Monday, 27 August 2012 17:25

Save the Best for Last: US Open Preview

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Being the last of the four Grand Slams, the story at the US Open is always enthralling. Last year, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal had virtually ruled out any chances of anybody else being No. 1 for the year, and they played a wonderful (although not great) four-setter on another Monday Night Final (why is that starting to sound so right?). On the women´s side, the story was Caroline Wozniacki´s attempt to claim legitimacy by winning her first Grand Slam, as well as Serena Williams´ comeback. We ended up instead with Samantha Stosur claiming her first Slam and 2011 having four different female winners at the Slams.

This year, it is a tad more interesting.

To start, the three previous Slams have been divided among six players (men and women). Were it not for the fact that Serena Williams basically bought the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club for the summer, winning both Wimbledon and the Olympic Gold Medal, we would have eight for four, because Andy Murray made good strides towards being considered one of the 'big four' (or as a joke goes around, the big 3.5) by also winning Gold in London.

But the narrative is more subtle than that.

For one, Roger Federer is again the No. 1 player in the world. That entire phrase so easily rolls off the tongue, because his drop to No. 3 simply did not sound right after so many years dominating everything. Djokovic has dropped to No. 2, but the news relate to the No. 3 player, Nadal. Unable to defend 1,400 ranking points from last year´s runner-up position, Nadal´s knees may drop him out of the third spot altogether. Of course, Murray´s play before the Open, where he has previously reached the final, has been anything but stellar lately, but he can deliver. Can does not necessarily mean will, and it is a job for Ivan Lendl during the next two weeks to get Murray to the second verb.

So, a victory by Federer seals the year for him, as does one for Djokovic. The latter has not been the same man since the unfortunate news of his beloved grandfather´s death, but you simply cannot take the man out of the equation for a couple of subpar months (compared to the standard he set last year). With the way Federer and Djokovic are playing, and with Nadal out, considerable money will be laid on a One-Two final, with Federer hungry to get to match point and serve a deep slice to Djokovic´s forehand. If that is the final match-up, the tennis world will be salivating to see whether Novak can once again slap a winning forehand in that situation.

For the women, it seems like Serena Williams is once again the sheriff in town. After one of the most fantastic starts of any year, Victoria Azarenka has not been delivering. She basically destroyed Maria Sharapova at the Aussie Open Final, continued on a tear but suddenly it all fell to pieces. Losses to Cibulkova at Roland Garros and Williams at Wimbledon have put a big question mark next to her seeding: is she a legit No. 1, or are we witnessing Ana Ivanovic, Part II?

The No. 2 player entering the event is Agnieszka Radwanska. The frail looking Pole looks, well, frail, as she goes into New York. She DID reach the Wimbledon final and she DID take one set from Williams, but that was a 7-5 sandwiched between a 1-6 and a 2-6. The skeptics do have a point when saying that Williams simply started to day-dream about the imminent glory and ensuing shopping spree and let the second set escape before coming back to finish the job, but the point is that Radwanska simply does not have the weapons on the court to counter the power of Williams (or for that matter, Azarenka, who seems to 'own' her, too).

At No. 3, Sharapova looks good. Well, she looks good whatever the situation, but having completed a career Grand Slam and being a previous winner at Flushing Meadows, you simply cannot count out the Russian.

But a nagging thing about her stats remains. Sharapova is a fierce competitor and certainly knows how to play big time matches. But when she self-destructs in a major final, it is not pretty. She was plastered by Azarenka at the Aussie and it got even worse at the Olympics.

Sharapova is kind of a "perfect day" player: when she is on, the winners flow effortlessly, but when she is not, the implosion is quick and nasty. Remember that she has never played a three-setter in her seven slam finals, either disappearing early (against Azarenka) or pulverizing her opponent (Sara Errani at Roland Garros this year).

But this, all this, is academic. The story in the WTA remains the same: if Serena Williams is playing near her best (not at, but simply near) and she is healthy (they do not necessarily go together), get ready to switch the channel soon (if you are watching on TV) or make reservations for a posh restaurant in Manhattan a little later on. Williams is again ruling the field like she has in the past, and the US Open is HER slam. It will take some wild performance by an inspired Angelique Kerber or a steady and powerful Petra Kvitova to derail Serena from getting closer to Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova as she climbs up the conversation of female GOATs.

There are other plots. Kvitova ended 2011 within a few points of reaching No. 1. She was unable to close the deal. Caroline Wozniacki ended 2011 as No.1, but the no longer fresh joke is that the closest she will again get to No. 1 is cuddling up with Rory McIlroy. Venus Williams will play a few good rounds and may make a statement as a previous champion, but she is also looking up at Serena. Na Li, Sam Stosur and Ana Ivanovic are other former slam Champions in the draw but simply look like that, former slams champions.

With one exception.

Kim Clijsters will play her final match at the US Open this year. A three-time champion, her body has betrayed her considerably as she has grown older (a relative term; the woman is barely 30 years old). Injuries have taken too much of a toll for her to continue to be a regular force in the sport. Were it not for Serena, you would have to consider her chances to be better than average, but not this time.

So, the 2012 US Open begins. The narrative is thick, the plot interesting, and for two weeks, the city of New York will transfer all theatrics and drama from Broadway to Flushing Meadows. At it does every year at this time.

Additional Info

  • Photographer: Christina Ward
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Ponchi Gonzalez

Ponchi Gonzalez has been hacking a ball on a tennis court since he was 8. His style of play is what his psychiatrist would describe as Paranoid-Schizophrenic: he does get to a lot of balls but then knows very little of what to do with them. When he is not roaming the halls and chat-rooms of he works as a consultant to the Oil Industry, trying to tell them how to avoid Deepwater Horizon scenarios.