August 28, 2013

U.S. Open Cinderella Stories

So this is post is coming a little late, but with a bit more than a round's worth of action in the books at the U.S. Open, we might just have a better idea now of the players that can emerge as Cinderella at the year's last Major. While many of the favorites have survived early rounds unscathed, there have been more than a few big shocks in the draws already, and as play grinds on we're sure to see even bigger ones down the road.

And more than a few unknowns could put together the biggest tournament of their careers this fortnight. So let's take a look at where we might see the underdogs really take a bite out of the draws.

The MenThe Women

The Men

First Quarter

The top seeds in this quarter have so far progressed without a lot of drama. World #1 Novak Djokovic needed less than ninety minutes to dispatch Lithuania's Ricardas Berankis and Juan Martin Del Potro, who's so far split sets with Guillermo Garcia Lopez, shouldn't have much more trouble than that. But that's not to say it'll be all smooth sailing in this section of the bracket -- already Grigor Dimitrov came out on the losing end of a long five-setter, keeping his record in New York at a less-than-impressive 0-3.

His vanquisher Joao Sousa will have to man up if he's going continue his run though. Jarkko Nieminen, set for a second round match-up against the Portugal native, beat both Milos Raonic and Del Potro in Monte Carlo and made the final in Dusseldorf. The veteran Finn won just his second title last year in Sydney, but did make the quarters here all the way back in 2005. He's set to meet Nole just a few matches down the road, but he might have what it takes to pull off an upset. And Jurgen Melzer, well off his career high ranking, did manage to get a seed in New York even before winning a title last week in Winston-Salem. He's slated to open against Evgeny Donskoy, who beat John Isner on his way to the Den Bosch quarterfinal, but if he survives that test he might just put together a solid run this year.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Fabio Fognini (16) vs. Lleyton Hewitt

Fogs has worked his way well up the ranking since putting himself in the record books as Andy Roddick's last win last year, and at #18 in the world he looks primed to keep improving. And 2001 champion Lleyton Hewitt seems unwilling to fade away into oblivion -- ranked out of the top fifty, he's nevertheless made the final in Newport two years running and the semis in London and Atlanta this season. The Australian has so far taken the first set from Cinderella Brian Baker, and though he will certainly face bigger threats down the road, he's shown he has the resolve to keep going.

Second Quarter

Opening rounds were good to the favorites in this quarter -- both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer sped through early action in straight sets -- but still no one's safe. After all eleventh seeded Kei Nishikori, at his best ranking in a Major, dropped quickly in the first day of play to little known Brit Daniel Evans.

But some players might just be ready to shine in this section. American Sam Querrey, once in the top twenty and hailed as the next big thing in U.S. tennis, had been struggling this year, but reached the semis in Winston-Salem last week. He was tested early, but actually has a fairly winnable road over the next few matches, as long as he plays his best. And countryman John Isner had the summer of his career, winning a title in Atlanta and making the finals in both DC and Cincinnati. He dropped just a handful of games to Italy's Filippo Volandri and seems like he might finally be ready to make a statement at a Slam.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Gael Monfils vs. Carlos Berlocq (both unseeded)

Unfortunately for Isner, he'll next face former top-ten player Gael Monfils, fresh off a final run in North Carolina. The Frenchman has won the pair's last two meetings and may have the momentum to do it again. And Berlocq, who won his first career title last month in Bastad, is back in the top fifty. He was nearly triple-bageled at the U.S. Open in 2011 but he's a much better player than that these days. Though he'll have to get through five-time champion Roger Federer in the next round, we've seen how vulnerable even the greats can be.

Third Quarter

Defending champion Andy Murray hasn't taken to the court yet this year, and while France's Michael Llodra could give him a bit of a fight in the first round, I don't anticipate much drama for the Scot. Tomas Berdych, too, was relatively unchallenged in his opener, needing just a hundred minutes to dispatch Paolo Lorenzi. But the fates haven't been kind to everyone in this section of the draw -- Juan Monaco, ranked in the top ten this time last year, has only made it out of one Slam first round this year, and kept that streak going when he retired down two sets to Florian Mayer yesterday. And recently quiet Nicolas Almagro -- this is so far the first year since 2005 in which he hasn't won a title -- was stunned by unheralded Denis Istomin in his first round.

And there are a couple other players who might take an opportunity to shine in this section. Donald Young, a Cinderella once before, is now better known for the meltdown he had last year. Still he had a surprisingly easy win over a not-inconsequential on Tuesday. And James Blake, having announced this will be the last event he plays in his professional career, could pull a Roddick and put together more wins than we expect now that he's retiring. At least I'm hoping that's what happens.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Kevin Anderson (17) vs. Jeremy Chardy

Anderson is playing at his highest career ranking, and after a run to the Atlanta final this summer, seems to be playing with a lot of confidence. He's made a Major fourth round twice this year -- his best ever showings on the big stage -- and might now be ready to push one step further. And Chardy, the surprise quaterfinalist in Australia this year, is just out of seeding territory, but could turn things around after his five set win over Sergiy Stakhovsky in the first round and make another run in the second week.

Fourth Quarter

This quarter houses the lowest-seeded favorites, and while both David Ferrer and Richard Gasquet were able to advance without a lot of drama, not all the seeds were as lucky. Ernests Gulbis, at his highest ranking in over two years, couldn't hold on to a two-set-to-one lead over Andreas Haider-Maurer and ultimately lost in the nearly four hour match. And Jerzy Janowicz, the unquestioned surprise story at the All England Club, wasn't able to keep his streak going and dropped three quick sets to Argentina's Maximo Gonzalez, barely ranked in the top two-fifty.

A couple other players in this section, though, are looking to launch a comeback this fortnight. Janko Tipsarevic has made the quarters in New York two years in a row, but actually has a losing record on the season so far. He survived what could have been a struggle when Pablo Cuevas retired in their first round, but if he doesn't up his game, there will be a lot of points coming off his ranking, and quickly. Meanwhile Dimitry Tursunov, a top-twenty player some seven years ago, has been working his way back from injury all year. He beat Ferrer in Barcelona and repeated the win on his way to the Cincy quarters, just enough to eke out a seeding at Flushing Meadows. He needed four sets to do it, but with a win over Aljaz Bedene made it out of the first round hear for the first time since 2008. If the vet can keep it up, he could make quite a statement in the coming days.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Feliciano Lopez (23) vs. Roberto Bautista-Agut

Feli has been on the comeback trail himself this year, and after winning a title in Eastbourne, he beat Stanislas Wawrinka in Gstaad and Kei Nishikori in Cincy. He disappointed my expectations by just making the third round at Wimbledon, but might be able to deliver this time around. And his countryman is just a few weeks off a career high ranking, hung around longer than expected in Stuttgart and Winston-Salem. After beating a tough Thomaz Bellucci in the first round, he might be ready to make an impact here too.

The Women

First Quarter

Serena barely batted an eye in her first round win over recent French Open champion Francesca Schiavone on Monday night, and actually seemed angry with herself that she let the Italian get on the board in the eleventh game of the match. And Angelique Kerber, who's more than proven her 2011 run here was no fluke, dropped just two games to doubles star Lucie Hradecka in her opener. But DC champ Magdalena Rybarikova couldn't keep up her strong summer and Kirsten Flipkens was summarily routed by two-time champion Venus Williams on Day One of play.

Despite all odds Venus could just be the spoiler in this section. Though hampered by injury and illness the last few years, she looks good this year, fighting back to force a decider after losing her first set today to Jie Zheng. If she survives she'll meet Carla Suarez Navarro next though, and she famously lost to the Spaniard at the 2009 Australian Open. But these days who knows what can happen. And Kaia Kanepi continues to struggle in her comeback, but did manage to hold on for a win against Vania King in her opener. The Estonian has missed a lot of time with injury, but manages to put on a show every time she gets back on court -- she made the quarters at Wimbledon and won a title in Brussels. It should be a few rounds more before she faces another challenger this time.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Sloane Stephens (15) vs. Eugenie Bouchard

Sometimes players are exhausted by a challenging round and lose their very next match, but other times they rally are run away with a title. Something tells me Stephens is part of the latter group -- since coming back from a break down in the third set to Mandy Minella on Monday, she might just have the adrenaline to push farther. And the Canadian teenager has had a couple big wins this season -- Laura Robson in Charleston, Ana Ivanovic at Wimbledon -- and having already won her first match at her first U.S. Open, she really has nothing to lose.

Second Quarter

This quarter, by far, was the scene of the biggest shock of the tournament so far. Yes, last year's runner-up Victoria Azarenka advanced without dropping a game to a tricky Dinah Pfizenmaier, and yes, Petra Kvitova was pushed to a third before closing out Misaki Doi on Tuesday. But easily the loss by 2011 champion Sam Stosur to seventeen-year-old qualifier Victoria Duval was what everyone was talking about. Whether the young American, just ranked inside the top three hundred, has it in her to pull off another win -- against former world #5 Daniela Hantuchova in the next round -- remains to be seen, but even making it this far makes her the Cinderella of the event.

That said, a slew of other youngsters could put up a fight too. Alison Riske got her first win in New York when she beat Tsvetana Pironkova in her opener, and little known Sachia Vickery kept up that trend with a win over veteran Mirjana Lucic herself. And Christina McHale, out of the top hundred now, but seeded here last year, survived a scare against similarly slumping Julia Goerges in her first round. Any of these ladies might have what it takes to put in a good run the rest of the fortnight.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Ana Ivanovic (13) vs. Mona Barthel (28)

Of course, all their efforts might just serve to clear the roads for some other relative underdogs. Ivanovic made a solid run to the quarters last year and put up a one-sided victory against rising star Anna Tatishvili in her opener. And Barthel, who first burst on the scene early last year, has struggled to keep up her consistency since then. But she seems ready to make a statement at a Slam, and this might just be a good place to do it.

Third Quarter

Though many matches were delayed by rain today, Aga Radwanska and Na Li, both in this quarter, were some of the few players to lock in their spots in the third round Wednesday, neither dropping more than five games in either of their matches. In fact, none of the seeds in this quarter have had trouble so far and only one -- Toronto finalist Sorana Cirstea -- even lost a set.

There will still be opportunities to surprise, of course. Bethanie Mattek-Sands made the fourth round at Roland Garros and put together a solid win over Mathilde Johansson on Monday. She'll take on Ekaterina Makarova next, though, and that won't be an easy task. The Russian, twice a quarterfinalist in Melbourne, has for some reason never gotten out of the third round in New York. But she's beaten players like Angelique Kerber, Sara Errani and Victoria Azarenka already this year -- and claimed bigger scalps in the past -- and might be ready to make a run this time around.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Alisa Kleybanova vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (32)

I'm not sure what Pavs' coaching status is now that Martina Hingis is playing doubles again, but under the tutelage of a player that won the title here in 1997, you have to think she's got some kind of leg up. As for Kleybs, that one's entirely wishful thinking. But girl's got the talent to make stuff happen, so you certainly can't count her out.

Fourth Quarter

Of all the players to deliver a double bagel at the U.S. Open, I never would have guessed it would be Sara Errani. Yes, she made the semis here last year, but she also was handed a rare Golden Set at Wimbledon in 2012. Talented, yes, but clearly inconsistent when she's not on the clay. But good for her to get the win and prove she deserves the #4 seed in New York. Because, despite her favored status, if she lives up to that ranking I think most people would be surprised.

But in a quarter where the favorites are slightly questionable, there's plenty of room for underdogs to sneak through. After a weak summer Lucie Safarova isn't seeded at the Open, but survived a first round match that could have caused her trouble. Meanwhile Birmingham finalist Donna Vekic, completing her first year of Major main draw action, held on for a win over veteran Marina Duque Marino. And Wimbledon mini-Cinderella Michelle Larcher de Brito kept her streak going by beating Eleni Daniilidou in her opener. Even seeded players like Elena Vesnina and recently struggling Svetlana Kuznetsova have a shot at making a run here, depending on how the draw shakes out.

The Cinderella Quarterfinal: Caroline Wozniacki (6) vs. Simona Halep (21)

It seems like a long time since Caro made the final here, the way she's been playing recently, and even though she's a top seed in this section of the draw you have to wonder about her prospects. But she looked good in her opener, and after making the quarters in Cincinnati might be ready for another break here. And Halep, well, I'm just going with the odds on this one. She's won four titles in three months and isn't showing any signs of slowing down. If she doesn't take this title this year, I guessing it won't be long before she does.

With almost three days down at this year's U.S. Open, we've seen some stars shine and some fall by the wayside. But after the crazy antics we saw at Wimbleon, there's no reason to believe we won't see more in the city that never sleeps.

What these players do with the opportunity is entirely up to them. But if they're going to do something with it -- this is the place to do it.

No comments: