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Andy Murray: Solving The Final Puzzle

Sep 10, 2012 6 comments

The similarities are uncanny. It starts with their behavior. Both fellows love sarcasm, specially the dark self deprecating ones. Their on court behavior — while as different as night and sky — evoked much dislike among most people, while were a subject of fascination by the select few. Both possessed a style of play that was not received nicely during their respective times. Both had mental demons that to be relinquished in order to achieve the initial success. Both lost four major finals before finally breaking the ice.

While we would remember this as the breakthrough year for Andy Murray, it was also the year of gradual progress. As well as he played in ’10 and ’11, both his success and failures were expected. He did what he did best, and achieved results; he repeated what he did worst, and failed. But at Melbourne, it was the first time that his failure was not criticized. The only mistake he committed in the five hour, five set marathon against Novak Djokovic was to cool off in the fourth set, and that was partially because of physical fatigue, fighting against the fittest man on the tour. For the first time, he did not disappoint in a match of major significance ever since the mountain of expectations was thrown on his shoulders.

The progress continued at the grass season, when he won his first set in a major final. On his fourth try. Again, even though he lost, the loss was not considered a bad omen, because he played arguably his best match of the career, but was simply up against one of the greatest grass court player playing one of the finest match of his career. The common thing about the two losses was not only that he showed mental toughness and great play, but also the takeaways from these losses. After Wimbledon, he said “I am getting closer,” where as after losing to Roger Federer in ’10, he said, “I can cry like Roger, its a shame I can’t play like him.” The attitude had changed, the self belief was creeping in, and his game was no longer stagnant as it was in the previous two years.

He continued taking it one small step at a time. In Olympics, he finally registered his first significant win over the elite top-3 by defeating Novak Djokovic in the semis. It was still not the final, and it was still a best of three, and hence he made it better by defeating Federer on his home turf, in a best of five contest, and by which also securing a gold medal for his country. It was no Slam victory, but in itself, this was an achievement of highest magnitude. He believed. His country believed. From a person constantly under media scrutiny, he had become a national hero.

The continual progress took its final step at the final tennis junction of the calendar year. But it did not come easy. He struggled against the surprisingly consistent Feliciano Lopez, showed each and every trick of his artistic arsenal against Milos Raonic, was a bit lucky against Marin Cilic by winning after being a set and two breaks down. In the semifinal, he again showed his best by taking a leaf from Rafael Nadal — and his loss on a terribly windy day at Indian Wells — by committing less than 20 unforced errors on the windiest day ever at the Open. And yet, the struggle had not ended. It took him six set points to close out the first set, he failed to capitalize a two breaks lead in the second, before winning it through a Djokovic double fault and a botched overhead, threw the two sets lead due to fatigue, before finally saving his best in the set that mattered the most in the Open.

It was a remarkably tough ride for him, and it was his mentor — who struggled much like the mentee — who made him tough enough to handle the challenge. It is no coincidence that the start of Murray’s progress coincided with the addition of Lendl as his coach and he will be the first one to admit it. Sure, there are still times when Murray reverts back to his defensive shell, and others when he will feel yell and curse like the world is conspiring against him, but like the other members of top three, he has learned to deal with it and move on. The one who forever demands perfection, has learned that a perfect match is not where you do not commit mistakes — for it will happen rarely — but one where you do not let the imperfections affect you in the final outcome.

This was the puzzle that Murray had not solved yet, and it was the one which had kept the big three expanding into the fantastic four. And as this year has shown, the big three has finally made the credible transition to the fantastic four. Each of these members won a major this year, and not surprisingly, they won it on their favorite surfaces — Djokovic on slow hard courts, Nadal on clay, Federer on grass and Murray on fast hard courts. Isn’t it ironic that we are celebrating the opening up of men’s field at the same time when we are celebrating the consolidation of the women’s?

Novak Djokovic: Completing the Domination

Sep 10, 2011 7 comments
Feeling of Invincibility

Feeling of Invincibility

It is no secret that Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are the two greatest players of this era and rank at or near the top in the list of all time. It is not difficult to see how Andy Roddick would have won multiple Wimbledon titles, or Andy Murray would have ended the British drought if it were not for these two men. Novak Djokovic himself struggled to compete against the two for a while and has gradually improved himself to the point where he is almost unbeatable against the two — well, everybody. Look at how he monumentally increased his performance at majors this year. First, he beat the defending champion, Federer, in Melbourne. Then he beat Nadal, again the defending champion, at Wimbledon. To top it off he beat both, Federer and Nadal, at New York.

I have mentioned many times that the Miami finals this year was the turning point in the rivalry. Actually, the trivalry. He beat Nadal at his own game — by outgassing him in the final set tie-breaker. Even after beating Nadal four times in the Masters, we still thought that is a different task to take three sets off Nadal in a major final (Nadal had lost just two major finals before this year). He did that at Wimbledon. Today, he completed his dominance over Nadal.

A scoreline of 6-2 6-4 6-7 6-1 loos like a routine four set win, completed somewhere around 3 hours. It was anything but. The actual time of this match was north of four hours spanned over 268 points. Most of those 268 points were contested in brutal, physical rallies of the highest magnitude, ones which we have rarely seen. Each point had to be won two, three or four times. One of these games lasted 17 minutes and rarely was there a game not going to deuce. They battled from the baseline, came to the net to hit volleys, were lobbed and had to scramble back to start the point over …. I can go on. The physicality of this four set match was even more than most of the five set epics that Rafa has played in his career.

In the past, Rafa had made a career on outlasting his opponents. After magically winning the tie-breaker with his extreme fighting ability, he had finally turned this match into a physical battle. Djokovic called for the trainer and did not hit a first serve above 100mph thereafter. Everybody thought Rafa would take the match in five. Except Rafa, that is. Because he used his entire fuel tank to bring cramps on his gulten-free opponent. When Djokovic hit the final forehand winner, Nadal did not make an attempt to reach for it. The tireless opponent was also robbed off every ounce of mental energy by then to fight any longer.

What a difference a year makes. What changed? Nadal said, “less mistakes.” Federer said the same. Djokovic called the change in his “attitude.” But one feels it is more than that. Nadal was broken just five times last year but Djokovic broke him 11 times today. The latter has taken the return of the serve to an entirely new level. Everybody, including Djokovic, felt that he was lucky on the return winner down 15-40 to Federer, but he showed today that it was not

Solutions? Still Looking ....

Solutions? Still Looking ....

mere luck. When Nadal’s signature serves wide from the ad court are blasted for return winners, you know you are witnessing something special. It might not be an overstatement to say that Djokovic did a great job “holding” his return of serve. The most scary statistic: Nadal lost every second point on his first serve. And this was when Nadal was not playing bad himself. He broke Djokovic six times in the first three sets and saved 15 break points. Even though his backhand was no match against Djokovic, he kept himself alive in rallies using great combination of slices, forehands and change of pace. He fought from the deepest hole when Djokovic was serving for the match in the third to extend it for another set.

In the end he kept everything in perspective during the press interview by saying he is closer to finding the solution than he was at Wimbledon. Which he is, considering he kept the scoreline same on his worst surface (hard courts) compared to Djokovic’s worst (grass). Djokovic, on the other hand, is still trying to come back to earth. When asked about his accomplishments this year he rightly said it will take time to realize what he has done. For him, as well as for us. 66-2 and counting …

U.S. Open 2011: The Super Saturday

Sep 9, 2011 Leave a comment

The weather Gods have created havoc at Arthur Ashe, controversies were raised due to the schedule and the playing conditions, while a revolt was threatened surrounding the prospect of playing four matches in four days. Despite all this, the tournament has survived and the Super Saturday is upon us. Whether or not the players like it, whether or not the fans moan on the repercussions of playing back to back best of five set matches, it is hard to deny that a marquee line up like tomorrow’s makes us forget everything and anxiously wait for the day to begin.

For the second time in a major this year, the top-4 men have lived up to their seeding to secure all four semifinal berths. And it took extreme circumstances — Rafael Nadal’s injury and Jo Wilfried Tsonga’s magical comeback after being down two sets — to make sure that the remaining two majors didn’t end up this way. Each pair among the top four have set mini rivalries among them (and Federer-Nadal rivalry is already considered one of the greatest), have scores to settle, mental battles to win, and points to prove. The only downside of this is that a thrilling first match soaks out all your emotional energy and the second one usually turns into an anti-climax as it happened at the French Open. Regardless, this always ensures that tennis takes precendence over other television shows on the day and it is good news for the game.

If this is not enough, the women’s side also has enough drama awaiting. The top-half semifinal between Caroline Wozniacki and Serena Williams will answer a definite question — Is Serena still head and shoulders above the womens’ tour or is Wozniacki the real No. 1? The other half will answer us whether Sam Stosur has really laid the demons of her French Open defeat or not. Lets have a look at all the semifinal matchups.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs Roger Federer (3): Courage Under Fire

I have rarely seen the five time US Open champ look towards his camp right after the victory. One was when he defeated Nadal in Madrid ’09 and other when he won the World Tour Finals in ’10. It is even rare that he looks towards his camp during the match. Yet his camp received a lot of fist pumps and “Come On!”s yesterday when he played Tsonga. Clearly Federer has a point to prove, if not to the world, then to himself. The last time he was in such a position, he played the best match of this year and handed Novak Djokovic his only loss for 2011. The French Open semis was a near flawless performance and he will need to repeat this tomorrow.

Although Novak Djokovic has not looked at his best this tournament and one can sense fatigue finally creeping through the gulten free muscles of the Serb, he should have enough motivation to raise his level for the two final big shots of the year. As it has been the case for their last two encounters at the majors, the first set will be critical. Both times it went to the tie-breaker and both times its winner went on to win the match. Can the fans be third time lucky?

Prediction: Federer in four sets

Andy Murray (4) vs Rafael Nadal (2): Survival of the Fittest

They have played some great matches in the past even if they may not have gone the distance. Even though Nadal leads Murray 4-2 in majors, both of Murray’s wins were on hard courts. The situation is different this time as both players will play their third consecutive match tomorrow and physical fitness would come into play. Both of them are incredibly fit and can chase balls all throughout the day, but Murray will be at a slight disadvantage as he was stretched by Isner today while Rafa cruised through a semi-injured Roddick.

As comprehensive as Rafa looked against Roddick, his backhand still lacked the usual depth. The venomous cross court backhand winners were absent, and down the line was landing in the mid court. Roddick was not able to take advantage of it, but Murray will. Of course, it will depend on how fit Murray will be, tomorrow. Remember, he has a minor back pain too.

Prediction: Nadal in five sets

Caroline Wozniacki (1) vs Serena Williams (28): Best on Paper vs Best on Court

It is astonishing that a player who was out of the tour for more than a year, and who has played only two tournaments heading into the Open was the overwhelming favorite to win this tournament, and is the overwhelming favorite against the world No. 1. But that is how big a champion Serena is, and that is the level to which Wozniacki needs this Slam to shut her critics. Not that she cares about what the critics have to say, but her recent tirades against the media — self conferencing in Australia followed by the kangaroo bite incident, and most recently the mimicking of Rafa’s cramps — show that there is some insecurity deep down inside the Dane.

A win against Serena will definitely go a long way in proving her credentials as the world’s top baller even if she fails to win this tournament. If she loses, though, it will further distance Serena from rest of the tour.

Prediction: Serena in straight sets

Angelique Kerber (unseeded) vs Sam Stosur (9): The Other Semi

It might be easy to forget among the battle of the heavyweights that there is also a fourth semifinal taking place. Perhaps that is why this is the only semi which will be played at Louis Armstrong as opposed to Arthur Ashe Stadium. Not that both the women will mind this negligence. Sam Stosur is not particularly known to thrive under pressure, while lack of an arena like setting will suit the German as well, whose run is among the more suprising results seen in the recent past. Stosur will be the huge favorite to win this match, but so was the case last year at the French Open. Although, neither is this a major final, nor will she play at Phillippe Chatrier or Arthur Ashe.

Prediction: Stosur in three sets


U.S. Open ’11: Mid Week Wrap Up

Sep 4, 2011 4 comments
The first week of U.S. Open had everything to offer ... except Irene

The first week of U.S. Open had everything to offer ... except Irene

Biggest Upsets

It was unfortunate (or does it further proves the presence of chaos in the WTA?) that the three women slam winners of this year all were out of the U.S. Open after the very first day. Kim Clijsters already pulled out with an injury, while Li Na continued to show her inconsistent form this year. She lost five straight matches after Australian Open, and has won only a couple of them after French Open. Of course, her run to the finals at Australian Open and the maiden Slam victory at French Open more than compensates for all her other failures. The Wimbledon champ, Petra Kvitova, is still looking for solutions to her hard court problems as she crashed out in the very first round as well.

Meanwhile, the men’s side has sailed pretty smoothly, barring the biggest shocker of the tournament, as the Mumma’s boy, Donald Young, finally became a man by defeating an ATP heavyweight in Stan Wawrinka. He came from two sets to one down, failed to serve out the match in the fifth, and then dominated the final set tie-breaker which brought the crowd to its feet. While such big upsets are usually followed by tame defeats, Young avoided that by upsetting the 24th seed, Juan Ignacio Chela in a very routine manner. Is this finally the arrival of the Donald?

Biggest Disappointments

Marin Cilic was a part in both of them. First he defeated the upcoming American youngster, Ryan Harrison, in a dominant fashion. What was disappointing was not that Harrison lost, but the tame manner in which he failed to put up any fight. All the hopes generated after his successful U.S. Open series were shattered barely two hours after the tournament commenced. Cilic continued his manhandling of youngsters, by surrending a mere three games to Bernard Tomic, who had raised a lot of hopes after his success at Wimbledon.

Biggest Positives

Donald Young, in all likelihood, will fail to win a set against Andy Murray in the fourth round (even though he had beaten him in their last encounter at Indian Wells this year), but the manner in which he held his nerves to beat a top seed in the final set tie-breaker was more than praiseworthy.

On the women’s side, the American teenager Sloane Stephens reached the third round of a Slam for the first time in her career. While she did not have a run like Melanie Oudin had in ’09, she does not show signs of fading like her, either. At 5’8″, she is considerably taller than her compatriot and will go stronger with time.

Bakery at Flushing Meadows

NewYork is known for bagels and breadsticks, and for good reason. While bagels are common on the women’s tour, this time it was prominent on the men’s tour too. Novak Djokovic almost created history when leading 6-0 6-0 2-0 against Carlos Berlocq, as the latter barely avoided the embarrasment of a triple bagel by winning a couple of games. Tomas Berdych also served a couple of bagels to Fabio Fognini. The others who cashed in includes Dolgopolov, Cilic, Tipsarvic (twice), Murray, Davydenko, Gasquet, Sela, Anderson, Hasse, Ferrer, Mayer, Mahut and … suprise surpise, Berlocq himself. In fact, it was pretty ironic for Berlocq, as he himself had a dominant first round victory that included a bagel and a breadstick.

David towers Goliath

At exactly six feet, Gilles Simon is half a foot shorter than Juan Martin del Potro and a good 30 pounds lighter. Del Potro has the massive serve and forehand, while Simon is just a hapless counterpuncher. Del Potro is a champion having won here in 2009 (and how!) while Simon is a now a father, and a former top-10 player. And yet, when the giant from Tandil met the diminutive Frenchmen, the roles were reversed. Simon hit four times as many aces as Del Potro (thirteen against three), committed half the number of double faults, and hit 11 more winners as he marched towards a four set win. Del Potro was hitting bigger during most of the match, but Simon outhit him when push came to shove. David downed Goliath once again.

The Great Escape

After the disappointment at the Aussie Open, Andy Murray has been tentative throughout. He has dug a lot of holes for himself through the year, and got out of them in fine fashion as well. A lot of times he was down a set and a break, but came back to win the match. In a lot of matches, he routinely went 4-0 or 5-0 down, only to win the set 7-5 or 7-6. It seems he needs the fear of embarrassment or upset to bring out his best. Turns out, that exactly was required against Robin Hasse, as he won the match despite being down two sets to love.

Searching for Nails

The exuberance and charisma of Gael Monfils against the consistency of Juan Carlos Ferrero. The acrobatics of Monfils, the calm of Ferrero. The over-the-top winners of Monfils, the clay-feet of Ferrero. A spectacular eighty one winners and twenty one aces from Monfils. Eighty one unforced errors and ten double faults from the same guy. Only two aces from Ferrero, yet one of them when he was 30-0 up in the final game. Difference of just one point between the two players. Five tough sets over four hours and forty eight minutes. What’s not to love?

… And some Drama

Andy Roddick, when asked about how he handled criticism from the media, gave them a dose of their own medicine. Djokovic, tired of impersonations, showed some of his dancing skills. Venus Williams’ outfit did not spark a controversy. Nadal had no injury problems during his matches, but collapsed with cramps during a press interview. Roddick later clarified saying, “Every single player in there has had that happen before. Every single one. What we do—we run around, run miles and miles and miles and miles on the tennis court in nasty weather—(and) you throw nerves in there. I mean, it happens. As long as it doesn’t happen during a match, you’re fine.”

Crystal Ball

Men’s Semifinalis: Djokovic d. Federer, Murray d. Roddick

Men’s Champion: Novak Djokovic

Women’s Semifinals: Serena d. Petkovic, Stosur d. Pennetta

Women’s Champion: Serena Williams

U.S. Open ’11: Hanging out with Serena Williams

Sep 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Late in the second set, Serena was 0-40 up on Azarenka’s serve with three match points. The match looked like a routine 6-1 6-3 win for Serena (she was also a break up at this point) in the hottest match up of the first week. This would have established the supreme dominance of Serena on the women’s tour. Yet, somehow Azarenka managed to save all those match points in a display of some of the best high octane baseline tennis that I have seen. Unable to rally against the champion, Azarenka started taking the ball on the rise and made the American rush for her ground strokes. She took the return early and cracked some great return winners. Two of them were on Serena’s favorite serve out wide. Serena was so annoyed after this that she had to crack an ace and a service winner down the T after that.

From a miserable state at 3-5 0-40 down in the second set, Azarenka managed to hold, and broke Serena right in the next game, even though Serena had a match point (her fourth). For the first time in the match, Serena was under pressure as she served to enforce the tie-breaker. Once the tie-breaker started, Vika confidently marched to a 5-4 lead after going 0-3 down. Throughout the last 15 minutes, I was wondering if Azarenka could pull off a Serena’s houdini act, that is, putting herself into an impossible position and somehow scrambling a win.

And there was the catch. Azarenka could have pulled off a “Serena,” but unfortunately for her, it was Serena herself on the other side of the court. Serena hit 12 aces in the match, two of them when she was a break point down late in the second set, one of them in the tie-breaker, and another one of them

Serena justifies why she is the favorite for the U.S. Open

Serena justifies why she is the favorite for the U.S. Open

when she was 0-30 down. Serena has played miserably on numerous occasions at the start of a match, but this was a rare occasion when she was unable to close out a match on her own terms.

For this fact alone, Azarenka should be given enough credit. She did not give up on watching a monstrous presence on the other side of the court, and kept going for her shots even when it seemed all over. The fact that she matched Serena shot to shot at the baseline the second set says something about her shot making skills. I have said before that Azarenka, while having no particular weakness at the back court, lacked a strength, a go to shot that she can use at full confidence and scramp winners out of it. It did not look like that today. She hit big from both her wings, bigger than what I have seen her hit in the past, and she was not hesitant to approach the net–she saved her third match point with a deft volley on Serena’s running forehand.

As well as she played today, she should consider herself unfortunate on being paired up with the greatest champion of this era so early in the tournament. She has lost in the semis and quarters in the Slams before, but this loss must have hurt, because unlike the previous encounters, she was outplayed today in all departments despite playing well above her best. The biggest positive for her was gaining the knowledge that she could hang out, at least for a while, with the very best. And Serena knew it herself. After the victory, she raised her index finger towards the sky. It was a declaration as to who is still the No. 1.

U. S. Open 2011: Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Federer: Genius and Greatness

Aug 29, 2011 Leave a comment
Grigor Dimitrov

Grigor Dimitrov

I will not blame somebody with a bird’s eye view who was watching the simultaneous matches of Roger Federer and his baby clone Grigor Dimitrov and confuse the latter with the former. The service motion, the fluid footwork, the one handed backhand, the powerful down the line punch and the hands at the net. They all look identical, including the Nike logo on their attire and sporting a single wrist band on their respective right hands. It is not difficult to envision how Dimitrov has clearly modeled himself like his idol (he was even coached by Federer’s former coach, Peter Lungdren).

However, today was the exact day where you would be taken back to your childhood days when you solved comic puzzles involving two nearly identical pictures placed side by side and you were asked to spot ten differences between the two pictures. The moment Dimitrov lost to Gael Monfils in three regulation sets, I switched my telecast to Arthur Ashe stadium where his idol was on the verge of winning the first set against Santiago Giraldo. Just fresh after being entertained by Dimitrov’s elegance and Monfils’ acrobatics, it was much easier and much more obvious to compare the difference between the fresh raw product and the extremely finished one.

—The most obvious difference was how Federer could stay in the rally for 10, 15, 20 shots and still manage to win the point. Dimitrov often threw up an error once the point went beyond six or seven shots.

—At one point, Dimitrov came forward of an approach, but Monfils hustled to put up a great lob. Dimitrov, going backwards, was visibly off balance and promptly spilled the overhead two feet beyond the baseline. On another such shot Federer was pushed back to the baseline as the ball soared in the air. Federer seemed to have more than enough time to see the side where his opponent was leaning,  added the precise amount of slice to the overhead, and hit it for a winner.

—Monfils, crowd pleaser that he is, tried a poor drop shot that stood up. Dimitrov judged it a split second late, but still reached on time. He hit a beautiful backhand down the line (which made me go “Awwwww Yes!”), but imparted more spin than needed which not only allowed Monfils enough time to react, but also to dispatch it past the Bulgarian. When Federer was presented with such an opportunity, he nicely got on top of the ball, and hit it flat past his hustling opponent for a clean winner.

—Monfils hit a serve striaght at Dimitrov’s backhand and approached the net in style. Dimitrov had enough time to dispatch a backhand down-the-line passing shot winner and make the Frenchman look stupid. Monfils applauded and tried to challenge in vain for a ball which clearly looked in. Turned out, it was not. It was a couple of inches out. In a similar position, Federer hit a down-the-line but short enough so that the ball landed closer to the service line than the baseline. A great passing shot.

—I lost count of the number of instances where Federer non-chalantly returned a half volley from the baseline with enough depth. Dimitrov on the other hand invariably returned it short enough to allow the acrobatics of Monfils to come into play.

—When a return was short, Dimitrov was found struggling on what to do. Should he go forward enough to take a volley, allow the ball to bounce and hit a forehand winner, take a half volley, or just stay safe at the baseline? Almost always, he was found in the mid court at the mercy of Monfils. It was good to watch as Dimitrov had enough talent to take the ball from anywhere and return it back, but Monfils always had the advantage and mostly he ended up winning the point. When Federer approached the net, he knew exactly where to punch the ball. Even if it was returned back, Federer was there at the exact position to hit the next winner. No theatrics like Dimitrov were required and he rarely lost such a point.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer

—Federer saved break points with service winners. Dimitrov lost service games, twice, with double faults on break points.

If I was to select just one stark difference between the two, it was the surity in their court positions, which was like north pole (Federer) and south pole (Dimitrov). Of course, while it is unfair to compare an upcoming 20 year old with a veteran and probably the greatest player ever, it shows how subtle the differences are between a top three player and one ranked below 50. Dimitrov is far from being the finished product that Federer is, but is showing signs of progress. Even during the end of the third set, he was showing committment by hustling and running around the court, sometimes a bit too much as he pulled a couple of hamstrings, and hitting some great first serves in tricky positions. He needs consistent match play in order to convert his genius into greatness.

U.S. Open 2011: Top Women Contenders

Aug 22, 2011 Leave a comment
After winning the title at Cincinnati, Maria Sharapova is one of the top contenders for the U.S. Open

After winning the title at Cincinnati, Maria Sharapova is one of the top contenders for the U.S. Open

Now that all the mandatory tune ups for the U.S. Open are over and it is only less than a week before the Open commences, lets have a look at how the top women contenders stack up for the last Grand Slam of the year.

Serena Williams (29): Few would argue against Serena as the favorite going into the Open. Her wins at Stanford and Toronto, and her utter demolition of top ranked players, including Maria Sharapova, does not give a single hint that she was out of courts for almost a year before Wimbledon. In fact, her being seeded at the Open would be a blessing in disguise for the top seeds as they’ll avoid her at least till the third round. The absence of the defending champion, Kim Clijsters, will only make her contention even stronger.

Still, as the 29th seed at the Open, Serena will be the most dangerous floater in the women’s draw.

Maria Sharapova (4): Can you imagine what this Russian blonde can achieve in her second stint if she solves out her issues around her ridiculously unreliable serve? She committed 11 double faults in the final at Cincinnati, and still managed to beat Jankovic 6-4 in the third. In fact, her past few results—Rome winner, French Open semifinalist, Wimbledon finalist, Toronto R16 and Cincinnati winner—have been the most consistent of all the women save Serena. Despite all the uncertainty in the women’s tour, Sharapova is someone who can be relied to make a deep run at the Open. Of course, if she does not commit 15 double faults in a match.

If she ends up winning the Open, women’s tennis will have found their marquee face again.

Petra Kvitova (6): Was her slump at the North American tournaments just a one off or will she suffer the post-first-slam-victory-slump that engulfed players like Ana Ivanovic? It would probably be too much to ask her to repeat her Wimbledon feat at the Open. However, it would not be too far fetched to expect her to go deep into the draw, possibly a semifinal apperance.

Li Na (7): Ever since her historic victory at Roland Garros, she has not done anything special. However, she had not done anything special between her run to the final at Melbourne and victory at Roland Garros, either. In fact, she lost five straight matches during this period. This suggests that her form in the smaller tournaments is no indication of how she will perform at the grandest of stages.

Caroline Wozniacki (1): It is a bit baffling that the world’s top lady baller (at least on the computer) is fifth on the list of contenders for the Open. But lack of a major coupled with dismal performances in recent smaller events—something which she was great at!—do not give good indications ahead of the Open. To her credit, she has taken criticism sportingly and always has a smile on her face. But lack of a coach would hurt her chances at the Open, given how deeply she relied on her father for on-court coaching during the premier tournaments. Failing to win a single match during the North American hard court series will definitely rob her of confidence and a second week showing here would be a good start to her new career without the coaching services of her father.

Victoria Azarenka (5): Always considered a threat in every tournament, she is also at the stage where the question “when will she win a major” will turn into “can she win a major”. She has no apparent weakness at the back of the court, but she doesn’t have a strength either. And lack of a solid weapon is usually her downfall to an opponent who either has more firepower, or is more consistent than her. She finally reached her first major semis at Wimbledon this year, but to expect anything more than that will likely result in a disappointment.

This more or less wraps us the preview on the top contenders for U.S. Open. The other faces to look out for will be the fast rising Andrea Petkovic, with Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ana Ivanovic, Dominica Cibulkova and Sabine Lisicki being the dark horses.

Next, we’ll look at the top contenders on the men’s side.