August 29, 2010

Semifinal Predictions: U.S. Open

Maybe I'm a little biased, as the U.S. Open is my home tournament, but I just don't think you can beat the ambience and the excitement of Flushing Meadows in the late summer. And with both the men's and women's draws wide open this year, there's potential for even more fireworks than usual.

Of course the big news is that both Serena Williams and Juan Martin Del Potro have pulled out of the race. That might not mean too much on the men's side, but it sure changes things for the ladies. And with the five men atop the U.S. Open Series standings notching big wins over at least one of the others, well, upsets could come at any time.

And all the action gets started tomorrow.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Rafael Nadal claims the top seed at the tournament, even though he hasn't won a hardcourt title since Indian Wells last year, but some solid matches in both Toronto and Cincinnati show that you can't write him off as just a clay court player. He's made the semis here two years in a row, too, and with a career Grand Slam on the line, you know Rafa wants to prove himself in New York.

That said, the U.S. Open plays a lot faster than the courts of Australia, where he won the trophy in 2009, and so he might be ever-so-slightly less intimidating than he would be elsewhere. Add to that the fact that he's got a pretty rough section of the draw. First round opponent Teymuraz Gabashvili stunned Andy Roddick in Paris with a straight-set win over the top American, and he has a potential third round date with Philipp Kohlschreiber, who took a set from him in Toronto. A little further down the road looms Feliciano Lopez, the man who ousted him at Queen's Club, and unseeded players like New Haven finalists Sergiy Stakhovsky and Denis Istomin might rankle a few feathers.

Nadal's biggest threat, however, may come a few rounds later. Argentine David Nalbandian has put together a stellar hardcourt season, and notched a couple of upsets even after winning the title in DC. If they meet in the quarters, it will be a pretty solid match-up -- now much fitter than he was when he gave Rafa a scare in Miami, he should be able to keep up better these days.

Predicted Semifinalist: Oh, I hate myself for saying so, but I've been a big fan of Nalbandian during his comeback, and I think he might just use these grounds to prove he's here to stay.

Second Quarter

Despite a #2 seed, Roger Federer is still the odds-on favorite to win the title in New York for a sixth time, and man he must be hungry for it. After dropping in the quarters of his last two Majors, the King of Flushing Meadows ended a nearly seven-month title drought last week in Cincinnati, reminding us all that he still is the man to beat at the Slams.

His draw is actually pretty interesting. In the third round he should meet Lleyton Hewitt, a man who has a pretty decent record against him -- but though the Aussie won the pair's last meeting in Halle, he's never defeated Federer at a Major. Jurgen Melzer could also be a potential hiccup, but Roger easily handled him in their only meeting at Wimbledon.

The top half of the section is a little tighter. Robin Soderling could force a rematch of the 2009 quarterfinal and, though he's lost relatively early at recent Masters events, he's clearly playing even better tennis than he was last year. And Marin Cilic staged a coup the last time he was in New York, taking out Andy Murray in the fourth round. He's been fizzling recently, but if he gets re-energized, he could make another run. Fernando Gonzalez, too, has been spotty as he recovers from injury, but if he's in form the one-time Melbourne finalist might cause some damage.

All that being said, Federer hasn't played in a Slam semi since Australia, but he's made the finals here six years in row. I have a feeling that's one streak he won't easily allow to end.

Predicted Semifinalist: Roger, clearly.

Third Quarter

Novak Djokovic is one of those players who has the ability to advance deep into a draw without anyone taking notice -- I almost forgot he made the semis at Wimbledon and thought he'd lost much earlier than he did in Toronto. But he's also had fairly easy brackets all year, and has only played three top ten players in 2010 -- he hasn't beaten any of them.

For his efforts, the 2007 runner-up was handed a scary-looking bracket. Andy Roddick, who who his only Major here in 2003, beat him easily just a week ago in Cincinnati. Though he might not be a hundred percent, he's played a few long, hot matches and should be able to survive the early rounds. And Atlanta champion Mardy Fish, who Roddick himself deemed a real threat to the favorites, could be waiting in the fourth round, as could Washington runner-up Marcos Baghdatis. The way Nole's been playing recently, he's vulnerable to any one of those guys.

A little more upsetting are the prospects for the sixth seeded Nikolay Davydenko. At the start of the year, I'd had such high hopes for him, even choosing the Russian as a favorite at the Australian Open. But a wrist injury that's been naggingly persistent forced him out of Roland Garros, and he has only put together back-to-back wins at one tournament since February. He might get in a couple rounds in New York, but with such a strong bracket, I just don't see him going too much further.

Predicted Semifinalist: I would love to see a rematch between Andy and Mardy for this semifinal spot -- and I really do think it could happen. But Roddick has been here before and should know what it takes to make the final four.

Fourth Quarter

If anyone has a chance to win his first Major this year, I sadly have to admit it might be Andy Murray. The 2008 finalist in New York beat five -- okay, four and a half -- solid players on his way to the Toronto title, taking out both Roger and Rafa in straight sets. He was a little tired in Cincinnati, evidenced by three three-setters, but still found a way to keep himself in the game by getting to almost every ball that comes over the net. Honestly, the way he moves on court I’m sometimes surprised anyone can beat him -- and if you know how I feel about Murray, you know how hard that is for me to say!

It won't be a complete walk in Central Park, though. In what’s possibly the tallest quarter of the draw, tough-as-nails Tomas Berdych could meet Murray in the quarters, one round later than where the Czech ousted him at the French. And potential fourth-round opponent Sam Querrey was able to rally to take the Los Angeles title from him last month. The recent wins could give either opponent confidence to do it again.

Six-foot-nine John Isner is in this quarter too, happily not facing Nicolas Mahut -- who, ugh, failed to qualify for this tournament -- in his opener. This was, after all, the Grand Slam where he made his first real impact, taking a set from Federer in the third round of his 2007 debut and winning a long five-setter against Roddick last year. Playing better tennis than he was even when he lost to Murray in Australia, the potential rematch between these two could be a lot of fun to watch.

Predicted Semifinalist: Despite the challenges he'll surely face, Andy Murray wants to make a statement at this Slam, and he's never had a better chance to do it. I think he'll be the one to emerge, even if a little battered and bruised along the way.

The Women

First Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki has been pretty busy making the case that she deserves the top seed at the Open. The twenty year old, who finished runner-up last year, silenced some critics by winning her first Premier event in Montreal just this past Monday and followed it up by three-peating in New Haven. Rumor has it that a title in New York would boost her to #1 in the rankings as well. But that's still a long way off -- Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova, both former U.S. Open champions, are both in her bracket, as are super-feisty Maria Kirilenko and one of the spring's biggest stars, Aravane Rezai.

There are a couple reasons why she might not have to worry about those threats, though. Sharapova has a potentially frightening opening round against Australia's Jarmila Groth, the surprising fourth-rounder at Roland Garros who also gave Venus Williams a scare at Wimbledon. Kuznetsova, too, faces super-veteran Kimiko Date Krumm, the oldest woman in quite a while to hold a top-fifty ranking. And dangerous floaters like Prague finalist Barbora Zahlavova Strycova or resurgent Anna Chakvetadze are both lurking in the wings.

But you have to believe that, as long as injuries or exhaustion don't play a part, most of the seeds should advance as expected, and that could lead to some amazing weekend matches.

Predicted Semifinalist: I would love to see Wozniacki make another run for the title, but after two long weeks of play -- and another title in Copenhagen to start the month -- she's got to be tired. Assuming Sharapova is fully recovered from that Cincinnati injury, I'll give her the first semi spot.

Second Quarter

Kind of paradoxically, the woman who beat Wozniacki last year is actually seeded just below her this time. Kim Clijsters' title run in Cincinnati earlier in the month helped her climb to her best ranking since 2006 and earned her the highest seeding she's had at a Major since that year's Wimbledon. She has added motivation to repeat in New York -- when a wrist injury kept her out of the U.S. Open draw four years ago, she was unable to defend the title she'd won there in 2005.

As should be expected, though, it won't be an easy run. Sam Stosur, who's been a little quiet over the last few months, could certainly make good on her fifth seed. And Elena Dementieva, ranked out of the top ten for the first time in years, made a glorious run in New Haven, just falling short of the finals and playing some top-notch tennis on the way. Marion Bartoli and unseeded Timea Bacsinszky could cause some problems for the very top seeds.

This bracket also includes one of the more interesting openers in the tournament. Former world #1 Dinara Safina will face Daniela Hantuchova, a rematch of the second round at the Pilot Pen. It took two tiebreaks for Safina to oust the on-paper favorite, so if the Slovak is out for revenge, she should know she is more than capable.

Predicted Semifinalist: Challenges aside, Kim is playing the best ball in this section and should be able to make in through.

Third Quarter

Two-time U.S. Open winner Venus Williams might still be in the draw, but a knee injury that forced her to withdraw from Montreal and Cincinnati could pose problems for her prospects in New York. Her opener against Roberta Vinci headlines Opening Night, but more entertaining would be the possible third round versus Tsvetana Pironkova, the woman who shocked her out of Wimbledon. Now the thirty-second seed in New York, the Bulgarian hasn't won a lot of matches in the hardcourt season, though, so if Venus's knee holds up, Pironkova might not have success a third time in a row.

But there are plenty of other formidable opponents in this section. Roland Garros champion Francesca Schiavone is certainly intimidating, but probably more so on other surfaces -- she's only once made the quarters here in her ten appearances. And the only seeded teenager at the Open, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, has been solid on the surface all year -- she beat Venus twice in 2009 and, if her hip injury doesn't continue to bug her, she could do it again.

The biggest worry for Venus, though, will probably come from Stanford champ Victoria Azarenka, who has been playing solid all summer, winning the doubles title in Cincinnati and making the semis in Montreal. She's the kind of big-hitter that doesn't get easily intimidated, and as long as she keeps her temper in check -- something she did amazingly well against Marion Bartoli and Sam Stosur at the Bank of the West -- she could make a deep run this year.

Predicted Semifinalist: I'm rooting for Vika, and the way she's been playing, I like her chances.

Fourth Quarter

At every Major, there's always a section in which anything can happen. At Flushing Meadows, this one is it. World #5 Jelena Jankovic admittedly surprised me when she powered into the Roland Garros semis this year with very little hoopla, but somehow I don't think she'll perform the same feat this time around. Failure to defend in Cincinnati probably cost her the second seed in New York, and she's retired from a few matches and lost a couple more blaming nagging injuries. Her first round match against former Junior champion Simona Halep could present some problems, but the bigger challenges will be further down the line.

Vera Zvonareva, back in the top ten, is fresh off a runner-up finish in Montreal, showing that her performance at Wimbledon was not a fluke. Her biggest threat in the early rounds might come a few days in when she could meet Alexandra Dulgheru, a tough young player, though one who is probably stronger on clay. And Aggie Radwanska, clearly not the heaviest hitter on Tour, has spent the summer displaying the smarts and stamina that's kept her in and around the elite for the last two years. I would love to see either storm through their week-one matches.

There are a couple of interesting early round match-ups in this bracket too. Last year's semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer is the fifteenth seed in New York, but she's been struggling of late, losing early in San Diego and Montreal and being upset by even younger Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Cincinnati. With a possible second round date with Bad Gastein champion Julia Goerges, the Belgian might have trouble repeating her run from last year. And New Haven finalist Nadia Petrova is pitted against Andrea Petkovic, just out of seeding range, in her opener. The German has made a couple of deep runs in tournaments this year, and might be able to take advantage of any erratic play on Petrova's side of the net. Kaia Kanepi plays Alize Cornet to start her campaign -- both are players that have had different degrees of success climbing back up the rankings, and you have to like Kanepi's chances to keep her run going.

Predicted Semifinalist: In a world where all the quarters seems wide open, this door seems the largest. I think the potential fourth round between Vera and Aggie will be a lot of fun, and the winner will probably also make the semis. I'm giving it to Radwanska, just because I so want to see her succeed.

So as you can tell, there's bound to be a lot of surprises in the coming weeks -- and there's no better place than New York for it to all go down. No one's had a better opportunity to excel in Flushing Meadows, and something tells me that the best performances could come from some unlikely candidates.

But what else would you expect from this city?

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