September 8, 2015

The Long Shots

Maybe we shouldn't be that surprised by what's gone down so far at the U.S. Open. After all over the past two years we've seen a slew of first-time finalists and even a couple new champions at the Majors. So it seems only fitting that the underdogs continue to thrive in New York. Sure, there's a lot more game to be played before anyone's crowned a champion, but if their performances so far are any indication, there's no reason they can't keep going.

Richard Gasquet is probably the most decorated among the men in this group -- he made a solid run to the semis here two years ago and even reached the final four at Wimbledon this season. He's still ranked outside the top ten, but with two titles and wins over the likes of Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, he's playing much above his level. He's had a couple challenges so far in the Big Apple, being forced to five sets against upstart Thanasi Kokkinakis in his first round and dropping his opening set to Robin Haase a match later. But he's been on point in later rounds -- he needed less than ninety minutes to dispatch Bernard Tomic and late last night came back after losing the first set to Tomas Berdych to notch his seventh win over the sixth-seed. Next up for the Frenchman is Roger Federer, who he's only beaten twice in sixteen previous matches, but if he's feeling inspired he might just surprise us again.

Spain's Feliciano Lopez seems pretty inspired himself -- the eighteenth seed had been struggling a big ahead of the Open, failing to defend points during his traditionally strong grass court season, and falling a bit from his career-high #12 ranking in March. But he also notched his second straight win over compatriot Rafael Nadal and reached the quarters in Indian Wells. He was pushed to the limit early in New York, coming back against a retiring Mardy Fish in an emotional second round, but quickly proved himself against both Milos Raonic and, most recently, Fabio Fognini, who'd scored his own win over Nadal in the third round. Facing off against Novak Djokovic tonight, Feli's road forward certainly won't get any easier -- but the veteran likes the fight at these events and certainly won't give up now.

Of course the biggest -- recent -- surprise in the men's draw came last night when highly underrated Kevin Anderson took the court against Andy Murray. The South African has had trouble in the clutch throughout his career, picking up only two titles in ten finals before August. But he picked up his first trophy in over three years in Winston-Salem, climbing back to a #14 ranking. Despite an easy win over formerly red-hot Dominic Thiem, he was clearly the underdog versus Murray -- but that didn't seem to bother him. Anderson eked out the first set in a tiebreak and jumped out to an early lead before claiming the second. After he squandered a break in the third and the Scot rolled through the tiebreak, it seemed the 2012 champ was primed to pull off his second comeback of the tournament. But this time it was the fifteenth seed's turn to dominate a tiebreak -- blanking the heavy favorite in the fourth set, he claimed his first ever Major quarterfinal slot. And while his next opponent Stan Wawrinka is again the on-paper favorite, Anderson's won all of their last four meetings and might just have extra motivation to keep his streak going.

The ladies' draw also claims a couple surprising names among the quarterfinalists, but perhaps the best story is that of a woman who's actually claimed this title twice before. Venus Williams hasn't been much of a factor at the Majors in recent years, of course, ceding her claim to the big trophies to younger sister, but she's remained a dangerous force on Tour in spite of her lowered ranking. Now #23 in the world, she picked up a title to start the year in Auckland and notched top-ten victories over Aga Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki this season. Something of an elder statesman at the Open -- her wins here came at the turn of the century -- she's handled threats from the upcoming generation of stars with little problem. After being pushed to three sets by both Monica Puig and Irina Falconi early, she thumped Toronto champ Belinda Bencic, in a way avenging her sibling's loss to the Swiss in the Rogers Cup semis. Of course she'll meet Serena in tonight's spotlight match, which seems fitting given what her sister is trying to do in New York. The younger Williams has dominated Venus over the last five years, of course, but the top seed was upset last year in Montreal, so we could be in for another stunner here. Whatever the outcome, though, it seems appropriate that this would be the stage for their latest -- but maybe not last -- battle.

Flavia Pennetta may not have as much metal to show for her efforts in New York, but that doesn't mean she hasn't had any success here. She reached her first -- and so far only -- Slam semi in New York two years ago and has now made the quarters in six of her last seven tries. She's been a little up-and-down in 2015, though -- the defending champion in Indian Wells did beat Maria Sharapova there this year, but she also fell in the first round at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon. She got a little bit of a break during her early rounds this fortnight -- last year's runner-up Caroline Wozniacki was upset for her by Petra Cetkovska, and she didn't have to meet a seed until yesterday. But she held tough against a seemingly rejuvenated Sam Stosur, winner here in 2011, and scored an upset of her own. Next up for the feisty Italian is fifth seed Petra Kvitova, who's riding a nice win streak of her own after picking up a title in New Haven -- but with a 3-3 record against the two-time Wimbledon champ, Pennetta might just be the one to end it.

But perhaps the greatest opportunity at this year's U.S. Open lies with unseeded Kristina Mladenovic, who never before made it out of a Major third round -- at least not in singles. A mixed doubles champion at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon, the Frenchwoman has had huge successes at the Slams -- at lesser tournaments too -- but has always seemed to have trouble following up one win with another, and without the follow through she's been relegated to a mediocre #40 ranking. But she's still a threat -- especially now that she's reached the quarterfinals. While she hasn't had to face a favorite quite as intimidating as she's had in the past, she did open with a win over 2004 champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and she took out last year's semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova on Sunday night. She's up next against a recently strong Roberta Vinci, another doubles specialist, but one she's never faced on the solo Tour. Mladenovic has certainly taken out bigger and better opponents in the past, and hopefully she'll be able to keep her cool when the stakes are so high. But with a chance to finally make a dent at the Majors, you'd have to assume she'll come out swinging as hard as she ever has before.

Of course, there's a big difference between the success any of these guys has seen and what they'll still need to do to make a real play for the titles. And with the very favorites still out in full force, their greatest challenges are yet to come. But perhaps one or more of them could cause a little more damage before their runs in New York are over. And after so many have already broken through at the Slams, why not add a couple more names to that list

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