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Steve Flink: Gazing into US Open crystal ball

8/26/2012 10:00:00 PM

FLUSHING MEADOWS-- For all of the leading players, the 2012 season must seem as if it has lasted an exceedingly long time. They went “Down Under” for the Australian Open in January, played on through the winter and spring en route to Roland Garros, headed out onto the lawns of Wimbledon, returned to the All England Club for the Olympic Games, and now here they are in New York for the last Grand Slam championship of the season. Some of the game’s finest players may be devoid of spirit, worn out by the rigors of an unusually long campaign, unable to release the lofty brand of tennis required to prosper on the hard courts at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center.

But the view here is that there are a couple of very determined individuals who will be wearing wide smiles at the end of another debilitating yet exhilarating fortnight. One is an American, the winner of 14 majors across her storied career, a woman in search of a fourth U.S. Open crown. Her name, of course, is Serena Williams. The other is the best player in Great Britain, a four time finalist at the Grand Slam events, and the recent victor at the Olympics. He is long overdue to collect a major title. He is gifted, versatile, unflinching. He is a hard court player of the highest order. The man is Andy Murray.

I believe Williams and Murray will be the singles champions at the U.S. Open. But let’s look in depth at the draw and try to envision how the entire event might play out. I always enjoy examining all of the potential matchups and imagining the way it all might unfold. Among the men, Roger Federer appears to have an uncluttered path toward the latter stages of a tournament he has won no fewer than five times. To be sure, Federer and Novak Djokovic will join Murray essentially as “triple threats” to win the 2012 Open. The Swiss Maestro captured the Open with regal style from 2004-2008 before suffering three agonizing losses in a row from 2009-2011. In 2009, he was two points from taking the title before bowing in a five set final to Juan Martin Del Potro. One year later, Novak Djokovic saved two match points at 4-5 in the fifth set with dazzling, outright winners and defeated Federer 7-5 in that final set. A year ago, Federer was up double match point, serving at 5-3, 40-15 in the fifth before Djokovic retaliated audaciously to win 17 of the last 21 points for a 6-7 (7), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 triumph.

That is a string of considerable misfortune for the world No. 1 in New York. But he should sweep through the early rounds this time untroubled. He opens up against Donald Young, the hard luck American who has won only one match since February. Young’s 2012 match record is a dismal 3-21. The first seed Federer could meet is Fernando Verdasco in the third round. I can’t see him tested much at all until he takes on either No. 16 seed Gilles Simon or the No. 23 seed Mardy Fish. Simon toppled Federer twice late in 2008 when the Frenchman finished the year among the top ten. He also took Federer to five sets at the Australian Open in 2011. He could make the Swiss work inordinately hard if they do battle, but I believe Fish will be Federer’s round of 16 adversary. The American will have the crowd buoyantly behind him, and will take a set from his renowned rival. But Federer will prevail comfortably in the end.

On Federer will go to the quarterfinals, and his opponent should be the enigmatic Tomas Berdych, a man who strikes the ball as cleanly as anyone in the sport, but a fellow who is often his own worst enemy. Berdych—who upended Federer in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon two years ago—has been in a slump this season, but his impressive showing in Winston Salem, North Carolina this past week was timely and morale boosting. He will cause some anxiety for Federer and build a two sets to one lead before the Swiss recoups to win a bruising five set confrontation, 4-6, 6-4, 5-7, 7-5, 6-3. That will take Federer into the penultimate round of the tournament.

Waiting for him there will be Murray. The British standout will move relatively easily through the early rounds in my view, but in the round of 16 he will be up against one of the sport’s most daunting competitors in Milos Raonic. Raonic is seeded 15th after a solid yet unspectacular 2012 campaign. Three times this season—on three different surfaces—he has won the opening set from Federer, only to lose those contests narrowly in the end. But he did upset Murray on the clay at Barcelona in late April. Murray will be hard pressed to stop Raonic in a pulsating encounter on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Raonic will be almost unbreakable in this clash, and only Murray’s defense, variety and match playing prowess will pull him through. Despite 35 aces from Raonic and some anxious moments along the way, Murray will survive 6-7 (5), 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 7-5.

Next up for Murray will be the charismatic Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. At Wimbledon in the semifinals, Murray halted Tsonga in four arresting sets on the grass. Murray will be more comfortable against Tsonga on the hard courts in New York from the back of the court and on his returns, but Tsonga’s explosive talent will emerge, along with his excellent touch on the drop volley. In the end, Murray’s precise passing shots and the consistency of his first serve will lift him to a 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 win over the Frenchman.

And so it will be Federer versus Murray for the 18th time, with Murray holding a 9-8 career lead over his old rival. This one will be scintillating from beginning to end. At Wimbledon in the final, Federer rallied gallantly from a set down to beat Murray in four sets for his seventh crown, but Murray defeated Federer 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 in the final of the Olympics. This will be their third crucial meeting in little over two months. Federer will come out of the blocks sharper and with greater conviction. He will connect with 74% of his first serves, and take command with his inside-out forehand, keeping Murray at bay while taking the first set 6-4. But Murray will find his range and start dictating off his decidedly improved forehand, and he will begin driving his two-handed backhand down the line with much success.

Murray wins the second set 6-4, and then takes the third by the same score. Federer won’t break Murray in either set as Murray lifts his first serve success rate to 68%. In the fourth set, Federer strikes back dynamically to take a 5-2 lead. But, serving for the set in the ninth game, the Swiss is stymied by Murray’s brilliant backhand returns. Murray breaks back. They go to a tie-break. Federer has a mini-break lead at 4-2, but Murray wins five of the next six points to garner a 4-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (5) triumph over the man who beat him in the 2008 U.S. Open final.

Murray thus moves into the final. He faces the defending champion Djokovic in that championship match. Djokovic will be fine-tuned from the outset of the tournament and will not lose more than one set en route to the quarterfinals. He will then do battle against Juan Martin Del Potro. Del Potro will force Djokovic to play defense to an almost uncomfortable degree, and his second serve returns will be blistering. But Djokovic will prevail 7-6 (5), 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 in a high quality, four set duel. In the semifinals, Djokovic will meet none other than John Isner. Isner was the victor when they last met in the semifinals of Indian Wells. The towering American surprised Djokovic in a final set tie-break. The big serving American—appearing in his first semifinal at a major—will push Djokovic hard, especially in the first two sets. He won’t lose his serve, and they will split tie-breaks. But gradually Djokovic will wear Isner down from the baseline with his unerring ground game, his weight of shot, his depth and angles. Djokovic stops Isner 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-4. That uplifting victory takes Djokovic into the projected final against Murray.

This pair of 25-year-old players have clashed on four occasions this year, with Djokovic recouping from two sets to one down to beat Murray in a remarkable five set semifinal at the Australian, Murray turning the tables on the Serbian in the semifinals of Dubai, Djokovic stopping Murray in the final of Miami, and Murray handing Djokovic a jarring loss in the semifinals of the Olympics. This U.S. Open final will be their most riveting showdown of 2012. The rallies will be extraordinary from beginning to end. Djokovic will serve with strategic acumen to set up his forehand and thus control the rallies. Murray will win more free points with aces and service winners.

Both competitors will be looking to seize the initiative with their second serve returns. Djokovic will dictate in the beginning and he grabs the first set 6-4. Murray exploits his backhand down the line to set up inside-out forehand winners, and he wins the second set 6-3. The third goes to a tie-break, and Djokovic leads commandingly 5-1 in that sequence. But Murray raises his intensity at just the right moment, and goes for broke. He astoundingly collects six points in a row—three with emphatic winners—and moves ahead two sets to one. But a prideful Djokovic is not discouraged. He rallies from 0-2 down in the fourth to win six of the next seven games, winning the set 6-3.

The fifth set is brilliantly contested on both sides of the net. Both men assiduously tend to their knitting on serve until 4-4. Djokovic rolls to 40-0 in the critical ninth game, but throws in a double fault. Murray drills two winning returns off second serves for deuce. Djokovic takes his time, and then sends a slice serve wide to Murray’s forehand in the deuce court. But Murray reads that serve early, and drives his return flat down the line for a winner. Down break point, the Serbian gets a short ball, and approaches down the line off his two-hander. On the dead run, Murray rolls his passing shot acutely crosscourt, connecting boldly for the winner, leaving the fans gasping in the process. Serving for the match in the tenth game, Murray unleashes a service winner down the T, an ace out wide, and another ace down the T for 40-0. Djokovic gamely saves two match points with penetrating forehands, but at 40-30 Murray aces Djokovic out wide again. He has won the U.S. Open, dethroning the defending champion 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-4. It is a dandy of a final, the best yet played by the men in the Open Era at the U.S. Open.

As for the women, the top seed Azarenka will battle back from a recent knee injury, and she will stop No. 16 seed Sabine Lisicki in a three set, round of 16 clash. Li Na will face defending champion Sam Stosur in another round of 16 meeting. The 2011 French Open champion will prevail in that match 6-4, 4-6, 7-5. Li—who has had a major resurgence across the summer including a tournament triumph in Cincinnati—will upset Azarenka in a three set quarterfinal, and will be pitted against Maria Sharapova in the semifinals. Sharapova will defeat Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 after Kvitova serves for the match at 5-4 in the final set.

Sharapova and Li Na will stage a contest much like their Italian Open final earlier in the season. Li will move ahead by a set and 3-0 before Sharapova recovers admirably to win the second. Maria will serve for the match at 5-3 in the third but Li will strike back boldly there and take the match into a final set tie-break. Sharapova falls behind 2-5 in that sequence before sweeping five points in a row with a blaze of spectacular and uninhibited shot-making. With that spirited comeback, Sharapova is in the final.

Standing across the net, of course, is Williams. Serena will remove No. 12 seed Ana Ivanovic 6-4, 6-2 in the quarterfinals, and will then face Angelique Kerber in the semifinals. The left-hander from Germany recently ended Serena’s 19 match winning streak in Cincinnati. But, this time around, Williams is far more energetic and much better prepared. In Cincinnati, Kerber’s wide slice serve in the ad court was giving Williams fits. She was opening up the court for her southpaw forehand, going down the line for winners. Not so this time. Williams guards against the wide serve by moving her return of serve position slightly to her left, cutting down Kerber’s angle. She forces Kerber to go down the T more frequently. Williams wins 6-4, 6-4.

In the final, Sharapova is determined to make amends for a devastatingly one-sided 6-0, 6-1 defeat against Serena at the Olympics. But the fact remains that Serena has taken apart Maria eight consecutive times and has lost only two sets in the process. Sharapova will, however, serve with more consistency than she did at the Olympics. She backs up her first serve with some impressive “first strike” tennis. But, in the end, it is to no avail. She can’t make a dent on Serena’s first serve, which is the best in the history of the women’s game. Williams serves 12 aces and does not face a break point. She takes the title, stopping Sharapova 6-3, 6-3.

So there you have it. That is how I see the tournament in my crystal ball. Serena Williams garners her 15th Grand Slam singles championship, closing to within three titles of a tie with both Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time women’s list of victors at the majors. With the triumph, Williams makes a major move back toward the No. 1 ranking she will hold at the end of the year. Andy Murray at last gets “the monkey off his back.” As he concludes his win over Djokovic, he looks over to his corner, and there is Ivan Lendl grinning. Lendl, of course, lost his first four major finals from 1981 to 1983 before capturing eight Grand Slam titles across his sterling career. Murray comes into the U.S. Open with a 0-4 record in finals at Grand Slam events, but he leaves with the most gratifying victory of his life.

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Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve's latest book "The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time" here.