September 29, 2011

Avoiding the Meltdown

The sports pages in the U.S. today are all a-twitter over the stunning results of the last few hours -- minutes, even -- of the 2011 baseball season. A couple amazing rallies and a few unprecedented burnouts turned the year on its head, and what had been such a promising start for some ended with more than a few heads hanging in defeat.

Tennis players are more than capable of staging their own flame-outs. Sam Querrey raced into the elite, peaking at #17 in the world this past January, but went through a six-month period in which he won only one match -- dogged by injury most of this year, he's now ranked out of the top hundred. And Aravane Rezai, who climbed into the top fifteen less than a year ago, hadn't won more than two matches at a tournament all year until making the Dallas finals in August -- she's now just out of double-digit territory. But a couple players are trying to avoid similar fates this week in Asia -- after all, the last thing they want is to collapse fizzle out like the sad boys in Boston and Atlanta.

Andy Murray is probably the least likely to suffer a monstrous breakdown -- at #4 in the world, I have to begrudgingly admit he's probably the most talented player without a Major title. But he has periods of weakness -- he didn't win a match for more than two months after the Australian Open -- and he routinely allows opponents to walk all over him on the biggest stages. As the stronger hardcourt player, he probably should have won his U.S. Open semifinal against Rafael Nadal, but instead he was barely able to put a chink in the armor.

The Scot begins his Asia tour as the top seed in Bangkok, and really should seize the opportunity to make a statement -- especially with both Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer pulling out of the China Open. Earlier today he thumped veteran Michael Berrer in straight sets, setting up a meeting with up-and-comer Grigor Dimitrov. The young Bulgarian has certainly shown he's got talent, and if he's able to get under Murray's skin it could get tough for the favorite. Still, as long as Andy keeps his cool -- something he is want to lose now and again -- it could bode well for his tournament.

A problem may arise, though, if he has another run-in with U.S. Open standout Donald Young. The surprise vanquisher of both Stanislas Wawrinka and Juan Ignacio Chela in New York has already notched wins over Murray and Jurgen Melzer this year and climbed to within a stone's throw of the top fifty. It may have taken a little longer than most pundits expected, but he certainly looks ready now to carry the mantle of next-gen American tennis stars.

Of course, he shouldn't rest on his laurels. Another one prone to letting emotions get the better of his game -- and his off-court behavior -- he still has a lot of work to do in Bangkok. Though he was impressive in his dismissal of fourth-seeded Guillermo Garcia-Lopez on Thursday, he still potentially faces a challenge from world #9 Gael Monfils if he's going to make his first Tour final. It's not out of his reach, but something he'll need to keep his focus in order to achieve.

Unlike these guys, Marcos Baghdatis isn't one susceptible to throwing tantrums -- the friendly Cypriot is one of the calmest guys on Tour -- but his game is certainly one with ups and downs. Once ranked in the top ten, he failed to defend most of his points from last summer and has since fallen out of the top fifty. This year he's beaten Juan Martin Del Potro and Andy Murray, but also lost eleven opening rounds.

He took a wildcard entry into Kuala Lumpur, though, and opened with a solid victory over quick-rising Alex Bogomolov, Jr. He followed it up with a win over Somdev Devvarman, a man with whom he's split his last two meetings. He'll face doubles start Jurgen Melzer next, but the Austrian has been a little spotty himself recently and hasn't made a third round since July. If Baghdatis is at his best, I wouldn't be surprised to see an upset here too.

Serbian star Janko Tipsarevic is similarly likely to see his game break down. Last year after stunning Andy Roddick in the second round of the U.S. Open he promptly dropped in four sets to Gael Monfils. And back in February he was in total control versus Del Potro in the Delray Beach final before he broke down and ceded victory to the Argentine. But though he squandered his chance in another final in Eastbourne, he finally seemed to gain ground late in the summer -- he made the semifinals in Montreal and broke into the top fifteen after reaching the quarters in New York.

That record was enough to get him a third seed in Kuala Lumpur, where today he made the final eight with a win over Flavio Cipolla. The road only gets harder from her, as he next faces one-time world #3 Nikolay Davydenko, who's in the process of getting himself back together after his own injury sabbatical. The Russian has won their previous two meetings, but the last one was more than three years ago. If Tipsarevic is able to play as consistently has he had the last few months, he should make good on his favored position.

It's important for all these guys to keep momentum on their side. We've still got a few weeks to go before the end of their season, but this is certainly not the time to start slacking off. After all, none of us want to see another set of slumps that rival what's already happened in September -- especially the players themselves.

September 26, 2011

Before Moving On...

This week the men begin their tour of Asia in the last leg of the 2011 season. But before traveling to the other side of the globe, a couple spent this past weekend getting in their last blows in Europe, and those that prospered most are on their way to ending their year on the highest note.

On the red clay of Bucharest -- that's right, we're still not done with the dirt -- some players were right at home. Defending champion and top-seed Juan Ignacio Chela made his way to the semis without dropping a set, but he was eventually bested by Casablanca winner Pablo Andujar. On the bottom half of the draw, Munich finalist Florian Mayer, who survived a close call to Carlos Berlocq in his opener, eventually reached his fifth career championship match, playing in top form.

Mayer's experience eventually got the better of the Spaniard as he survived a trade-of-breaks in the first set and capitalized on a double fault by his opponent to draw even. He won eight games in a row and ran off to a 5-0 lead in the second, virtually sealing the match. After just over an hour the twenty-seven year old German was hoisting his first ever trophy, proving it's never too late to make a stand in this sport.

A little further west in Metz, the top seeds were again putting on a show. Fresh off a Davis Cup drubbing, hometown boy Jo-Wilfried Tsonga rebounded quickly and ran to the final -- his third of the year -- with wins over (lower case) marathon man Nicolas Mahut and rising star Alexandr Dolgopolov. And though world #15 Richard Gasquet was upended in his second match, veteran Ivan Ljubicic made good on the opening to advance to his second final of the year, outperforming his fourth seeding.

But things again proceeded as the numbers suggested. Tsonga got off to a quick start, taking the opening set in under forty minutes, but squandered a break lead in the second as the Croat forced a tiebreak and a deciding set. The Frenchman regained control, though, forging ahead early in the third and finally closing out the match. It was his first title since 2009, but more importantly it bumped him up the World Tour Finals rankings, where he now stands at #7. If he holds on, it would be his first appearance at the year-end championships since 2008, and the way he's playing recently, could be his best chance yet to make a big statement.

While most other players in the sport were traveling to Asia, it seems the decision to stay in the Western Hemisphere has behooved both of this weekend's champions. And as the season winds down there could be no better time to take advantage of every opportunity. Because once they make it over to the other continent, everyone should be put on notice.

September 22, 2011

The Asian Swings

The courts at the U.S. Open aren't event cold yet and already the ladies have made their way to the other side of the globe for the first leg of the fall season. And some players are already wielding their racquets in an attempt to end their years on a high note.

There haven't been too many huge upsets at the Guangzhou International Women's Open, where three of the four remaining athletes are seeded at the event. Though defending champion Jarmila Gajdasova was ousted earlier today, top seed Maria Kirilenko -- a real fighter, as she proved in New York -- has been relentless in her progress. The world #28 hasn't won a title since 2008, but has so far not dropped a set in China, and with a semifinal meeting against Chanelle Scheepers, who proved herself a journeywoman against Francesca Schiavone in her U.S. Open third round, she has a good chance to at least get back to a final -- the South African has played deciders in all three of her matches so far, and eventually the effort will catch up with her.

But the real story in Guangzhou has been homegrown Jie Zheng, once ranked fifteenth in the world. A semifinalist in Melbourne last year, she notched wins over Maria Sharapova and now-retired Elena Dementieva in 2010, but a wrist injury has largely kept her out of contention for the last twelve months. Now hanging around the low eighties, she's way out of seeding territory, but you know she's capable of doing damage well beyond her rank. So far, she's taken out Alberta Brianti and Petra Martic. And if she truly is back in form, I wouldn't be surprised to see her handle Magdalena Rybarikova in the semis and make a real push for this title.

The stakes were slightly higher in Seoul, where four of the top twenty-five women in the world entered the draw, but the upsets were also more striking. Last year's French Open champion Schiavone dropped her opener to Vera Dushevina and talented, if not slightly spotty, Marion Bartoli fell one round later, giving American doubles specialist Vania King her first ever top-ten victory. That opens the door for remaining seeds like Dominika Cibulkova who, at twenty-two -- in rank and in age -- still hasn't claimed that maiden title. She's shown signs of brilliance, of course, beating world #1 Caroline Wozniacki twice this year and scoring victories over Sharapova and Vera Zvonareva to boot, but she has yet to really shine. If she can make it past the quarters, though, this could be her turn.

Unfortunately for Cibu, she's in the same half of the draw as a girl who's having her own breakthrough this year. Kazakhstan's Galina Voskoboeva has been pro for nearly a decade, but hadn't spent a lot of time in the top hundred -- consistent performances on the ITF Tour and upsets of several top-thirty players, though, has pushed her to a new level. She isn't seeded in Seoul, but pulled off wins over Ekaterina Makarova and veteran Iveta Benesova already on her way to the quarters. She next faces Dushevina, not an easy task, as she's lost four of their five previous meetings, but certainly less intimidating than the Slam titleist she should have met.

There aren't many more weeks left in the 2011 season, and as the ladies wrap up there is a chance for some to prove they belong with the big girls and others to make a name for themselves. There's no telling yet who'll ultimately end up on top, but those who swing the hardest now may be the ones who hold the advantage.

September 18, 2011

New on the Scene

The ladies in the winners' circles this weekend are far from household names. But with the four who contested the trophies all going after their maiden crowns, it might not be long before they find themselves more in the spotlight. Twenty-year-old Ksenia Pervak came to Uzbekistan with on of her more successful summers. She'd made the fourth round at Wimbledon with wins over Shahar Peer and Andrea Petkovic and run to the finals at Baku. A shade off her highest-ever ranking, the fifty-second ranked player was still the top seed in Tashkent and worked her way through the draw without dropping a set. There she met little-known Czech Eva Birnerova, a pro for almost ten years who's spent most of her career making a mark on the ITF tour. She had a tougher road to the championship match, having three set victories two rounds in a row and advancing when Alla Kudryavtseva retired up a set in their semi. Easily the less experienced player in Saturday's match, Birnerova didn't put up much of a fight, allowing Pervak to win about two-thirds of her return points, breaking serve seven times. It was only the Russian's second final of her career, but with the way she's been playing this year, I wouldn't be surprised to see her around much more in the coming months. In Quebec City the stakes might have been a little higher, as the top four seeds all held rankings at least better than fifty. But world #23 Daniela Hantuchova was stopped in the third round by New Zealand's Marina Erakovic on the way to her first ever Tour final -- she hadn't made a semi since 2008. On the bottom half of the draw, Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, fourteen times a doubles champion, benefitted from the early departure of Lucie Safarova as she made her first final since Prague last year. Though Erakovic got off to a good start, the tables turned quickly and the Czech #7 -- ranked globally at #75 -- only dropped one game in the last thirteen. Playing some of her most aggressive tennis now, at twenty-five years of age, she should see her profile in the sport much enhanced. All these ladies have the potential to do some damage among the ranks of the top stars, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them take the confidence they gained this weekend into future matches. It could take a while for them to make the biggest impact, but they've certainly shown how capable they are of doing it now.

September 16, 2011

Right Back At It

It hasn't even been a week since the last ball of the U.S. Open was struck, but that hasn't prevented some of the sport's biggest stars from representing their countries in the Davis Cup semifinals and World Group play-offs. And while newly-minted New York champion Novak Djokovic bowed out of his first rubber, plenty others who were pushed to the limit last week were out and swinging in the first day of the weekend's battles.

Runner-up Rafael Nadal might have been upset that he was unable to defend his title from last year, but he showed no signs of that on Friday when he took on France's Richard Gasquet on the clay of Spain. A tricky player, Gasquet has handed losses to the likes of Jurgen Melzer and Andy Roddick already this year, and cannot be overlooked. But Nadal made quick work of his opponent, winning all but two points on second serve and only allowing the Frenchman twelve on return. It took just over two hours to give Spain the early lead in the tie -- the desire to prove something runs strong in this one, it seems, as it's at least the second time he's taken out recent disappointment on a Davis Cup challenge.

Teammate David Ferrer suffered a similar upset in New York when the fifth seed fell to recently cut-down Andy Roddick in the round of sixteen. But against world #11 Gilles Simon, who himself suffered an early defeat to sub-twenty American John Isner at Flushing Meadows, Ferrer was indomitable -- he committed far fewer errors and broke his opponent an astonishing eight times during the match. The two-tie deficit will be pretty hard for last year's second place finishers to overcome now.

Over in Belgrade, the defending champions were down their biggest star, and that certainly put them at a disadvantage to the power-players on Argentina's team. Veteran David Nalbandian, who received a bit of a reprieve by facing Viktor Troicki instead of white-hot Novak Djokovic, nevertheless was relentless against the much-higher ranked Serb. After splitting the first two sets, he raised his game in the last two, withstanding fifteen total aces and staying aggressive himself. It was his first top-twenty win since January and reminded us that the nearly-thirty year old isn't going anywhere just yet.

Several hours later, 2009 U.S. Open champ Juan Martin Del Potro, who had his return in New York staunched earlier than I would have hoped, continued his comeback. In a rematch of the Delray Beach final, this time he was in control from the start against Janko Tipsarevic. His straight set win gave Argentina a two-tie lead over last year's victors, which could be hard to overcome without Djokovic in the mix.

The action wasn't all among those contesting the World Group semis, however. Down in the play-off level of Davis Cup, U.S. Open semifinalist Roger Federer was fighting for the chance to elevate Switzerland in next year's games. After compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka put them in a hole by losing to Australian upstart Bernard Tomic, the team's main man took the court versus fellow journeyman Lleyton Hewitt, a man who won their most recent meeting in Halle last year. But after losing the first set, the Grand Slam master eventually got the better of Hewitt, bringing the Swiss even with their opponents. It's got to boost the confidence of the man who blew two chances to make the U.S. Open finals.

It's true that there is no rest for the weary, and with even players who were around through championship weekend still showing up for their homelands, you know how important the Davis Cup is to them. And for whoever wins, they'll have the pleasure of knowing they had to beat the best to do it.

September 13, 2011

How Times Have Changed

By now we all know that last night, after four-plus hours of top-notch rallies, impossible gets, stunning winners and all-out fighting in Arthur Ashe Stadium we have crowned a brand new U.S. Open champion.

World #1 Novak Djokovic, already the winner of two Grand Slams this year, came out swinging after a grueling five-set semifinal victory over Roger Federer and was relentless against defending champion Rafael Nadal Monday. He built up a somewhat surprising two-set lead, and though he squandered an early advantage in the third, he eventually closed out the title, 6-1 in four sets.

The match itself was fantastic, with both men showing the true resolve of champions, the willingness and ability to get to every shot, and the determination not to give up. But more importantly it displayed the new state of tennis -- one that tried and true veterans cannot keep up with and one that young upstarts will find hard to crack.

Rafael Nadal's three titles this year are a far cry from the seven he won in 2010. But has played in nine finals, eight of which were either Majors or Masters tournaments. He's a pit bull, and though he's been plagued by injuries on an off, he's only lost before the quarterfinals of an event once this year -- just three times since the 2008 French Open. He's racked up a higher-than-usual number of losses this year, most of them to Djokovic, but even when he should be challenged, he somehow comes up with the better play and is able to triumph. It's the reason he has at least one Grand Slam title for each of the last seven years.

But clearly this year, Novak Djokovic has been his -- and everyone else's -- foil. Now rocking a 64-2 record, he also has nineteen wins over top ten opponents, and his only losses came to people in the top four. Every time you think he has to be exhausted he manages to get his racquet on one more ball and find the sharpest angle to make his shot. There are plenty of reasons -- improved fitness, a special diet, a new confidence in his game -- but the bottom line is that he really is that good. And week after week he's only gotten better. His tenth title of the year -- second place Robin Soderling only has four -- just backs up his dominance further.

So what is everyone else to do?

Roger Federer is the only other active (and contending) player out there who has more than one Major title under his belt. He's certainly not out of the picture yet, and conceivably has another Slam or two in his future, but it certainly looks like he's finding it harder to compete with the big guys. He held two match points in this weekend's semi but couldn't convert, and has now marked the first time since 2002 -- the year in which the great Swiss just cracked the top ten -- he did not win a Slam. He only made one final and hasn't taken any title since Doha in January. For him to break the Nole/Rafa stranglehold on the big events -- together they've won the last seven -- he might have to hope his younger contemporaries take out the stiffest competition for him.

Highlighting those contemporaries, of course, is world #4 Andy Murray, whose performance at the Slams does admittedly improve every year. He's played in all four semis this year, the first time he's ever accomplished that feat, and I'm frankly surprised he hasn't won one yet. He certainly has the game to do so -- he's won a soli seven Masters titles, holds an impressive 8-6 record over Federer, and probably would have won the final in Cincinnati even if Nole hadn't retired. Yet deep into the fortnights of the big tournaments he always seems to struggle -- he hasn't won a single set in any of the three finals he's played.

Juan Martin Del Potro, of course, has been the only man other than Roger, Rafa and Nole to win a Slam since 2005, and so he clearly cannot be discounted. A lengthy lay-off from injury ended in fits and starts, but he did seem to get his game back together this year with titles in Estoril and Delray. I'm a bit surprised he didn't make a deeper run this year in New York, but as he returns to top form, I'd expect him to take a big part on the championship podium the next few years.

As for everyone else, sure there will be chances for others to shine. I'd love for Andy Roddick to win again in New York or Mardy Fish to have a late-career breakthrough. Youngsters like Bernard Tomic and Milos Raonic also certainly have shown they can cause a stir in the brackets, and once their games mature their names can get sprinkled in the mix.

Until then, though, we might have to get used to a new era -- one those at the top will not give up any time soon.

September 12, 2011

Drama, Drama, Drama

It wouldn't be a night out in New York if a couple of heated sparks didn't fly. But thankfully, this time around, those sparks didn't cause too big a fire.

Three-time U.S. Open champion Serena Williams and last year's French Open finalist Sam Stosur took the court Sunday evening in what promised to be one of more thrilling women's finals we've seen in a while. But the most exciting moments of the match came, not from a fantastic shot or a drawn-out rally, but from a chair umpire's decision and the ensuing fall-out.

The storyline, if not the details, seems familiar. Serving at 30-40 in the first game of the second set, Williams prematurely and loudly celebrated a shot that probably would have been a winner. But because the shout came before Stosur got to the ball, Eva Asderaki -- neither the official from the 2009 foot-fault debacle nor the one from Serena's famed 2004 quarterfinal with Jennifer Capriati -- penalized the American for intentional hindrance and, rather than calling a let as commentators suggested was appropriate, awarded the point and, incidentally the break of serve, to Stosur.

It didn't come at quite as crucial a point in the match as did the penalty two years ago -- the commotion actually got the crowd on Serena's side, and she was able to draw back even the very next game -- but it did set off another angry tirade from Williams. She accused Asderaki of "screwing" her over again, apparently mistaking her for Mariana Alves who officiated in '04, and threatened during the changeover, "If you ever see me walking down the hall, walk the other way." Several points later she was still fuming over the code violation.

In the end, of course, it wasn't the "free" point, but the quality of Stosur's play that won her the match. She won more than seventy percent of her first serve points and committed half the number of errors as her opponent. She got her racquet on most balls Serena hit and was able to catch her off balance more than a few times with her own serve. She was able to withstand the noise and distraction that began the second set and kept her cool when she became the accidental villain in the crowd's eye. And when a forehand from Williams sailed wide on a second match point, it was Stosur who raised her arms in stunned victory.

It's a shame, of course, that the match will be remembered more for Williams' outburst than for Stosur's win. But the latter shouldn't be ignored -- after watching Sam play earlier in the week, I felt she was probably the only player in the field capable of absorbing and handing back the power Serena could dole out. And if you watched her Sunday, you have to appreciate the way she earned her victory -- with skill, focus and very little drama.

September 11, 2011

A Day to Remember

For several reasons today carries a lot of meaning for so many, New Yorkers in particular. So it's only appropriate that we take the opportunity to remember and honor those we lost on this date, ten years ago. But at the same time, it's reassuring to know that we are able to find escape and enjoyment in things today, and the four men and women left standing at the U.S. Open have done more than their part to give us a show. It might not be the matches we expected at the outset, but both finals promise to deliver sparks we'll be talking about for a long time.

The ladies will contest their final later this afternoon, less than twenty-four hours after they each booked their spots.

Sam Stosur seems to have regained the form that made her the favorite at last year's French Open. The hard-hitting Australian was tested in some early rounds, going three sets against both Nadia Petrova and Maria Kirilenko last weekend, but breezed into the semis with a straight-set win over 2010 runner-up Vera Zvonareva. Last night versus world #92 Angelique Kerber she was seemingly in control before the German took the middle set but finally came through to reach her second Major final.

In the late match last night 2008 champion Serena Williams continued her comeback and added to the doubts swirling around world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who's now gone just about a year in the top spot without a Grand Slam title. Though she's shown a bit more vulnerability in recent matches, she's largely dominated her opponents, one by one, and leads the field in serving and acing statistics. Now the only player in any draw who hasn't dropped a set, she's clearly the one with experience on her side on Sunday.

The two have met a handful of times over the past few years, with Serena taking their last match in Toronto in two quick sets. But Stosur should take heart in their amazing Roland Garros quarterfinal last year, which produced some of the best points of the tournament -- she won that battle to establish herself in the top ten. It's true that her route to the final might have left her a bit winded, but this has the potential to be the best-contested championship on the women's side we've seen in a long time.

On the men's side Rafael Nadal made his way to a second consecutive final in New York with his win over Andy Murray last night. Both were playing matches on back-to-back days, but the Spaniard was the fresher from the start. After taking a relatively quick two-set lead, he finally gave up a break in the third, but was able to hold on for the win in a relatively uneventful match. After some early losses over the summer and limited hardcourt play, I'm not sure many believed the world #2 would repeat the run, but it's good to see him hitting and moving as effortlessly as always.

He might even have the advantage over his opponent, top-ranked Novak Djokovic who withstood a brutal five set marathon in the first semi contested yesterday. After losing the first two sets to five-time champion Roger Federer, it looked as though the Serb was down for the count. He managed to get and hold onto a break early in the third and somehow even forced a decider, but when Fed took the lead it seemed all his efforts were for naught. But somewhere in him, he found the strength to save two match points, draw back even, and ultimately serve out the match. It was the fourth time Djokovic had beaten the legend this year and avenged his loss in the Paris semis -- famously one of only two losses he's so far suffered this year.

So under some of the most unlikely circumstances the top two men in the world will play for the U.S. Open trophy tomorrow. Nadal, of course, holds the overall lead in their head-to-head history and won their meeting here just last year, but the margin has significantly narrowed over the last nine months with Djokovic winning all five of their face-offs in 2011, including, somewhat surprisingly, the Wimbledon championship. It's been a strange and exciting struggle to watch, and one you have to think will end sooner-or-later. But his long semi notwithstanding, Djokovic's game is certainly more suited to this surface, and something tells me we could be in for a good fight on Monday.

It's nice to know that on this anniversary date there are still some things out there that can make us smile and cheer and leave our deeper concerns aside for just a little while. It's a tough day for all of us, but we can take comfort in the fact that life can go on from here, and if we're lucky there's some good tennis along the way.

September 8, 2011

Raining Reining It In

After two days of virtually no play at the U.S. Open, the grounds were finally abuzz again Thursday, as players and fans packed all the courts at Flushing Meadows and tried to cram in as much tennis as they could. There were some upsets, some breakthroughs, and some serious beat-downs, and as we draw ever closer to determining this year's titleists, even with more storms in the forecast, it's clear that the ones who will prosper are those who've best controlled themselves during some very adverse conditions.

The men finished up their fourth round matches first, many resuming sets they'd barely started Wednesday -- understandably, to the complaints of several. Defending champion Rafael Nadal and #4 seed Andy Murray each had fairly simple days, with the Spaniard overcoming a early break by Gilles Murray to win the match in straights and the Scot powering through five games in a row to claim the first set before finishing off Donald Young in under two hours. Both were clear beneficiaries of their experience, and never allowed their opponents to play catch-up in matches that should have been completed two years ago.

Over on the outer courts, two Americans found a way to power through higher-ranked players despite delays, court bubbling and an unusual change in locale. John Isner, who never began his match on Wednesday, came back from a break down against former top-ten player Gilles Simon to win the first set in a tiebreak. About two hours later he withstood losing the lead in the fourth and ultimately notched the upset, making his first ever Slam quarterfinal. At about the same time, 2003 U.S. Open champ Andy Roddick was finishing up a match way out on Court 13, usually reserved for little-known players and juniors matches. Having his match suspended yesterday after securing a break, he was unflustered on resumption, taking a two-set lead and finally closing out the win over fifth-seeded David Ferrer in about two-and-a-half hours. That earned the veteran his best performance here since 2008 and showed he still might have what it takes to get a big win.

When those men were done, the ladies took the courts to contest their quarterfinals. World #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who displayed some real fight in her fourth round, late-night match against Svetlana Kuznetsova Monday, was similarly relentless against feisty Andrea Petkovic. After grabbing the early lead quickly, she failed on her first attempt to serve out the match in the second, but ultimately won the tiebreak to make her third straight semifinal here. She'll have to meet non-paper favorite Serena Williams to advance, though, and the American continues to play some of her best ball. Though she traded breaks with young Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for the first six games of their match, she ultimately held strong to make her nineteenth Major semi, and you gotta like her chances here on out.

The upsets, though, came in the bottom half of the women's bracket. Last year's runner-up Vera Zvonareva was slated against Sam Stosur, herself a Grand Slam finalist in 2010, who must have been thrilled for the respite after battling through two long three-setters in her previous two rounds. The Australian took control early, dropping just four points on first serve in the opening set, and quickly finished off her opponent, marking her eighth straight win over the second seed. The bigger shock, however, came in this half's other match where super-unseeded Angelique Kerber took on recent giant-killer Flavia Pennetta. In a match with sixteen breaks of serve, and incidentally the only quarterfinal that took three sets to complete, the twenty-three year old German, whose previous Major best was a couple third round appearances, was ultimately the victor.

The last couple matches that took the court today largely proceeded as expected -- or at least as you'd expect these days. Novak Djokovic was slightly spotty against compatriot Janko Tipsarevic for two sets, giving up and getting back breaks all over the place, but won nine games in a row before his friend retired midway through the fourth set. And in the night session grudge match between Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the five-time champion had an early break before, once-again, rain halted play.

Of course the schedule for the rest of the tournament has been somewhat turned on its head, and with a less-than-inspring forecast the next few days threatening more stop-and-go action, everyone left will have to continue to keep their cool on the court. There will certainly be more frustration and delays ahead, but if the players can stay focused and protect their games and their safety, we have the prospect of several days of great tennis ahead of us!

September 6, 2011

Time to Play Catch-Up

So it's wet out. Like really, really wet.

And for the first time since kick-off, the grounds at the U.S. Open are completely quiet except for the patter of raindrops, and play for Day 9 was entirely cancelled.

Yes, it wreaks havoc on players' schedules and certainly scrunches up the timetable for the remaining days. But on the plus side, it does give me a chance to take a bit of a breath and reflect on what we've seen so far.

The women have their quarterfinals set, while half the men's field has also been decided. And with just twenty singles players remaining in the draws, there are some surprisingly low numbers next to the names of many -- and a couple with no number at all that have a chance to do something big.

The top five men in the draws are still alive and kicking -- two of whom have already locked their spot in the final eight. World #1 Novak Djokovic has set up a meeting with friend and compatriot Janko Tipsarevic, who's playing in his first ever Major quarter. Seeded twentieth, the lesser-known Serb has already ousted 2010 Wimbledon runner-up Tomas Berdych and was pretty solid in his dismissal of former top-dog Juan Carlos Ferrero on Monday, but his chances of advancing further may be slim now. He's never beaten Nole, and though he's a far better player now than during previous meetings, I'm not sure he's up to the pressure yet to make the semis.

The more interesting established match should be the battle between five-time champion Roger Federer and the man who's beaten him twice already this year -- once at Wimbledon -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman was severely battle-tested by Mardy Fish on Labor Day, but fought back from a two-set-to-one deficit to notch his best-ever showing in New York. He seems to have found his game and certainly has the better chance of causing an upset.

In the bottom half of the draw, the men are up against a bit more of a struggle. Tuesday's weather-induced cancellations mean that the one who ultimately emerges faces the potential of four matches in five days -- not a fun prospect this late in the season.

Defending champion Rafael Nadal may have a bit of an early pass, meeting unseeded Gilles Muller in his fourth round match, but with either 2003 champ Andy Roddick or world #5 David Ferrer, who beat Nadal this year in Australia, waiting in the wings, it's not much of a respite. Roddick, playing with his lowest ranking at a Major in eight years, has something to prove. He lost a heartbreaker to the Spaniard in Davis Cup a few months back. I wouldn't be surprised to see a drawn-out fight for the quarterfinal berth -- one which might ultimately benefit Rafa.

Things could get a bit tighter in the final quarter where Andy Murray is the on-paper favorite. But he was stunned by his next opponent, brash American Donald Young the last time they met in Indian Wells and the homecrowd favorite may have the adrenaline to push through. The final U.S.'er in the draw, John Isner, will try to go one better than his previous best Slam showing when he takes on Gilles Simon. He is again the big underdog here and hasn't faced a seeded opponent yet, but fresh off a title in Winston Salem he has momentum well on his side.

In the ladies' draw, the picture somehow looks very different. While two quarters have actually played out more or less according to seeds, despite some early upsets, the other two have sort of made a mess of things -- at least on paper.

Top seeded Caroline Wozniacki survived a huge battle on Monday, down a set and a break to 2004 U.S. Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova before rallying to return to the quarters. She may not have the power of many of her contemporaries, but her win must have at least proven to her detractors that she's not going to give up. Of course, it'll be tough -- next up is Andrea Petkovic, a woman new to the top ten and who has split wins with the Dane already this year. Pundits are giving Caro the mental edge, but something tells me it won't be nearly as easy as everyone thinks.

Last year's runner-up Vera Zvonareva showed similar guts in her fourth round match against Sabine Lisicki, someone I figured would put up a much better fight than she did. But the Russian was merciless on her opponent's serve and only dropped one break point. For her efforts she'll face Sam Stosur, the woman who drubbed her last year in Charleston. In most cases I'd give the Australian an edge, but she's struggled through two long matches and seemed to show vulnerability at times where she should have dominated. Tables might just turn in Vera's favor.

The third quarter of the women's draws features two ladies I'm pretty sure no one expected to make it this far. Flavia Pennetta was once the first Italian in the top ten, but several early round losses this year and the failure to depend her Marbella title pushed her out of the spotlight. She slammed her way back in when she stunned Maria Sharapova last Friady and followed it up with another straight-set upset of Shuai Peng. She will be rewarded with a quarterfinal match against the only non-seeded player left in the quarters, world #92 Angelique Kerber. She's backed up her second round win over Aggie Radwanska and has a huge chance to make her first Slam semi. But money has to go with experience, and something tells me this is Pennetta's time to shine.

And while you have to applaud everyone's efforts to get this far, you can't ignore the favorite hanging out in the last section of the bracket, twenty-eighth seed and three-time champion Serena Williams. Though her ranking is technically hindered by a lack of play the last year, titles in Stanford and Toronto -- and of course her performance in New York the last week-plus -- announce she really is the one to beat. She's lost serve here and there, but has mostly overwhelmed each opponent and seems to have a clear path to the title. Of course, the next step will be to get past a feisty Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who had a breakthrough against Francesca Schiavone with her win on Monday. It's the best Major performance for the youngest player in the top fifty, and it's a shame it will probably end tomorrow. But if she can at least put up a fight it will bode very well for her future.

At the moment forecasts are for the rain to continue tomorrow, and maybe for a few days after that. It looks like it could be a jam-packed schedule at the end of the week. But as the players have time to rest up and recoup and reflect on what lies ahead, I hope they'll be able to bring their best in the back half of the fortnight.

It certainly has the potential to be something interesting.

September 2, 2011

Young Bloods and Old Hat

Watching coverage of the U.S. Open in the States, you'd think the only people playing here are upstart Americans.

It's a common yet understandable mistake we media makes, especially in an age where we're salivating for The Next Big Thing to emerge in our sport. But while some new faces are the ones grabbing headlines, other tried-and-true veterans -- from many countries of origin -- are quietly sneaking through the draws and could be ready to pounce in Week Two.

That's not to discount the achievements of my young countrymen and women. Donald Young, long touted as a member of the future elite, pulled off his biggest win at a Major when he beat world #14 Stanislas Wawrinka earlier today. And eighteen-year-old Sloane Stephens highlighted her first two Slam wins by defeating twenty-third seed Shahar Peer on Thursday, while Christina McHale took her rightful place in the spotlight when she played a night session on Arthur Ashe in her third round versus Maria Kirilenko.

The top seeds, of course, have mostly advanced without drama, the only exception being Maria Sharapova's surprising upset by a suddenly resurgent Flavia Pennetta this afternoon. And former champions -- Serena Williams, Juan Martin Del Potro -- have barely sweat in the past few days, and not just because the late August New York weather has been so beautifully mild. But these aren't necessarily the biggest stories of the fortnight either. So let's take a look at the players no one is watching.

Shuai Peng was the surprise stand-out in Melbourne where, while ranked #54 in the world, she stunned Jelena Jankovic in the second round and nearly took out Aggie Radwanska two matches later. She's since climbed into the top twenty and notched wins over players like Francesca Schiavone, Na Li and Vera Zvonareva. She hasn't lost a set yet in New York and earlier today stopped Julia Goerges's deepest USO run in under two hours. She next faces giant-killer Pennetta, a woman who's beaten her in their last four meetings, but that was when she was a much different player. And with the draws opened up so much now, there's no reason she can't keep it up.

To do so, though, she may eventually have to make it past 2010 French Open finalist Sam Stosur who, after a three-plus battle with Nadia Petrova Friday night, earned her way to her second straight fourth round in Flushing Meadows. Since climbing all the way to #4 in the world, the Australian's been pretty quiet this year, but has had strokes of brilliance, losing finals in Rome and Toronto to previous Grand Slam champions. She dominated both Sofia Arvidsson and Coco Vandeweghe in the early rounds, but really shone against the Russian, coming back from a break down in the third to finally secure the win. Hopefully she won't be too worn down when she takes on Kirilenko in the next match -- she could be the surprise contender for this title.

On the men's side David Ferrer leads the second tier of power players. A semifinalist here in 2007, he's already won two titles and three runner's-up trophies this year. He beat Milos Raonic and Rafael Nadal in Australia and climbed his way back to his highest ranking in almost three years. He lost his first set at the Open to Igor Andreev, but rebounded quickly and followed up with a straight-set win over my dear James Blake earlier today. Next up for the veteran Spaniard is Florian Meyer -- they have a fairly close history, but Ferrer's experience and comfort on a hardcourt should help him win in the end.

At the bottom of the draw, former world #3 David Nalbandian has been working his way back up the rankings. He's been battling injury for most of the year, winning just a handful of matches since making the finals in Auckland. He's probably well past his prime, but after beating fellow veteran and thirtieth seed Ivan Ljubicic in four sets Friday, he's shown he still has fight left in him. Of course his next battle will be against defending champion Rafael Nadal, who is looking in better form than he has all summer. But if the Argentine can catch Rafa a bit off his game, we could see a mighty big upset.

Sure it would be great if some of the young guns out there were able to keep up their win streaks -- they wouldn't be the first Cinderella's in New York. But there are some very real threats lurking in the shadows, and at any moment it could be their turn to shine.