U.S. Open Preview

U.S. Open Preview

I have a feeling this U.S. Open will provide more than a few surprises for all of us. To be sure, Roger Federer remains the clear favorite as he seeks to capture a fourth Open in a row. But I don’t see him making an automatic march through the draw and dominating the event as thoroughly as he did the past couple of years. And while logic suggests that either Justine Henin or Maria Sharapova should win a second U.S. Open title this year, neither of these women can be entirely confident right now about their chances, and a cluster of others could make their presence known on the hard courts in New York.

Federer will start his quest for the crown by facing two qualifiers in a row. But his first real test would conceivably be a quarterfinal meeting with Andy Roddick. That would be a rematch of the 2006 final, which Federer won in four entertaining sets. The 2003 Open victor is seeded fifth this year after a mediocre summer. He has put himself in a tough position by not remaining among the top four in the world, but the view here is that he is better off playing Federer in the quarters than he would be taking the world No. 1 on in the semifinals or the final. Roddick has a difficult path to the last eight. He might have to deal with either Tomas Berdych or Paul-Henri Mathieu in the round of 16.

Nevertheless, I can’t see Roddick not making it to the quarterfinals. Federer could confront the gifted Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the round of 16, if Gasquet accounts for Juan Carlos Ferrero. Either way, Federer would prevail, although Gasquet could easily take a set off Federer if he is inspired and striking his beautiful backhand as cleanly as he can. In any case, Federer-Roddick would inevitably be a clash in the evening. That atmosphere would suit both players. As was the case when James Blake met Federer in a 2006 quarterfinal, the American crowd would vociferously get behind Roddick.

Roddick might well respond favorably to the fans. And if he serves exceptionally well, he could give Federer a scare, as was the case briefly a year ago. But the result will be the same with Federer coming through in straight sets. That would bring Federer into a semifinal appointment which might well be against Blake. Blake— seeded 6th— could meet No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko in the quarters, and he loves that matchup. In Cincinnati last week, Blake manhandled Davydenko in straight sets. Although 2006 Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis or Tommy Haas could trouble Blake in a potential round of 16 showdown, I still see Blake progressing and getting another opportunity to play Federer.

But is it really an opportunity? Blake has never beaten Federer and he was routed by the Swiss maestro in the Cincinnati final. Federer is simply not unduly threatened by Blake and knows there are holes in the American’s game. He can direct most of the traffic in the rallies away from Blake’s ferocious flat forehand and keep making James come up with penetrating backhands. Blake will not be up to the task if they collide. Look for Federer to win in straight sets.

On the opposite half of the draw, No. 2 seed Rafael Nadal and No. 3 Novak Djokovic seem likely to meet for the seventh time in 2007. Nadal holds a 4-2 lead in the series, although Djokovic just beat the Spaniard in straight sets in Montreal. This would be a whale of a match in a best of five set semifinal. If Nadal had not been battling injuries as of late and had not been forced to retire at a set and 4-1 down in the second round of Cincinnati against Juan Monaco, had he come into the Open with more of a head of steam, I would pick him to beat Djokovic in the penultimate round. But as it stands now, I believe Djokovic will have the edge on the hard courts.

In Montreal, he saved all eight break points he faced against Nadal in their semifinal, winning a high quality 7-5, 6-3 contest. At the Open, I see Djokovic— who will face stern opposition from Lleyton Hewitt in the round of 16 but will win in four sets— toppling Nadal in a fourth set tie-break. He would then take on the mighty Federer in the title match. Djokovic would be a bit apprehensive playing in his first major final, but he would step up to the occasion.

Remember that in Montreal, Djokovic followed up on his win over Nadal with a 7-6 (2), 2-6, 7-6 (2) triumph over Federer in the championship match, becoming the first player to upend that dynamic duo in the same tournament since they took over the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in the world rankings. That was a considerable achievement, not comparable with defeating the two great champions in a major but the next best thing. Federer has had a remarkable run in the majors, making it to the final of the last nine Grand Slam events. He has won 11 majors and is looking to win three majors in a single year for the third time in four seasons.

I don’t sell him short for an instant. Federer handles the pressure of big tournaments with astounding ease. But in Djokovic I see a player who is ready to accept the challenge of performing prodigiously when the consequences are greatest. I believe he will win the tournament in an epic five set battle, upending Federer 7-6 (4), 3-6, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-3. He has been knocking on the door all year, reaching the semifinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, winning two Masters Series tournaments. He is ready to make the next step toward exclusivity. This is his time.

The women’s event is unbelievably difficult to predict. Top seeded Justine Henin did not play a tournament all summer after Wimbledon until Toronto, which she won despite an aching shoulder. She is probably cautiously optimistic, but no more than that. Maria Sharapova is defending champion and she won the U.S. Open Series. Sharapova is playing well but is not quite where she was a year ago when she came into New York sensing it would be her time.

Jelena Jankovic, the No.3 seed has won more matches than anyone else this year in the women’s game, and is gaining experience at the majors. But the 2006 Open semifinalist and 2007 French Open semifinalist is still somewhat vulnerable at the Grand Slam events. Her serve remains a relative weakness and she does not have that much firepower in her game. She relies to a large extent on her huge heart and her ability to orchestrate points intelligently and lure her adversaries into mistakes. But is she ready to win a major?

Perhaps her countrywoman from Serbia— Ana Ivanovic—is better prepared and more equipped to move into the winners circle at a Grand Slam tournament. Ivanovic— more explosive than Jankovic but less consistent from the back of the court— reached the French Open final and made it to the semifinals of Wimbledon this season. She is coming on strong. She must be reckoned with.

So what should we expect? Remarkably, Serena Williams and Justine Henin could meet for the third consecutive time in the quarterfinal of a major. Henin predictably dismantled Williams at Roland Garros and then held on to beat a compromised Williams at Wimbledon, when Serena was struggling with an injured thumb. The thumb injury has kept Serena out all summer. If she plays the U.S. Open she will come into the tournament totally cold. She might just bluff her way into the last eight again, but Henin would beat her again if they do meet.

The strongest section of the women’s draw is in the bottom of that top half. Ivanovic— seeded 5th— is due to meet Venus Williams in the round of 16, with the winner taking on No. 3 seed Jankovic in the quarters. Ivanovic could not contain Venus in the semifinals of Wimbledon on the grass, but on hard courts I believe she would have the edge. Ivanovic would come through with a three set victory and then play Jankovic in a hard fought encounter. Jankovic would win this battle of the Serbians in three sets. But she will then bow out against Henin. She has never beaten Henin. The Belgian would win this one in two tight sets.

On the opposite half of the draw, there are all kinds of possibilities. No. 4 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova won the Open three years ago but she is not playing that well at the moment. No. 7 seed Nadia Petrova was riding high in 2006, reaching a career best No. 3 in the world. She is due to meet Kuznetsova in the quarters if all goes according to plan with the seedings. Kuznetsova should make it through to the penultimate round. Meanwhile, No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova figures to come up against No. 6 Anna Chakvetadze in the quarters. Sharapova not only toppled Chakvetadze in the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and Roland Garros this year but she also won when they met in the finals of San Diego this summer.

Sharapova would win again, and then take down Kuznetsova for a place in the final. A year ago, Sharapova played one of the finest matches of her career to stop Henin in the championship match. But this time around, Henin will attack more successfully. She allowed Sharapova to set the tempo too often last year and was frequently caught on her heels. Henin will make certain this time to move forward and attack Sharapova at opportune times. She will follow key second serve returns in, look for short balls during her own service games, and force Sharapova to play the match in an uncomfortable state. Henin will win her second U.S. Open with a 7-6 (3), 7-5 victory over Sharapova in a fitting conclusion to the last major championship of 2007.

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