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.

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