Roger Federer, without a major to his name since February 2010, is doomed to suffer by comparison with only one player: himself.
The Federer who owns 67 career titles, 16 of them in slams, but who, having just turned 30 and surrounded now by arrivistes, may not win another that matters.
Certainly, on his form in Montreal, where he started well against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga but collapsed at the end to leave before the quarter-finals, Federer has not attracted much support for the US Open, which starts at the end of the month.
However, this week in Cincinnati, where he has lost only twice in 24 matches over six years – to Ivo Karlovic and Andy Murray – nostalgia kicked in, and it was a wondrous sight. Maybe the heat and humidity of a Midwest summer are suited to his economic movement; perhaps he feeds off historical success (he is reaching for a record fifth title here to pull clear of Mats Wilander).
Whatever the reasons, for an hour and 32 minutes, Federer played as near to his old level as he has done since the French Open and, in close proximity, one of the young pretenders, Juan Martín del Potro, did not compare so well.
The Argentinian – a decent way into his rehabilitation after being out for a year with a wrist injury that threatened to finish his career – has good memories of his last two matches with Federer: victory in the 2009 US Open and the World Tour Finals at the O2 Arena in London. However, the Swiss took him back further than that, to their first five meetings, when young Del Potro could not take a set off him in his pomp.
And so it was in front of the faithful on a warm Tuesday evening that the world No3 stretched and confused Del Potro with a brutally consistent serve, feathery touch at the net and deep, angled ground-strokes to win 6-3, 7-5. Pinned to the back of the court by the weight of Federer's draining forehand, Del Potro could not find rhythm or balance in the shot, although he played well enough.
"Roger played like No1 in the world tonight," Del Potro said. On Thursday, Federer may not be so extended against James Blake in the third round, the American's stock having slipped somewhat since they contested the final here four years ago.
Blake, once a prospect and now a wildcard, has had a reasonable tournament. He toughed it out over three sets to beat the inconsistent Marcos Baghdatis in the first round then gave up only six games to Italy's Fabio Fognini. If he were to defeat Federer, it would make his year – and fools of every pundit.
Mardy Fish is putting together the sort of run that will excite his supporters at Flushing Meadows. At 29 he is leaving his run to join the elite a bit late, but the world No7, America's highest-ranked player and a finalist at his past three tournaments, is a threat every time he walks on court.
He was way too good for Nikolay Davydenko, beating the one-time third-best player in the world 6-0, 6-2 in just over an hour. Fish is a shadow of the fat boy of a couple of years ago – a lethal one good enough to take a set off Novak Djokovic in the Rogers Cup final last weekend, having similarly inconvenienced Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. He is through to the third round and in the same half of the draw as Nadal – and that is no comfort to the Spaniard, who has only just recovered from a foot injury, and looked devastated when Ivan Dodig blew him away in Montreal.
Fish banged down nine aces in the short time he and Davydenko were on court and won 91% of his 23 first serves. To dominate a once-fine player like this suggests Fish is hitting his best form in perfect synchronisation with the end of the slam season.
Philipp Kohlschreiber, who put Fish's grumpy compatriot, Andy Roddick, out in three sets, made quicker work of the talented Spaniard, Feliciano López, losing just five games to win in a little over an hour.
The golfer Rory McIlroy's courtside support for Caroline Wozniacki did her little good as the rising young American Christina McHale scored the biggest win of her career, 6-4, 7-5. The world No1 hit 37 unforced errors, the last of them a ballooned forehand that nearly hit the stand.
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