August 21, 2014

U.S. Open: 10 Things I Want to See

Well we're finally here, the last Grand Slam of the season, and, boy, have the previous three given us some big expectations. Since the opening shots of the Australian Open, we've been treated to shocking upsets, stunning breakthroughs and huge comebacks. And while I certainly didn't see everything coming, I have to say I'm pretty satisfied with my Major wish lists this year.

Of course, having said that, I've probably doomed myself to a pathetic score this time around, but why not try to go out with a bang. So without further ado, here are the things I most want to see happen at this year's U.S. Open.

10. Genie goes four-for-four

At the start of the year, I never would have thought this was a possibility. Sure other players have made the semifinals of every Slam in one season, but those are so often tried and true champions like Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic. And sure young stars have had breakouts at single Majors, but either, like Caroline Wozniacki after the 2009 U.S. Open, they struggle to return to form or, like 2005 French Open champion Gaston Gaudio, they fizzle out entirely.

But for Genie Bouchard, barely out of Junior leagues, ranking just #145 at last year's Australian Open, playing her first full season of Majors, to make not one, not two, but three Slam semis and a final -- well that's really something.

She's struggled a bit since Wimbledon, though -- in her homeland of Montreal, she was shocked by then-world #113 Shelby Rogers, a little bad luck pitted her against red-hot Svetlana Kuznetsova in her Cincinnatti opener, and after a nice opening in New Haven, she fell in straight sets to Sam Stosur in her second round. Still, she's been surprisingly consistent after her breakthrough in Melbourne, racking up wins over the likes of Venus Williams, Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep this season, and there's no reason she can't keep going.

9. A summer star steals the spotlight

Speaking of breakouts, there are plenty others who could take up the mantle now that Bouchard has passed squarely into the established elite. And some of the guys who caused a stir over the last few weeks could now get something done on a big stage.

Topping this list of contenders might be the woman who upset Genie on her own homecourt. Shelby Rogers was ranked barely inside the top hundred fifty at the start of the summer, but took out three seeded players -- including clay court specialist Sara Errani -- on her way to the Bad Gastein final. And she made a successful transition to the hardcourts earlier this month, beating Nanchang champ Shaui Peng to qualify for Montreal before ousting Bouchard a few rounds later. She's still ranked a low #86, and has never won a main draw match at the U.S. Open -- her only Major victory came last year in Paris over even lesser known wildcard Irena Pavlovic. But recent successes suggest that's about to change.

Vasek Pospisil has had a few more opportunities at the Slams, but in his nine previous main draws he's still only scored four singles match wins in total -- he is, of course, coming off his first doubles Major, winning Wimbledon with Jack Sock to start the summer. He's got a shot at improving that record in New York though -- he beat both Tomas Berdych and Richard Gasquet on his way to a runner-up finish in DC, the first Tour-level final of his career, and though he lost a bunch of ranking points after failing to match his 2013 semifinal showing in Montreal, he did manage to take a set off Roger Federer last week in Cincinnati. He's still outside seeding territory for this fortnight, but he could turn out to be a spoiler to one of the favorites if he gets his game together.

So could veteran Julien Benneteau, making his eleventh trip to the U.S. Open. The thirty-two year old Frenchman has only won one match at a Major so far this year, but he upped his game big time during the summer -- after taking out Lleyton Hewitt and Ernests Gulbis in Toronto, he stunned Stan Wawrinka to make the semifinals in Cincinnati. He's now back in the top thirty, seeded twenty-fourth in New York, and while he's barely won as many matches as he's lost this year, he looks to have more momentum than he's had in a long time. The long-time journeyman is still looking for his first title -- he's lost every one of the nine ATP finals he's played during his career -- so I can't realistically expect him to walk away with the trophy, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him hanging around in Week Two, maybe adding a few more big scalps to his take.

8. A low seed rises high

Sure, Benneteau could certainly fall into this category as well, but isn't always more fun when the Cinderella's seem to come out of nowhere? To be fair, both of these players have had some nice results this year, so we shouldn't be too surprised to see them doing well. Still, considering how far off the radar they were at the start of the year, it really would be great to see them finish it off with a bang.

Ivo Karlovic was ranked in the low double-digits when the season began, but the Croat is now in the top thirty, thanks in part to four final appearances, two on hardcourts. Not surprisingly, the thirty-five year old leads the ATP in almost every serving statistic category -- he's fired off almost nine hundred aces this year, averaging about eighteen a match, won eighty-four percent of his first serves and ninety-three percent of his service games. He's never really done well in New York, reaching just the third round a few times, and has slowed down a bit since playing for the title in Bogota -- he lost to Steve Johnson in Washington and Benjamin Becker in Cincinnati -- but wouldn't that make a deep run this year that much more impressive?

Barbora Zahlavova Strycova has already shown how impressive she can be -- barely ranked inside the top hundred when the season began, she beat three seeded players on the way to the final in Birmingham and then knocked out Na Li and Caroline Wozniacki on her way to the Wimbledon quarters. She's been a little less splashy since then but still managed wins over Mona Barthel and Roberta Vinci at a couple Premier-level events and this week in New Haven has so far scored wins over rising stars Belinda Bencic and Caroline Garcia. Her performance has been enough to earn her a seed in New York -- the first time that's happened at a Major in her decade-plus long career -- and something tells me she might just be able to rise even higher.

7. An American wildcard steps up

I realize this is a little derivative of previous wishes, but I'm going to be a little more particular here. We've been talking a long time about the next generation of American stars, and after the results some players put up over the summer, there's no reason to believe this won't be their chance to really shine.

Former Junior #1 Taylor Townsend, who added two ITF titles to her kitty this year, is entered in her first U.S. Open main draw, having fallen in qualifying rounds two times before. Still the eighteen year old is at her highest career ranking, #103 in the world, and has managed wins over Klara Koukalova and Julia Goerges during the summer hardcourt season. She was also, against all odds, the last American woman standing at the French Open, reaching the third round with wins over Vania King and Alize Cornet. And if the draw works in her favor she might be able to surpass even that this coming fortnight.

Also on the wildcard list is twenty-six year old Tim Smyczek, ranked just inside the top hundred. He's had a little more experience at Flushing Meadows and has steadily improved his performance here, barely losing in the third round in 2013 to Marcel Granollers. He's been busy the last couple months, too, reaching the third round in DC and hanging tough with Feliciano Lopez after qualifying for the Toronto Masters. He hasn't quite matched the results of contemporaries like Jack Sock or Steve Johnson this season, but he could be ready to turn that around now.

6. Young guns hit their stride

Of course even with homecourt advantage, the Americans will face a tough challenge in New York. And a couple players still on the verge of making the big time could prove to be their undoing.

One-time French Open Cinderella David Goffin is running on a most-unlikely twenty-five match win streak this summer. The twenty-three year old Belgian had fallen well off the radar over the past eighteen months and dropped as low as #113 in the world at the start of the season. But after losing his first round at Wimbledon -- his seventh straight opening round loss at a Major -- he picked up three consecutive Challengers' titles and his first big boy's crown in Kitzbühel last month. This week in Winston-Salem he defeated defending champion Jurgen Melzer and and will play his quarterfinal match later today. He's still off his career high ranking, but he seems to have more confidence and is playing better ball than we've seen from him in a long time. And that could bode well for him when he hits the courts of New York.

Perhaps former Junior Roland Garros champion Elina Svitolina has an even better shot at making a splash. The world #34 just successfully defended her title in Baku and is fresh off her first top-ten win, beating Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova on her way to the quarters in Cincinnati. She doesn't have a lot of success in the Majors' main draws -- her best result was the third round of this year's Australian Open -- but she's only been playing with the big girls a few years. And she's scored wins over multiple Grand Slam champions -- Kvitova, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Francesca Schiavone -- as well as over the likes of Carla Suarez Navarro, Sloane Stephens and Genie Bouchard. She might not be a favorite yet, but she has the talent to spoil the hopes of a couple who are.

5. A weak streak is ended

For every player who's put together a great run this season, there is one who has let his or her game slip a bit. For some it's been months since we saw their best stuff, for others much longer than that. But what better place to turn around their luck than at the last Major of the year?

Mikhail Youzhny certainly has had some of his best results in New York -- twice a semifinalist, he even made the quarters here last year. But he's had three straight second-round exits at the Majors this season, and hasn't won more than two matches at any event in 2014. But there is reason to believe he can rebound -- last week in Cincinnati, he summarily ended the momentum of Toronto champ Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and followed up the win with a straight set victory over Andreas Seppi. He'll have a lot on the line over the next few weeks, but with his history and hopefully rebuilt confidence, he has a real shot at going far.

Alize Cornet actually had been having one of the best years of her career, reaching the final in Dubai and winning the title in Katowice. At #23 in the world, she's at her highest ranking since 2009, and earlier this summer she notched her first ever top-ten win at a Slam, stunning Serena Williams for the second time in a row in the Wimbledon third round. Since then, however, she's only won one match, losing twice to players ranked outside the top hundred. On the plus side, though, she should be well rested when she heads out to defend those third round points from last year -- and if she can harness the talent we know she has somewhere in there, she should be able to do it.

Flavia Pennetta has a little more on the line at the U.S. Open -- last year's surprise semifinalist beat Svetlana Kuznetsova, Sara Errani and Simona Halep during her 2013 campaign. She carried that momentum with her early into this season, too, reaching the quarters in Melbourne and then winning her biggest title to date in Indian Wells. But then she really slowed down -- she lost in the second rounds of both Roland Garros and Wimbledon and couldn't put up much of a fight in the summer Premier events. Her latest effort resulted in an early upset this week by world #44 Alison Riske in New Haven. Still, despite her recent weakness, she's risen to her highest ranking in over four years -- if she wants to stay there, she's going to have to deliver big this fortnight.

4. A former champ makes a stand

For the last several years this tournament has really been dominated by just a few players -- Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have won all but two of the last ten U.S. Open men's crowns and Serena Williams is going for the three-peat in New York, looking for her sixth career trophy here. But a couple players who actually broke their Grand Slam seal in Flushing Meadows have fallen a little out of the spotlight, and this could be their chance to jump back in.

We're not that far removed from Andy Murray's heyday -- it was only last year that he was making history as Wimbledon champion. But back issues plagued him late last season, and though he was able to reach the semis at Roland Garros, he hasn't put up much of a fight even outside the Majors. Now #9 in the world, he's in danger of going title-less for the first time since 2005, surprising for a man who seemed so unstoppable just a few months ago. He's shown some signs of strength on the summer hardcourts -- he dismantled Rafa-killer Nick Kyrgios in his Toronto opener and sneaked out a close win over John Isner last week in Cincinnati. The pressure will be turned higher at the Open, though, the first Slam he won, but it seems that's when he does best, so watch for him to make a statement on his return.

Svetlana Kuznetsova's reign in the Big Apple was a little longer ago -- it's been a full decade since she beat Elena Dementieva for the U.S. Open title. Her career's gone up and down since then -- she peaked at #2 in the world way back in 2007, battled various injuries and struggled with her form, shocked the world with a crown at Roland Garros in 2009 and picked up a couple doubles titles at the Majors too, fell out of the top fifty and went a full four years without a trophy. Still, the veteran Russian has been a fixture on Tour, playing singles in all but two of the last forty-eight Slams, and at #21 in the world now, she's at her best ranking in over two years. She kicked off the summer with her first title since 2010 and beat Genie Bouchard in the second round of Cincinnati. It's probably a long shot to call for Sveta to make the second week, but the long-trudging workhorse is one of those players no one wants to see in her section of the draw, and she certainly could surprise us all.

So could, it seems, two-time champion Venus Williams, who played her last final here in 2002. The thirty-four year old has lost in the second round here the last three years, but despite illness and injury refuses to go away. To start the year, she pushed Ana Ivanovic to a third set in the Auckland final and exacted revenge in Dubai, where she ultimately claimed the title, her first since 2012. Earlier this month she pulled off her first win over sister Serena in five years, coming back after losing the first set to the world #1 in the Montreal semis. Whether she can last a full fortnight remains to be seen -- she's fallen before the fourth round at eleven of the last twelve Majors she's played -- but perhaps this time the extra day of rest between matches will help. She's certainly got the drive and talent to make a run, so why not do it at her homeland Slam?

3. A winner trades up

While these guys are looking for a return to glory of sorts, a couple of recent champions are still hoping for that big break. They've all been talked about as contenders in the past -- some long ago, some very recently -- but maybe their recent performances on the North American hardcourts suggest they're ready for some even glossier hardware.

Milos Raonic has long been discussed as a potential multi-Slam winner, but it wasn't until this year that he finally hit his stride. The big-serving Canadian reached the quarterfinals in Paris and broke through to the semis at Wimbledon, climbing to a career-high #6 in the world. To start the summer, he added the biggest trophy yet to his coffers, claiming his first 500-level event in DC. To go from that straight to a Major is probably a big ask, but he has the ability to give the top stars a run for the money, and on this surface, by far his best despite stalling in the fourth round here two years straight, he's probably got the best chance to do it.

Agnieszka Radwanska has been playing in the big leagues for years, but seemed to fall by the wayside after her runner's-up finish at the All England Club two years back. Sure, she's picked up a few titles here and there, but none nearly as big as the one that slipped through her fingers in 2012. Losses in some big matches she should have won also seemed to suggest her best days were behind her. But earlier this month in Montreal, the former world #2 took out some huge opponents -- Sabine Lisicki, Victoria Azarenka, Venus Williams, to name a few -- on the way to her biggest crown in quite a while. She has yet to make the quarterfinals in New York, but that could be about to change.

Like Aga, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga hadn't played his best tennis in years. Though the 2008 runner-up at the Australian Open had scored wins over the likes of Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer at the Slams, this year he'd been struggling, needing five sets to get past both Sam Querrey and Jurgen Melzer at Wimbledon. But he got his game together in a big way this month -- seeded a mediocre thirteenth in Toronto, he took out four top-ten players in a row, the first player to do that at a Masters event since Guillermo Canas in 2002, ironically, also at the Rogers Cup. He was understandably exhausted and lost his next match to Mikhail Youzhny, but with a few weeks off between that and his opener in New York, he should have built up the strength for another deep run here.

2. The curse is broken

The tricky thing about Grand Slams is that it's so often difficult to follow up one win with another -- in fact, so many players have trouble even lasting a few rounds into the next event they play. And some of this year's champions are going to want to change that trend.

Stanislas Wawrinka shocked the tennis world with his maiden Major in Melbourne, where he turned the tables on Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal -- both of whom he'd held losing records to before. He climbed to #3 in the world after that and even picked up his first Masters title a few months later. But he's also disappointed when the pressure was on -- he lost his opener in Paris, was bested by sub-fifty player Andrey Golubev in Davis Cup and notched two losses to Kevin Anderson on the U.S. hardcourts. Last week in Cincinnati, he squandered a 6-1 lead over Julien Benneteau and crumbled quickly in the eighty minute match. He did reach the semifinals in New York last year, then his best Slam showing, but if he wants to prove he's no one-hit wonder, he might need to do more than just defend those points.

Petra Kvitova had also struggled immediately after she was first crowned a Grand Slam champion -- the 2011 Wimbledon winner only won two matches during that summer and lost in her New York first round to world #48 Alexandra Dulgheru just a few weeks after her surprise run at the All England Club. She'll want to make sure that doesn't happen again -- in her first tournament since Trophy #2, she fell in three sets to Ekaterina Makarova in Montreal and lost last week to Elina Svitolina in her Cincy opener. She's been strong so far in New Haven, dropping just three games in a grudge match versus Makarova, and will next take on compatriot Barbora Zahlahvova Strycova for a spot in the semis. Hopefully, if she doesn't tire herself out, she'll be able to ride that momentum into a truly successful run in Flushing Meadows.

1. #2 upends #1

As much as each individual match win at a Major matters, ultimately the goal for every player is to win the trophy at the end of the fortnight. And, upsets, breakdowns and Cinderellas aside, you have to assume the favorites have earned that status for a reason. But there's no reason that, even if the top two seeds smash their way into the finals, we can't see a couple fireworks when the titles are on the line. And why not have the biggest surprises come when the stakes are highest?

With Rafael Nadal's injury-induced absence, fellow former champions Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer claim the high spots in the men's draw at the U.S. Open, and if the seedings play out as planned, they'd set up their fifth meeting of the year and their third battle when a Major trophy's on the line. Not surprisingly, the pair's head-to-head record is spitting-distance close -- Nole's five-set victory at the All England Club brought him a match away from drawing even against the All Time Great. And as the top-ranked player in the world, he'd be the favorite to close the gap in this potential match up -- but I'm hoping Roger pulls back ahead. The Swiss is fresh off back-to-back Masters finals, claiming his sixth trophy in Cincinnati. Far from done with his record breaking career, he might just be primed to add Slam #18 to his mantel during his campaign here.

It's a bit of a tougher sell to call for the same to happen on the ladies' side. Five-time champion Serena Williams is the favorite again, followed somewhat distantly by relative newbie Simona Halep, who's reached just one Major final in her much-shorter career. Serena is coming off wins in both Stanford and Cincinnati, clinching the top spot in the U.S. Open Series, Halep dropped her opener in New Haven to world #68 Magadalena Rybarikova. But the young Romanian is an impressive 15-3 in Grand Slams this year compared to an uncharacteristic 6-3 for the world #1. Halep has rocketed up the rankings, from #21 heading to Flushing Meadows last year to #2 now. She's also won an astonishing eight titles since the start of 2013, defeating the likes of Sam Stosur, Angelique Kerber and Petra Kvitova in the finals. She's got five top-ten wins this year, and though she's lost six straight sets to Williams over the last three years, she's not the kind of player that will let that bother her. If she can make it back to a championship match, I won't put winning it past her.

There you have it -- my final Major wish list for the year. Lists are tough -- props to you, BuzzFeed -- I most likely will be changing my strategy next year, but until then, here's hoping I don't spoil my track record too much with this one.

Of course, I know I haven't covered all the bases yet -- don't worry that's still to come. Check back this weekend for my Blogcast preview of what to expect in the Big Apple. And in the meantime, let me know what you're hoping to see at this year's U.S. Open.

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