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The heat is on the top tennis players at the Cincinnati Open

This summer of surprises peaks this week in Cincinnati, the last major tune-up for the US Open. On the ATP side, only two of the 10 events since Wimbledon were won by men ranked in the top 10. The most obvious reason: The only Big Three representative to swing a racket since Wimbledon has been Montreal champion Rafael Nadal.

The WTA results were even more tumultuous. Not one of the seven events was claimed by a top-10 player, even though four of the seven events featured at least one of them. Nine of the WTA’s top 10, including Serena Williams, turned out for Rogers Cup (Toronto).

The champion? Bianca Andreescu, the rising Canadian star who was ranked No. 152 on Jan. 1.

All of that means the top players will be feeling some pressure to sort out their hard-court games this week in Cincinnati. Here are some of the storylines that will be resolved as the Western & Southern Open gets underway:

Serena: Should she, or shouldn’t she?

Williams’ inability to play more than a few games in the final against Andreescu had a devastating impact on the 23-time Grand Slam singles champ. The word “heartbreaking” was used by many to describe Williams’ losing battle with tears as she told the crowd in Toronto: “I’m not a crier.”

The pill must have particularly bitter because Williams made a critical decision to prepare for the upcoming US Open by entering both major US Open tune-up events (Toronto and Cincinnati) — the first time she did so since 2015. The reason? She said after losing the Wimbledon final: “Maybe [the solution] is playing other finals outside of Grand Slams would be really helpful just to kind of get in the groove so by the time I get to a Grand Slam final, I’m kind of used to what to do and how to play.”

Williams produced some brilliant tennis in Toronto, but the back spasms that forced her to quit the final create a risky equation. The injury is a familiar, temporary one. As she told reporters, “I’ve had this before and it’s, like, 24, 36 hours where I’m just in crazy spasm and then it’s, like, gone.”

But does she risk recurrence by returning to the court as soon as Tuesday or jeopardize her chances in New York by potentially playing two grueling hard-court events that end just a week before the Open begins? At the moment, Williams remains the No. 10 seed in Cincinnati. Should she play, she may meet No. 1 Naomi Osaka for the second event in a row in the quarterfinals, and Wimbledon champ Simona Halep in the semis.

Can anyone stop Novak Djokovic?

That’s been the recurring question ever since the top-ranked star sloughed out of a slump at Wimbledon in 2018. He’s been on fire since then (his W-L to date starting at that event: 64-9). What’s worse for his challengers is that Djokovic finally cracked the Cincinnati code last year, winning his first final in six tries. Nothing shameful about that record. His five losses in finals were to Roger Federer (3) and Andy Murray.

To top it off, in winning in Cincinnati last year, Djokovic completed a feat that has eluded even his two Big Three peers, Nadal and Federer. He’s the only man to have won each of the nine prestigious Masters 1000 titles at least once. Call it a “Career Masters Slam.”

But those details don’t mean his rivals don’t have a chance. Both of his Cincy nemeses, Federer and Murray, are in the draw (Nadal pulled out after winning in Montreal). Djokovic has been somewhat cavalier about sub-Slam events this year — especially those like Indian Wells and Miami that do not figure as tune-ups for Slams. The only one he won in five tries was the French Open prep event in Madrid.

Djokovic seems to have his work cut out for him. He could meet serving terrors Sam Querrey and John Isner back-to-back in his first two matches.

Osaka is in a jam

She may be back at the top-ranking spot she surrendered to Ash Barty about two months ago, but you could almost hear Osaka going beep-beep-beep as she backed into the spot. Barty just hasn’t had the results lately to keep her place. Will a return to the top provide Osaka with motivation or bury her under still more of the pressure she’s had such a hard time handling?

Osaka has won three matches at a tournament just once this year after she vaulted to No. 1 with her win at the Australian Open. That was in Madrid on her least favorite surface (clay). Osaka lost in the first round at Wimbledon, but instead of loading up on matches on the hard courts, she delayed a return to her best surface until just last week. It may have been a strategic error.

Williams won their first meeting since last year’s controversial US Open final in the quarterfinals of Toronto. And the women are penciled in as quarterfinal opponents in Cincinnati.

“I knew her game a little bit more, so that’s a little easier,” Williams said after the Toronto win. “And, you know, I’m just overall a little bit better. Last year was … a miraculous year for me, to be honest.”

Osaka’s thoughts: “I think I stayed positive throughout all my matches [in Toronto]. I tried different things. … I think moving on forward into Cincinnati and into New York, I can have a lot of positive things.”

Murray is diving into the deep end

A skeptic could be forgiven for wondering, “What was Andy thinking?” Murray is making an unexpectedly swift return to singles after hip resurfacing surgery six months ago. And he’s doing at arguably the sixth or seventh most significant event of the year.

Murray resumed his career at Queens and Wimbledon but played just doubles. He expressed doubts at Wimbledon about competing — even in doubles — during the U.S. hard-court swing. Now he’s eyeing the singles title at the tournament he last won in 2011.

Murray told reporters he has “zero pain” in his hip, but he also admitted he didn’t expect this week to move as well as he could and eventually might. But he also believes that remaining pain-free during doubles matches and intensive singles practice left the door open to a quick comeback.

“At some stage you have to take the step to try and play,” Murray said. “The quickest way to get up to speed is by being on the practice and match court with top players.”

Down to No. 324 in the rankings but straight into tournaments due to the protections given injured players, Murray meets Richard Gasquet in his first match. If he survives, he’s likely to face a daunting challenge in No. 4 seed Dominic Thiem.

Don’t be surprised if Murray takes a wild card into the US Open, no matter how he fares in Cincinnati.

Is Andreescu for real?

The run to the title at Indian Wells was improbable at best. Andreescu, then just 18 years old, ranked No. 60 in the world and hailed by few outside her immediate circle, became the first wild card ever to win Indian Wells — the tournament some call the “fifth Grand Slam.” When she was forced off the tour just weeks later with a rotator cuff injury that would remain troublesome for months, it was tempting to describe her exploits as a fluke. Not anymore.

After a premature return at the French Open ended in Andreescu issuing a second-round walkover, she returned pain-free at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. She ran the table to become the first Canadian to win her national championships in 50 years — battling through four three-set matches and a tough two-set semi. She led Williams 3-1 in the first set of the final when Williams retired with back spasms.

Andreescu is an unprepossessing righthander. She stands just 5-foot-7 but has a polished, well-rounded game. Her greatest asset is her competitive grit. Her success is going to give every elite WTA star pause in the coming days. Watch for her potential second-round match with former No. 1 Karolina Pliskova, the No. 3 seed in Cincy.

After the Toronto final, Williams described Andreescu as an “old soul,” saying: “She definitely doesn’t seem like a 19-year-old in her words, on court and her game, her attitude, her actions.”

Battle of the Next Gen stars

The table is set for a Next Gen shootout with a brace of 23-year-old Russians pushing the two most celebrated Next Gen stars. Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov, ranked Nos. 8 and 9 respectively, met in the semis of the Rogers Cup. Medvedev, whose blend of consistency and power continue to impress, prevailed. He played his second final of the summer (the first was at Washington D.C.) against Nadal. Khachanov’s power speaks for itself, especially on faster hard courts.

Ranked just ahead of those two: No. 6 Alexander Zverev and No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas. Zverev, who once towered over the Next Gen crew literally at 6-foot-6 as well as figuratively, has been spinning his wheels. Tsitsipas, 20, caught up with the 22-year-old Zverev early this year, but he’s tailed off — opening the door further for the two young Russians.

Medvedev has been a nemesis for Tsitsipas; they could meet in the third round. Khachanov may have to overcome both Nick Kyrgios (who won Washington D.C. over Medvedev) and Djokovic if he hopes to get beyond the quarterfinals.

And lest we forget, No. 3 Federer is back in action in Cincinnati, penciled in as the potential quarterfinal opponent of Tsitsipas.

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