By Kevin Ware
(August 17, 2013) MASON, Ohio – Semifinal Saturday at the Western and Southern Open more than lived up to its’ potential. It was a day that featured a drama, tension, butt wiggles, and two matches ending with double faults. In the end, we were left with four first time finalists for Sunday’s final: Rafael Nadal, John Isner, Serena Williams, and Victoria Azarenka.
It’s surprising that such highly-decorated Grand Slam champions such as Nadal and Williams have never even made it to the finals of this event. For two players who’ve won virtually every title available, one would have expected more. Not so with John Isner, who’s finally put it all together and played the tennis we expected of him when he first became the top American male. For Azarenka, it’s a chance to establish some cred ahead of the US Open.
Let’s break down the men’s and women’s finals to see who has the best chance to take the Cincy titles and winning momentum into New York for the US Open.
 Rafael Nadal vs John Isner
Head-to-Head: Nadal leads 3-0
Nadal has beaten Isner twice on clay (Madrid and Roland Garros), and once on a hard court at Indian Wells. Though he leads their head-to-head 3-0, it hasn’t been easy. In fact, Isner is one of the few guys that make Nadal nervous; and I mean REALLY nervous. It’s all in the serve. That’s the reason that playing Pete Sampras made Andree Agassi nervous. When you play someone with a serve like Isner or Sampras, the outcome of the match is out of your hands if they serve well. No control.
The Indian Wells match, their one encounter on a hard court, was played in 2010. So it’s fair to say that Isner is a very different player this time around. He has improved his fitness, improved his ground game, improved his defense, and is more willing to come into the net to finish off points. He’s still vulnerable to Nadal’s game on clay, but is incredibly dangerous on a hard court, and particularly a hard court in the States with heavy American support.
Nadal has played superior tennis to reach this final, with comprehensive wins over Dimitrov and Berdych, and a dramatic win over long-time rival Roger Federer. Isner has also played superior tennis, notching high-quality wins over Richard Gasquet, Milos Raonic, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, and Del Potro. Nadal would do well to bring his full arsenal to bear in this match so as not to become another victim to the Isner juggernaut.
Isner will need to serve well in order to have any chance at beating Nadal. He served at 66% against Del Potro, 74% against Djokovic, and 62% against Raonic. Over 70% would be ideal, but high 60’s will work as well. Additionally, he’ll need to be as aggressive as he’s been in his last two matches. Particularly against Del Potro, Isner took the initiative and was the more aggressive of the two. He hit more errors, but got a huge payoff in winners. Nadal will need to take this threat seriously and be as aggressive as he can to stay out in front.
In all likelihood, this match is going the distance. The determining factors are Isner’s serve and Nadal’s aggression. All things being even, I’ll give the nod to Nadal for experience (25 shields) in these big Masters Series moments.
Pick: Nadal in 3 sets
 Serena Williams vs  Victoria Azarenka
Head-to-Head: Williams leads 12-2
(Note – With her win over Li Na in the semifinals, Serena Williams took the top prize in the Emirates US Open Series.)
I’d like to say that this is emerging as one of the better rivalries in the women’s game, but that would be a misnomer because in order to have a rivalry there needs to be a certain amount of parity. With Williams holding a 12-2 record over Azarenka, that doesn’t really represent parity. Yes the matches have been close, like last year’s US Open final, and Vika has beaten Serena once already in 2013 in Doha. But you never get the feeling that Azarenka is Williams’ equal in these matches. She might play well on the day, but this will never be a rivalry that turns for her.
Both women have played stretches of uneven tennis to make it to the final. Williams was practically gifted her 7-5, 7-5 semifinal win over Li Na when her opponent played inexplicable tennis to lose both the first and second sets after leading 5-4. It may count as a victory in Williams’ favor, but by no means did she “win” this match. She struggled with her serve and the rhythm on her ground strokes, particularly her backhand. She berated herself and looked like she didn’t want to be there…but won it anyway. It says everything about this match that Li Na double faulted on match point.
Azarenka’s 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 win over Jankovic in her semifinal wasn’t much better. The match featured 23 breaks of serve, and was more entertaining for the video presentation of Azarenka’s butt shaking than the tennis. Azarenka won 47% of her first serve points, 22% of her second serve points, and was broken 10 times. She got the win, but it’s hardly what one would expect from a 2-time Slam champion.
Williams can get away with having an off day and still pulling out the win. But there’s absolutely no way that Azarenka can go into the match with Williams tomorrow and expect to win with the numbers she had tonight. If she serves poorly against Williams in the final, she’ll get punished and the match will be over in an hour, no matter how well she returns the Williams serve.
Against a few other players, I might give them a chance against this less-than-optimal Williams. But in a battle of less-than-optimal Williams and less-than-optimal Azarenka, Williams definitely comes out on top. I’m hoping it’s a close battle, but won’t bet the farm on it.
Pick: Serena in 2 sets