Serena, Federer enter US Open on high note

The man and woman widely regarded as the greatest male and female tennis competitors of all time played back-to-back matches in the singles finals of the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.

Unless, you've actually beaten Roger Federer or Serena Williams at tennis lately, it will be pretty neat to tell your grandchildren you saw the match live. The two titans both won, too, making the story that much better. Federer upset top-ranked Novak Djokovic 7-6 (1), 6-3, while Williams knocked off No. 3 Simona Halep 6-3, 7-6 (5).

But the difference in how they won their tournaments spoke volumes about the nature of another occasion -- Williams' historic pending quest to complete a Grand Slam at the upcoming US Open.

Federer, who was seeded No. 2, capped a remarkable week with his masterful deconstruction of Djokovic. Early in the push to win an unprecedented seventh title in Cincinnati, Federer experimented with audacious, attacking tactics. Against Kevin Anderson in the third round, Federer even moved in to take some second serves (Anderson is no serving slouch) on the rise near the service line, pressuring Anderson to come up with a pinpoint pass or lob as Federer's momentum carried him to the net.

According to Federer, the tactic began as a playful respite from the drudgery of conventional practice. It worked surprisingly well -- so much so that Federer just kept doing it. When ESPN's commentators, no less amazed than anyone else, asked if he planned to continue attacking so fiercely when he met top players such as Murray, the 17-time Grand Slam singles champion laughed and shot back, "Why not? It's very important that I'm playing tennis that I can enjoy. I'm coming to the net, serving and volleying, doing something I didn't do as much earlier in my career."

At 34 years of age, Federer is having a ball, enjoying his status and trying new wrinkles, some of which might produce wrinkled brows among his opponents. Federer was also hyper-aggressive against Djokovic. The key shot of their match probably was a blazing second-serve return Federer smacked back from the service line to take a 4-1 lead. After he won, he sounded almost wistful as he said goodbye to the fast courts of Cincy and told ESPN, "Next week [at the US Open] the balls and surface will be different. A lot of how you can play depends on that."

Surface doesn't often make much difference to Williams. In fact, nothing much in terms of the general ambience or environment at a tournament usually prevents her from crushing all comers. But these past two weeks have been different -- very different. And it's all because Williams is on a mission to complete a Grand Slam. That's terra incognita for Williams (and every other active player), and it brings unique pressure as surely as lightning brings thunder. As a result, she has been playing as if she's got a 60-pound sack of grain on her shoulders and a no less heavy load weighing on her mind.

This became increasingly clear as the past two weeks dragged on and the pressure mounted. It may seem counterintuitive, but playing the past two major WTA events (Toronto and Cincinnati) probably entailed more stress than will the US Open, in roughly the same way that the fear of something is often worse than the thing itself. And like anyone else facing a monumental task, Williams knows the poignant meaning of that Tom Petty song, "The Waiting is the Hardest Part."

Williams form over the past two weeks was sometimes shockingly bad, which is a bizarre fact when you take into account that she lost in the semis in Toronto and won in Cincy. It just goes to show how high our expectations of her have risen. Ironically, while she had plenty of reason to feel impatient these two weeks, she started most of her matches sluggishly -- a sure sign that she was bound in the shrink wrap of pressure.

Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams' coach, and the person most responsible for her amazing late-career resurgence, tried to add some perspective during the world No. 1's struggle against Ana Ivanovic in the third round.

Serena "shouldn't be so stressed out about [the records she's playing for in New York, including matching Steffi Graf's 22 Grand Slam titles]," he told ESPN's Brad Gilbert. "She's going to get that record; it's just a question of time. If we put too much pressure on we're just going to fail."

Mouratoglou probably was being a bit coy by not mentioning the season Slam, but it's understandable. He was trying to protect a player who in recent days has shown a very un-Williams-like lack of self-assurance.

Asked after her semifinal win if she would watch the ensuing semifinal, Williams said, "I'm not going to watch. I'll get in my head too much, and I'm already in there too much."

Credit Williams with honesty -- and also with overcoming her anxieties to finish these two weeks on a great high note. Her win against Halep, who will be ranked No. 2 on Monday, was a flash of Williams at her most dominant. She had 15 aces, put 60 percent of her first serves into play and won 83 percent of those points. She saved nine of 11 break points and tagged 44 winners -- 29 more than her opponent.

"I was especially happy because I haven't been feeling confident this week," Williams admitted in the on-court interview immediately after the match. "It's good to know I can still win these matches."

Federer and Williams are both resting this week, preparing for the US Open. Federer is eager to get another crack at Djokovic & Co., while Williams -- well, she's in a different frame of mind. She said, "I'm ready to play and get it over with."

The waiting is the hardest part. And now, for her the hardest part may be over.