Next week starts the US Open in New York (hurricane permitting, that is). The final tennis Grand Slam event of the year is always the most fun for us Yanks, especially the night matches at Arthur Ashe Stadium. For those that don’t pay close attention to tennis throughout the year but still enjoy the Open, here’s a primer on what to expect.
Novak Djokovic’s 2011 might be the most underrated sports story of the year. He has been as dominant as anyone in men’s tennis has been since the Rod Laver era. Yes, so far he’s up there with Federer’s peak. Djokovic is a ridiculous 57-2 on the year, with wins at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, along with five Masters Series titles. Case closed, Novak’s the favorite, right? Well…
That second loss provides a bit of wrinkle, because it happened last Sunday in the finals of the Cincinnati Masters. Playing Andy Murray, Djokovic was out of sorts the whole match, and trailing 4-6, 0-3 retired with a shoulder injury. While the indications are the injury was more fatigue related, it still adds a question that Djokovic couldn’t have wanted this close to the Open. It’ll be something to watch the first week, but on the whole, Djokovic is still the favorite.
After Djokovic of course is the former #1 and current #2, Rafael Nadal. Last year, Nadal added a top-notch serve to his repertoire and cruised to the title. Another French Open title gave Nadal his 10th Slam. However, Rafa’s has been injured (with burned fingers) and inconsistent during his hard court tune-ups. In Canada he lost in the first round to some guy named Ivan Dodig, while in Cincinnati he only reached the quarterfinals. For a guy like Nadal, that’s probably not a big deal unless he’s not healthy though. The bigger problem for his is his 0-5 record against Djokovic this year.
The men’s tennis totem pole is as concrete as anything right now: Djokovic is #1, Nadal is #2, and Roger Federer is #3. Roger amazingly hasn’t won since January, and has only two other finals appearances (one of which being the French Open). His hard court season has been inconsistent as well. The decline of Roger Federer has clearly started. There is no denying that. He does have one ace in the hole in that Federer is going into this tournament with no injury issues, unlike his two main rivals. Could that be the advantage Fed needs to win Slam #17? You might not bet on in, but I doubt anyone would discount the possibility.
Realistically, only two other men could possibly win this tournament. One is Andy Murray, who thanks to Djokovic’s issues won in Cincinnati. At this point though, Murray still hasn’t shown he has the attacking weapons to win a Slam, and at age 24, what was a question of when he’ll win a Slam has turned into if. The other contender potentially is the 2009 champion Juan Martin Del Potro. Unfortunately for JMDP, he suffered a severe wrist injury right after winning that US Open, an injury he’s still trying to come back from. Realistically, 2012 might be his year, but for this year he’s seeded 18th and will have to be accounted for.
There are two Americans to watch for their overall progress, and neither are Andy Roddick, who is seeded 21st and looks all out of sorts. The first is 8th seeded Mardy Fish, who in the last few years has rededicated himself and thus rescued what was a pretty mediocre career. He won one event, made two other finals and one semifinal this summer. Winning is unlikely given the top 4, but a quarterfinal or even semifinal berth would be great for Fish.
The other male American to watch is 19 year old Ryan Harrison. A fine first full season on the ATP Tour has put Harrison at #67 in the world, which is pretty good for a teenager these days (pro tennis has become very teenage-unfriendly). None of his losses during the US hard court season were bad by any stretch, and he was even competitive in his last match against Djokovic. His backhand needs work and he’s got a temper, and yes, the draw will matter in regards to his progress (he drew the seeded but beatable Marin Cilic in round one), but if you think the future of American tennis is barren, watch Harrison and you’ll realize that’s not completely true.
With the women's tournament, it's a simple equation. If Serena Williams is healthy and fully engaged, she wins. If she's not, then no one has a clue who will win. Serena sure looked the part early in the hard court season, winning in Stanford and Toronto in dominating fashion. However, she withdrew after one match in Cincinnati with a swollen big toe, then remarked that now she could make the Kardashian wedding. In other words, it was a typical Serena summer. Since in theory a swollen big toe should not be hard to come back from, it can be predicted that Serena will be ready for New York. Look out field.
If Serena isn't ready though, the field is wide open as wide can be. Two-time defending champion Kim Clijsters has withdrawn. Venus Williams hasn't played since Wimbledon. 2011 Slam winners Li Na and Petra Kvitova can't be overlooked, but both have been quiet this summer.
Slam-less players like Victoria Azarenka, Vera Zvonareva, Sam Stosur, and Andrea Petkovic could have their breakout slam like Na and Kvitova, but they could just as easily flame out early. Oh, and what about #1 seed Caroline Wozniacki? Well, after all these Slams as a top seed, she doesn't look any closer to actually winning one.
This leaves us with one player who is likely in the best shape to pick up the pieces of the fractured women's draw, Maria Sharapova. She's coming off a win in Cincinnati, and she's been knocking on the door in the big tournaments, most notably this year's Wimbledon final. Unlike the other women in the field, Sharapova is one where mental strength is not a problem. The big curveball though, is of course her serve. It's still bad, and when it gets really bad, Maria is a double fault machine who usually ends up on the losing side. If the serve reasonably holds up though, Sharapova is easily second favorite, the best of a mediocre bunch.
In the end though, I have to pick chalk: Djokovic and Serena. Djokovic is having a year for the ages, and I'm guessing Serena is ready to go, and when she is, there is no one else comparable, especially with Clijsters out. Neither of those is easy to bet against.