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.

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