September 2, 2014

Diamonds in the Rough

Things sure got crazy over the weekend didn't they?

Only one of the top eight seeds on the women's side has made it to the quarterfinals and, though all the men who've won Majors over the last nine years -- at least those who were entered in the U.S. Open -- are still going strong, we nevertheless have some unfamiliar faces hanging around at the start of Week Two. And a couple players still standing have quite an opportunity to shine even brighter.

Serena Williams, not surprisingly, continues to dominate the top half of the ladies' draw, but she's joined by a couple players you might not have expected to see still hanging around. Two-time runner-up Victoria Azarenka has been struggling with injury all year, and has only played in a handful of events this season. With early losses in Stanford and Montreal, and a withdrawal from Cincinnati, which she won last year, the sixteenth seed was a long shot at best. But she powered through early matches and last night, withstood a first set meltdown against Serbian Cinderella Aleksandra Krunic, sneaking out a win in over two-and-a-half hours of play. But perhaps the biggest story here is Ekaterina Makarova, a highly underrated Russian who quietly came to New York at her highest ever ranking -- she beat Aga Radwanska on her way to the Wimbledon quarters, beat Petra Kvitova in Montreal, and perhaps most importantly, is the only woman standing who's beaten Serena at a Slam. In yesterday's sweltering heat she outlasted a struggling Genie Bouchard, ending the Canadian's streak of three Major semis. She has a decent record against Vika, having won two of their five meetings, and with the relatively easier road so far, she might be able to even the score.

The bottom half of the bracket is a little more open with only two of the four remaining having ever even played in a Major final -- they both lost. Meanwhile, Shuai Peng is riding high after her second round upset of Aga Radwanska, taking out Roberta Vinci and Wimbledon semifinalist Lucie Safarova to make her first Slam quarter. She'll take on former Junior #1, seventeen-year old Belinda Bencic, who's playing her first year's worth of Major main draws. The youngest player in the top hundred, she's already beaten Angelique Kerber and my dark horse pick Jelena Jankovic -- there's no reason she can't pull off another upset today. But perhaps the player with the clearest path to the final is former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, who's put together quite a successful summer -- she won her twenty-second career title in Istanbul and took sets off Serena in both Montreal and Cincinnati. Sunday she scored a huge upset over Maria Sharapova to reach her first Slam quarterfinal since 2012 -- she'll take on Sara Errani for a spot in the semis, avoiding potential match-ups with Simona Halep or Venus Williams, and could easily go on further.

On the men's side, the brackets are still stacked with three former Grand Slam champions occupying four of the spots in the top half of the draw. Novak Djokovic, despite a questionable performance during the summer, has yet to lose a set in New York, and Stan Wawrinka, the newest member of the Major Winners club, survived a bit of a scare against veteran Tommy Robredo last night, but is in good shape to make it back to the semis. Meanwhile 2012 champion Andy Murray, who shockingly hasn't won a title yet this year, seems to have finally found his game again and scored his first top-ten win of the season with a straight set win yesterday over Toronto champ Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But of course the big story in this half is that of Kei Nishikori, whose five-set, four-plus hour marathon against fifth seeded Milos Raonic last night earned him his first U.S. Open quarterfinal. The man from Japan had already notched wins over Gael Monfils, David Ferrer and Roger Federer this year, and while he'll have a little more to recover from, he might just be able to add one more scalp to his trophy case.

Of course, the biggest question marks remain in the bottom half of the bracket, where three top ten seeds -- including one five-time champion -- are still standing, but it's the lower-ranked players that are making the biggest waves. Spain's Roberto-Bautista Agut continues his breakthrough year with a run to the fourth round -- he'll take on second seeded Roger Federer for a spot in his first Major quarterfinal in tonight's late match. Perhaps, though, France's Gilles Simon has a slightly better chance at advancing -- the former top ten player crushed David Ferrer in their third round on Sunday, and though he'll be the on-paper underdog against Marin Cilic today, he has a decisive 4-0 record against the Croat. But the biggest opportunity in this half lies with this year's ATP standout Dominic Thiem, who's climbed from a ranking of #139 to start the year to #45 now. The young Austrian beat Simon at Indian Wells, Wawrinka in Madrid, and got to the final in Kitzbühel. He's already taken out two seeds so far in New York, and with a fourth round date with a recently struggling Tomas Berdych today, he could add one more to that list. Thiem turns twenty-one tomorrow, after all, so he might as well give himself something to celebrate.

There's still a lot of play left to go at the U.S. Open, of course, and while the tried-and-true champions have stayed on top of their game so far this fortnight, it might just be dark horses that take the second week of the tournament by storm. Whether they're shaking off the cobwebs or just finding their footing on the big stage, these stars seem to have really tapped into their potential in New York. And it sure would be great to see them really shine.

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