Who Will Win the US Open?
Unlike 2011, when Novak Djokovic dominated the men’s game and entered the US Open as a solid favorite, parity among the Big 4 makes 2012’s last major tournament more intriguing. This season they have evenly divided the three Grand Slam events and the Olympics. Sadly, ultimate warrior Rafael Nadal, the US finalist last year, withdrew from Flushing Meadows because of chronic knee pain. Australian champion Novak Djokovic, Wimbledon king Roger Federer and Olympic gold medallist Andy Murray rate as the top contenders, although any of the three could be upset.
Sadly, ultimate warrior Rafael Nadal, the US finalist last year, withdrew from Flushing Meadows because of chronic knee pain.
After Federer won his seventh Wimbledon and 17th Grand Slam title a month before turning 31, he was asked if he was a better player today than five years ago. With a combination of confidence and humility, he answered, “I hope so. God, I’ve practiced so much that I—you don’t want to be worse five years later. I feel I have a great game today. I know how hard it is to pull off those great shots, and I know how easy it is to miss, so I’m more aware of these things. But I’m so happy I’m at the age I am right now because I had such a great run and I know there’s still more possible.”
Even if The Mighty Fed, who has defied Father Time remarkably and regained the No. 1 ranking, is competing at the same level as five years ago, his leading opposition has improved significantly. His run of five straight US Open titles ended in 2009 when Juan Martin del Potro overpowered him 6-2 in the fifth set of the final.
History strangely repeated itself in 2010 and 2011 when Djokovic boldly fought off two match points to overcome Federer in enthralling, five-set semifinals. After Federer defeated Djokovic in a four-set Wimbledon semifinal in July, he confided, "It's clear that you have flashbacks that come to you from that kind of match."
Federer hoisted yet another trophy at the recent Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati with a decisive victory over rival Novak Djokovic, but can he repeat that performance over five sets in the swirling winds and fast courts at Flushing Meadows?
During 2011-12 Djokovic boasts a 6-3 edge over Federer, including an important 3-1 record on hard courts. While the Swiss legend can still conjure up amazing shots and brilliant matches, his bad days come more often now. Not since Nadal overwhelmed him in the 2008 French final has Federer looked more impotent than in the Olympics gold medal match when Murray outclassed him 6-2, 6-1, 6-4. Even without nemesis Nadal to deal with, Federer’s one-handed backhand, more vulnerable in swirling New York wind, will prevent him from capturing his sixth US title.
After Murray lost the Wimbledon final, he praised Ivan Lendl, his coach since January. “He is a massive help, especially when it comes to keeping cool, dealing with high-pressure situations and managing tough moments during important matches,” said Murray. The expert guidance of Lendl, who also ordered Murray to hit forehands much more aggressively, plus belated maturity, helped Murray finally win “a big one” at the Olympics. Besides thrashing Federer, whom he now leads 9-8 in career matches, the 25-year-old Scotsman ousted Djokovic 7-5, 7-5 in the semis.
Murray, a two-time Australian runner-up and US Open runner-up in 2008, says hard courts are his favorite surface. But can he sustain his summer momentum, achieved on grass, on Flushing Meadows hard courts, which some players contend are the fastest surface at the majors? It’s unlikely because Federer and Djokovic boast better forehands and better second serves.
Murray had a major breakthrough at the Olympics where he demolished Federer in the finals. However, he faltered badly in Cincinnati and the heat and raucous New York fans will test his sometimes fragile nerves.
Like Nadal, he suffers from knee problems that are exacerbated on hard courts. His right knee locks on occasion, and pain in his left knee forced him to withdraw recently from Toronto. Murray may also revert to his old passive ways on crucial points. Finally, the heat, wind and raucous New York fans will also test his sometimes fragile nerves.
Although Djokovic hasn’t come close to matching his extraordinary 2011—highlighted by three Grand Slam titles, a record five ATP World Tour Masters 1000 trophies and a 41-match winning streak — he’s won a major title, plus Masters 1000 events in Miami and Toronto. He also reached finals at Roland Garros, Monte Carlo, Rome and Cincinnati.
Lady Luck wasn’t on Djokovic’s side in the French Open final where he was bidding for a historic fourth straight major title in June. “He was so close to winning it,” pointed out CBS analyst Jim Courier. “He had all the momentum when the rain came. Nadal was as frustrated as I’ve ever seen him. When they came back on Monday, Djokovic was up a service break in the fourth set. A net cord in the first game led to a break back for Nadal, and that was all it took.”
Importantly, four of Djoker’s five major crowns have come on hard courts, his favorite and most successful surface. The extroverted Serb rightly considers himself an “all-around player.” At his best, Djokovic is a power grinder with super-solid groundstrokes like Andre Agassi along with the defensive skills of Nadal and the finishing shots of Federer.
Although he was flat in the last set and a half of the Wimbledon semis against Fed and admitted, “I dropped in the energy level, I thought. I played really a couple of sloppy games, very slow, with no pace,” Djokovic typically performs well when the pressure is greatest. With plenty of weapons, including the sport’s premier service return, and no holes in his game, he should continue to shine in best-of-five-set matches.
Importantly, four of Djoker’s five major crowns have come on hard courts, his favorite and most successful surface. I predict Djokovic will retain his US Open crown and regain his No. 1 ranking at the end of the year.
“Novak goes for his shots. He’s aggressive on the big points,” praised Federer before defeating Djokovic in the Cincinnati final a week before the Open. “That’s why he was No. 1 for a while. He’s amazing on hard courts.”
Also, having solved his gluten problem with dietary changes, Djoker can handle the New York heat and humidity as proved by his superb stamina throughout the brutal 5-hour and 53-minute Australian Open final in January. He also displayed courage and poise there, rebounding from a 4-2 deficit in the fifth set against Nadal.
Finally, Djokovic’s numbers are highly impressive this year. He’s won 87% of his service games, thanks partly to winning 57% of his second serve points and saving 68% of his break points. When his opponents serve, he’s won 55% of second serve points (2nd among ATP players) and converted 44% of break points.
For all these reasons, I predict Djokovic will retain his US Open crown and regain his No. 1 ranking For all these reasons, I predict Djokovic will retain his US Open crown and then regain his No. 1 ranking at the end of the year.
The Best of the Rest
Milos Raonic, a 21-year-old Canadian ranked No. 16, will achieve a Grand Slam breakthrough at Flushing Meadows and reach the semis (if he’s not in Djokovic’s quarter of the draw). A math prodigy who aced his calculus exam at 16, Raonic should set his sights on two critical percentages. The 6’5” super server, who has belted bullets over 150 mph, leads the ATP in service games won at 93% this year. He has to maintain that while significantly improving his poor 16% of return games won.
If Raonic can break serve more often, he’ll rack up more big wins and lose fewer close matches. This season he lost three heartbreakers to Federer: 6-7, 6-2, 6-4 at Indian Wells, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 at Madrid, and 6-7, 6-4, 7-6 at Halle. He also lost 6-4 in the fifth set to Juan Monaco at Roland Garros and 6-3, 3-6, 25-23 to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Olympics.
Click photo: Milos Raonic, a 6'5" super server, has belted bullets over 150 mph and leads the ATP in service games won at 93%. He also has a powerful forehand and sound volley.
“It takes time to become a champion, but with Milo all the tools are there,” said 1990s superstar Pete Sampras. When growing up, mild-mannered Raonic idolized Sampras and video-taped all his televised matches. He should study them and learn how Sampras broke serve. While Raonic lacks Sampras’s athleticism and speed, he possesses a powerful forehand and sound volley. Expect him to play plenty of tiebreakers and win a high percentage of them—he’s 19-13 this season.
At the London Olympics, Del Potro notched his biggest and most emotional victory since the 2009 US Open final when he defeated Djokovic 7-5, 6-4 for the bronze medal, Argentina’s first overall medal, and then fell on his knees and cried. “I think I’m the most happy of the world at this moment,” said del Potro. “After a really sad day two days ago, it’s not easy to recover and to play these kind of matches, but I had energy into my body, into my heart, and that’s help me to play this big challenge for me.” The normally reserved 23-year-old also cried after Federer outlasted him 3-6, 7-6, 19-17 in the Olympic semis.
No. 8-ranked Delpo, who has also beaten Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych twice each this season, is steadily nearing the top-5 form he flashed before a serious wrist injury and career-saving surgery sidetracked his career in 2010. He has three strikes against him, though. Delpo can’t come close to the Big 4’s speed and defensive skill; he positions himself too far behind the baseline; and his shot selection lacks variety and is too predictable.
No. 5-ranked David Ferrer, the tough-as-nails, 30-year-old Spaniard playing the best tennis of his career, lacks a powerful serve and won’t often get a chance to grind out points, his forte, on the slick hard courts. Tsonga, a crowd-pleasing power hitter ranked No. 6, is hampered by technique problems. His inconsistent backhand doesn’t hold up against the superior backhands and footwork of Djokovic and Murray, and his volleys lack penetration. No. 7-ranked Berdych, another heavy hitter, lost first-round matches at Wimbledon and the Olympics, won only two matches in his last four tournaments, and has never advanced past the US Open fourth round in nine tries. Monster server John Isner, at 6’9 ½” and a hefty 245 pounds, lacks the stamina to win long, grueling matches in hot weather.
The best darkhorse bets to pull stunning upsets are 6’6” American Sam Querrey and 21-year-old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov. Querrey’s booming serve and explosive forehand are ideal on hard courts, while Dimitrov, nicknamed “Baby Fed” for his Federer-like talent and brilliant shotmaking, is maturing and due for a breakthrough at a major.
In this “Golden Era” of men’s tennis blessed with classic matches, the US Open should bring us another masterpiece that we’ll savor and then talk about for years to come.
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Free Your Mind-Set
Is your attitude hurting your game? In a high-skill sport like tennis, attitude may not be everything, but it’s not nothing either. Like strokes, strategy, and movement, it is something. And it’s up to you if it’s something positive or something negative. An improved attitude may not land you a down-the line topspin backhand or an ATP service return, but it will determine how you learn, how you practice, how you compete, and how you progress. — Marcus Paul Cootsona
The Backhand Shuffle Step
Ever notice how much court Roger Federer covers moving to his backhand side? He really does make the court seem small and his movement is effortless. If you have a one-handed backhand (it works for a two-hander also), you are going to want to emulate this footwork pattern and Jeff Salzenstein shows you how. You may be surprised at how much court you can cover with just a couple of shuffle steps.
ProStrokes 2.0 — Ryan Harrison, Backhand
American Ryan Harrison is a player who has the goods but has yet to really be a viable product on the ATP tour. The third youngest player to have won an ATP level match, (behind Richard Gasquet and Rafael Nadal), Harrison reached a high of #7 in the junior world rankings at the age of 15 before turning pro that same year and defeating #130 Pablo Cuevas in the 2008 U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships at River Oaks Country Club in Houston Texas. An athletic 6-foot right-hander, Harrison plays with a solid semi-western forehand and conventional two-handed backhand. He also has an excellent slice backhand,
From the Western & Southern Open
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