The Hindu

Cincinnati ushers in main-event tennis’ return

- N. Sudarshan

After a five-month hiatus, big-ticket tennis will finally return with the Cincinnati Masters getting underway in a ‘bio-secure bubble’ in New York on Saturday.

The women have had a head start, warming up with WTA Internatio­nal events in Palermo, Prague and Lexington. For the men, it will be the first taste of the new normal — of tennis without fans, handshakes and ball kids to handle sweaty towels.

The storylines, though, will remain as intriguing as they were at the start of the season, more so with the Masters tournament leading up to the US Open from August 31. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic’s Australian Open triumph early this year for his 17th Major may have escaped fans’ collective memory in these times of the pandemic, but the Serb hasn’t forgotten.

By his admission, one of his prime motivation­s to travel to the United States is to catch his two biggest rivals, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, in the race for the most Slam titles.

Nadal, the defending champion at Flushing Meadows, is on 19, but hasn’t crossed the Atlantic, choosing his beloved clay instead to make his comeback. Federer, on 20, has already shut down his season.

All of this will make it the first of Djokovic’s 61 Slams without at least one of the celebrated duo, and how he holds off the charge of the ‘next gen’ – Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev – will make for fascinatin­g viewing. Cincinnati is a good precursor, where seven of the world’s top-ten are present.

The women’s section, in contrast, wears a dishevelle­d look, with just three of the world’s top-10 set to feature at the WTA Premier competitio­n. But Serena Williams’ quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam will continue to be the headline-grabbing narrative. The American great, who will soon turn 39, has faltered in her last four Major finals, attempting to tie Margaret Court’s number.

However, if she plays herself into form over the next week, she will have a genuine shot at creating history at a venue where she first triumphed 21 years ago.

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