August 30, 2009

U.S. Open Preview

Well it's finally here -- the last Grand Slam of 2009 begins tomorrow, and the hardcourt action leading up to the U.S. Open has set the stage for what's sure to be an amazing tournament.

I may be a little biased -- as a (sort-of) native New Yorker, this is my home court, so of course I prefer this to other Majors. But whether it's the rowdy crowds, the bright lights of night matches, or the colorful characters both on and off the court, there's an energy in Flushing Meadows that's just not there in Wimbledon or even the French.

And this year's tournament promises not to disappoint. At the Taste of Tennis event in Manhattan Thursday night, emcee Hannah Storm of ESPN said:
"I think the men's side is going to be amazing. It's real deep, it's real competitive. Roger Federer, of course, going for his sixth U.S. Open title. On the women's side you have equally great tennis and players with tremendous histories here in New York."

It's a story of comebacks this summer -- Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters are all playing their first professional tennis in weeks, months, even years. But it's not only them -- Jelena Jankovic, Lleyton Hewitt and Juan Carlos Ferrero are all making a run back into the big leagues.

As always, it's going to be an exciting couple of weeks!

Men's Draw

Defending champion Federer is clearly the favorite in New York, as he aims to win his sixth straight title in New York and his sixteenth Major trophy. It would be the third year in which he's reached at least the final of every Grand Slam and the third time he's won three consecutive titles. And, as so many like to point out, it would be the first Major he's won as a father! Talk about a big year.

Roger's first round opponent will be the U.S.'s teen phenom, Devin Britton, a semifinalist in the boys' tournament at Wimbledon this year. Though that should be an easy match, Federer has a potential third round date with Hewitt and a possible quarterfinal match-up with Roland Garros runner-up Robin Soderling, a man who has said no one ever beats him ten eleven twelve times in a row. That should make the multiple record-holder shake in his boots.

Tournament officials might have done a little maneuvering to allay one of fans' biggest fears when they announced draws on Thursday. In the weeks leading up to the Open, so many had been focused on the fact that, for the first time in years, Federer and recent #1 Rafael Nadal could meet before the finals of a Major. When Rafa failed to recapture his #2 ranking in Cincinnati a week ago, he was relegated to his lowest seeding in a Major since 2005's Wimbledon. Despite his third spot the powers that be nevertheless decided to keep the possibility of the big match-up alive, placing the two in separate halves of the bracket.

Nadal's got a tough first round against Richard Gasquet, just back on Tour after a two-month suspension for illeged cocaine use. That obstacle aside, Rafa should have a pretty easy time into the semis, with one exception -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. A few weeks ago I wouldn't have given the Frenchman much of a chance, but after that stunning comeback from being down 1-5 in the third set to defeat Federer, I can no longer discount him.

Oddly enough, if Nadal does win the title, he'll achieve a career Grand Slam, only the seventh man to do so, a short four months after Roger accomplished the same feat at Roland Garros. I'd speculated before that Nadal could have gained the honor before Federer, and still contend that he would have had he not gotten injured. And while I think he still will get there -- and soon -- he may have to wait a little longer. Of the admittedly few people who voted on my online poll, half believe Rafa will eventually win the Open, just not this year.

Instead, a ton of hype continues to swirl around Andy Murray, Nadal's potential semifinal opponent. My prejudices aside, I'm still not sure he has it in him. He blamed a grueling week in Montreal for his "early" loss in the Cincinnati semifinals (incidentally, the same excuse that led Juan Martin Del Potro to withdraw from the second Masters event).

While Murray had a week off to rest and train, he's got a couple of threats in his section of the draw. His opening round against Ernests Gulbis should be routine, but the Latvian has had some successes this year, beating Novak Djokovic and Sam Querrey. Big-serving Ivo Karlovic looms as a potential third-round opponent and, if he remains healthy, DelPo could be in search of revenge to keep Murray out of the semis. But, to be honest, I have to admit the Scot will likely get there.

For his spot in the final four, fourth seeded Novak Djokovic may have to face Wimbledon runner-up Andy Roddick, who has beaten him all three times they've met this year. I've never been particularly impressed by the Serb -- even though he's the only man other than Roger or Rafa to win a Major since Australia in 2005 -- but he really impressed me in Cincinnati last week, really working a struggling Nadal and holding his ground after being demolished by Federer in their first set.

Roddick for his part won his only title of the year in Memphis, but he did make two finals in a row this summer and he's the last one to win in New York since Roger began his reign. He's looked consistently strong all year and has had more than a week off to rest. Andy should also take comfort in the fact that Del Potro, his nemesis all summer, is in the other half of the draw. Roddick could face rising star John Isner in the third round, though, a man who gave him quite a run in D.C. and seems to be getting more and more confident on the big stage.

Speaking of up-and-coming Americans, let's not forget Querrey, who secured his spot at the top of the U.S. Open Series leaderboard when he beat Bjorn Phau in the third round at New Haven. He's got an extra million dollars riding on his performance in New York, and I can think of no better motivation to power through some tough draws. Sam could force a repeat of Thursday's quarterfinal with Nikolay Davydenko in the round of sixteen, a match he won in an exciting three sets.

Women's Draw

Defending U.S. Open champion Serena Williams is the second seed this week, behind Dinara Safina who's played in eight finals already this year. Of course Serena is always a contender at a Slam as she always brings her A-game to the big stage. Then again she was less than stellar in the lead-up to New York, notching losses to Sam Stosur and Sybille Bammer, either of whom she could meet before the quarters, and looking utterly defeated in her semifinal loss to Elena Dementieva in Toronto, someone she can only see in the final.

In order to get there though, she'd have to get through yet another challenge from her older sister. The draw masters were less kind to Serena and Venus than they were to Roger and Rafa -- if the brackets procede as intended, they would meet in the semis. Venus, of course the champ here in 2000 and 2001, has been struggling too during the summer. She lost in the L.A. finals to Marion Bartoli, who she might face in the fourth round, and didn't get in more than two match wins after that.

As for the #1 seed, I fear Safina will have a tough time in New York -- and you seem to agree. In the poll I conducted over the past week, only one person said she would win the Open this year. While she definitely has the ability to win a Major eventually, she seems to have a mental block when it comes to the big tournaments. Runner up in two French Opens and another Australian, she also choked in Cincinnati and Toronto, two premier events. She's got a quaterfinal date with last year's runner-up Jelena Jankovic, who crushed her a few weeks back in Ohio, and is in the same half as Svetlana Kuznetsova, her vanquisher in Paris. Dinara's going to need a little more than luck to make her third Major final this year.

The players that round out the top five should also not be forgotten. Jankovic herself proved in Cincinnati that she's still got the fight that earned her a #1 ranking last year -- she was magnificent in that defeat of Dinara Safina in the earlier this month. And Toronto champ Dementieva has had an incredible year -- like Querrey, she heads up the U.S. Open Series standings and will earn a nice little bonus if she advances well into this draw. Even Pam Shriver, who rarely concedes anything, suggested she was one of the favorites in New York.

Runner-up in Toronto, Maria Sharapova, who won the Open in 2006, made her first final of the year a week ago after playing five straight days of high-intensity matches. While she looked wholly exhausted last Sunday, she's got to love the fact that, weather permitting, she should have a day to rest between her appearances in New York. And her performance up north helped her reach a #30 ranking, which blessed her with a much-coveted twenty-ninth seed for the fortnight. Her biggest challenge will be the potential rematch with Dementieva in the third round, but if she gets through it, no one will argue that she's not still a force in the game.

And of course Kim Clijsters makes her return to the stage on which she won her only Grand Slam four years ago. She's done decently well in the two tournaments since coming out of retirement, even defeating a couple top players, but as a wildcard, she wasn't given a seed in this tournament. Though early opponents like Bartoli and Spain's Anabel Medina Garrigues shouldn't present a big problem, she could see a bigger challenge in Venus or Victoria Azarenka, who gave her a quite a fight in Canada.

Things to Watch

Outside of the headliners there are of course a few other players who could pose a big threat in their draws.

Thanks to quarterfinal appearances in Wimbledon and Cincinnati, Lleyton Hewitt is at his highest ranking in over a year -- he even brought home his first trophy since 2007 with a big win in Houston. And another former #1, 2002 U.S. Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero is also back after a six-year title drought. He's had a busy summer, defeating Tommy Robredo in Washington and Gael Monfils in Montreal.

On the women's side, Sam Stosur and Flavia Pennetta are mounting their own runs of success in 2009. Stosur backed up a semifinal appearance in Paris with her defeat of Serena in Stanford and a final in Los Angeles, where she lost to Pennetta. For her part, the first Italian woman ranked in the top ten put together a string of fifteen wins on her way to two titles this summer. She also made the semis in New Haven, but fell short of topping the Open Series leaderboard when she lost to defending Pilot Pen champ Caroline Wozniacki. Both Flavia and the Danish teenager could pose a threat in New York.

And then there are the wildcards -- both actual and figurative -- a couple of young Americans playing their first couple of matches in the big leagues of a Slam. At the Taste of Tennis, veteran Chanda Rubin told me she's been scouting out some of the up-and-coming stars:

"Look at Melanie (Oudin) -- last year she was playing in the main draw, had gotten a wild card, but she was also still in Juniors. But then you talk about this year and some of the big wins she's had, in Fed Cup really helping to pull the team through...It's been great."

Seventeen-year-old Oudin shocked the world when she got to the second week at Wimbledon with a win over Jankovic, while University of Florida alum Jesse Levine scored his own upset of Marat Safin in the first round in London. And John Isner, Newport champ Rajeev Ram and Alexa Glatch have all had some of their best results this year.

As always there are plenty of opportunities for upsets and breakthrough performances across the draws. I'm sure the tournament will capture all the excitement of the city it calls home and, in the end, two very deserving competitors will hold the trophies high. But I can't wait to see the battles on the way!

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