September 7, 2012

And Then There Were Eight...

It's been a long couple days at the U.S. Open, fraught with high drama, heart-wrenching goodbyes, late-night matches, stunning upsets, and maybe a few minutes -- still too much -- of inexplicable frivolity.

But here we are now, with eight men and women left to contend for the final Major trophy of the year, and you can't deny they represent the best of what we've seen the past fortnight. It hasn't always been pretty, and most have stumbled at some point along the way, but with just two wins left before they can claim the title, any one of them would deserve it.

The ladies, somewhat surprisingly, represent some of the most consistent women on Tour this year. We'd become accustomed to seeing one Slam champion flounder immediately after her title run, but three of this weeks semifinalists have already won a Major this year. World #1 Victoria Azarenka is set for a rematch of that Australian Open final against French Open winner Maria Sharapova in today's earlier battle. It's unfamiliar ground for both -- Vika has never made the final four in New York, and MaSha, champion here in 2006, hasn't gotten back since then.

The pair have met a couple times in the past two years -- their last three meetings have come in finals -- and the Belorussian holds a slight 5-4 edge. But they were both dominant through early rounds, averaging about one game lost per set in their first three matches, and tested in their quarterfinal. Azarenka nearly squandered a huge lead over defending champion Sam Stosur on Tuesday, but held just tough enough to keep her record against the Australian -- and in three-setters this year -- unblemished. And Sharapova, down 0-4 against Marion Bartoli before rain delayed play for a day, finally proved her champion spirit with a come-from-behind win. The battle with Vika could be dramatic, though -- Azarenka is 26-1 on hardcourts this year, and won't be willing to tarnish that record without a fight. And with both ladies looking for their second Major in 2012, we may be entering a new era of dominance in the women's game.

We might not exactly be on the edge of our seat during the day's second semifinal -- I fear we're in for a blowout -- but that doesn't mean there's not a lot on the line here. Three-time U.S. Open titleist Serena Williams has put together a 19-1 record since losing the first round of the French Open and has wholly dominated her opponents through five rounds. She dropped serve just twice and leads the field in aces and first serve points won. If she's got her wits about her, there's very little standing in her way to make her nineteenth Slam final

Sara Errani is slightly less experienced in the later rounds of Majors. Before this year she was 15-17 at the big events, but in 2012 alone she's 19-3. Her shocking run to the Roland Garros singles final -- she actually won the doubles crown -- was the culmination of a year that's brought her four clay court titles and a career high ranking in the top ten. She's struggled a bit since the French -- ironically her breakout year is marred by the elusive Golden Set at Wimbledon -- but a comprehensive beating of Angelique Kerber in her fourth round proves she's still a threat on the hardcourts. She has a not-so-inspiring 0-3 record against Serena, has only won one set, and I'm not sure this is the place that will change. But the bubbly Italian is earning herself a legion of fans this year, and that kind of adrenaline might just help her pull off the match of the tournament.

While all four women playing the semis have already played in a final this year, this is slightly new territory for most of the men. Defending champion Novak Djokovic is the only one, in fact, who's ever won a Major. Tomorrow he'll take on David Ferrer, a semifinalist in New York for the first time since 2007. They've both pulled off some stunning victories so far this event -- Nole, who has yet to drop a set through give matches, put on a showcase late last night against 2009 titleist Juan Martin Del Potro, limiting the big man to just about 66% on serve and winning some of the most dramatic points of the tournament. The Spaniard, on the other hand, has proven one of the most tireless guys in the field -- down two sets to one against Janko Tipsarevic and a break in the decider, he rallied from behind and withstood a questionable medical timeout from his opponent and finished him off in a tiebreak.

Ferrer has a decent record against the one-time #1 -- he pulled off a solid win during last year's ATP Championship round robins -- but most of those wins have come on clay, and never at a Major. The Spaniard is also the only man left who's never played in a Major title round, so you have to think experience favors his opponent. But if nothing else we know this is not a man who likes to give up, and if he's rested up since Thursday evening, he could give us a show tomorrow.

The final semi features a couple former runners-up who've combined to win just one set in their previous championship matches. But Andy Murray came to New York with huge expectations on him, thanks to that Olympic Gold, and the pressure is on to deliver. He's hit a few bumps on the way to the final four, needing four sets and three tiebreaks to dispatch Feliciano Lopez in the third round and getting down a set and multiple breaks to Marin Cilic in Wednesday's quarter.

For a spot in his second New York final he'll take on Tomas Berdych, who's made a name for himself as a giant killer of sorts at the Slams. During that stellar Wimbledon run, he beat both Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, and with his dominating performance against Federer on Wednesday's quarters, he ended an eight-plus year streak during which either Roger or Rafa made a Major semi. The big Czech has had an up-and-down year, winning a title in Montpelier and making another couple finals, but also falling in the first round at both Wimbledon and the Olympics. But by surviving some serious challenges by top-notch opponents the last week or so, he's proven he's a real contender here, and with a 4-2 career record against Murray, history is arguably on his side.

If we've learned anything during the last week and a half of play, it's that nothing is certain at these Grand Slams. Sure, there are favorites, of course experience favors some over others. But any underdog can put together a performance of a lifetime, and any champion can have a bad day. And given the performances we've seen from all these players so far, I'm not counting any of them out of the running. In just a couple days time we might have added to some highly decorated players, or we may have shaken up everything we thought we knew about tennis.

Either way, it seems, the ultimate champions will have earned it.

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