN’s Shot of the Day, but only made it to # 2.

Later, Roddick was asked about The Shot. He insisted that it wasn’t a planned thing. "I was gonna go between the legs, but I couldn’t get there in time," Andy said. "And so I just kind of flailed at it and I figured if I was gonna flail at it, I might as well hit it hard. I didn’t really see it. I mean, I looked up and it was past him. People were clapping, so I figured it went in," Roddick continued. He didn’t realize how great The Shot was until he got back to the locker room after the match and caught a replay of the point on ESPN-2. Reporters asked him to share his feelings after looking at that point on the replay. "I was like, Wow, I just kind of started laughing because you really don’t expect to hit that shot. That’s probably the best shot I’ve ever hit, or I mean, the luckiest shot I’ve ever hit…it was pretty sweet. I guess I let it drop and I almost hit it from the ground…it didn’t seem like it was that much when I hit it. It felt pretty cool, but I didn’t realize it was that drastic." Andy converted his break during that game and broke Kiefer again in the second set to win in straights, 6-4, 6-4.

Roddick’s next match was against Paradorn Srichaphan in the Round of 16. Although that match looked good on paper, it was not all that exciting to watch. Andy had won four of their previous five meetings (Paradorn’s only win came two years ago at the Paris Indoor Championships). The result here was a relatively easy 6-2, 6-3 win for Andy. Next up was Germany’s Tommy Haas, who had never lost to Roddick in four previous meetings. However, three of those four were on clay. Haas had won the tournament in Los Angeles a few weeks before coming here and had beaten Roddick in Houston in the clay court championships earlier in the year. Tommy is a leading candidate for the ATP Comeback Player of The Year after missing all of the 2003 season with a right shoulder injury.

Roddick was broken early in the first set as Haas did not seem to have any difficulty returning Andy’s serve. Andy was not pleased. "I wasn’t happy because I felt like I didn’t make him play enough to break me. I threw in a couple of missed forehands and, you know, a double on break point," Roddick said. So he decided to change tactics and come to the net a little more often than he usually does. "I was trying to just make him think about me coming to the net a little bit more," Roddick explained. "You know, he was standing in Mexico trying to return my serve." In defense of Haas, that may be the only way to get a good look at Roddick’s serve, especially when he brings the fastball. For the week, Roddick routinely served faster than 130 miles per hour. In any event, the change in tactics worked as Roddick reeled off five wins in a row to take the first set, 6-3. Roddick won the second set by the same score to set up a semifinal encounter with Andre Agassi. Roddick was asked if he might continue coming to the net more often.

Andy replied that it depends on his opponent. "I’m not going to become a serve and volleyer. I made it to No. 1 in the world not serving and volleying, so I’m not all of a sudden going to flip and change everything. But that being said, I feel good about myself when I need it, like tonight (in the Haas match). Even though I didn’t volley that great, I still had that option and I used (it). That’s kind of what I’m working towards, to be able to kind of use it as a Plan B when I need to." Obviously, Roddick explained, "…If I feel like I can enforce my natural game upon someone and be successful with it, then that’s going to be my first option."

As expected, the clash between Roddick and Agassi featured some very high quality tennis. In some respects, it reminded many people of the Sampras / Agassi clash here in the semifinals back in 1999 (which Pete won en route to the title that year). As was the case then, the biggest complaint was that it was only for a berth in the finals and not the last match of the tournament itself. Both competitors had tremendous respect for each other’s game and on more than a few occasions; they actually applauded a great hit by their opponent. Agassi got to the semifinals largely unnoticed. He beat Mardy Fish, Thomas Johansson, Juan Ignacio Chela and Carlos Moya to get to Roddick. By Agassi’s recent standards (i.e., since his 1997 rebound from # 141 in the world), this year had to qualify as a great disappointment. He hadn’t won a tournament in 16 months. He had several early first round exits from several tournaments and many reporters were asking him about his retirement plans. Agassi has consistently maintained that he is NOT retiring and recently reiterated that point at the US Open. Regardless of what happens in that event, he will continue to play.

In the first set, Roddick out-aced Andre 11-4 but again, he had way too many unforced errors (16 vs. 5) and was broken once in the set to lose 7-5. Both players served extremely well as Agassi had a slight edge in first serves percentage (84% to 81%). In the second set, Roddick became much more focused and increased his first serve percentage to an astonishing 92%. He didn’t have as many aces but Agassi was doing a lot of smiling as he was walking back and forth between points on Andy’s serve. After the finals, Agassi was asked to compare how tennis has changed since he started on the ATP Tour back in 1986 to the present day. Agassi replied, "I saw a great stat in the paper (The Cincinnati Enquirer) this morning that talked about the (number) of players who served over 120 miles per hour in 1992 vs. the number of players that do it now. The discrepancy was huge…50-some players (back then); now there’s 174 of them that can do it…So the game has elevated in pace and power and athleticism and it forces you to not just be able to beat a variety of players, but to do it at a high standard."

In his match with Roddick, Agassi fastest speed was 124 mph with an average of 110 while Roddick’s fastest was 141 with an average of 123. So, Roddick’s average speed approximated Agassi’s fastest speed on first serves, which is amazing by any standard. In his first round match of the 2004 U.S. Open (against Scoville Jenkins), Roddick hit a serve that was clocked at 152 miles per hour and his coach, Brad Gilbert, thinks Roddick can hit 160 someday. In any event, neither player had a break point opportunity in the second set, which went to a tiebreaker with Andy winning 7-6 (2). In the third set, which also went to a tiebreaker, there were no breaks of serve as well. Here, Agassi’s vastly improved second serve percentage (92% vs. Andy’s 50%) and his unwillingness to commit unforced errors (2 in the set vs. 13 by Roddick) appeared to be the difference in the game itself.

Agassi said that "…it felt great to be out there. It was a high-intensity match and (had) a lot of great rallies. We both brought our game, you know. It was one of those that could have gone either way." Both players held their serve with only one break point won (by Agassi) the entire evening. "I took care of my serve well, and I controlled most of the back court rallies. But that’s what makes Andy so tough, is (that) he’s not usually playing back court rallies on your terms; he’s usually playing on his terms…You feel like against him that in one second the whole match can be blown open, so you have to be real careful the whole time," Agassi said. The quality of the shot making was superb and it was a match in that both players were playing well. Agassi thought that "…the great thing about tennis is that you don’t have to play great; you just have to play better than your opponent. You can even play lousy. But when two guys are playing well and the standard keeps getting pushed and the bar keeps getting raised and one seems to clear the hurdle and the next one raises it, you know, it’s rare."

The Western & Southern Financial Group Masters finals pitted Agassi against Lleyton Hewitt. Hewitt led the series 4-3 going into the title match but they had not played since the semifinals of the 2002 U.S. Open. Hewitt had even played Agassi in Cincinnati that year in the quarterfinals. All of their matches had been played on hard court and it was tough to predict the outcome in advance. Certainly, fatigue could have been a factor since Agassi played Roddick in the night match the previous day. Add to that the fact that Agassi was 34 years old compared to his much younger opponent, who was only 23. Then again, Agassi has posted a 16-4 career record in ATP Tennis Masters Series finals for an impressive 80% winning percentage.

Agassi won the title 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 and Hewitt was not happy with his serving or the fact that he had difficulty in breaking Andre’s serve. "The first set, I had four break points and wasn’t able to take them…I still had a few fair aces out there and not that many double faults, considering how low my first serve percentage was," Hewitt explained. Although the momentum of the match seemed to change with Hewitt’s second set win, the fact that Andre responded so well in the third, especially on his serve, ultimately gave Agassi the win. "In the third set, he served extremely well. He hit a lot of first serves and got a lot of serves right on the line and corners and stuff. I just couldn’t get into his service games," Hewitt explained. Agassi’s main strength is in the return game, but Hewitt felt that his service game, which is often overlooked, is actually another one of his strengths. "He knows that if he can clean up his service games, he’s going to put enough pressure on guys’ service games to break purely because he’s such a good hitter of the ball and such a good returner of serve."

With the win, Andre captured his 17th Tennis Masters Series title and became the second oldest player here to win the title since Ken Rosewall did it in 1970. He now has 14 titles since turning 30, which is fifth best all time behind Rod Laver (44), Rosewall (29), Arthur Ashe (20) and Jimmy Connors (15). Naturally, the first question he was asked was when he was going to retire, which elicited laughter all around. Then he was asked about whether or not he missed playing the guys he grew up with. "Everybody has to choose their own road, what they’re committed to, what’s important to them, what their strengths are, their weaknesses, their abilities," Agassi said. "It’s the same challenge at 18 as what I’m feeling now except it’s different and in some cases it’s even more (difficult). But you miss the guys you came in with." After the trophy presentation, Agassi told the crowd that as much as he loved winning this title, he was really looking forward to going home to be with his family. Agassi looked to be very comfortable with where he is in his tennis life and there would seem to be no reason why he won’t choose to play at a high level for a few more years.

For the first time in 16 years, the Women’s Tennis Association returned to Cincinnati (August 16-22, 2004) in a Tier III event with a 30-player draw. It conflicted with the Olympics and it was the first year that this event was held, so the players who came here were not ones you would normally recognize. However, there were two players in the top 10 played in the tournament as wildcards. Lindsey Davenport (ranked # 4 in the world as of August 16th) and Russia’s Vera Zvonareva, who was ranked 9th. Lindsey was a late addition to the tournament and was looking to continue her impressive run of victories this summer after her loss to Maria Sharapova in the semifinals at Wimbledon. That match was the one that started all the retirement rumors for Davenport; speculation that she maintained was overblown after a tough loss (at Wimbledon). Still, the 28 year-old pro has found her life changing following her marriage to investment banker and former Southern California tennis player Jon Leach in April of 2003. Although Lindsey has mentioned that she looks forward to becoming a mom someday, given her recent play this summer, she may want to place those plans on hold.

Davenport reeled off three straight tournament wins before coming here (at Stanford, Los Angeles and San Diego) and was on a 14-match winning streak. During that time, she had beaten Venus Williams (twice) and Serena Williams as well as 6th ranked Elena Dementieva (the finalist at this year’s French Open) and 5th-ranked Anastasia Myskina, the reigning French Open champion. Davenport almost didn’t make it out of her first match with wildcard Lilia Osterloh, who enjoyed some local support since she is from Columbus, Ohio, which is about a two-hour drive from Cincinnati. Osterloh actually served better than Davenport did on first serves (74% to 52%) but her more experienced opponent broke Osterloh on four of six occasions. The final score was 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. Davenport defeated her next opponent, Flavia Pennetta of Italy in straight sets, 6-2, 6-2. Davenport was scheduled to play France’s Marion Bartoli in the semifinals, but Bartoli had to withdraw with a right hand blister suffered in her match with Laura Granville.

The finals pitted Davenport (the tournament’s No. 1 seed) against Vera Zvonareva, the tournament’s No. 2 seed. The two had played each other a total of four times, three of which came this year (at Sydney, the Australian Open and at Wimbledon) with Davenport winning all of them. Zvonareva was not able to break Davenport’s serve in two opportunities while Davenport was able to convert on two of her five chances. The biggest difference between the two players was that Davenport only committed nine unforced errors while hitting 32 winners as compared to Zvonareva’s 19 errors with only 20 winners.

As a Tier III event on the WTA Tour, the champion received $27,000 and 120 ranking points with the runner-up getting $14,500 and 85 points. Davenport thanked tournament chairman Paul Flory for saving her a wildcard and complimented him on bring back women’s professional tennis to Cincinnati after such a long absence. She told the assembled media afterwards that she had heard about the great facilities here as well as the reputation of Paul Flory and his family for running such an excellent event for the men. "People here were great supporting the tournament. This is a big stadium and it looked kind of full," Davenport said. "It’s a great facility–players know (that) it’s a great tournament. They do a great job with the men."


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