August 31, 2011

U.S. Open: First Round Matches I Wish I'd Watched

I've been on vacation since before the draws for this year's U.S. Open came out, and though I hoped to bring you the same first-round matches to watch I have for the other Grand Slams this quarter too, I'm a little late to the game.

But there sure has been some excitement in the first two-plus days of play, and the upsets, breakthroughs and clean games -- in both openers and some second round matches -- have set up what could be an interesting week. So, in a slight deviation from my previous posts, I'm going to take a quick look back at what's happened so far and what it means for the rest of the week. Maybe more.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

It's a little weird to see Novak Djokovic's name heading up the top quarter at a Slam, but that's where he is right now. He didn't seem to show many signs of trouble from that shoulder injury that forced him out of the final in Cincinnati in his first round match, only dropping a game before Conor Niland retired. His bigger tests will surely come further down the road. Gael Monfils, the second man in this part of the bracket, also had an easy opener against up-and-comer Grigor Dimitrov -- it should have been a tough match, but the Bulgarian dropped in straight sets.

More interesting were some wins by players trying to work themselves back in the game. Juan Carlos Ferrero, a runner-up in New York back in 2003, is somewhere in his tenth career and now ranked out of the top hundred. But the veteran stayed strong when trailing Pablo Andujar and took the five-set match in three and a half hours. And former world #3 Nikolay Davydenko, trying to climb back from a wrist injury that's made him a non-contender for almost two years now, forced just-seeded Ivan Dodig to the limit before sending the Croat home. Either has a chance to extend his streak, but with JCF next meeting Monfils and Kolya on track to face Djokovic in the third, it will only get harder.

The late-round match-to-watch: Djokovic could very well meet Tomas Berdych in the quarters. Remember the Czech, who stunned Nole last year at Wimbledon to make the finals, had to retire a few weeks back in the Cincy semis. I'd love to see that match to completion -- with both men healthy.

Second Quarter

Defending champion Rafael Nadal was pushed down a quarter and so headlines the #2 section again. He was a bit challenged last night by Andrey Golubev, but was able to make it through. And David Ferrer, after dropping the first set to Igor Andreev, battled back quickly to advance.

But there were a bunch of big upsets in this quarter as well. World #10 Nicolas Almagro, actually having one of the best years of his career, was upended in straight sets by Julien Benneteau, while Mikhail Youzhny, a semifinalist here last year, was taken down by Los Angeles champion Ernests Gulbis in less than two-and-a-half hours. I'm not sure the losses clear out the draw for the true contenders, but it certainly could open the road for some others along the way.

The late-round match-to-watch: Andy Roddick, the 2003 champion here, comes to New York with his lowest ranking at a Major in ten years. He could be the sleeper in the draw, and while I'd love to see a battle with his friend James Blake in the fourth round, it would be more fun to match him up with Rafa for a semi spot. It would do a lot to pump up the American as he looks to extend his career a little bit longer.

Third Quarter

Roger Federer has a #3 next to his name for the third Slam in a row, and it still seems strange. But with both Nole and Rafa in less-than-top form, he could sneak his way through and make a real statement. After his drubbing of Santiago Giraldo on Monday night, he's well on his way to do just that. And top-ranked American Mardy Fish keeps improving his game at the Majors. He knows how to beat the big guys, and with his section of the draw opening up nicely, he could make a big run here too.

Two of the most interesting early matches here are actually right next to each other on the draw sheet. Veteran Tommy Haas won only his third match of the year against qualifier Jonathan Dasnieres De Veigy on Monday and his first at a Slam since Australia 2010, after which hip surgery ended his season. And Alejandro Falla, who nearly beat Federer at Wimbledon last year, endured another five-setter against fifteenth-seed Viktor Troicki to earn only his second career win in New York. The two meet each other next, and with one likely exhausted and the other largely untested, there's no telling what sparks will fly. For sentimental reasons, I'm hoping for a Haas win.

The late-round match-to-watch: Though he'd have to get past Fish to do it, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could set up another quarterfinal match with Federer. He's won their last two meetings -- at a Slam and a Masters event -- so momentum is on his side. It would be fun to watch Roger try to turn the tables.

Fourth Quarter

Andy Murray comes to New York with momentum on his side, having won in Cincinnati and putting up his best Major performances all year -- a final and two semis. His win over Somdev Devvarman earlier today was fairly routine, and with sixth-seeded Robin Soderling withdrawing from the tournament with illness, the road to the final four has never been clearer.

But that holds true for a couple others in the mix. Juan Martin Del Potro, champion here in 2009, reminded us what a force he can be with a sub-ninety minute drubbing of Filippo Volandri earlier today. And John Isner, who just beat Marcos Baghdatis in four sets, worked his way back into seeding territory with a successful summer run. In fact...

The late-round match-to-watch: The two big servers have played three times in their careers with all those matches -- all those sets actually -- going to the Argentine. But if they meet in the fourth round this time around, it could be a battle.

The Women

First Quarter

Caroline Wozniacki is back on the winning track after four-peating in New Haven, and she should bring some of that confidence with her to New York. It only took her eighty minutes to dismiss doubles specialist Nuria Llagostera Vives on Tuesday. But the other favorite in the top quarter, French Open champion Na Li, did not fare so well, falling in straight sets to tough teenager Simona Halep. The young Romanian is one to watch, too, and might get a few more wins out of this fortnight.

I'm a little disappointed by the performance of Tamira Paszek, though -- the Wimbledon quarterfinalist had been having a decent year before Akgul Amanmuradova stopped her run short. And Sara Errani, who often has sparks of brilliance, probably had a good shot at breaking 2004 winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, but she too lost in less than an hour-and-a-half. What could have been a great opportunity for either ended up sending both home far earlier than necessary.

The late-round match-to-watch: The top two seeds left in the bottom half of this quarter, Andrea Petkovic and Roberta Vinci, are slated to meet in the third round. Both are having the best years of their careers and it's a shame one will be sent packing before the week is up, but Petko is on the verge of the elite and could make her biggest argument with a win.

Second Quarter

Last year's runner-up Vera Zvonareva isn't playing the best tennis on Tour these days, but she's held on to the #2 seed and fought past her first two opponents in New York. And with eighth-seed Marion Bartoli losing her second-round match to Christina McHale today, Bepa is facing a much easier draw.

Of course there are still obstacles left. Veteran Anabel Medina Garrigues, consistently ranked in the top thirty for the past seven years -- a small blip in 2010 notwithstanding, will be next up, and after losing her first set to Karin Knapp she's been playing well again. And Sam Stosur's one-sided wins over Sofia Arvidsson and Coco Vandeweghe show she's not one to be counted out. And we can't forget Maria Kirilenko who made the quarters here in 2009. She survived a tough match against feisty Ekaterina Makarova to open her campaign and could make a deep run here as the seeds continue falling.

The late-round match-to-watch: Sabine Lisicki got a big break today when two-time titleist Venus Williams sadly had to withdraw from their second rounder. With that challenge lifted, she should meet Zvonareva in the fourth round, a rematch of Roland Garros, where the German very nearly caused the upset. Now it much better physical shape, and coming off a trophy in Dallas, she might be my favorite in this section of the bracket.

Third Quarter

Maria Sharapova leads this quarter and is playing the best tennis she has in years. She was tested by Heather Watson on Tuesday, but has a much easier outlook since her Wimbledon vanquisher Petra Kvitova lost early. The young Czech was handled on Monday by former top-thirty player Alexandra Dulgheru who, in turn, was handled today by Monica Niculescu.

I was impressed by Flavia Pennetta's win over Aravane Rezai in their first round. The Italian hasn't won a lot of matches recently and that she could turn things around bodes well for her tournament. She further followed it up with a straight set dispatching of Romina Oprandi earlier on Wednesday and is certainly on a bit of a roll. Julia Goerges, too, who'd started the year off with so much promise, only won two matches since Wimbledon. But she had impressive wins over both Kristina Barrois and Laura Pous-Tio to reach her first U.S. Open third round. Playing well again, she could cause damage further down the line.

The late-round match-to-watch: If seeds play out, Sharapova should play Shuai Peng in the fourth round. The Chinese woman is sitting at her highest-ever ranking and has pulled off upsets at Slams already this year. I'm not sure she's completely back in top form, but she could put up quite a challenge if the favorite's going to advance.

Fourth Quarter

Victoria Azarenka is just aching for a big Grand Slam result -- she has the talent to do it, but something always gets in the way. In 2010 she had a frightening collapse in the middle of her match with Gisela Dulko -- surprise, her second round opponent this year -- and twice at the Australian Open she's squandered leads to Serena Williams -- surprise, probably her third round opponent here. Sorry, Vika. And Francesca Schiavone, never known for her hard court prowess, was already tested by Galina Voskoboeva in her opener. I'm not sure how much further she'll go.

But there's plenty other stuff to talk about here. U.S. Open Series winner Serena was unstoppable against Bojana Jovanovski in their late night match yesterday, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova seems to cleaned up her serve a bit, taking out rising star Anna Tatishvili in straight sets. Plus former #1's Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic droped a total of eight games between them in their first round matches. It would be nice to see either make a stab for this quarter.

The late-round match-to-watch: You can't avoid it. Vika and Serena always put on a great show and if they meet in the third round, I expect nothing less.

Seeds have fallen, underdogs have emerged, and in just about three days of action we've learned that just about anything can happen. I'm not sure I've picked my favorites to bring home the titles quite yet, but it's clear some old champions and new have the chance to get it done.

And it'll sure be fun to watch it all happen.

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