A pair of historic achievements loom on the horizon after today’s play at the 2018 Western and Southern Open. Simona Halep aims to become the first woman since Evonne Goolagong in 1973 to win the Canadian Open and Cincinnati in the same summer. Meanwhile, Novak Djokovic gets another crack at completing his career haul at Masters 1000 events; he has been unsuccessful in five prior Cincinnati finals, and needs to win tomorrow to own all nine Masters crowns.
Semifinals day in Cincinnati began with Kiki Bertens taking out Petra Kvitova in three sets in sweltering humidity. Kvitova managed to grab the first set, but appeared to struggle with fatigue as the match wore on. Bertens’ serving was key: she finished the match with 10 aces, winning 77% of her first serve points. Afterward, in press, Bertens credited her improved tactics for her success on hardcourt, in particular imposing herself in the first two to three shots of every point. While she excels in the heavier, slower conditions on clay, her more aggressive play has earned her key wins on grass (Pliskova, Venus) and hardcourt (Pliskova, Kvitova, Wozniacki, Svitolina) this season.
When asked if she was surprised by any of these non-clay results, Bertens said: “Raemon [Sluiter] when we flew to the States, was like, ‘Yeah, maybe you can just play a final in one of these weeks.’ I was, like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ But I was not really believing it.” She added that although she’s playing well, she doesn’t believe that she’s playing her best tennis. If this isn’t her best tennis, it certainly is her best season: she moves into her first hardcourt final with huge momentum and a stunning nine victories over top 10 opponents this year.
Her opponent in the final will be world number one, Simona Halep. Last week’s winner in Montreal aims to grab back-to-back Premier 5 titles. Halep has made the final in Cincinnati three out of the past four seasons, and with the win today, joins two-time champion Serena Williams as the only women in the Open Era to make the final three times. After a tough, rain-delayed, three-set opener against Ajla Tomljanovic, Halep has since dispatched Ash Barty, Lesia Tsurenko, and now Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets.
“I felt like I could go on forever . . . So the thought was not to finish fast. My thought was just to keep the rallies longer.”
Halep’s performance in the semifinal was comprehensive. Facing an ascendant opponent, Halep displayed demoralizing defense, as usual, but it was her aggression that made the difference. She wasn’t content to simply retrieve; winners flew off her racquet, her forehand down-the-line being particularly potent. Many questioned whether Simona would perform well here -- or play at all -- due to her grueling final in Montreal. When asked if conserving energy was a consideration, she said: “No, I felt like I could go forever. I knew that physically ... the shape of my body is different and I can run a lot, so I can be a little bit stronger than her on that part, even if she's more powerful.”
For her part, Sabalenka fired first serves in excess of 110 mph, and displayed a level of power from the baseline that tested the very best of Halep’s defensive skills. Sabalenka’s power game was far less accurate than it was the previous night against Keys. She had trouble holding her serve in the first set, losing it 6-3. The second set was far more competitive, and despite Halep’s immaculate form there remained a sense that Sabalenka’s offense could have changed the direction of the match. (Two points from defeat, she grazed the sideline with an unreachable forehand winner; on match point, she hit a 116 mph ace out wide.) The Belarusian will have more chances to dazzle crowds with her fearless power game. For the moment, the world number one looked every bit the best player in the world.
On the men’s side, Cincinnati fans will be treated to the 46th meeting between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Behind Nadal-Djokovic, “Fedole” is the second-most prolific men’s rivalry in the Open Era. Federer makes his eighth career final in Cincinnati (7-0), while Djokovic will contest his sixth (0-5). At stake for Djokovic on Sunday is a redemptive title for all his past missed chances, as well as the final piece in his Masters trophy collection; he has won each of the current Masters tournaments save for this one contested in Mason, Ohio. In his most recent final, Djokovic was thwarted by the debut of SABR (sneak attack by Roger). He’ll likely be keen not to repeat that.
Djokovic enters the final with significantly more tread on the tires than Federer; his last four matches, including today’s, went the distance. Djokovic has played a total of 14 sets compared to just a touch over eight for Federer.
Today, Djokovic wrestled with some demons (and live music in the courtyard). At one point, he actually walked over to the tournament director courtside to complain about the noise. His minor tantrums seemed to release some pressure and allow him to focus. His game was imperfect, again, but he was brilliant when necessary. Like Halep, Djokovic’s defense has frustrated his opponents throughout the week, as he throws back one, two, three defensive lobs or slices until he eventually draws a nervous error or wrests control of the rally. Cilic’s mental fortitude slipped a bit in the third set, enough for Djokovic to break. At 5-3, the Serb served out the match with ease.
During the final semifinal of the day, David Goffin retired down a set and 1-1 in the second against Federer. A key stat for tomorrow will be Federer’s dominant serving numbers this week. He has not been broken all week, hitting 38 aces and facing a mere five break points. Djokovic’s strengths this week are a bit more intangible: he is not exactly lighting up the return statistics, placing 8th in return games won, and out of the top ten in break points converted. Tomorrow he’ll have to summon his great return game -- and his often unparalleled mental strength -- as he often does against Federer. A full shelf of Masters and Grand Slam titles would be a historic achievement.
2018 Western & Southern Open finals:
 Halep vs Bertens
 Federer vs  Djokovic