It’s Never Too Late…
Back in March, after Roger Federer won the Dubai Duty Free Championship, I mused on the joys of seeing the Great One play in a manner reminiscent of the Federer we remember. In the comments, I expressed my opinion that if Federer doesn’t win a Slam this year, he would never win another. After the summer (and really the year in general) that Fed has had, I – along with many others – find myself choking on my words, almost wondering why I ever doubted him to begin with. We all speculated the demise of his tennis career and the end of his indomitable reign of greatness. Yet no one told Roger Federer; or at the very least, Federer chose not to listen, thankfully.
It says a lot about his level of play, even now, that when he struggles you still hear announcers saying the phrase, “He’s still human.” And rightfully so. The guy is 33 years old and says he plans on playing for another five years. The fact that he’s still playing at the level he’s playing is inhuman. And he’s doing it while toting around two sets of twins! At the end of last year, having only one title win all season, pretty much everyone seriously speculated that Fed would not win another major in his career. Federer didn’t even make one major final last year, his best result being the semis in Melbourne. Also, he finished the year with an abysmal 4-10 record against top 10 players.
Fast forward to now. Going into the US Open, Fed has appeared in four consecutive finals of tournaments he has played in (Halle, Wimbledon, Toronto, Cincinnati), winning two of those (Halle, Cincinnati). His loss in Toronto just happened to make him the final victim of the best week of tennis Jo Wilfried Tsonga had pretty much ever played in his life (Tsonga took out four top-10 players that week: Murray, Dimitrov, Djokovic, and Federer – Try doing that again, Jo.) That 4-10 record against top-10 opponents last year has flipped around 180 to an amazing 12-4 record against top-10 opponents this year. And while his loss at Wimbledon to Djokovic – in one of the greatest matches I’ve ever had the privilege of watching – was heartbreaking (I’ll never forget Fed crying at the award presentation), it seems that final did more for Federer’s confidence than it did for Djokovic’s. Federer knows he lost that match in a handful of points, and now with Nadal out of the US Open, he has to feel like he can beat anyone this year, including Djokovic.
I filled out my US Open bracket today and I have Federer beating Djokovic in the final for his 18th career major title (I picked him at Wimbledon, too). Federer has the hot racquet right now, and his biggest threat (Djokovic) has had a terrible hard-court season so far. That said, to count Djokovic out of a major is ludicrous. To me, Federer’s run at the US Open title this year depends on three things:
-His Up-the-line backhand: Federer’s game – now as a serve and volleyer – is dependent on him being able to work the sidelines. If Fed starts missing this shot, opponents know to push Federer into a backhand-to-backhand baseline volley match, which almost always ends in Federer making an error. Federer wants to keep points short, and this shot is crucial to doing just that.
-His serve: Obviously, any player wants a high first serve percentage. For Roger Federer, as a serve-and-volleyer, it’s almost more crucial to his game than any other player (save, perhaps, John Isner and Milos Raonic). Federer needs to keep his first-serve percentage around or above 60-65%. Take his final in Cincinnati against Ferrer. The first and third sets, which Fed won, he served over 60%. The second set, which he almost lost at love, his serve dipped below 60%.
-His Chip-backhand return: If you’ve watched Federer play at all this year, you’ve noticed that almost every serve to his backhand is returned with a get-it-in chip backhand. This is especially present if Federer doesn’t feel the confidence in his backhand (which he really establishes with his up-the-line backhand), and is used primarily as a get-the-ball-in-play shot. Usually it works, but against some of the better players, if he leaves this shot hanging in the middle of the court, it’s like he’s playing t-ball against Barry Bonds. When he uses this shot, he needs to be sure to keep it deep enough to keep his opponent on the baseline long enough for Fed to work the sidelines.
I don’t know how many more chances Federer will have to win a major final, but you have to believe that this is one of his best chances to do so in years.
Then There Were the Rest…
Looking at the draw, Federer got a relatively lucky draw while Djokovic has his work cut out for him. This biggest threats I see to Federer in the bottom half of the draw are Grigor Dimitrov and David Ferrer. Dimitrov has had a not-so-stellar hard-court season and still has not quite shown he has what it takes to beat the best of the best (he reached the semis at Wimbledon, where he was promptly beaten by Djokovic). Ferrer has to be considered the largest threat to Federer on his way to the final, but Ferrer is 0-16 in his career in matches against Federer, and if these two end up meeting in the semifinal, I don’t see this being Ferrer’s first ever win against Fed.
I have Djokovic going to the final, but in his half of the bracket he’s got Isner, Murray, Tsonga, Wawrinka, and Raonic, which does not bode well for him. Raonic, Tsonga, and Isner have been playing very good tennis this last month, and Murray’s been playing good tennis. If Tsonga plays as well as he did in Toronto, look for him to be the dark horse to come out of the top half of the draw. Also, Raonic and Murray are valid threats as well. Wawrinka has struggled a bit since winning in Melbourne and Isner, while playing well, just suffered a sprained ankle, so that may affect his run. I don’t see either of these guys really being a valid threat to Djokovic. In the end I see a Raonic/Djokovic semi, Raonic knocking of Wawrinka in the quarters, Djokovic knocking out Tsonga.
There are several first-round and other potential matches that are very intriguing this year. The surprising Nick Kyrgios (the guy who knocked Nadal out of Wimbledon) takes on Mikhail Youzhny in the first round, and while Youzhny’s ranked and Kyrgios isn’t, this match could go either way. Then you have Lleyton Hewitt and Tomas Berdych in the first round. This should go to Berdych, but he has struggled a lot this year and the never-say-die Hewitt could be a surprise. I feel that whoever wins this match should go onto the fourth round, potentially the quarters if they can get through what will likely be Ernests Gulbis in the fourth round.
It’s also been a great summer for American men, with Querrey, Isner, Sock, and Young showing strong during the hard-court season, and I have two of them going out in the thrid and fourth rounds to Djokovic (Querrey and Isner, respecively). But if Djokovic plays like he has the rest of this hard-court season, it’s a big opportunity for one of these guys to make a good run. If Nishikori shows inconsistent or injury prone like he has in the past, look for Jack Sock to possibly take advantage and go a couple rounds in.
May the Best (For Now) Woman Win
Serena Williams has to be the favorite coming in. That said, the women’s field is as up-in-the-air as it’s ever been. I struggled greatly trying to set my women’s pick simply because several players have made very strong showings this week. While Serena is playing the best right now (and even she will be the first to admit she hasn’t been playing HER best), players like Venus Williams, Simona Halep, Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic, Petra Kvitova, Agnieska Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki, and Samantha Stosur have all played very strong tennis so far this hard-court season. And if Serena struggles, any one of these players could have a shot. That’s not even including other possibles like Victoria Azarenka, Eugenie Bouchard, Dominika Cibulkova, Angelique Kerber, and Jelena Jankovic, to name a few. All season, no woman player has really stepped up as the to-beat player. While Serena is still number one and the favorite, she hasn’t won a major all year. In fact, she hasn’t even been to a major final yet this year. I’ve picked Serena to beat Halep in the final (I’m going on a limb and saying that Halep will finally beat Sharapova in a match, even though she’s already lost twice to Sharapova – French Open and Montreal – in matches Halep should have won). However, I see the following players to be legitimate threats to Serena: Halep, Ivanovic, Sharapova, Stosur, and Wozniacki.
Personally on the women’s side, I’d love to see Stosur make a good run. She’s playing the best tennis she’s played in years and played an amazing match against Serena in Cincinnati. I’ll also admit that I want someone to beat Sharapova to a pulp after the ridiculous display of poor sportsmanship she showed against Ivanovic when the two played in Cincinnati. After winning the first set, Ivanovic dropped the second set after leading 4-0, and then bent over feeling sick and woozy to start the third set. At 0-1, 15-15 on Sharapova’s serve, Ivanovic called a medical timeout. The trainer came out, proceeded to check Ivanovic’s blood pressure and gave Ivanovic anti-nausea medication. The rest of the set was close, with Ivanovic eventually winning the set at 7-5. At one point, late in the match, Sharapova – who felt that there was never anything really wrong with Ivanovic and thought Ivanovic called the timeout JUST to disrupt Sharapova’s momentum – looked at the chair umpire after missing a shot and sarcastically said, “Check her blood pressure.” While it was very inconvenient timing for Ivanovic to call a medical timeout, to be making comments like that, especially several games later, is in my opinion the epitome of poor sportsmanship. Ivanovic’s former coach said she occasionally suffers from a rapid heart beat, and for whatever reason, Ivanovic felt ill. I appreciate the competitive spirit and the will to win, but to mock an opponents’ physical malady is bad form. Just my two cents.
All in all, it should be a very exciting US Open to watch. I, for one, will have my eyes locked on Federer the entire time, hoping maybe, just maybe, we’ll see him win his 81st career title and his further-record-setting 18th Major title. I’ll be watching, hoping to once again see the Great One raise that victory cup over his head.