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.

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