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The Top Five Contenders At The U.S. Open

Aug 26, 2012 11 comments

We are into the final Grand Slam and into one of the five most anticipated tournaments of the year. The tennis season will not stop at New York, but it is the final junction that this train will stop on after which it will go through numerous smaller stations that not many would be interested in. The U.S. Open is the tournament which usually salvages a player’s year (think Andre Agassi in ’94, Pete Sampras in ’96, Roger Federer in ’08) or it makes it (Andy Roddick in ’03, Juan Martin del Potro in ’09). So just like things happen at New York, we look into the top five favorites for the title on the men’s and women’s side without wasting any more time (and space).

Men

[2] Novak Djokovic: Yes, Federer beat him at Wimbledon. Yes, Djokovic lost to both Andy Murray and del Potro in the Olympics, and was bageled by Federer again at Cincinnati. But this is hard courts. This is Djokovic’s favorite surface. His offense is well known on asphalt, but it is his defense which achieves new levels here. If I were to pick a player with the best defense ever, it would be a toss up between Rafael Nadal on clay and Djokovic on hard courts. He is a wall. And even though it looks otherwise, he is coming into the Open in great form — a title in Montreal and a finalist in Cincinnati.

[1] Roger Federer: The current form indicates nothing but a Federer victory. And if he does win here, I will probably consider it as his best year ever given his age and the quality of his opponents. But it is also true that he has not won the Open for three years now, and has lost matches from winnable positions. In addition, he potentially faces Murray in the semis who just registered his first best-of-five victory over Federer and will come into the Open with confidence after winning a Gold metal for GBR. And finally, two consecutive best of five matches might be tough on him, regardless of how fresh, fit and motivated he is.

[3] Andy Murray: The victory at Olympics is important for Murray on two counts. One, he finally won a tournament of significance (read: A tournament that casual fans would remember a year later) and registered only his second best-of-five win over the top3, and his first in a semi or a final. However, caveats still remain. You can never be considered a favorite to win a major unless you have won one before. Given his early losses in the summer hard court season, and his early rounds vulnerability at the Open, it will be a tough ask from him.

[7] Juan Martin del Potro: He is proudly amongst the “been there, done that” section of the tour in Grand Slams, and at the Open, by beating both Nadal and Federer. He is on a high after winning a bronze for Argentina and finally registered his first win over the top-4 since his comeback from the wrist injury. Tournament after tournament, he is coming close to finding his form he displayed at the Open in ’09, but his recent wrist injury could be troublesome.

[?] The Dark Horse: Unfortunately, there is no sure shot fifth contender for the title. Tsonga, while explosive, is too erratic. Berdych is out of form. Ferrer can’t win a major without an explosive serve, forehand or a backhand regardless of how great his fitness and work ethic is. And Raonic? It would be a great tournament for him if he can even register his first win over Federer or Djokovic. However, the winner of the dark horse award goes to John Isner, who will not have to face any of the above four players till semifinals, and will have a fighting chance against Ferrer.

Semifinals: Roger Federer d. Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic d. John Isner
Champion: Novak Djokovic

Women

[4] Serena Williams: Serena won her fifth Wimbledon title on grass, flew across continents and dismantled the field on the hard courts of Stanford, and two weeks later went back to grass across continents and ruthlessly demolished the top two ranked women’s tennis players by losing only three and one games respectively, including a bagel set. In addition, she fired the maximum number of aces at Wimbledon across both men and women! She hit 24 aces in a two set match against Victoria Azarenka, one of the game’s best returners. I can go on, but it is clear that there is a big gap between Serena and the field. If Serena is even close to her best, the title is hers. However, she also have had epic meltdowns at the Open in the past two years, although the Serena this year has been really amiable and charming.

[5] Petra Kvitova: Yes, your heard it right. The woman, who was poised to take over the women’s field, and was 10 points away from the world No. 1 at the end of last year, has deteriorated in results. But she also won her first title of the year at Toronto, reached the semis at Cincinnati and won at New Haven, so she comes in with momentum, confidence and victories on her back. It looks like she has found her footing on this surface (she won just one match in the summer hard courts last year), and with Serena not in her half of the draw, can be more than a handful at New York.

[9] Li Na: I repeat, yes, you heard it right. On her day, she is one of the purest hitters of the tennis ball after Serena and Kvitova. She struggles with her temparent, but seems to have found it after hiring Justin Henin’s coach, Carlos Rodrigues, as evident by his finalist run at Toronto and the title at Cincinnati.

[3] Maria Sharapova: She had a banner year after completing her Career Slam and briefly getting to the top of the rankings, but might be low on confidence after a 6-0 6-1 beatdown at the hands of Serena in the Olympics, and has question marks on her fitness given her recent injury woes.

[1] Victoria Azarenka: She had a great start to the season going twenty six and O. She had left all her mental struggles behind during this run, but those flaws slowly creept back to her game through the European clay season, which carried forward to grass. A return to hard courts would be welcome, but she has also not gone past the third round even once since 2007!

Dark Horses: Angelique Kerber (the sixth seed, finalist at Cincinnati, and the defending semi-finalist at the Open, where it all started), Agnieska Radwanska (finalist at Wimbledon, but fatigue is creeping into her game as a result of overplaying), and because she is the defending champion, Samantha Stosur. And before I forget, Kim Clijsters, who has not lost a single match at the Open since 2006.

Semifinals: Petra Kvitova d. Li Na, Serena Williams d. Angelique Kerber
Champion: Serena Williams

Sunday Bloodbath at Roland Garros

Jun 3, 2012 Leave a comment

Roland Garros had been enjoying lovely weather throughout the first week so far. It just did not feel right. Something had to give. And so Paris awoke to thick clouds, heavy winds and cold weather. Suddenly, the bright orange gladiatorial arena of Phillip Chatrier and Suzanne Lenglen had changed its color. At dark red, it gave the familiar look of the graveyard which had once soaked up Roger Federer two years ago at the hands of Robin Soderling. The signs were ominous.

Victoria Azarenka had looked grumpy and cranky all week. Despite not winning any titles throughout the European swing, she had still played well enough to reach two finals, losing only to the best in Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. And now she faced another opponent, against whom she had never felt comfortable despite having a stellar head to head record. Dominica Cibulkova has been the Tomas Berdych to Azarenka’s Rafael Nadal. She nearly slayed the champion at Miami, and the heavy conditions today gave her the perfect opportunity to complete the unfinished task. She hit through Azarenka not afraid to go for her shots — she won the match point with a classic drop shot followed by a fierce backhand cross court winner — which she later affirmed, “I was proud of the way I went for my shots even in the tiebreaker.” As for Azarenka, she looked grumpy, cranky, tried to break her racket, then did break her racket (after four painful attempts) and the mindset carried over to the press, “I’m going to kill myself.” when asked how would she recover. Azarenka is not exactly comfortable on grass, and now without any grass court tune up for her, it is going to be equally tough for her at Wimbledon. As for Cibulkova, with Stosur, Stephens, Kerber and Errani left in her part of the draw, she must be fancying herself to one up her semis performance in 2009.

****

The bloodbath continued at Chatrier. Novak Djokovic did not look at home. Thick blocks of mud popped up loosely from his shoes — rather than smooth sand granuels in sunny conditions. The court was left with deep patches of foot marks when he slided and it was trouble for him right from the start.

Andres Seppi plays a lot like Murray. He has short, compact swings, lacks pace on his shots but creates heavy angles, has good consistency and movement on clay. In short, exactly the kind of game that bothers the world no. 1. Coupled with the wind, it was hard work for the Serb as his slices floated long, the lack of pace did not allow him to take those fast, authoritative swings on backhand as he usually does, and even his return game went off. But unlike his counterpart on the women’s side, he never was baffled by the uncharacteristic calm — during the points and between points — of his opponent and bided his time even when he went down two sets to love, looking ripe for an upset. Despite being under the weather, he showed his Djokovician moments for a good part of the last three sets, and fought hard — against the opponent, weather, crowd and himself — for the rest. He was subdued right from the start till the end. His loud roars and chest pumping were absent, instead his acknowledgment after the match was more an expression of relief. He knew that 77 — seventy seven — unforced errors will not exactly get him the Djoker slam. Thankfully, every day is a new day in tennis. The important thing is to remain alive to experience the new day. Which Djokovic did.

****

Side by side, Federer was battling it out, too. He said it is “strange” to play somebody who calls him his idol, even though “it has happened before.” It becomes even more difficult against someone who has nothing to lose, and bravely goes for his shots. It worked as David Goffin took the first set — yet another set Federer has lost this tournament — and led 5-4 in the second. At 15-30, he had an open court to put away a short backhand. A set point for yet another 2-0 lead against a heavy favorite was apparent. Goffin, the lucky loser — as John McEnroe reminded us at least 100 times during the match — must have had a thought of it too, as he put that backhand into the net.

The thought was there, but the hope vanished away after that. Federer won the second set 7-5, and cruised through the next two. Goffin played as well as he could in those two sets, but one could sense that neither he, nor Federer believed that the lucky loser — there, I said it again — had even a slight chance. Goffin delighted everybody as he fought valiantly. He even drew an extended applause after winning a point he should have lost at least three times, and then enjoyed it to the fullest by acknowledging the crowd for about half a minute. Even the maestro was “impressed”, as he gave him a great handshake and unruffled his hair after reaching his 32nd straight quarterfinal in a major.

****

Lots of blood was shed on the two show courts today. One champion fell to it. Two others, while still alive, were heavily wounded. It wasn’t pretty to watch. One would hope that this was the only customary graveyard setting that Roland Garros has to show every year. And that it would bring back the bright orange gladiatorial arena come Monday.

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.