Tag Archives: US Open

Roof, good scheduling and great tennis – no grumbles here!

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It’s high up there!

 

Wonders will never cease; the USTA finally had its roof in place and gone were any second-week worries about the tournament finishing on time. In addition, the oft-criticised 3-day first round is now a thing of the past so all that is left to reflect on is the tennis itself. And it delivered in no small doses. We had old favourites returning to form, newbies breaking through and people finally realising their potential, all capped off by a new number one in the women’s game, and THAT doesn’t happen too often.

The men’s tournament had some stellar moments; Stan Wawrinka saved a match point as early as the third round when Britain’s Dan Evans pushed him all the way. I had predicted the Swiss would disappoint in New York so I was licking my lips with relish but the now three-time major winner found a way to get through and go all the way to the winners’ circle. After his tussle with Evans, nobody really laid a glove on Stan until he locked horns with Novak Djokovic on the last day of the event. Djokovic himself will never get an easier route to a grand slam final; two of his opponents retired hurt, one of them didn’t even make it onto court and his semi-final opponent produced the most ridiculous last-four performance I can remember for many a year; Gael Monfils believing that playing at walking pace was going to be enough to get past one of the greatest players of all time. This helped the Serb no end as he had come into the tournament with his own niggling physical and personal doubts. As for the final itself, there was a purveying sense that Djokovic had to get ahead and hope to hold on. He managed to edge that first set tiebreak, which included an epic point for the ages but, from then on in, much like at Roland Garros last year, Wawrinka reeled him in and pounded winner after winner down the lines. There has already been talk of a ‘Big 5’ but Roger Federer hasn’t won a major in over four years and it is two and a half years since Nadal won one or even got to the last four. Those two legacies are intact but they should no longer be talked about in the same breath as Djokovic and now Murray and Wawrinka. Stan has three majors to his name, and more cannot be completely ruled out. When he is on, he really is on.

Three-time major winner

Elsewhere in the men’s draw, we were treated to a fine run from Juan-Martin del Potro, who at one point was looking likely to be the man to come through the draw from the bottom half. As it is, a quarter-final result is likely to please delPo supporters and if he can remain injury-free, he will be a force to be reckoned with in 2017, buoyed by an improved ranking too of course. Lucas Pouille and Rafael Nadal produced a match-of-the-tournament contender, with the young Frenchman coming out on top to make his second successive major quarter-final. It was riveting to see Nadal fight like the champion he is but Pouille’s swashbuckling style had too much on the day. Andy Murray’s summer of exertion finally caught up with him and it was refreshing to see Kei Nishikori take advantage of a temper tantrum from the world number two to book a well-overdue semi-final appearance.

The big problem in the men’s tournament was the number of withdrawals or retirements. Every single round through to the quarter-finals had at least one pull-out with a total of nine. It would appear that the tough summer schedule caught up with some guys here. It is well-documented how well tennis players are paid for each round they progress at a grand slam so it is no surprise to see them taking a chance on their fitness. One wonders if it would be wise in the future to bend the schedule a little in an Olympic year.

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The women’s tournament delivered a strong fortnight. Angelique Kerber became the new world number one, finally putting an end to Serena Williams’ stranglehold on that position which had lasted for three and a half years. Kerber is a deserved leader of the women’s game; she has won more slams this year than any other player and has defeated her old mental demons. The last few days have transformed her career from being very good to great. The way she hangs in points and then produces bullet winners from impossible angles is a joy to watch and her final against Karolina Pliskova was one of the great finals of this century. Their games pushed the other’s to the absolute limit and it was so good to see Pliskova handle the occasion so well. It was difficult to comprehend how she had never gone beyond the third round of a major before this fortnight but she fair smashed through that glass ceiling in New York. Pliskova’s deep crisp hitting is reminiscent of Lindsay Davenport, something which would have made her more fans at Flushing Meadows had she not dumped out both of the Williams’ sisters in the space of three evenings, her final set tie-breaker victory over Venus the match of the tournament for me (Naomi Osaka’s brave performance defeat to Madison Keys was a close second, but the quality didn’t quite match the drama). It will be interesting to see if the Czech continues on this upward trajectory; her game looks particularly suited to both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

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On top of the world – the new champion is the new world number 1!

 

Caroline Wozniacki rolled back the years and hit fine form once again in New York, her favourite city. The two-time finalist didn’t quite match her previous best but a semi-final appearance will go some way to regaining lost ground in the rankings race. She was on the brink in the first round against Taylor Townsend but did not look back from then on until she hit a Kerber brick wall in the last four. Ana Konjuh had a breakthrough tournament, knocking out two seeds including Agnieszka Radwanska before coming undone against Pliskova in the quarter-finals. Garbine Muguruza once again disappointed early in the fortnight and will need to go back to the drawing board to regain the momentum she built up with her Roland Garros victory, which already seems an awful long time ago. Serena Williams came into the tournament with concerns over her fitness but she had a good tournament. We forget that this woman is 34 and it still requires somebody to play an inspired match to knock her out; this time it was Pliskova who raised her game magnificently but Serena has had another terrific year.

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Holding on tight to a deserved title

 

Overall, a fine fortnight in the new stadium with some unforgettable matches, a new number one in the women’s game and two new US Open champions. I can’t wait to be a part of it all again next year!

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All to play for in New York: US Open 2016 Preview

 

The final Grand Slam of the year rolls around in a few hours’ time with form and fitness concerns hanging over many of the usual suspects. It’s more difficult this year to differentiate the dead certs from the outsiders and the dark horses, made even more challenging by the Olympics disrupting the US Open Series, usually such a reliable barometer of form. All this being said, you’d be a brave person to back anybody from outside of Djokovic, Kerber, Murray and Williams to lift the trophies in two weeks’ time.

 

Huge doubts linger around Novak Djokovic’s chances in New York. He has even been labelled as an unknown quantity coming into this major – these claims are risible. He is not world number 1 for no reason and is the current holder of three of the four Grand Slams. Yes, he went out uncharacteristically early at Wimbledon and was dumped out of the Rio Olympics in tears, but these tears were more the result of him knowing this was his best chance of winning Gold; he will be well past his peak by the time Tokyo 2020 comes around. He obviously has some slight injury concern bothering him but it would be foolish not to expect him to reach the final few days in the Big Apple. Milos Raonic, should he get that far, may well fancy his chances of upsetting the Serb at the semi-final stage, given the big-hitting games of Sam Querrey and Juan-Martin del Potro have caused the Serb problems in his last two top-tier matches. The Wimbledon runner-up comes into this tournament just days after John McEnroe leaving his coaching team – this should prove no problem as Carlos Moya can continue his excellent work with the big-serving amiable Canadian.

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The 2012 champion will be looking to add to his amazing 12 months

 

The bookmakers may disagree but I consider Andy Murray to be the strong favourite heading into the tournament in which he broke his Grand Slam duck four years ago. On that occasion, he defeated Djokovic in five gruelling sets and it is surely only his poor record against the Serb in recent years that is stopping more people marking him as the man to beat here. He is 19-2 in the majors this year and became the first singles player in history to retain Olympic Gold in Rio earlier this month. His absorbing duel with Juan-Martin del Potro in that final will do him more good than any match he played at Wimbledon; he may need to tough it out in New York and that final proved he can not only stand toe-to-toe with one of the biggest sloggers the game has ever seen, but ultimately overcome him. Murray will need to be wary of Lukas Rosol in the first round as we all know he is capable of turning it on every now and again but should then face no troubles until he faces a rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov in the Last 8. His potential semi-final looks easier on paper than the other half of the draw so he could come into the final weekend feeling relatively fresh, which could prove crucial if it is Djokovic on the other side of the net. I may be biased but I see little way past the Scot this fortnight.

Others to watch include two-time champion Rafael Nadal who seemed in much finer form in Rio and is obviously refreshed by his decision to once again skip Wimbledon, del Potro who is still capable of hitting anybody off the court and finally appears to have put his injuries behind him, and Nick Kyrgios whose enforced absence from the Olympics has allowed him to get accustomed to the American hard courts. It remains to be seen which Kyrgios turns up.

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Two more former champs in with a fighting chance

 

Serena Williams comes into her home major aiming for her 23rd Grand Slam. She is the six-time champion in New York but will want to make amends for the aberration that was her inexplicable semi-final loss to Roberta Vinci last year. Williams has some minor fitness concerns coming into the final major of the year but should she successfully negotiate a tough opening round against Ekaterina Makarova (an Australian Open semi-finalist just eighteen months ago), Serena is likely to go all the way through to Finals weekend. Of course one can never fully discount an off-day such as when the resurgent Elina Svitolina thumped her out of the Olympic Games earlier this month but Serena will have a further layer of dominance added to her now she has moved ahead of Steffi Graf in major titles. The biggest roadblock to a potential final could be her elder sister. It is seven years since Venus last lifted the title in New York but she will be the overwhelming crowd favourite were she to get anywhere near the business end of the tournament; tennis loves a fighting ex-champion and Venus ticks every box.

Madison Keys will be delighted she has landed in the opposite side of the draw to the top two Americans. Keys looks the very clear favourite to carry American hopes for the next generation if the Williams sisters ever stop playing. She gives off a Petra Kvitova impression; if her game clicks in any particular fortnight she is going to blow everybody away. A semi-final in Rio will be small comfort to her as she lost out on a bronze medal to Kvitova but a favourable draw here could see her advance all the way to Finals weekend. She has found a way past Venus Williams in the past but is yet to prove she is a match to Serena. If the Williams’ slip, Keys could be the one to capitalise.

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Outsiders: Konta and Svitolina

 

Elsewhere, Angelique Kerber appears to be the non-American who stands the best chance of lifting the trophy. Kerber v2.0 has had a wonderful 2016, currently tied at 1-1 with Williams in their major finals. However, her defeat to Monica Puig in the Olympics final smacked of the old Kerber, failing to beat an inferior opponent due to apparent mental fragility. There is no doubt that Puig played the tournament of her life but Kerber should have had enough wherewithal to get past her when push came to shove. The world number two will come into the Open determined to prove that was an anomaly and a deciding rubber against Serena appears to be the most likely outcome on the women’s side. Backed by a home crowd, one would have to assume that Serena would come out on top again in another closely-fought tussle.

Expect strong tournaments from Dominika Cibulkova as she looks to round off an impressive showing at the year’s majors, as well as Agnieszka Radwanska and Johanna Konta who currently lead the US Open Series. Radwanska can always be relied upon to disappoint but she should seal a quarter-final place, and Konta will be hoping to push towards the Top 10 by matching that performance. A step further than that appears to be a little out of their collective reaches at this moment in time.

Predictions

Murray to beat Raonic in the final

Serena to beat Kerber

Most likely to surprise: Monica Puig, Elina Svitolina, David Goffin and Dominic Thiem

Most likely to disappoint: Stanislas Wawrinka, Petra Kvitova and Borna Coric

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Cilic Bang! Croat enters exclusive club whilst Serena continues unique brand of dominance

For about eighteen months now, people have predicted that the days of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic at the top of men’s tennis were numbered. Eventually, they were always going to be proven correct. Has that day finally come? How many Grand Slam titles will Serena win if she fancies it? These were the two big questions left in my head at the end of another cracking tournament, albeit one that was a little lop-sided on the WTA side. My biggest rant will, once again, be directed at the organisers of the tournament, something of an annual tradition!

Saturday could well prove to be a pivotal moment in the changing of the guard, but I don’t think it necessarily announces that the changing has already taken place. Kei Nishikori had an amazing fortnight; to take out Milos Raonic, Stan Wawrinka and Djokovic in successive rounds will do wonders for his confidence. It’s such a shame that he suffered from nerves in the final, and be in no doubt about that – Kei got tight and it ruined his shot at this title. However, his dismantling of Djokovic’s game in the final two sets of their semi-final suggests that the pack have caught up with Djokovic, on their best day. But therein is the key for the moment; Djokovic will still beat the rest of the field on his best day regardless of what they do. He looked lethargic in the latter stages of his semi-final, and Nishikori just ground him down before dismantling the game, something which his coach would be mightily proud of.

Marin Cilic played exemplary tennis in the second week of the season’s last major, a surprising breakthrough but not wholly illogical. Boris Becker stated during the final that Djokovic had knocked the big Croat out of the last two Slams but in really tough battles, and that they’d both felt that Marin was beginning to knock louder on the door of the tennis dynasty. Cilic has pushed them close before in the past but his game was prone to imploding in moments of pressure. His liaison with Goran Ivanisevic seems to have righted that wrong. The former Wimbledon winner looks to have had the same effect on his compatriot as Ivan Lendl had on Andy Murray’s game two years ago. Perhaps Cilic’s moment in the sun will be a fleeting one, but after the way he tore through the quarters, semis and final in New York there is hope that he can genuinely challenge in majors from herein. The newest Grand Slam champion has everything in his game, the depth he achieves off the ground is unreal and coupled with the booming serve (not dissimilar to his or Djokovic’s coaches), he has everything he needs to mount an assault on the top of the rankings.

Roger Federer is in a different place to Novak Djokovic in that his best is no longer always good enough to beat the likes of Cilic’s best. Sure, he is still a contender and I still make him, at this point, one of if not the favourite to win Wimbledon in 2015 but on other surfaces his A-game is not always going to beat the A-game of a Monfils, a Dimitrov, a Cilic. Weirdly enough, his record of 17 Slams looks more secure now than it did a fortnight ago. The breakthroughs this year of Wawrinka and now Nishikori and Cilic mean that it will be tougher for Rafael Nadal to inch closer to Federer’s total, but this small crumb of comfort will not seem too palatable for the ever-competitive Swiss number 1.

A usual sight in the opening ten days - not one you expect for the men's final though

A usual sight in the opening ten days – not one you expect for the men’s final though

The women’s tournament lacked a quality match in the second week. It’s becoming a depressing pattern; first weeks full of promise and high-quality tussles which then fizzle out in the second week, the popcorn week. The casual viewer of women’s tennis probably tunes into the latter stages and wishes they hadn’t bothered. It’s not the participants’ faults of course, just Sod’s Law but I remain glad that I follow the first week as much as I do the latter stages. There’s still depth there in the women’s game, highlighted by the eight different Grand Slam finalists this year but there’s no getting away from the fact that if Serena Williams really goes after a title then it’s her whose name will be on the trophy at the end of the fortnight. I find it a little frustrating to see Serena on ONLY 18 majors, because if she had given it her all throughout the career, her total would be closer to, if not greater than, Steffi Graf’s Open-era record of 22 Slams. Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova achieved their 18 majors in direct competition with each other. Since Venus went past her peak, Serena has had no serious competition to speak of and she has failed to capitalise, particularly this year.  I know it’s churlish to criticise the woman who just decimated the field, losing no more than three games in any set during the fortnight, but it really hit home to me what she hasn’t done. I’ve been her biggest fan but she could have taken the major records to untouchable heights. Her impact on tennis will live forever, but she could have been truly immortal if she had channelled correctly at all times.

My annual US Open rant is based again on the scheduling and pretty shoddy display by fans on final day. Luckily, we are going back to a Sunday final next year which should take away the ridiculous image of starting a major final in a stadium that was less than half full. Having a final on a workday is ludicrous, but to have it start at 5pm is downright crazy. The minute that we knew the final was between two new names on the block, it was evident that tennis tourists would not leave work early to get there. I won’t hold too many of them to account, but what I found disgustingly disrespectful was the fact that only 50% of the crowd stuck around for the presentation. This doesn’t happen in the other majors, what was so pressing at 7pm on a weekday evening that 14,000 people had to do a runner the minute Cilic entered the Grand Slam club? Such a shame. But a scenario not helped by the Monday final scheduling.

All in all, a great fortnight of tennis. Caroline Wozniacki returned to prominence and relevance, the trio of Shuai Peng, Kate Makarova and Kei Nishikori all made major breakthroughs and Croatia has a new sporting superstar. The Grand Slam year ended as it had begun, with a new name being able to forever call himself a Grand Slam champion. Pa učinio Marin!

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Equal pay, shambolic scheduling and greatness at work; things we learned from New York

Queen of Queen's

Queen of Queen’s

The equal prize money debate refuses to go away. When you have one of the top 3 male players continuing to raise the issue, it’s not going to disappear quietly. Andy Murray is right to say that men’s tennis is a different sport to the women’s game. But his call for either the women to play best-of-five sets at Slams or men to play best-of-three is reactionary and not thought-out. Women’s matches would go on forever if it went to best-of-five, and I do not mean that in a derogatory manner. They just would. This would have severe consequences for any scheduling of Slams. We’d certainly be looking at Slams over 17 or 18 days in my opinion. As for the men slugging it out over three sets; well then we would see some new faces in the final four I guess. Only Djokovic really comes out of the traps hard at all times in the early rounds. Nadal and Murray would be up against it from the off.

And whilst we cannot hide from the fact that currently the women’s game rides the coat-tails of the men’s in terms of ticket income, sponsorship etc., this does not mean it will always be like that. Men’s tennis has been blessed for five years now. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have been total box office, guaranteeing bums/asses on seats wherever they go around the world. Only Serena Williams really commands the same attention on the women’s side. Sharapova did one time over but I’m afraid her noise put paid to a lot of her admirers. Victoria Azarenka should also have that box office appeal but, as much as I like her, again her noise turns people away. But this will not always be the case. The new generation coming through have learned not to scream and grunt and this will help the women’s game. Incidentally, how fitting that it was Monica Seles who presented the trophies to Serena and Azarenka – I’m sure she was proud of that noisy final! Looking at the players coming through, I have a sneaking suspicion that the women will more than hold their own against the men in the next five years. There is not an awful lot coming through on the men’s side but the women will be fine.

The US Open continues to get scheduling so badly wrong that it’s almost incomprehensible. During the first week, you don’t really have to check the schedule for Arthur Ashe Court. They don’t look for potentially good matches. They just rotate Serena, Venus, Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and inexplicably Caroline Wozniacki. Wimbledon put Andy Murray out on Court 1 for his third round match this summer. Serena Williams has not played on anything other than Arthur Ashe Stadium in the last six years. I can’t access the schedules from before that date, it may stretch even further. From somebody who has sat through a night session involving Serena and Novak Djokovic dropping a total of four games between them, I can’t fathom how this is attractive day in, day out. And the fact that the defending men’s champion had to wait until last thing on Day 3 to begin his campaign is rotten, rotten to the very core.  And a 5pm Monday start benefits who exactly? The West coast who are still at work? Sleeping Europe where the finalists were always likely to hail from? I would implore the USTA to sort it out but they are well past caring about fans or players.

Tennis is becoming more and more of a veterans sport. Five of the women’s quarter-finalists were in their 30s and on the men’s side the likes of Stan Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet enjoyed their best turnouts so far, both into their late 20s. Add onto this Tommy Robredo making the quarters after his marathon-man showing in Paris, David Ferrer playing the best tennis of his career in his 30s and Mikhail Youzhny playing as well as he has ever done aged 31, and then there’s Lleyton Hewitt. Ah yes, the man I expected to retire last January. He insists that he just couldn’t do it, no matter what his body was telling him to do. And boy is he being rewarded. Many argue that it’s the increased prize money that is keeping players from retiring. And for some that will be true. If your body isn’t giving up on you, then why turn your back on pay-checks. But for the likes of Hewitt, sporting glory and love of what he does will always come first. You’re a long time retired in this sport and fair play to these boys and girls for not wanting to be airbrushed out of history just yet.

Serena Williams is incredible. She won her first Grand Slam tournament in the 90s, she has won three of the four majors on five separate occasions and has now seen off challenges from her sister Venus, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati and Maria Sharapova, whilst continuing to stave off Victoria Azarenka.  She’s now won 17 majors, which puts her one behind Martina Navratilova and Chrissie Evert, and I’m starting to think she even has her sights on Steffi Graf’s 22. More tellingly for me, it puts her level with Roger Federer. Whilst she may not have had to play five sets, I would wager that the level of competition in front of her has been tougher long-term than that which Federer faced for a long period of his dominance between 2003 and 2008. So, if we talk about Federer as the greatest and put him ahead of the more competitive eras of Connors, Borg, McEnroe etc, then I argue that we put Serena on the same pedestal.

King of Clay...and Hard

King of Clay…and Hard

Which brings me to Rafael Nadal; he definitely has his sights set on catching Federer’s total of 17 majors. Not that he’d admit it of course, and not that he probably believes he can achieve it, such is his modesty. I always felt that the reason Federer tried so desperately for one more major was that he didn’t quite think 16 would be out of reach of Nadal and that 17 would prove to be. But it’s suddenly looking very achievable for the man from Mallorca. His renaissance is one of sport’s great tales – none of us could have imagined at the start of 2013 that he would come back from serious injury and win two of the three majors, go undefeated to date on hard courts and outlast Novak Djokovic, the indefatigable Novak Djokovic, on that surface. Rafa was in the zone during that final; it’s been a long time since we’ve seen him as pumped up as he was at the end of the decisive third set when he saved three consecutive break points at 4-4. As Djokovic watched those points sail by, he knew he couldn’t compete with this man over two more sets. The match was won and lost right there. Djokovic of course played his part as he always does but 2013 is Nadal’s year just as 2011 was the Serb’s. Were the Spaniard to carry this form into early-2014 and win in Melbourne, I would make him odds-on to at least match Federer’s 17 major titles. When you consider the likes of Becker, McEnroe, Lendl and Connors all ‘failed’ to reach double figures, you fully realise how great this last six years has been for men’s tennis. Golden age, enjoy every slam they give us.

 

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Stepping up in the city that never sleeps; time for new Number 1s?

Positive memories

Positive memories

The scores change, the matches change, the years change, even the players change, yet tennis just continues on and on and on. No time to stop to admire Marion Bartoli’s career whose pinnacle came right at the denouement. It was 12 months ago that the sport bade farewell to two Slam champions in Kim Clijsters and Andy Roddick whose bodies finally gave out on them and gave in to the sport. How many passing thoughts have been given to those two in 2013? My point exactly. The wheel trundles on. So let me bask for just a second in the fact that for the first time in 35 years a British player goes into a Grand Slam as the defending champion, as “the hunted” according to John McEnroe. Add into that mix that we have a woman as a seed for the first time since 1988, and it’s nice to be looking forward to a Slam with excitement rather than trepidation. But off come the red, white and blue sunglasses for now.

Who are the form horses coming into the final slam of 2013? Where is the smart money going? It is difficult to look too far beyond Andy Murray, even without British bias. Good memories will be all around him all fortnight. New York is the place he broke through, the place where he won his first Slam by defeating the World Number One in five tough sets. In addition to that, he has appeared in the final of every Slam he’s competed in since and thrashed Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon final. I don’t think you can say enough about how much that can do for a person’s game and belief. Okay, he isn’t in fantastic form coming into the event but once he strolls out onto Arthur Ashe Stadium court, I think that will rectify itself pretty quickly. His potential path to the semi-finals is pretty straight-forward and things will hot up at that stage. The winner of the Novak Djokovic v Juan-Martin Del Potro quarter-final tie will pose a hard-hitting threat. I’m taking Del Potro to edge that quarter if he carries his Wimbledon form into the Slam he won four years ago.

Rafael Nadal will be a relieved man to be in the bottom half of the draw. He will fancy his chances in a potential quarter-final clash with Roger Federer (the Swiss maestro will be back to Last 8 form here in my opinion) and will find little trouble waiting for him in the form of compatriot and old friend David Ferrer at the penultimate stage. Nadal’s hard-court record this season is second to none and he will almost certainly feature on Finals day. If Del Potro has managed to beat Djokovic and Murray back-to-back, then Rafael Nadal will be a bridge too far and will pick him off without too many worries in the final. If it’s Murray who comes through from the top half, expect the Scot to get his first major final W against the Spaniard and give himself every chance of finishing the year as the world’s top player.

Roof-less....for now

Roof-less….for now

The women’s draw is depleted by the absence of Maria Sug….errrr Sharapova. The cynic in me wonders why she came to New York at all, and at that I shall leave it. All her absence does in my mind is solidify the expected repeat of last year’s final when Victoria Azarenka pushed Serena Williams to the very limit. And this year, I expect the Belarussian to avenge that particular defeat. She knew that she could live with Serena after that balmy New York night in 2012, and her fighting qualities saw her become a multi-major winner earlier this year in Melbourne. A victory in another of the majors will only reinforce her position as one of the best two players in the world. Her path to the final is easier than Serena’s, much easier. Serena starts off against former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone. Whilst the Italian’s best years are well behind her now, her game of slice and backhands has the potential to upset Serena right from the off. Her route further in could involve match-ups against the up-and-coming stars of the game, the likes of Sloane Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard, who both know what knocking out Serena in New York could do for their careers.

Vika has an easier route through; I would imagine she will have one small scare along the way, possibly against Alize Cornet as she did in Paris but I would be flabbergasted if she wasn’t in the Final in two weeks’ time. After a comparably easier fortnight, I think Azarenka will lift the third major title of her career.
As for the losing semi-finalists, I expect Agnieszka Radwanksa to take her decent Wimbledon form into the final slam of 2013 and get by the likes of Na Li, who in turn should have enough about her to see off a not-100% Laura Robson in Round 3 and thus extinguish any painful memories she has of said player from last year. And the big prediction from the bottom half of the draw is that I see Simona Halep dragging her amazing summer form into a Slam and taking advantage of a kind draw to cement her place in the Top 20. The Romanian has won four titles since June and being in the same quarter as Elena Vesnina, Sara Errani and Maria Kirilenko presents her with an opportunity she really cannot afford to turn down.

Let’s hope that we have a relatively dry US Open, although not too dry that the USTA goes back on their decision to install a roof on Ashe Stadium court! Kudos to them for finally dragging the tournament into the 21st century. In reading former players’ autobiographies, it beggars belief how much more innovative Wimbledon is these days compared with the US Open. Nobody would ever have imagined Wimbledon to be the more forward-thinking of the two. Let’s further hope that at the end of the fortnight, we have two deserving champions after two weeks of superb tennis. Two champions who believe that they belong at the very top. Andy and Victoria, your times are now. Time to seize, before the sport trundles on, passes you by and picks the next champions.

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The end of an era

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At the time of writing, only one glittering career has officially ended in New York this past week, but at least one more is imminent and two others appear to be nearing their denouement.  Laura Robson has burst onto the major scene by ending Kim Clijsters’ career for good in an incredibly high standard two sets of tennis.  Kim seemed quite relieved to have it all over and done with – I was privileged enough to be in the stands to witness it, and we all wish her the best in the rest of her life – tennis will miss her smile.  The hard-hitting Robson has added movement to her game now and whilst it would be wrong to put too much pressure on her young shoulders, this may not be the last time we see her in the latter stages of a Slam.  She showed all of her best fighting qualities to see off another major winner in the following round when she battled to a 3-set victory over Na Li – an amazing result to follow up on the best win of her career with arguably an even better one.

Elsewhere in the women’s draw, there was serene progress for Serena, Sharapova and Azarenka who have barely dropped a handful of games each.  I saw Serena’s match against Coco Vandeweghe and it was painful to witness – the gulf in class frightening.  The pre-match interview with Vandeweghe suggested that her serve would be better than her opponent’s – I think in reality she served about ten double faults in seven games. Sharapova was equally ruthless in her demolition of Melinda Czink.  I didn’t get a chance to see Vika but her results seem just as emphatic.  Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska seemed unseasonably off-colour in their victories over Pauline Parmentier and Carla Suarez-Navarro respectively; it is no surprise to see that they are not featuring in the second week.  The opportunity to check on Angelique Kerber didn’t present itself, but she may have also effectively ended the Grand Slam career of Venus Williams.  if, as I suspect, the sport loses Clijsters and the elder Williams in quick succession, major draws will have an unfamiliar look about the for a while.  Their successes will always be remembered, but time waits for no woman.

And nor does it wait for any man.  Andy Roddick has chosen to follow Kim Clijsters’ example and retire on his own terms.  His announcement that this will be his final tournament is fitting, coming at the place of his only Grand Slam victory, way back in 2003.  History will prove that Andy’s peak came at exactly the wrong time, coinciding with Roger Federer’s dominant years.  If it hadn’t been for Roger, Roddick would be a 3-time Wimbledon champion but Federer always had the American’s number even in the epic 2009 final when A-Rod famously professed that he hadn’t just thrown the kitchen sink at the Swiss maestro, but had thrown “the whole damn kitchen at him”.  Roddick’s respectable showing in New York means he bows out with his head held high.

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Lleyton Hewitt’s Last 32 showing proves that the 2-time Slam winner can still live with the best on his best day.  However, the fact that he has had to rely on wildcard entry to all four majors this season certifies that his best days are few and far between these days.  Whilst his fighting spirit will never die, the smart money would be on the former World #1 hanging up his racquet at the end of the 2013 Australian Open.  Again, Hewitt is unfortunate to have played in Federer’s era but he is somebody who fulfilled every bit of potential in his career.  If he is to follow Roddick into retirment, the game will have lost two very popular characters in a short space of time.

As for the contenders, I stick by my tip for the title.  Andy Murray may not have set the world alight in Week One, but the old adage rings true – you can’t win the title in the first week, only lose it.  His run has been tough and he stepped up the level of his play against Milos Raonic in the last 16.  Federer was imperious in the first week, but nobody seemed willing to really get at him.  Murray will do so in the Last 4. I have not seen a single shot of Djokovic’s tournament so far, but results-wise I have seen nothing yet to change my view that it will be the 25-year-old Brit who lifts the trophy aloft on Sunday night, weather permitting of course.

A word on my overall thoughts on the US Open experience.  Firstly, the bad stuff: Arthur Ashe Stadium.  It is is unsustainable at its current size.  From the cheap seats, you are so far away from the action that it is hard to get involved in a contest.  Huge swathes of empty seats greet the day sessions.  The music from Ashe can be heard on all outside courts, which surely does not offer courtesy to the other competitors.  Above all, the USTA’s over-reliance on its so-called marquee names meant that the same players appeared over and over again on the main court during the first week in ridiculously mismatched, uncompetitive encounters. Take Clijsters v Robson and Malisse v Isner out of the equation and the average set score on Ashe in the first five days was 6-2.  Not good value. Onto the good stuff though, and there is plenty.  The most lively Grand Slam I have been to (I haven’t yet been to Melbourne) with ample crowd capacity on all outside courts.  Ticketing is easy, security is quick (although no body scan/search is conducted, which is worrying given tennis’ history), the transport links are excellent and a ground pass represents excellent value  with $72 giving you access to all courts other than Ashe.  A resounding thumbs-up for the US open from me!

The things that make a Slam special though are the things that may mean nothing to the next person – watching my favourite player Nadia Petrova win three on the spin, watching my favourite male player Fabio Fognini win in the long shadows of a Grand Slam sunset and getting my photo taken with one of my faves,  2009 US Open Junior champ Heather Watson, who proved herself to be approachable and pleasant.  All in all, a great week at Flushing!

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Murray’s time has come

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The power in men’s tennis could be about to shift firmly towards Andy Murray.  The British number one comes into the final major of the 2012 season on the back of an annihilation of Roger Federer in the Olympics final only three weeks ago.  For those who question Federer’s desire in that match, I suggest they read any of the Swiss maestro’s interviews from the previous four years – London 2012 was one of his biggest motivations for continuing at the top of the game and his failure to win a Singles Gold medal will undoubtedly rank as one of the bigger disappointments of his glittering career when he finally hangs up his racket. The plain and simple truth is that Murray outplayed Federer with a ruthless display of aggressive tennis, just 48 hours after seeing off Novak Djokovic in straight sets, albeit in a best-of-3-sets match.  This, coupled with his run to the Wimbledon final earlier in the summer, has now given Murray the self-belief that he belongs with these guys at the very very top in the greatest era of men’s tennis.

I have been one of Andy Murray’s biggest critics over the years.  His rise to the top was filled with missed opportunities and shock defeats in Grand Slams to players that he should never have lost to. There was a stage approximately 18-24 months ago where he looked like his career had already peaked.  Djokovic and Nadal were disappearing into the distance, with Federer hanging onto his younger counterparts’ tailcoats. Drastic action was needed by Murray and it came earlier this year in the shock appointment of  the dour Czech Ivan Lendl as his coach. Opinion was divided at the time as to whether this was inspired choosing or a desperate lunge to the bar in the last chance saloon. The truth probably lies somewhere in between the two.  Lendl knows from his own playing career that patience can be the key; he was the same age as Murray is when he won his first Grand Slam and he went on to win a number.  Murray saw something in Lendl which other players haven’t seen – this was the Swede’s first coaching appointment, a full 17 years after he retired from the game.  Whilst neither would win a happiness contest, it seems that the dour cocktail is proving a positive one and less people than normal would bet against Murray lifting the US Open trophy in a fortnight’s time.  Who knows, if that happens we may even get a smile from the both of them? One smile, not two, let’s not get too carried away.

Nadal’s absence takes away one of the big obstacles in Murray’s way.  I put only Djokovic, Federer and Del Potro as other possible winners.  Djokovic will aim to sign off a slightly less successful year (only the Australian Open in the bag this year!) by proving he is still the man to beat on the ATP Tour.  Del Potro has history here and looks to be almost back to his best and will prove an incredibly tough not to crack on the hard New York courts. Federer has continued his outstanding summer form into the American season and will expect an appearance in the final.  However, Murray stands in his way – your time has come, Andy.

The women’s game desperately needs somebody to take Serena out in a giant-killing act.  If somebody can raise their game to their maximum level and beat the dominant younger Williams sister, then the field would be blown open.  Get a blanket and throw it over about 8 women if Serena loses somewhere along the line.  Maria Sharapova has a shot at the slam where she probably has the most support.  Vika Azarenka has a shot at reasserting her number 1 ranking.  Petra Kvitova has hit good form at just about the right time for a run in the season’s final major.  A word for Maria Kirilenko, who will look to cement her finest season of her career by securing another last four spot and maybe go even further.  But it is Kim Clijsters who jumps out as the big value bet here.  Kim will retire from tennis for a second and surely final time as soon as she hits her final ball in anger or joy in New York.  She will put every ounce of effort she has in her to give this one final shot.  She will be the crowd favourite, no doubt, and if Serena is ousted somewhere along the line, the support and emotion may be enough to give Kim the edge over the rest and carry over the line.  What is encouraging is that with the obvious exception of Rafael Nadal, all the big players in both events are fit and ready to go.  It promises to be a glittering two weeks under the lights of Flushing Meadows.  I am lucky to be going over there for the first five days, with the first five sessions being on Ashe Stadium court – this should give me a chance to see most of the main runners and riders up close over the next 7 days, and I will no doubt blog further upon my return.  But for now, I will leave you with these words; Andy and Kim – you read it here first!

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