2008 U.S. OPEN PREVIEW
After a long and debilitating summer for all of the leading players, after an absorbing season across the board, after so many compelling developments in the world of tennis over the course of this year, the last Grand Slam championship of 2008 is upon us. I am convinced this U.S. Open will be a particularly captivating fortnight, and the reasons for that are numerous. This will be the last chance for Roger Federer to win a major in 2008. Rafael Nadal can make a big impression for the first time in New York, where he has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals on the fast hard courts. Novak Djokovic could move one step beyond his spirited run to the final a year ago and thus capture his second Grand Slam event of the year.
Among the women, the windows of possibility are wide open. Defending champion Justine Henin has retired. 2006 victor Maria Sharapova is unable to compete as a nagging shoulder injury keeps her out of the tournament. Despite meeting in the Wimbledon final, Venus and Serena Williams have been struggling as of late, battling injuries and not faring well across the summer. So forecasting the women’s event is an arduous task.
In the final analysis, I believe Nadal is going to claim his third Grand Slam championship of a sparkling year, and his first in the United States. Among the women, I look for Dinara Safina— the sister of 2000 U.S. Open champion Marat Safin— to walk away with the top honor.
Let’s look closely at the men’s and women’s draws.
Nadal opens up against a qualifier. Perhaps his first serious test could be in the round of 16 against either No. 14 seed Ivo Karlovic or No. 22 seed Tomas Berdych. Karlovic owns one of the most explosive serves in tennis. The 6’10” Croatian gave Nadal quite a skirmish at Queen’s Club on the grass in June, pushing the Spaniard into a final set tie-break before bowing. Berdych has an impressive history against Nadal and has beaten the world No. 1 three times on hard courts. But Berdych has been an uneven performer in 2008 and his temperament and match playing acumen remain problem areas. Karlovic would be tough to break on the hard courts. But Nadal will prevail against either Berdych or Karlovic in three or possibly four sets to reach the quarterfinals.
In the last eight, Nadal will probably come up against James Blake in what would certainly be an eagerly anticipated battle under the lights. In 2005, Blake upended Nadal decisively in four sets at the Open. In fact, the big hitting American won his first three clashes against the left-handed Spaniard. But Nadal struck back forcefully to beat Blake in hard fought battles earlier this year at Indian Wells and Miami. Both were best of three set showdowns. Blake took a set each time. But Nadal gradually gained the upper hand with the physicality of his game, and found a way to get to Blake’s weaker backhand wing. That will happen again at the Open in a pulsating encounter. Nadal wins in four tough sets.
Who will come through to meet Nadal in the semifinals? That is not an easy question to answer. David Ferrer could get through to that round. The No. 4 seed ousted Nadal in the round of 16 a year ago at night, and went on to reach the semifinals before losing to Djokovic. But Ferrer has not played well since the clay court season. I don’t think Ferrer will go beyond the round of 16 this year. In that round, he would meet the winner of an expected match between No. 16 seed Gilles Simon and No. 17 Juan Martin Del Potro. Del Potro is having a spectacular summer. He has won four tournaments in a row, including two in a row on hard courts. The 6’6″, 19-year-old from Argentina will— in my view— beat Simon and then stop Ferrer.
That would put Del Potro in the quarterfinals. Waiting for him there will be No. 6 seed Andy Murray. I see Murray setting up a stirring quarterfinal collision with Del Potro. That could well be one of the finest matches of the tournament between the resourceful and cagey Murray and the surging Del Potro. It has the makings of a tight, suspenseful five set match. In the end, I think Murray will prevail after trailing two sets to one. Murray would then take on Nadal in the semifinals.
Murray has never beaten Nadal, but many of their matches have been ferociously contested. At Toronto in their most recent showdown, Nadal won 7-6, 6-3 but it was much tougher than the score indicates. Murray realizes he needs to take bold risks against his determined adversary. He will go for broke off his forehand, which is Murray’s make or break stroke. He will flatten out his two-handed backhand crosscourt, and try to hurt Nadal with that play. But, in the end, Nadal will have too much staying power, and he will get in a very aggressive mode, thus thwarting Murray by moving inside the baseline to dictate points whenever possible with his superb inside-out forehand.
It will be a great contest, but Nadal will come through with a four set triumph to reach the final. On the opposite half of the draw, Roger Federer, in search of a fifth straight title, has a clear and largely unthreatening path toward a semifinal appointment with Djokovic. Federer could meet his Italian Open conqueror Radek Stepanek in the third round, and he could well drop a set in that contest. In the round of 16, Federer figures to confront No. 13 seed Fernando Verdasco, the left-hander from Spain who has moved to a new level this year.
Verdasco will test Federer, blasting away with his huge left-handed forehand. I envision that match going four sets, but Federer’s aggressive, percentage play and clutch serving will give the Swiss maestro a four set victory. Nikolay Davydenko, who has lost to Federer in the semifinals of the last two U.S. Opens, is seeded fifth, and is expected to reach the penultimate round once more. But Davydenko has not been playing anything like a top five player for the past three months. I can’t see how he will get to the semifinals this time around.
Although Frenchman Richard Gasquet is a wildly unpredictable player and a competitor who seldom does justice to his flowing talent, I believe he will nevertheless have one of his better majors in New York. Gasquet, the No. 12 seed, assuming he accounts for Tommy Haas in the opening round, will topple Davydenko in the round of 16.
That would give Gasquet a chance to meet Federer in the quarterfinals. He once ousted the Swiss in 2005 on clay but has never beaten him since. Gasquet will make this one a gripping clash and will release his share of magnificent one-handed, topspin backhand winners. He will go on some inspired streaks of shot making against his adversary, but Federer will weather the storm. Federer will find himself in a scrape, but he will get through it in five sets for a place in the semifinals.
Djokovic, meanwhile, will have a difficult test in the third round against the rapidly ascending Marin Cilic, the No. 30 seed. Djokovic will use his superior backcourt versatility to win in four sets. In the round of 16, Djokovic could meet either Carlos Moya, Safin or No. 15 seed Tommy Robredo. If Safin is the man who makes it through, Djokovic will be primed to make amends for his straight set loss to Safin at Wimbledon. On the hard courts, Djokovic would have the upper hand against Safin, winning in four sets. If he met Moya or Robredo, Djokovic would be victorious in straight sets.
Who will take on Djokovic in the quarters? Possibly Andy Roddick will be his opponent, but then again it could be No. 11 seed Fernando Gonzalez. Roddick has his work cut out for him if he wants to capture a second U.S. Open, and therefore take his first major since he came through at Flushing Meadows in 2003. In the second round, the 26-year-old American might well play Ernests Gulbis of Latvia. Gulbis was a French Open quarterfinalist, and he took a set off Nadal in a hard fought second round match at Wimbledon.
Gulbis could well have an edge over Roddick in the baseline rallies, keeping the American at bay with his variety and capacity for inventiveness. Roddick, though, will win this match because of his ability to release big first serves when he needs them most. Roddick will win a pair of sets in tie-breaks, and take the match in four sets. Roddick and Gonzalez might have a blockbuster in the round of 16. Roddick will be hard pressed to contain Gonzalez off the forehand, and the Chilean will wallop his share of dazzling winners off that side. But somehow Roddick will win that match in five tumultuous sets.
His hopes would then be high if he confronts Djokovic in the quarterfinals, but a grim-faced, determined, purposeful Djokovic will avenge a loss to Roddick earlier this year by prevailing in straight sets. And with that win, Djokovic will earn the right to meet Federer in a rematch of the 2007 Open final. On that occasion, Djokovic served with a 6-5, 40-0 opening set lead. He squandered five set points in that game, lost the set in a tie-break, and then let two more set points slip from his grasp in the second set. Federer— cool and confident— came through to win his 12th major event in straight sets over the Serbian.
As he heads into this U.S. Open, Federer does not seem to have much conviction at all. He has won only 2 of 14 tournaments in 2008. And after rallying gamely from two sets down to come within two points of a five set triumph over Nadal in the final of Wimbledon, Federer has not played commandingly. He lost his opening round match in Canada to Simon despite leading 3-1 with a break point for 4-1 in the final set. He lost for the first time to Ivo Karlovic in Cincinnati. And then Blake beat him for the first time in nine career meetings in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games.
So how would Federer approach a semifinal assignment against Djokovic at the Open? It will be fascinating to find out. After Djokovic opened the 2008 season by knocking out the defending champion Federer in straight sets on his way to securing the title, they have met only once. In Monte Carlo, Djokovic was down a set and a break when he walked off the court, complaining of dizziness. So a U.S. Open skirmish between the No. 2 and No. 3 ranked players in the world will be very revealing. For Federer to prevail, he would need to lift his first serve percentage up awfully high, somewhere around 73%. For Djokovic to emerge victorious, he would need to out-duel Federer in crosscourt backhand exchanges, and exploit his inside-out forehand at every opportunity.
The outcome of this semifinal contest could come down to a few key points. I could see either one of them winning, but will pick Djokovic in five sets. It could be the match of the tournament.
Having come off such a taxing encounter without a day of rest, Djokovic will return the next day and acquit himself well against Nadal. It will be one of their typically high quality battles, much like the semifinal they staged at the Olympic Games which Nadal won 6-4, 1-6, 6-4. In the Open final, Nadal will win the opening set, Djokovic will retaliate by taking the second, and the third set will be critical. Nadal will take that set in a tie-break, and the come through 6-4 in the fourth set.
The top half of the draw is where the most intriguing developments will take place. No. 4 seed Serena Williams is seemingly on a collision course for a quarterfinal against her sister Venus, the No. 7 seed. Venus could be in for a difficult time in the round of 16 against No. 9 seed Agnieszka Radwanska. Radwanska toppled defending champion Sharapova at the 2007 Open, and has progressed ever since. She has a reasonably good chance to beat Venus. If Venus does not serve exceptionally well and earn her share of free points, if her explosive yet often vulnerable forehand does not hold up, she could well lose this match. But I pick her to topple Radwanska in three sets.
Serena, too, will have her work cut out for her before she can even think about a potential clash with Venus. In the round of 16, she could confront No. 20 seed Nicole Vaidisova or the perspicacious Agnes Szavay of Hungary, the No. 13 seed. Serena will not defeat either of those players with ease, but she will find a way to win.
Serena fully expected to beat Venus in the Wimbledon final. She led 4-2 in the first set but was beaten convincingly in straight sets as Venus handled the capricious Wimbledon winds better than she did. This time around, they will go three sets before Serena turns the tables on Venus, winning and thus advancing to the semifinals. Top seeded Ana Ivanovic, the French Open champion and Australian Open finalist, should make it to an expected quarterfinal meeting with No. 6 seed Safina.
Ivanovic is a big occasion player who loves the premier stages, but Safina will use her superior defensive skills to win in straight sets. And so Safina would then meet Serena in an enticing semifinal. Serena will dictate sporadically with her assertive, attacking style. She will come forward more, look for openings to hit winners, try to find ways to shorten points with timely bursts of power. But Safina will stand up to the barrage capably, and come from behind to beat the two-time former Open champion in three high quality sets.
Meanwhile, No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic will be looking to reach her first “Big Four” final, and she is much better off being on the bottom half of the draw. Jankovic will be tested comprehensively by No. 14 seed Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round. Jankovic will need to reach back with her considerable resources to beat a gifted player, but she will do just that. Jankovic will come through in three sets. She will play No. 8 seed Vera Zvonareva in the quarters, and that could be another tough match. Jankovic will win that one in two close sets to reach the semifinals.
In the semifinals, Jankovic will find herself standing across the net from Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva, the 2004 U.S. Open finalist. They will test each other to the hilt from the baseline in one bruising rally after another. Dementieva will often control those exchanges with her slightly greater weight of shot and superior depth. But Jankovic will recover from a set down to win in three sets. That will enable her to play a major final at last, and she will be determined to make the most of it.
Safina, however, will be primed for the contest. She will win the U.S. Open Championship with a three set triumph over the No. 2 seed. Safina has been the best woman player since the clay court season commenced in April, so it will be a fitting conclusion to the Grand Slam season for the Russian to claim her first major title.