September 29, 2010

An Embarrassment of Riches

It may not be a Grand Slam, but the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo sure has the ability to attract some real talent in the women's game. With seven of the top ten in the draw and the lowest seed ranked just at twenty, from the start there was the potential for some big-time clashes even in the early rounds.

And the ladies did not disappoint.

Bad Gastein champion Julia Goerges and former world #1 Dinara Safina, both unseeded, met in the first round, as did Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez and Maria Kirilenko, ranked twenty-fourth and twenty-sixth respectively. And it wasn't just a matter of an unjust draw forcing out some stars early -- just shy of her fortieth birthday, Kimiko Date Krumm ousted Maria Sharapova while teen qualifier Coco Vandeweghe dealt Aravane Rezai another early blow. So now with the quarterfinal matches set in Tokyo, the eight women left certainly deserve to be there.

Top seeded Caroline Wozniacki, who secured her spot in the year-end Doha Championships with her win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, has only dropped seven games on her way to the quarters. There she'll meet Aggie Radwanska, who beat a tough-as-nails Andrea Petkovic in the third round.

Wimbledon and U.S. Open runner-up Vera Zvonareva rebounded nicely from her heart-breaking loss in New York with a solid win over Sara Errani and followed it up by bagelling Roberta Vinci in the second set to reach the final eight. Her next opponent Elena Dementieva, just back in the top ten, survived four breaks of serve in her first two matches, but was impressive getting past world #22 Flavia Pennetta.

The bigger surprises have been in the other quarters, though. While French Open champion Francesca Schiavone and Victoria Azarenka, who exited in Flushing Meadows far too early, have both advanced with little drama, but they both have dates with some unexpected contenders.

Vandeweghe, a former junior champion in New York, battled through the qualifying rounds in Japan -- her first appearance in an overseas tournament's main draw -- and defeated Goerges in under an hour for the right to meet Vika tomorrow. And Kaia Kanepi, who made the quarters at both the All England Club and the U.S. Open, notched her second straight win over Jelena Jankovic -- that after already defeating thirteenth seed Shahar Peer and America's one-time darling Melanie Oudin. She hasn't beaten Schiavone since 2006, but I wouldn't be shocked if she got the upset.

With so much talent in the field at the Pan Pacific, it's no wonder that only the strongest survived. It's a shame anyone has to lose, especially after all the work they've put in to get this far, but such is life on the pro Tour.

But isn't it so much better to watch the best compete?

September 26, 2010

Remember Me?

With all the hoopla surrounding the successful summer of Rafael Nadal and the comeback of Juan Martin Del Potro this week, it's easy to have missed two champions who put their names back on the radar on Sunday.

Thirty-one year old Juan Ignacio Chela has never been one skirt controversy. Once ranked as high as #15 in the world, he was suspended for three months in 2003 for using steroids in Cincinnati and once almost spat at Lleyton Hewitt during an Australian Open match. But since he was sidelined with a herniated disc two years ago, he hasn't made much of a dent on the Tour. This year he finally broke a three-year title drought in Houston, and handily beat Nikolay Davydenko in Umag back in July.

This week in Bucharest, the fourth seeded Argentine was nearly flawless. He lost only a game in his opener against Simon Greul and capitalized on his opponent's long quarterfinal match when he took out top seed Albert Montanes in the semis. Playing in only his second final since 2007 today against qualifier Pablo Andujar, he should have been the easy favorite, but after the two traded breaks to begin the match it looked like it could be a close one. Ultimately, though, the veteran was able to raise his play in the second set and took less than ninety minutes to capture his sixth career title.

It hasn't been quite as long since Gilles Simon has been out of the tennis elite -- the twenty-five year old spent much of last year in the top ten, but hadn't reached a Tour semifinal since Lyon last October. A persistent knee injury kept him from playing in Australia this year and the entire European clay court season, including the French Open. He had a disappointing summer as well, losing in the first round in both Toronto and Cincinnati, but started to show signs of his former greatness by helping France to a 5-0 drubbing of Argentina in the Davis Cup semis.

Having fallen out of the top forty for the first time since 2007, Simon came to Metz as the eighth seed. He had a solid first round, but struggled against qualifier Igor Sijsling and veteran Xavier Malisse in the quarters. But when he met Mischa Zverev in his first final since Bangkok last year, he was back in form. The five-foot-eleven Frenchman fired off nine aces and won more than eighty percent of his first serve. Saving the only break point he faced, Gilles took just over an hour to record the win, his first over the German who'd beaten him two times before, and lift the seventh title of his career.

It might be a little late in the year, but there's still plenty of action left in tennis, and it's nice to see these guys reasserting themselves on the court. And with a couple more trophies on each of their mantlepieces, both Chela and Simon have reminded us of just how big a force they can -- and probably will -- be again.

Return of the Man

You know the feeling when you comeback to work after a long vacation and it seems like everything has changed? Your passwords don't work, your desk is on the other side of the floor, you're now reporting to a new manager?

Well a lot has happened in the eight months since we last saw Juan Martin Del Potro in Australia. Roger Federer reclaimed the title in Melbourne after a three year absense, Rafael Nadal, once only the king of clay is now riding a twenty-one match Grand Slam win streak. Some new faces grace the top ten -- Mikhail Youzhny, Tomas Berdych -- while some previously unstoppable players -- Nikolay Davydenko, Andy Roddick -- seem to be just holding on to their spots.

It is into this much-changed world where DelPo will be making his return this week at the Thailand Open.

The 2009 U.S. Open champion, a staple on the American hardcourts over the last few years, pulled out of multiple Masters events in the late winter and spring due to a wrist injury and then announced he'd miss the entire summer after opting for surgery on that wrist. Without even stepping on a court he climbed to a career high rank of #4 in the world back in January, but unable to defend titles in Washington and New York, has since falling out of the top thirty.

He's still given a fifth seed in Bangkok, though, and has a wholly winnable first round against Olivier Rochus. But things get only tougher from there, as Nadal, Fernando Verdasco and another rising star Jurgen Melzer are all in the draw and they've all spent more than a few hours on the courts this year. It's not the best surface on which to launch a comeback -- hardcourts are notorilously brutal on your body -- but it's where Del Potro thrives, having won five of his seven titles on it. And, although it been a while since we've seen him, it's hard to forget the fight he's able to put up. It sure would be great to see him get a few wins in his first tournament back.

It'll be a long road for Juan Martin to get back in the top ten, and though it could be a long shot to do so by the end of the year, I don't think we'll wait long for this champion to climb into the elite again. And whatever his results in Bangkok, it'll be great to see him back on Tour.

At six-foot-six, he might be hard to miss, but I certainly have.

September 23, 2010

Seeds of Change

The Asian hardcourt season is in full swing as more than a few familiar names took the court in Seoul this week. But with only two players in the top twenty entered in the Hansol Korea Open, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise to see some big upsets.

And that's certainly what we've gotten.

Defending champion Kimiko Date Krumm has been one of the best feel-good stories of the past two years, breaking back into the top fifty at nearly forty years of age.

And as she tries to defend a title for the first time since 1995, she's gotten off to a good start. She rolled over qualifier Junri Namigata in the first round and took on second-seeded Russian teenager Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the next. Proving age is no issue, she needed just over an hour to dispatch the girl woman, more than two decades her junior. Of course she needs three more wins before she can claim the repeat, but some of her colleagues are helping clear the path.

Twenty-two year old Ekaterina Makarova first made us take notice when she won the title in Eastbourne as a qualifier, dropping five top twenty players along the way. She hasn't made quite the splash since then, but we should know how capable she is of staging an upset.

In her Seoul opener she survived a two-plus hour battle against Iveta Benesova, a woman who'd beaten her in their last two meetings. But she had a far easier time against fourth seed Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez on Thursday, converting five of her seven break chances and earning the right to meet Alisa Kleybanova in the quarters.

Possibly more impressive has been the success of former world #1 Dinara Safina this week. A wildcard entry ranked #59 these days -- below Makarova and Kimiko -- she's been having fits during her comeback. After losing six matches in a row from April through June and pulling out of Wimbledon, she beat Nadia Petrova in Montreal and Francesca Schiavone in New Haven. Then she fell in straights in the first round of New York.

In her first round in Seould she soundly defeated rising star Simona Halep to set up a rematch with countrywoman Maria Kirilenko, the third seed in Korea who beat her soundly at the Pilot Pen last month. Though I would've given the on-paper favorite the advantage, Safina was on a mission, firing off aces and winning more than three-fourths of her first serves. Though her second-attempt percentage -- 15%! -- left a lot to be desired, it's certainly encouraging to see her winning again.

With Yaroslava Shvedova also losing her second round on Thursday, that leaves only three seeds still contending for the title, and it certainly doesn't look like anyone is safe. The underdogs are out to mark a change in the current standings, and with the way they're playing this week, it could very well happen soon!

September 19, 2010

The National Heroes

I've always enjoyed the camaraderie that comes along with Davis Cup tennis -- it's great to see players revel not just in their own victories, but in those of their teammates as well. And some performances this past weekend gave a few players real cause to celebrate.

In the World Group semifinals, the Serbs took on the Czechs, last year's runners-up, and the tie was close from the start. With superstar Novak Djokovic pulling out of his first singles match due to illness, it was up to the second string to pull the weight. The Serbs found themselves in an early deficit when Viktor Troicki lost his first rubber, but summer stand-out Janko Tipsarevic evened the score on Friday with a win over Wimbledon finalist Tomas Berdych.

Casual tennis fans might not have known about Tipsarevic a month ago, but the twenty-six year old had beaten players like Sam Querrey and Andy Murray this year, even before ousting Andy Roddick from the U.S. Open. Though he continues to struggle to put together more than a few wins at a time, he's a smart player, a tough hitter, and his second win over the top-ten Berdych had to feel good.

But it only got better. With the Serbs down 2-1 after losing their doubles match, Djokovic returned to win his first reverse singles match in dramatic fashion, battling back after an injury time out and playing through the pain. All even, it was up to Janko again to close out the tie. This time facing Radek Stepanek, a man who beat him handily last year in Barcelona, Tipsarevic was on fire. He bagelled his opponent in the first set and survived a tight tiebreaker in the second. He had momentum in the third and took an early 4-0 lead, but nearly lost it when the Czech fought to 4-5. With the tie on his racquet, Tipsarevic finally converted on his third match point and sent Serbia to their first ever Davis Cup final.

The U.S. wasn't playing for the final, but having lost their first round to the Serbs back in March, they were facing Colombia in the World Group playoffs. Missing perennial powerhouses like Andy Roddick and the Bryan brothers, the four men who flew down to South America were slightly less battle-tested than teams of the past. Though red-hot Mardy Fish, now the second best man in the country at #19, gave the Americans an early lead, he took five sets to dispatch Alejandro Falla, and Sam Querrey put the lead in jeopardy when he lost to world #61 Santiago Giraldo in straight sets.

But there's a reason Fish has clawed his way so far back up the rankings. Having played in the finals of four tournaments since June and picking up an extra doubles trophy in Washington, he's had one of the most successful summers on tour and proven just how fit he is. On Saturday he paired with pal John Isner to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead and got back on court Sunday to play the fourth rubber of the tie. And, as we've come to expect from Mardy over the past few months, we were in for a show.

Giraldo got off to a quick start on the American and seemed to have every advantage -- playing in Bogota and on clay -- but Fish got steady in the second set and took a lead into the fourth. The Colombian broke in the fifth game of that set, though, and was able to hold on long enough to force a decider. But Mardy's conditioning was the big advantage now, and even when both men had trouble serving late in the match, they were able to come up with some impressive shots. Ultimately, after over four hours of play, Fish went on a three game win-streak and won the match, 8-6 in the fifth. The win kept the U.S. in the World Group, a spot they have held onto since 1989.

India, on the other hand, had made the World Group last year for only the first time since 1998. Having lost to Russia in March, they took on Brazil in the playoffs this weekend, a team headlined by top singles player Thomaz Bellucci. After two rubbers that went a total of nearly nine hours, the Brazilians had the 2-0 lead going into the weekend, and it looked like India was primed for relegation again. But the reunited doubles team of Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes won their match and Bellucci was forced to retire from his reverse singles while trailing Somdev Devvarman by a set and a few breaks.

Then it was time for U.S. open hero Rohan Bopanna to shine -- the historic doubles finalist in New York is just barely ranked in the top five-hundred in singles, but that hadn't kept him from taking two sets from Bellucci on Friday. And in the decider versus world #75 Ricardo Mello, he didn't seemed phased in the least. He kept his match clean, lost only four points on his second serve -- incidentally, all double faults -- and doubled Mello in winners. In just over two hours he'd won India another spot in the World Group and scored the country their only comeback victory from two rubbers down.

Each of these wins might mean different things for the individual players, but for their teams it certainly means more. There are very few times when tennis is a team sport and to see these guys play not just for each other, but for their countries, is very profound. Who knows if they'll be as victorious in the next step of their journeys, but at least for now, they're certainly on top of their worlds.

September 16, 2010

Separated at Birth -- U.S. Open Edition

Clearly the big stories from this year's U.S. Open centered around the top-notch play and the rise of the underdog. But as always, the goings-on were also marked by some real drama, and not just the athletic kind.

Andy Roddick told off a lineswoman, Victoria Azarenka fainted on court, Gael Monfils leapt through the air like a circus performer -- sometimes we were left wondering if we were watching a tennis match or a Broadway show. So maybe it's no wonder that I was struck by the similarities between some of the players and Hollywood stars of all varieties.

Simona Halep didn't make it out of the first round, but she sure gave fourth-seeded Jelena Jankovic quite a scare. But she's young, still, and definitely talented. And with her good looks I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more of the former Junior champion in years to come.

American Ryan Harrison staged one of the biggest upsets of the opening round when he defeated fifteenth seeded Ivan Ljubicic in four sets. The eighteen-year-old continued to cause a stir in his next match, holding match points against Sergiy Stakhovsky, and reminding me of another upstart from The O.C.

The players who advanced further were no less subject to comparison. Semifinalist Caroline Wozniacki has one of those smiley faces that rightfully earned her the nickname "Sunshine." It reminds me of a younger Alexandra Holden who, you might remember, played Ross's student/girlfriend on Friends. I haven't seen a lot of her lately, but I'm hoping the same isn't true for Sweet Caroline.

Men's surprise semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny has earned himself the reputation of being a bit of a hothead, but he was able to pull himself together when it counted, making the final four in New York for a second time. And as he demonstrated every emotion from elation to frustration to hear-breaking defeat, I couldn't help but notice the resemblance to an actor whose trials on Dawson's Creek were just as gut-wrenching.

So there you have it -- this year's selection of They-Could've-Been-Twins couples to entertain you. If you want to share your favorite look-alikes, send me a note, and check out my other "Separated at Birth" pairs here!

September 14, 2010

The Grandest of Slams

You know what I was doing at twenty-four?

Not winning Majors.

But last night Rafael Nadal made history by becoming the youngest tennis player to ever win the career Grand Slam. And more than that, he won three consecutive titles this year alone -- the first man to do that since Rod Laver claimed all four trophies in 1969. Only six other men have acheived the feat, and they include legends like Fred Perry, Roy Emerson -- who for a long time held the record for most overall Major titles -- and Andre Agassi.

I feel so unaccomplished.

The match itself was pretty good, if not great. Originally scheduled for Sunday afternoon, consistent rainfall postponed play until Monday, and a flash thunderstorm halted the action again deep in the second set. Novak Djokovic, who'd exacted the upset of the tournament in the semis, clearly benefitted from from the added day of rest, but he was still a bit sluggish to start. Nadal came out firing and broke the Serb in the first game. Though Nole was able to display spurts of energy and get back on serve, Rafa got the lead again and took the advantage with him into the second.

In that set, though, we got a change in momentum and it was Djokovic who got the first break. It looked like he was shrugging off the fatigue from Saturday and might pull off yet another upset, but a few games later his adrenaline ran out, and Nadal pushed the match to four all, just before the rain came again. About two hours later when play resumed, Nole was rejuvenated and, somewhat against the odds, tied up the set score.

The next two sets were, on paper, all Nadal, but the fight Djokovic put up, even when he had to know the title was out of reach, was inspiring. He fought off ten chances for Rafa to get up a double break in the third set and created some passing shots that rivaled nearly everything his rival did. He cleaned up his service game too, winning seventy-six percent of his first attempts compared to just over half in the opening set and about two-thirds in the second. And again, even when he found himself down two breaks in the fourth, Novak kept up the effort, staying aggressive at the net and firing off just one less winner than the eventual champion.

While most probably thought the outcome was predictable, there sure was enough drama to make it worthy of a championship match. I was relieved to see Djokovic put up a solid fight -- after all, no one wants to win such an honor by default and forever have an asterisk by his name.

As the accomplishment sparks the inevitable "Greatest-of-All-Time" conversation, at least you know it will be a good debate -- for the first time ever two active players hold a career Grand Slam, so from here to retirement every next meeting between already great rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer becomes even more meaningful.

So let's get right to it!

September 13, 2010

Over the Radar?

At the start of this year's U.S. Open tournament I'd asked you guys which potential men's final was most likely to be contested his weekend. And unanimously you -- we -- gave the possibility of Rafael Nadal meeting Novak Djokovic the least credence.

Oh, how wrong we were.

This afternoon the two elite men who'd been flying the furthest under the radar will each be going for their first trophy in Flushing Meadows, and after yesterday's play was delayed by rain giving Djokovic another twenty-four hours to rest after his brutal semifinal, I have to say either could do it.

Nadal is probably still the favorite. The #1 seed in New York, he has not dropped a set in six matches here and is infinitely -- okay, eight times -- more experienced at winning Majors. He has the crowd support, the motivation of winning a career Grand Slam, the possibility of separating himself even farther from the rest of the pack. And with Roger Federer out of the way, his chances have never looked better.

But Nole has an advantage too -- he's won the pair's last four three* meetings, and though he still trails their head-to-head, he has a solid 7-3 record over the Spaniard on hard courts. Thirteen of his seventeen titles have come on the surface -- that's better than Nadal's nine. He's also been battled-tested during the fortnight, nearly losing the first round to Viktor Troicki and saving two match points Saturday against the great Roger Federer. Knowing that he can survive opponents like that, not to mention Mardy Fish and Gael Monfils, has to give the guy confidence.

Add to that the fact that it's been nearly three years since Djokovic won his only Major at the 2008 Australian Open where, you might remember, he beat the Swiss giant in those semis too. And with every big title but one since then -- since 2005, really -- going to either Rafa or Roger, he will surely want to do his part to break up the flow. It you want to talk about motivation, he's got loads of it.

Novak has only won a single trophy this year -- in Dubai back in February -- his smallest count since he became a force on Tour in 2006. Guys on the top aren't satisfied with numbers like that, and you have to believe he's going to do whatever he can to immediately double that stat.

What better way to remind us all that he's not only back on the screen, but that he never left?

* Looks like I was fooled! The ATP website mistakenly updated the head-to-head record early today crediting Djokovic with the win before the match even started. It's been rectified, but I need to be more careful!

September 12, 2010


In so many instances the number twenty-one holds great importance. Whether it's the passage into adulthood, a guaranteed win at the card table, or the number of firings in a royal salute, reaching twenty-one in any effort has a special meaning.

And last night Kim Clijsters attained that exalted number at the U.S. Open.

Her win over Vera Zvonareva in the women's final was a little shocking in its one-sidedness, but less so when you consider that Flushing Meadows has become Clijsters' home Slam. She came here in 2005 after missing the previous year due to wrist injuries, but stormed to the championship match by taking out two-time titleist Venus Williams in the quarters and top-seeded Maria Sharapova in the semis. For the trophy she took out veteran Mary Pierce in straight sets, dropping only four games to win her first Major title.

The next year, though, continued problems with her wrist and a couple other injuries forced her to pull out of the Open and she soon after announced her retirement from the sport. Though her personal life stayed busy -- she got married, had a daughter -- we didn't see her on the tennis court again until 2009, when she gave a solid showing in Cincinnati and Toronto before really making a statement in New York.

Only three tournaments into her comeback, she wasn't seeded or even ranked, so understandably she faced a draw full of recently emerged champions -- Marion Bartoli took her to three sets in just the second round, Venus gave her an oddly-scored win in the fourth, while her defending champion sister Serena infamously foot-faulted her own way out of the tournament. In the finals against first-time Major finalist Caroline Wozniacki, Kim battled through a tough first set, but ultimately claimed her second U.S. Open trophy in quite emotional fashion.

By the time she returned to Flushing Meadows this year, Clijsters had climbed her way back to #3 in the world and earned herself the second seed. She was playing even better tennis than she had in '09, winning the title in Cincinnati -- the tournament at which she had begun her return the previous year, and sailed through her early round matches without dropping a set. She was tested in the second week by Sam Stosur and, yet again, Venus Williams, but eventually reached the finals with a chance to defend her title for the first time.

Admittedly, I gave her opponent Vera Zvonareva a slight edge in the match. The Wimbledon finalist had defeated Kim on her run at the All England Club and followed that up with another solid victory over the Belgian in Montreal. She hadn't lost a set in her first six rounds in New York and was able to stay steady against top-seeded Wozniacki in the semis to prevent a repeat of last year's championship match.

But Clijsters was nearly unstoppable Saturday night. Though she'd been streaky in some previous matches, falling for example to an 0-4 deficit in the second set after bagelling Greta Arn to open her first match, she was clean throughout this one. She ran off to a quick lead in the first set before breaking Vera again close it out, and kept right on rolling in the second. Keeping her cool amid small meltdowns by the Russian, Kim needed just an hour to dispatch Vera and claimed her third championship on Arthur Ashe's stadium.

That's twenty-one straight match wins in New York. Twenty-one victories over solid opponents, some favored over her either on paper or in reality. Twenty-one contenders whose hopes for a trophy of their own have been dashed at the hands of Kim Clijsters.

The way she plays here, it's really no wonder her challengers have no choice but to fold their hands.

September 11, 2010

One to Go...

Do you realize how long it's been since Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have played in a Grand Slam final?

After battling each other for seven Major titles between 2006 and 2008, they've now gone nineteen months -- since Australia last year -- without another such meeting*. That's quite a stretch, and tennis fans around the world have been aching for at least one more showdown between the two best men currently playing this sport.

And they're just one match away from getting their wish.

Super Saturday at the U.S. Open found both men, somewhat surprisingly, in the semis, neither having dropped a set. Roger, the five-time champion, sailed through his early rounds and even made quick work of his developing nemesis Robin Soderling in the quarters. Nadal, who’d never made it past the final four in New York, had some scares to start, going to two tiebreaks against Teymuraz Gabashvili to start and battling through a stubborn Denis Istomin in the second round. But he found his footing in the second week, drubbing a tough Fernando Verdasco to make his third straight final Saturday.

For a spot in the finals, though, it was Rafa who had the easier draw. One of my favorites to win the title, Andy Murray, should have been his opponent today, but he was bested two rounds ago by Stanislas Wawrinka who was, in turn, bested by Mikhail Youzhny in a long five sets just on Thursday. Youzhny was the twelfth seed at the Open, but had advanced well under the radar to make his second Major semi. During his fortnight he displayed some hard-hitting strength and solid determination -- he ignored the American fans who rooted for John Isner in the third round, stopped a potential rally by Tommy Robredo in the Sweet Sixteen, and finally triumphed over Wawrinka in their four-hour quarter. But by the time he got to the semis he was out of steam -- though he put up the best fight he could, he couldn't quite get his bearings, and ultimately fell to the eight-time Slam winner in three sets, giving Nadal entry to his first ever U.S. Open final.

Though Mikhail is clearly an intimidating opponent -- he defeated Rafa in quarters here back in 2006 -- he's not quite the presence of world #3 Novak Djokovic, who Federer is playing now to set up that ultimate battle. Nole certainly surprised me the way he's been playing the last two weeks -- after near-elimination in the first round he's been unstoppable, downing a red-hot Mardy Fish in the fourth round and prevailing against showman Gael Monfils in the quarters. Nole has lost to Federer three straight years at the Open, but he did beat him three times last year and in the semis on his way to win the 2008 Australian Open title. He just evened the score against the Swiss giant by taking the second set, so you know that, unlike some of Roger's previous opponents at this tournament, Djokovic won't let himself get too down, and he's going to do his best to prevent that match everyone wants to see.

But if Roger does survive, the implications of the still-potential final are enormous. Never before have two men played the championship match at all four Majors, and whoever wins would have clear bragging rights. Rafa has already beaten Federer at three of the Slams and, should he win this one, he'd earn himself a career Grand Slam just a year after Roger did the same and become the youngest athlete to hold that honor. Of course, for Federer, there's the chance to get that elusive seventeenth Major title, just one fewer than Chris Evert and Martina Navritalova, and to do so against Rafa -- a man who's beaten him six of eight times on the grand stage -- makes the prospect even sweeter.

Meanwhile, we're also one match away from crowning the women's champion. That final pits two somewhat unlikely opponents against each other -- Kim Clijsters, looking to extend her win-streak at Flushing Meadows to twenty-one straight games, faces Vera Zvonareva, who at twenty-six years of age has reached her second consecutive Major title match after only once before making the semis. Clearly the Belgian is the favorite, having been on this stage five times before, but Vera did beat her in their last two meetings. If you want to talk about a stellar opportunity, this could be it.

* Of course, one of the other has played in every big final since then and, all but one time, has won the title.

September 9, 2010

And Then There Were Four...

Well at least one of my semifinal predictions came true.

At close-of-business Wednesday four ladies -- top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, defending champ Kim Clijsters, two-time winner Venus Williams, and Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva -- remain standing in their hopes to bring home the last Major title of the year. They've each battled heat, wind and some tough opponents to make it this far, and it sure looks like no one will easily give up her spot in the finals.

Last year's runner-up in New York has continued to surprise me all year. Even after taking a dangerous tumble in Charleston back in April, the twenty-year-old Dane has barely taken any time to rest. She played almost every tournament leading up to Paris and fought off even my criticisms to make the quarterfinals at Roland Garros. Then after Wimbledon she literally hit the pavement, winning three hardcourt titles at four events before coming to the U.S. Open atop the draw.

If you thought this was the time she'd let up, youd be mistaken. Wozniacki dropped only three games in her first week and was broken just twice in her first four matches. Her domination of 2006 champion Maria Sharapovaa on Monday proved that she could not only thrive as a counter-puncher, but could be aggressive when she needed to be. Last night against Dominika Cibulkova she battled the elements by keeping play clean and tight, ultimately earning a late break to win in straight sets.

For her efforts, Caroline has a rematch with Vera Zvonareva -- the woman, incidentally, who benefitted from that retirement at the Family Circle Cup. Like her opponent, the Russian has been nearly flawless in her first five matches, never dropping a set and rolling surprisingly easily through her fourth round against feisty Andrea Petkovic. She hasn't faced quite as tough a draw as Wozniacki, though, but is riding a wave of Grand Slam success, having played her first Major championship match in July.

Having just turned twenty-six, Vera is one of the veterans on Tour, but she seems to be finding her stride now. After her win over Kaia Kanepi Wednesday she said, "I'm still improving, you know. I've been playing for a while, but I'm still out there and still working hard." And it looks like her dedication is paying off. Having already played a hardcourt final in Montreal -- she lost the second match in a rain-induced double-header to Wozniacki about two weeks ago -- she could put up quite a fight to make her second in a row.

In the other half of the draw are two women who are far more experienced on the big stage. Kim Clijsters has now won nineteen consecutive matches in Flushing Meadows, albeit interrupted by a three-year absense from these grounds, and has played another four Major finals. The Cincinnati titleist is the only one of the four left who has lost a set during the fortnight, though it was to a tough competitor in Samantha Stosur. She's actually had the toughest draw of the semifinalists, too, barreling past resurging, former #1 Ana Ivanovic and staying tough against twenty-seventh seed Petra Kvitova.

Kim's been spotty at times this tournament, though. She found herself in a two-break deficit after bagelling Greta Arn to open her first round, and she lost serve seven times to Stosur in the quarters. But she does seem to find her best game when she needs too -- she doesn't lead the field in many stats, but has been able to attack her opponents' second serves, netting herself thirty-two break point conversions.

That could be somewhat intimidating to Venus Williams, who she'll face in the semis. The winner of the trophy twice at the turn of the century has dropped serve ten times this tournament. Then again, she has fired off more aces than any other woman -- twenty-six -- and the fastest bomb of the event at 127 miles per hour. With stats like that it's easy to silence those of us who worried a knee injury that kept her off court since Wimbledon would hamper her in New York.

So far Venus faced the toughest battle in the quarters against French Open winner Francesca Schiavone, but an even bigger test is coming up. Kim dismissed her in the fourth round last year, trading bagel sets before ultimately advancing 6-4 in the third. The Belgian followed up that win by drubbing Williams in the Miami finals, 6-2, 6-1 to win her second title of the year. About facing her nemesis -- a woman with whom she has a six-and-six career record -- Venus said, "I'm sure we'll have another really good matchup. I'd like to kind of flip the way it turns out."

All four ladies have been here before, and they've all had different results. Whatever happens on Friday we can be assured that one woman will play in her second Slam final and another will try to win her third U.S. Open crown. Clearly you have to favor the veterans, but with the draws stacked the way they are, you really can't be sure. And as I mentioned in my preview, we really might be due for a first-time winner.

After all, if it's going to happen anywhere, why not New York?

September 7, 2010

The Match No One Cares About, and Why You Should

On a day where former champions, world #1s, feisty Spaniards and next-generation Americans headlined play at the U.S. Open, you might have missed the fact that one-time top-five player Tommy Robredo and hot-headed Russian Mikhail Youzhny are also playing for a spot in the quarterfinals. Sure they were relegated to the day match on Armstrong, making way for the fifth-seeded doubles team on Ashe, but for the two men involved, it represented a big chance to make a statement in New York.

Robredo had been having a tough couple months -- after a solid 2009, he made the quarters in Indian Wells and looked solid for the clay court season. But for reasons I can't quite figure out, the Spaniard has fallen in the first round of all three previous Slams this year, and has only put together back-to-back wins once since March. Out of seeding range at the Open, I didn't think he'd last the first day, much less the first week, but a solid win over Lukas Kubot followed by the retirement of his next two opponents gifted him a third straight appearance in the round of sixteen.

Youzhny has been just as quiet, if slightly more dangerous, advancing through his draw. The twelfth seed in New York has played in three finals this year, winning a title in Munich and beating Gael Monfils and Novak Djokovic in Rotterdam. At Flushing Meadows, the slightly volatile veteran played a solid four sets against Dudi Sela and ousted crowd-favorite John Isner in the third round. Though he's only made it this far once in his seven previous appearances here, he's playing like a real dark horse and might be ready to at least match his best run ever.

Today is just the pair's fourth meeting in their combined twenty-plus year careers, with Tommy holding the slight 2-1 advantage. They haven't faced each other since the 2006 U.S. Open, though, where Mikhail dropped only three games in the fourth round. He's certainly playing more consistently at the moment, having taken the first two sets in just under ninety minutes, but Robredo is doing what he can to up his game, hanging strong to take the third in a long fifty minutes. A spot in the quarters would be a huge opportunity for either man -- with either Sam Querrey or Stanislas Wawrinka waiting for them there, either could have a clean shot at the semis.

For Robredo, this could be the Major where he tells the world he's still one to contend with. For Youzhny, who's middled around the low teens at three separate times during his career, it's an opening to get back in the top ten.

And for fans, it's a reminder that there are more than just two or three players to keep our eyes on this tournament.

September 5, 2010

Time-Out: U.S. Open Reassessment

So I stink at this game -- really, really stink.

Sure, some of my picks to make the semis are still alive and more than kicking, but a bunch more have already fallen by the wayside -- and some a lot earlier than I would've thought. And, I gotta say, I'm nothing short of shocked that a couple are still standing.

Let's start with the men, who've only just wrapped up their third rounds today. We shouldn't be too surprised that both top-seeded Rafael Nadal and five-time champion Roger Federer have advanced this far, though I am somewhat saddened that my choice for the top quarter, David Nalbandian, succumbed in four sets earlier on Sunday to Fernando Verdasco. That leaves four Spaniards vying for the first semifinal spot, and all have faced challenges before eventually emerging triumphant. At this point, I have to give Rafa the advantage, but it sure would be nice to see him and Verdasco fight it out again.

Roger's still looking stunning in his bid to make up for that devastating loss in the finals last year, but he also seems primed for another quarterfinal rematch with Robin Soderling. Though the #5 seed was nearly eliminated in the first round, he rebounded to take out his next two opponents without dropping a set. And after his amazing win in Paris, he might have a bit more confidence, should the chance to face Fed in a Slam arise again. And while Jurgen Melzer and Albert Montanes might put up their best efforts to stop that eventual clash, I have to believe we're in for the inevitable.

While the top seeds have advanced without much drama, I have to say the run of Novak Djokovic did leave me a little winded. The runner-up here in 2007 faced his biggest challenge against countryman Viktor Troicki in the first round, battling through extreme heat and five sets. But he rolled over Philipp Petzschner in the second and my dear James Blake in the third. He'll next face red-hot Mardy Fish, a man he's beaten in their last four meetings, though I think this time might be different. Fish has gotten through a couple tough matches, and might have what it takes to pull off the upset. If he does, he'll face one of two Frenchman -- Gael Monfils who took out the dude who took out the dude I'd picked for this quarter, or Richard Gasquet, a solid hitter on his own comeback trail. I'm still putting my money on the American, but I might be reducing the size of the wager.

The biggest shock in the men's draw came earlier this evening when Andy Murray, my reluctant favorite for the title, was eliminated by Stanislas Wawrinka in just four sets. That certainly opens the door for Sam Querrey to make his deepest run here, or dark horse Mikhail Youzhny, who withstood big-serving John Isner to make the fourth round. Somehow, my most decisive quarter became the one that's most up in the air, and I'd love to see Querrey make the run for the Americans.

Turning to the ladies, top seeded Caroline Wozniacki has been emphatic in her goal of proving she deserves her ranking. Through three rounds she's only lost three games, though she hasn't yet faced a player in the top seventy. Her next opponent, Maria Sharapova had an ever-so-slightly tougher draw, and though I am rooting for Caro in the long run, I feel the Russian might just have an edge in the fourth round and she's still my favorite for the quarter. But Svetlana Kuznetsova, who's been equally solid in her first three matches could pose a bigger threat than I originally thought. If two former U.S. Open champs are left battling for the first women's semi spot, it could be quite a battle.

Kim Clijsters has advanced with little drama herself, even if she's given up serve a few times when clearly in charge of her matches. The defending champ still look good to continue her run, but with Roland Garros finalist Sam Stosur or tough-as-nails Elena Dementieva looming as quarterfinal opponents, she will surely be tested in the future. The Australian survived a scare in the first round, but has been solid ever since, and the Russian staged an awesome come-from-behind victory against Daniela Hantuchova on Friday, reminding us all why she's known as the best player without a Major. Though Kim has winning records against both, she sure stands to lose her first set of the tournament in the coming round.

In the quarter which originally seemed so wide open, somewhat surprisingly the two top seeds have advanced to the quarters. While poor Victoria Azarenka retired early with a concussion, two-time champ Venus Williams and French Open winner Francesca Schiavone are the ones vying for the third semi, and at this point I have to go with the more-experienced American. Though a knee injury originally made me doubt her prospects in New York, she's clearly better suited for these faster surfaces than the Italian, and might even be able to make a run for the title.

Rounding it out for the women, four solid ladies are all contending for the last spot in the semis. Wimbledon stand-out Kaia Kanepi continued her summer rebirth when she took out fourth-seeded Jelena Jankovic and Yanina Wickmayer survived some tough opponents to make it this far. Then there's new crowd favorite Andrea Petkovic who's danced her way to her best ever Major showing and Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva. Like with the men, this quarter could really go to anyone, but I have to give the slightest of advantages to the Russian who needs to prove her performance at the All England Club wasn't a fluke.

Of course, as we kick off the final week of the U.S. Open, I'm sure there will be plenty more surprises to come. At this point, I'll be happy if even one of my choices makes it through to the final four. But you can't say that we haven't been able to witness some top-notch tennis in the last few days. And the way things are going, we are in for a lot more.

As for predictions for next year, well, I think I'm gong to have to find another theme!

September 3, 2010

Keeping Focus Amid the Storm

If the theme for the first part of the week at the U.S. Open was the blazing heat, then the theme for the this weekend is the pending arrival of a hurricane named Earl, who promises to wreak havoc on the play today.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed, but some of the late night matches are clearly at risk -- if not for cancellation, then certainly for suspensions and delays. And that might give players like Rafael Nadal and John Isner, Venus Williams and Flavia Pennetta a few fits as they try to wrap up their day.

Pennetta's will be the last match on the Grandstand this afternoon, and she takes on Shahar Peer in what could be a very close game. The two have only played on hardcourts, with Peer -- ranked slightly higher at #19 to the Italian's #21 -- battling to victory in their last meeting at Indian Wells. A few months ago I might have chosen Flavia to power through this match easily -- if only for revenge -- but a foot injury that forced her out of New Haven puts her prospects in question. We know the girl can handle disruption, though, as she famously survived a meltdown by Vera Zvonareva at last year's Open. If she can find the power that got her past Jie Zheng in Cincinnati and Daniela Hantuchova in Montreal, I like her chances to win here too.

Big-hitting American John Isner should start his second-round match with Marco Chiudinelli before the rain starts, but if their five-setter at Roland Garros is any indication, he might not close it out in one shot. Isner certainly knows how to handle delays in a match -- the winner of the three-day Wimbledon marathon was able to keep himself loose and focused even through multiple over-night breaks. More comfortable in front of the hometown crowd, he might have the advantage over the Swiss, and hopefully this time his efforts will not be stopped short immediately after the initial win.

Venus headlines the night session on Arthur Ashe tonight, taking on her second qualifier in a row in Luxembourg's Mandy Minella -- a twenty-four year old who ousted Venus's foil Tsvetana Pironkova in the second round. You have to hand it to an unknown that can make it through three matches before even seeing a main draw and then continue her streak. And though Venus should be able to handle her easily, the two-time U.S. Open winner will have to remain focused on returning a solid serve and keeping up with an agressive baseliner. Battling injury herself, you can expect Williams to make a statement early -- she doesn't want to face the prospects of interrupting any momentum she gains by aggravating her knee any more.

Top-seeded Rafael Nadal hopes to cap off the action Friday night on Ashe, but the coming rains are not his only obstacle. Uzbek Denis Istomin made the finals in New Haven last week with a win over a tough Viktor Troicki in the semis, and he took a set from Rafa back at Queen's Club. He had a solid win over Maximo Gonzalez in the first round of the Open and fired off six aces to his opponent's zero. Nadal, on the other hand, was pushed to two tiebreaks against a feisty Teimuraz Gabashvili Wednesday and might be less comfortable on the quick courts. Admittedly, I'm a little nervous about this match -- two years ago, Rafa was unable to come back during a rain-disrupted semi against Andy Murray and ended up losing the match over two days. Hopefully this year he'll be able to keep his cool and, if needed, return to the court even stronger.

It sure looks like we're in for a lot of stop-and-start play today, and that could surely play with the momentum and focus of even top players. But when the day is done, hopefully no one will be too bruised and battered, and we'll only see better play to come.

September 1, 2010

Some Like It Hot

In case you haven't heard, it's freakin' hot in New York.

And while ninety-plus degree weather may be great for lounging on the beach this last official week of summer, it's not exactly ideal for running around a tennis court for a couple hours.

But so far, that hasn't seemed to affect the top players at the U.S. Open. Mardy Fish's much talked-about fitness allowed him to withstand a relatively quick five setter while his first round opponent faded in the final sets. Novak Djokovic somewhat surprisingly got himself out of trouble, albeit helped by the encroaching shade late in his match, to pull out his own marathon win. Even players like Marcos Baghdatis who lost their openers did not blame the heat.

These guys are used to it -- as Andy Roddick said last year after his semifinal win in D.C., "You think this is hot, you should try playing in Houston in August." Or Florida. Or Cyprus. Or Argentina. It's a good thing they're all so well-conditioned. Today promises to be even hotter -- both in temperature and in action. A couple guys still have to finish off their first rounds, while other early victors look to continue their runs.

Fourth-seeded Andy Murray begins his campaign in New York this afternoon against Lukas Lacko, a young Serbian who beat Baghdatis at Wimbledon and kept Michael Yani on court for five hours in Paris. It should be an easy day for the Brit, as his improved fitness should help him deal with the elements. But if he's forced to chase down balls over a marathon, the exertion might eventually get to him.

I'm a little more worried about the prospects for John Isner, who faces Estoril finalist Frederico Gil on Louis Armstrong Stadium today. We all know John can last on the court, but he had a bit of trouble in the heat of Atlanta, where he lost sets to world #206 Gilles Muller and college-days rival Kevin Anderson before ultimately succumbing to Mardy Fish in the finals. He's never played Gil, and might get the bonus of a late, cooler match if the matches before him go the distance. But the ankle injury he sustained might give him some troubles -- hopefully, though, the big guy won't tire out in front of the supportive New York crowd.

Roddick has already survived one scorcher at the Open, getting past Stephane Robert in about ninety minutes in the hot August sun-- though it was a solid win, he did start looking a bit tired by the end of the match. Headlining the evening session today, he'll take on Janko Tipsarevic, a feisty player who nearly -- and probably should have -- ousted Sam Querrey in Los Angeles and actually beat Andy at Wimbledon a few years back. The Serb has been nursing an injury over the last few weeks, but Roddick himself is still not a hundred percent recovered from his bout with mono. The man who likes to sweat might do so a bit more than usual tonight as he tries to make another run at this championship.

There is some relief in sight, however. For the guys who survive the next forty-eight hours, it looks like the Labor Day weekend offers a comparatively chilly forecast. And all the winners will have to rely on something more than the weather to heat things up!