September 6, 2020

Half Way Through -- Where We Stand

So it appears I really suck at predicting semifinalsts at Grand Slams.

Three rounds in to this year's very strange U.S. Open, and only three of my eight selections are still alive. And while those standing are still looking strong and could very well fulfill my expectations, so many others have really asserted themselves in a way I could never have predicted.

The Women

Let's start with the first quarter of the ladies' draw where top seed Karolina Pliskova was upset by Caroline Garcia in the second round. It was the first "huge" shock in the women's draw -- which somewhat shockingly had more seeds emerge out of the first round than the mens -- but something I frankly saw coming. I also expected Jennifer Brady, a winner over Ashleigh Barty, Elina Svitolina, and Garbiñe Muguruza this year and a champion in Lexington, to do well, but that's where my foresight ends.

Yulia Putintseva, who's made a couple of Roland Garros quarters, has only won two matches here once, and Petra Martic, who'd I'd written off as a vulnerable eighth seed, both have been on point in their first few matches, and the fact that one of them will play for a spot in the final four is pretty surprising. But it appears we cannot count out 2016 champion Angelique Kerber who, at #23 in the world, is well off her best tennis, but seems to like winning that way. She's currently down a set to Brady in the fourth round, but she's certainly pulled off bigger comebacks in the past and might just be ready to do it again.

On the end of the draw, my complete Hail Mary pick of Johanna Konta was shocked by a resurgent Sorana Cirstea, but I take some comfort in the fact that my other one to watch, Elise Mertens, has been looking strong this first week. One of the players forced to suspend her second round match and pick it up again the next day, she's technically played three days in a row but kept her level high. And Aussie champ Sofia Kenin is comfortingly playing well again, after losing her first rounds in Dubai, Doha, and Cincinnati. She was pushed by Ons Jabeur last night, but clinched the win in reassuring form.

But you might have to keep an eye out now for two-time finalist Victoria Azarenka who, after a title run in "Cincy" is now riding an eight-match win streak, absolutely crushing Aryna Sabalenka, her vanquisher here last year, in the second round. Next up is a talented Karolina Muchova, one of my Cinderella picks in Melbourne. The 24-year-old Czech scored a huge win over Venus Williams in her opener and survived a big test from Cirstea yesterday. Unseeded Azarenka is actually one ranking spot below her seeded next opponent, but something tells me her experience could help her pull off the win -- and maybe help another one of my predictions come true.

The third quarter of the women's draw is where the most disruption has happened. Yes, Serena Williams making the fourth round shouldn't be a surprise -- though that outcome looked to be in question after she dropped her first set to Sloane Stephens yesterday -- but given her losses so far this summer, it certainly wasn't a given. For a spot in the quarters, she set up a rematch with Maria Sakkari, the woman who came back from a set down in "Cincy" to pull off the upset. Serena's not usually the type to let you get away with two wins in a row, but she has dropped straight matches to Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu in recent years, so the Greek is certainly hoping she can capitalize.

But the real surprise has been Tsvetana Pironkova, a semifinalist at Wimbledon a decade ago. Since then she's retire, had a baby, and in the most unfortunately timed of announcements, decided to come back to tennis in March. But you can certainly see why -- she simply stunned my pick for this quarter, Garbiñe Muguruza, in the second round and went on to take out 18th seed Donna Vekic yesterday. With a fourth round against fellow veteran Alizé Cornet, who beat Sofia Kenin last week in Cincy and benefitted from the retirement of Madison Keys last night, she could very well make another break for the later rounds.

In the last quarter of the draw, the only one on the ladies' side where I picked the favorite to advance, Naomi Osaka has so far lived up to my expectations. But that's not to say there were no surprises here. Osaka, the oddsmakers' favorite to win the title, has dropped sets to Misaki Doi and Marta Kostyuk, so could be challenged by Anett Kontaveit in the next round. The 21st ranked Estonian put up a fight against the 2018 champion last week and has been on point this week. I wouldn't be surprised if she put up a big fight against the heavy favorite again.

I am frankly a little disappointed by the showing from Jessica Pegula, who has far outplayed her #63 ranking this year with wins over Caroline Wozniacki and Aryna Sabalenka. I thought she had the potential to be a spoiler in this section, and while she looked strong early, she fell in the third round to a strong Petra Kvitova. Instead it appears the Cinderella for the tournament will again be Shelby Rogers, a one-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros who stunned Serena this summer in Lexington. Still ranked #93 in the world, she picked off one of my favorites, Elena Rybakina, in the second round and followed up by beating compatriot Madison Brengle a round later. Repeating her success against Kvitova will be a harder task, but if she can do it, this would certainly push her to new heights.

The Men

The men's draw has seen plenty of drama of its own, but top seeded and top ranked Novak Djokovic continues to dominate, dropping only one set to Kyle Edmund and inching closer and closer to an undefeated 2020 season. With a fourth round match against Pablo Carreno Busta it appears he's soon to take one step closer.

I am pleasantly surprised, though, by the showing from David Goffin, the other favorite in this quarter, who hasn't done too much this year since beating Rafael Nadal at the ATP Cup. I thought he might get tested and possibly upset in the first round by big-serving Reilly Opelka, but he seemed to handle the challenge well, going on to also easily defeat a strong Filip Krajinovic, who took out Dominic Thiem last week in "Cincy". Then there's young Denis Shapovalov, who started this year with so much hype, but came to the Open with a 5-8 record on the season and a handful of opening round matches. This week he's lived up to his seeding, but after a five-setter against Taylor Fritz -- where he had to come back from 1-2 sets down -- he might be spent in his next round.

I tried to hedge my pick for the second quarter of the draw by choosing two potential semifinalists, but that didn't work out too well for me. Roberto Bautista Agut had the upper hand, ousting Tennys Sandgren in the first round, but yesterday squandered a 2-1 set lead over surprising standout, and PTPA founding member, Vasek Pospisil, who'd already beating countryman Milos Raonic in the second round. It's by far the best showing from the Canadian on these courts -- he made the quarters at Wimbledon back in 2015 -- and against Alex de Minaur, who had his own 1-2 set comeback against Karen Khachanov yesterday, he might just be able to keep it going.

And while the advantage still lies with second seeded Dominic Thiem in this section, I've been impressed by young Felix Auger-Aliassime too. He's another one of those players who came into 2020 red hot and, unlike Shapovalov, seemed to make good on it. He reached the finals of two straight events in the late winter, Rotterdam and Marseille, and while he lost to Sandgren early last week in Cincy, his shot-making was clean and precise. After a tight opener in New York against Thiago Monteiro, he's looked unstoppable and against Thiem, a man he's never met before, could pull off a big upset.

For some strange reason I picked John Millman to surprise us in the third set, even though I knew how dominant last year's finalist Daniil Medvedev can be. And the Russian, happy to play the part of villain at the 2019 event, has been exactly that in his first week back, not dropping a set in his first three matches. Next up he faces Frances Tiafoe, who took out Millman in the second round and is finally living up to the expectations I've had for him. I'm not saying he will beat the world #5, but it sure will be fun to watch him try.

But maybe more impressive this week has been Matteo Berrettini, who I, maybe unjustly, thought would be a flash-in-the-pan. Last year's surprise semifinalist only played two events this year, racking up an unimpressive 2-2 record, but he's found his game at the Open again -- perhaps thanks to one ardent follower who's found a way to get around the no-fan policy this year. The Italian hasn't dropped a set yet, and though he faces a very talented Andrey Rublev in the next round, he might just be ready to keep going.

And finally the last quarter of the men's draw was stacked with young talent ready to make a name for themselves on the Slam courts. Stefanos Tsitsipas certainly put up a fight to make my prediction come true, but ultimately fell in a five-set, four-plus hour match that ended at one a.m. to Borna Coric, a man who we've been waiting for years to live up to his potential. He's never made the quarters of a Major, but with a fourth round agaist world #63 Jordan Thompson, he might be able to do it -- if he recovers in time.

But, of course, you have to assume the favorite for this section is now squarely Alexander Zverev, who made the semis in Melbourne this year too. He's dropped a set in each of his matches so far this first week, but next faces who has to be the biggest surprsie on the men's side, 99th-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, a 21-year-old from Spain playing in his first U.S. Open and only his third Slam ever. He's been tested, of course, needing five sets to get past Dennis Novak in his opener, and dropping a set in each of his next two matches too. He's clearly the underdog in his next match, but stranger things have certainly happened before.

Of course, with a week left to go at the U.S. Open, there's still a lot of game left to play, and any of the players still in the running could conceivably pull off some big wins. Will experience win out in the end, or will that new blood finally start asserting itself in both draws? Only time will tell.

And maybe, just maybe, one of these days I'll get the draws right.

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