American participation in the men’s draw at the Cincinnati Masters ended prematurely when the final four Americans – including Mardy Fish in his farewell appearance – lost after two rounds.
It is the first time since the tournament began in 1899 that no American has reached the final four – and Flushing Meadows is unlikely to offer much in the way of comfort for home fans.
The game in America is sustained by one great player – Serena Williams – which makes local enthusiasm at the friendliest tournament on the circuit all the more remarkable. And she did not disappoint on day four of the women’s draw, dismissing world No 35 Karin Knapp for the loss of two games, both in the second set, winning 54 of the 79 points played in the 54-minute match.
It was the sort of Williams victory that inspires dread in the locker room. As the lure of a calendar slam grows into the sort of psychological monster even she can’t ignore, she grows more ruthless, her press conferences more perfunctory, her focus needle-sharp. Knapp didn’t stand a chance.
“What worked really well for me today was composure, getting back in that state of being poised,” Williams said later.
It was a curious observation. Williams has many fine qualities: the most devastating serve in the women’s game, power in abundance on both wings and an aura and a game that sets her so far apart from her contemporaries that, when she won Wimbledon last month, she became the first player in the history of the game to have more than twice as many ranking points as her nearest rival.
But poise? It is tougher to see. To hold her game together, it seems she often suffers on court, near tears at times, especially in matches that matter. Perhaps she is at her peak when feels an inner peace – the sort of tranquility that painfully deserted her in the aborted doubles match at Wimbledon two years ago, when she left the premises weary and disorientated.
Since that odd episode, Williams has steadily rebuilt her game to the point where she can rightly be regarded as among the three or four best of all time, alongside or near Margaret Court, Martina Navritalova and Steffi Graf.
Any discussion with Williams flirts (against her wishes) with her attempt to emulate Graf, the last player to win all four majors in a single year, 1988. Graf also sits one major in front of Williams at the top of the Open Era list, with 22.
Williams avoided confirming they had spoken recently, but did say, “I see her post things about me, and that’s pretty awesome. I really am still like a kid when I see her or I see posts. I get super excited. I’m still living the dream. She’s been really supportive, which is so great to see.”
What she needs almost as much as Graf’s record is someone to push her – although in warm-up events such as this one, an easy win doesn’t hurt.
“If you could have only easy matches for a whole tournament, I don’t think anyone would object to that,” she said. “No matter what happens in my next round, I just want to be able to stay calm and focused.”
And the confrontation everyone wanted here before the players leave for New York was a rematch between Williams and Belinda Bencic, who put her out of the Rogers Cup in Toronto in the semi-finals last week, but earlier in the day retired with an arm injury that might yet jeopardise her US Open challenge.
“I really was looking forward to that,” Williams said, “but we will meet very soon. She’s playing really well. I’m sure she will get deep in the tournaments.”
And if she does, it is a near certainty that she will be looking across the net at the finest player of her era, for a couple of more years yet, at least.
One adversary who will struggle to mount a challenge to Williams is Victoria Azarenka, who had to retire with a strain to her left upper leg when a set up and 0-3 down in her third-round match here against the Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Azarenka was cautious later about declaring she would play in the US Open.
“I have to make sure I have nothing serious,” she said. “I have done one of the tests right now. I want to do all of the scans I possibly can to have the most information and make a game plan.”
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell, for theguardian.com on Friday 21st August 2015 04.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010