September 10, 2009

Down the Homestretch

There are only a few more days before we crown the king and queen in the year's last major, and so far it's certainly lived up to the hype.

But unlike the women's draw, which boasts two former trophy-holders, two unseeded players, and two teenagers in the semifinals, the men's side looks a little more as you might expect. So far, two top seeds have already booked their spots in the final four -- Novak Djokovic rallied after a hugely disparate second set to defeat a wily Fernando Verdasco yesterday afternoon and five-time defending chamption Roger Federer pulled out his twelfth straight win over Roland Garros runner-up, Robin Soderling.

Today the last two spots will be decided.

In the first men's singles match being played this afternoon #6 in the world Juan Martin Del Potro will take on an unlikely giant-killer, Marin Cilic. DelPo's advance to his second-straight quarterfinal is not really surprising -- he repeated his win in D.C. earlier this month and made another final in Montreal, both times taking out Andy Roddick in the process. While he bowed out of Cincinnati due to exhaustion, he's facing much cooler and more restful conditions in New York. The tall, lanky Argentine has looked in top form, losing only a set to Daniel Koellerer while winning eighty-three percent on his first serve and firing off sixty-two aces in his first four matches.

Juan Martin has to be happy with the man who will be standing on the other side of the court today. Sixteenth seed Cilic hasn't had the most impressive summer -- at least not until Tuesday. After a third round exit at Wimbledon, he lost early in three straight U.S. Open Series tournaments and then didn't defend his title in New Haven. But on Tuesday, facing second seed and 2008 runner-up Andy Murray, the Croat was relentless. Aggressive from the start, he bombed twice as many aces and sprayed more than a few errors. In the end he'd converted on five break points and turned a couple ardent Murray supporters into skeptics. He also prevented a rematch of the Canada final, where Murray smoked a deflated DelPo in the deciding set, and last year's quarters, in which I found myself one of the few in the crowd rooting for the Scot to lose.

The two put together one of the tallest match-ups in my memory -- at six-foot-six both have the ability to ace out their opponents. But with some big wins under his belt, and a little more consistency, you have to give DelPo the edge, and I see him making his first Slam semi in Flushing Meadows.

In the night match third-seeded Rafael Nadal will meet Chile's Fernando Gonzalez. By reaching the quarters, Nadal will regain his #2 ranking next week, regardless of the outcome of this match, but I'm sure he's more than motivated to reach the semis. Though he's battled a knee injury and strained stomach muscle all summer, in his late-night match against Gael Monfils on Tuesday, he showed signs of the old, energetic Rafa who's already captured six Majors in his short career. There were hard-hitting rallies, fist pumps, even a kiss from fan who rushed the court after the match.

He's got a tough opponent in Gonzo, though, another clay-court specialist and a semifinalist this year both at Roland Garros and in D.C., where he lost to DelPo. The former #5 player in the world and one-time finalist in Australia, Fernando definitely can hit in the big leagues -- he dismissed seventh-seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four sets despite only breaking serve two times. And though I don't think I can forgive him for mistreating my dear James Blake at the Olympics last year, I have to admit he might pose the biggest threat Nadal has faced in the Open to date.

Then again, Rafa has won the pair's last five meetings, four of them on hardcourts, and as long as he stays healthy the Spaniard should make his second semi in New York -- I'm going with Nadal in four tight sets.

If my predictions hold true, we could be in for some high-quality tennis this weekend! And while it might not be as drama-filled as the ladies' draw has been, with the men's trophy in their sights, you know these guys are going to lay it all on the line.

Can't wait to see it!

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