August 24, 2012

U.S. Open: Draw Analysis

Maybe it's the strength of the field, maybe it's the vulnerability of some favorites, maybe it's just me, but the draws for this year's U.S. Open sure seem to hold the potential for more than a few big upsets, and right from the get-go. Sure the top seeds still have the advantage, but even they're not all safe, and depending on how things work out through the rest of the brackets, we might see some surprising faces hanging around in the second week. And maybe even beyond that.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

Roger Federer holds the top seed at a Slam for the first time in over two years, and after a title in Cincy and Olympic Silver, that's no figurehead position. He kicks off his quest for a sixth U.S. Open crown against Donald Young, the Cinderella here last year, but a man who's scored just one win in his last nineteen matches. Tomas Berdych may have a slightly tougher time against French Open standout David Goffin -- the young Belgian has been climbing the ranks this year -- but as the former Wimbledon runner-up might be out for blood after the disappointing summer he's had.

There is room for more sparks to fly elsewhere in this quarter, though. I hadn't paid much attention to eleventh seed Nicolas Almagro for a few months, and was surprised to realize he's made at least the quarters of all but one event he's played since mid-May. He's never been a huge threat in New York, though, and with an opening round against always threatening Radek Stepanek, this may not be his year either. And Sam Querrey, who's worked all year to get back into seeding territory will need to bring the heat from the start. He actually has a fairly easy draw early on, and if he can get past Berdych in the third round I wouldn't be surprised to see him battle Federer in the quarters.

There is one little section where really anything can happen -- Mardy Fish and Gilles Simon are joined by players like Ivo Karlovic, Nikolay Davydenko and Michael Russell, any of whom could pounce on their opponents' weaknesses. I'd love to see Fish defend points here, but if anyone expends too much energy early, this section could blow up by the third round.

Who'll survive? This quarter is Fed's for the taking, but if Querrey hangs tough enough, he might put up a fight for the semi spot.

Second Quarter

Defending champion Novak Djokovic isn't exactly having a bad year, but with just three titles so far this year compared to the nine he'd wracked up by this time last August, it sure seems like he's fallen out of favor. But he shouldn't see any real challenge until the third round when he faces off against Julien Benneteau, and even then he's the clear favorite. The other half of the section is a little less certain. Juan Martin Del Potro, who beat Djokovic for the Bronze medal in London, has been cleared to play with an injured wrist, but could still face problems early against countryman David Nalbandian. And with big hitters like Andreas Seppi and Ryan Harrison lingering in his immediate future, I'm nervous he won't last long.

There are a couple of spoilers in this section too -- Alexandr Dolgopolov and Stanislas Wawrinka have both had some strong results this summer, and could meet each other in the third round. They've both had varying degrees of success here in the past, and the way they're hitting the ball, it's a shame that only one of them has a shot at making another fourth round.

But if you're looking for a real surprise in this quarter, keep an eye on tenth seeded Juan Monaco -- the veteran Argentine cracked the top ten last month thanks to a super-strong clay season, but a run to the Miami semis in March proves he can hit on hardcourts as well. He'll be challenged at the start though -- former world #23 Guillermo Garcia Lopez is his first round opponent and Andy Roddick, Bernard Tomic and Carlos Berlocq all could raise their game to outplay their rankings. But if Monaco keeps his cool, he could make his deepest run here yet

Who'll survive? Experience and talent still favors Nole -- he's made at least the semis in New York for five straight years, and doesn't seem at all ready to let that stop now.

Third Quarter

Andy Murray comes to New York again with the weight of the world -- or at least of Great Britain -- on his shoulders, so he's going to want to deliver. He's made the final here before but after taking Olympic Gold a repeat of that performance won't be enough to placate his fans. He opens against Alex Bogomolov, another man who had a nice showing here last year -- the Russian-turned American-returned Russian did win their first meeting, but he's been dropping points all year and shouldn't be much of a challenge to the Scot.

A bigger challenge should come from his potential fourth round against Milos Raonic -- the big serving Canadian won their only previous match, with each ceding a walkover at two other scheduled meetings, but that win came on clay and is far from indicative of either's strengths. This is a match where sparks could fly.

The other top seed in this section is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, unfortunately slated to meet Murray in the quarterfinals. He faces off against a qualifier in his first round, but could meet just-seeded Jeremy Chardy, the man who beat him in his Toronto opener just a few weeks ago, in the third. The lower-ranked Frenchman seems to be on the upswing -- he also took out Murray in Cincinnati -- and can't be overlooked by anyone in this section.

Who'll survive? It's a strange quarter, this one -- two players in the top six, a couple "underdogs" who've upset the favorites, and more than a handful of qualifiers. Really, it's anyone's to take and, not to upset the ardent Murray fans, I think it'll be Raonic and Tsonga battling for this semi spot.

Fourth Quarter

The last quarter of the men's bracket might be the most unusual -- David Ferrer got the benefit of Rafael Nadal's withdrawal from the Open, and so the world #5 comes to New York leading his quarter. But for his efforts he was rewarded with a first round against just unseeded Kevin Anderson, a player who has spent a little more time on American hardcourts this summer. Meanwhile Janko Tipsarevic, last year's surprise quarterfinalist, could meet 2012 uber-Cinderella Brian Baker in his second round. Both favorites clearly have experience on their side, but I wouldn't be surprised to see either underdog pull off an upset.

There are more than a couple interesting first rounds in this section, though. Tommy Haas takes on Ernests Gulbis, who's spent his whole summer trying to rebuild his ranking. Still out of the top 150, he's nevertheless scored wins over Anderson, Xavier Malisse and Tomas Berdych this year and might be able to take advantage if the German is too tired after his summer. Malisse has also been scoring some impressive wins this season -- Florian Mayer in Bucharest, Gilles Simon at Wimbledon -- and could give John Isner, my New Year's pick to win the title, a run for the money in their opener. And two rising stars -- Grigor Dimitrov and Benoit Paire -- will also face off in their first round. With nearly identical win-loss records on the year, it's a shame one of them will have to go home early.

And one relatively low seed could cause some trouble in this section -- Phillipp Kohlschreiber is just off a career-high ranking at #20 in the world, and with two finals and a win over Rafael Nadal on his record this year, you know he can do some damage. He's got doubles specialist Michael Llodra to start and either Dimitrov or Paire a match later. None of those are necessarily easy prospects, but if he survives he should be Isner's first real test at the Open.

Who'll survive? I picked Isner to win this whole thing, so he'll have to get through this quarter first. It won't be the easiest task but, the Kohlschreiber threat aside, he might have a better look than some other spoilers.

The Women

First Quarter

Things could get a little hairy for the ladies too. Defending champion Sam Stosur is in the same quarter as world #1 Victoria Azarenka, and with a 0-6 record against the Belarusian she won't have the easiest time defending. But that's not even the biggest threat she faces in the quarter.

Jie Zheng, previously an Australian Open and Wimbledon semifinalist, hasn't had too much success off the grass this season, but is the kind of player that can catch the favorites off guard -- she's slated to meet Azarenka in the third round. And Varvara Lepchenko squeezed into seeding territory just in time for the Open. She'll likely be Sam's third round opponent, and with a win in the pair's only meeting -- albeit several years ago -- she might have the confidence to do it again.

Possibly the most interesting third round here will come between Kim Clijsters, unbeaten in New York in her last twenty-one appearances, and Na Li, runner-up in Montreal and champion of Cincinnati. The two have had a dramatic history, with Li stunning the Belgian in Sydney last year and Kim coming back from a set down in both the 2011 and 2012 Australian Opens. This will be Clijsters' last time in Flushing Meadows, so she is the sentimental favorite, but plagued by injury most of the season she might just fall this time to the ninth seed, who's been on a roll all summer.

Who'll survive? There's a lot of strength in this quarter, with so many players proving themselves on this surface. I think it'll be Vika and Li vying for that semi spot, and momentum might just be on the Chinese woman's side again.

Second Quarter

This is where things are interesting. Second seeded Aggie Radwanska has had one of the most successful seasons on Tour, capped by a stellar performance in her first Major final last month. And though she's generally strong this part of the year, she suffered two one-sided losses to Na Li in Montreal and Cincinnati and withdrew from New Haven with a nagging shoulder injury. Even with a few easy matches early, I'm afraid she's one of the most vulnerable of the top seeds.

That could bode well for last year's Cinderella semifinalist Angelique Kerber, seeded sixth here this year. She pulled out of Dallas with her own shoulder issues after making the Cincy final, but hopefully will parlay the week off into a strong showing in New York. She'll need the rest too -- comeback kid lady Venus Williams looms as a second round opponent, assuming the American gets past countrywoman Bethanie Mattek-Sands in her first round. Venus has proven she's still a contender, making the semis in Cincinnati and beating a handful of top-ten players this year, so she should prove a formidable foe to even the best players here.

Elsewhere in this section a couple players will be looking for redemption. Jelena Jankovic put up a fight to make the Dallas final this week, but has been less than predictable most of the year -- she's slated to meet Aggie in the third. And Dominika Cibulkova, who returned to glory with a win in Carlsbad early in the summer, hasn't won a lot since. After her dismantling in the New Haven quarters, she'll want to raise her game here, but with a slew of rising stars in her immediate path -- Johanna Larsson, either Mona Barthel or Bojana Jovanovski -- it could be difficult. And Sara Errani, a breakout during the clay season has been surprisingly quiet even on the hardcourts. Hopefully her run in New Haven will prep her well for this Major.

With so many potential fireworks, it's easy to miss that Yaroslava Shvedova, a surprise in her own right this season, will face off against her oftentimes doubles partner Vania King in her opener. The two were actually runners-up here last year and won together in New York and Wimbledon back in 2010. It's always interesting to see two players so used to each other's game face off, but I'm thinking with the year Slava's having, it'll be her match to lose.

Who'll survive? It's a tough one, but I like Kerber's chances to make it through this section.

Third Quarter

Maria Sharapova has obviously been having a great year herself -- a Grand Slam final, another title, Olympic Silver, she even climbed back to #1 for a month or so. She hasn't played a lot on hardcourts this year, but should have a fairly straightforward run as she looks to repeat at a Major for the first time. There aren't a lot of threats for her early -- the first seed she's slated to meet is a wholly beatable Anabel Medina Garrigues, and no one in her half of the quarter is ranked in the top fifteen.

The biggest threat, predictably, comes from the bottom half of this section -- Petra Kvitova, who clinched the U.S. Open Series when she made the semis in New Haven, has an extra million dollars riding on her performance here, and after reversing a dismal hardcourt season from last year, she could very well do it. She also has a relatively easy road early, potentially facing a rematch of her New Haven quarter with collegiate star Nicole Gibbs, and doesn't get a major challenge until the Sweet Sixteen where Marion Bartoli should be waiting for her.

There are some spots that could be tricky, though. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who just started pulling her career back together by making the final in DC, opens against injury-addled Daniela Hantuchova, unseeded at a Major for the first time since Wimbledon 2009. She has pulled things together recently though, beating Jie Zheng in Cincinnati and Na Li at the Olympics, so she could give the Russian some trouble. And Lucie Safarova, finally a member of the top twenty thanks to her semifinal in Montreal, kicks off against one-time U.S. Open darling Melanie Oudin. The American's star certainly has fallen some, but that seems to be when she does best. Also keep an eye out for Alexandra Wozniak, in the same section as Safarova and often spotty Nadia Petrova -- if she's on her game, she's shown she can well outplay her ranking.

Who'll survive? It seems inevitable MaSha will take on Petra for the semi spot and it really is a toss-up. The Czech might be a bit exhausted, though, after four straight weeks of play, so I'm giving this win to Maria.

Fourth Quarter

Yes, Wimbledon champ and Olympic Gold medalist Serena Williams is only seeded fourth here, even though she's the odds-on favorite for this title. Still, other favorites have to be happy they won't see her too soon in their draw. First round opponent Coco Vandeweghe isn't as lucky -- the young American faces a rematch of the Stanford final in which she actually had the lead at one point. That might give young Coco some hope, but we all know just how high Serena raises her game at the Majors.

Caroline Wozniacki is the other favorite in this section, and though she has falling from the top seed she held just a year ago, things might not be so dour for her in New York. She's already made the semis in New Haven, an event she's dominated since 2008 and handed Serena one of her only losses on a hardcourt this year in Miami. The one-time finalist starts against rising star Irina-Camelia Begu, certainly no easy mark, but might have an easier time later in the draw. Ana Ivanovic is the highest seed in her immediate path, and with the Serb dealing with her own set of injuries, it might not be as big a fight as we'd hope.

As should be expected, there are plenty of opportunities for players to sneak through. Unseeded American Sloane Stephens is steadily climbing the rankings, and with a first round against Francesca Schiavone, she's more than capable of making a statement here. And Maria Kirilenko, who's quietly worked her way to a career high ranking, could be challenged by Chanelle Scheepers in her opener, but is more likely to breeze through her section -- her first on-paper challenge will be inexplicably seeded Klara Zakopalova in the third round and, seeing how she plays much bigger than her size, she might just give Serena a run for the money a match later.

Who'll survive? I would love to see something special happen here, but back problems aside, if Serena doesn't make the semis, something is seriously wrong.

There will of course be surprises along the way, but the top players -- especially those who've spent some time at the top -- should be able to work their ways through their respective brackets. It'll be interesting to see just how much the jam-packed summer has affected their play, and if some underdogs come out on top, that might just make for a very interesting fortnight.

But when all is said and done, and a new king and queen are crowned, you'll know the eventual champions will have earned their places as the newest stars on the block.

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