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Steve Flink: The US Open may not be so open

8/24/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

The last major championship of the season is just about upon us. The Olympus U.S. Open Series is concluding this week with the Pilot Penn Tennis event for men and women in New Haven. We can all look forward to a captivating United States Open from August 31-September 13. All of the leading players will come into New York with the largest of dreams. Some will approach the fortnight with the highest of expectations. Others will be hoping to perform with unbridled spirit and panache in the entertainment capitol of the world.

But, in my view, only one man can walk onto the grounds at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center fully expecting to capture the preeminent sporting event in America. Only one player will know that he has everything going for him at this particular time. Only one competitor has the talent, inner conviction and temerity to be the prohibitive favorite and survive two rigorous weeks on the often windswept hard courts, to leave the event not only triumphant but unscathed. His name, of course, is Roger Federer.

Anything can happen at a Grand Slam tournament, and no one can expect an easy journey through seven matches under ever changing and ceaselessly demanding conditions. Nevertheless, Federer will be as primed as he has ever been for a U.S. Open this time around. He had been mired in a dismal stretch during the first half of 2009, failing to win a tournament until he came through unexpectedly on the clay courts of Madrid. But, despite rarely playing his finest tennis, Federer captured his first French Open, and then ruled at Wimbledon for the sixth time in a dazzling seven year stretch.

That victory was his 15th at a Grand Slam event, moving Federer past Pete Sampras into first place on the all time men’s list for major singles crowns. Given that he became the proud father of twin daughters on July 23, he could have been forgiven for slipping into temporary complacency after securing back to back majors, and making significant history in the process. With his Roland Garros success, Federer became only the sixth man ever to win all four Grand Slam events, joining Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Andre Agassi in that exclusive club. At Wimbledon, he not only broke the record for men’s majors, but he also put himself one title away from a tie with Sampras among modern men for singles titles on the lawns of the All England Club.

Federer now has a chance to raise his historical stock once more. He could become the first man since Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to pull off the arduous French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open triple. During the Open Era, Jimmy Connors (1974), and Mats Wilander (1988) each held the distinction of capturing three Grand Slam championships in a single year. Federer then achieved that remarkable feat no fewer than three times (2004, 2006, and 2007). But Connors did not win the French in 1974, and Wilander missed out on Wimbledon in his excellent 1988 campaign. Federer always built his big years around Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and backed them up with Australian Open victories.

This year, Federer can complete a brilliant three surface sweep from the clay of Paris to the grass of Wimbledon to the hard courts of the U.S. Open, and that would be the next best thing to ruling at all four majors for a Grand Slam. The fact that Federer would be the first man since Laver forty years ago to come through consecutively in Paris, London and New York is a striking demonstration of the magnitude of the feat. I believe he is going to win the 2009 U.S. Open, and probably convincingly. In his first tournament since Wimbledon, he suffered a mind boggling loss to Jo Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals of Montreal, squandering a 5-1 final set lead, twice failing to serve out the match. Tsonga cut him down in a final set tie-break. His vulnerability was apparent.

On went Federer to Cincinnati, and there he survived a dangerous round of 16 match against the Spaniard David Ferrer, a player he usually handles with consummate ease. Federer lost the first set, won the second, but then found himself in a bind. At 1-2 in the final set, with a fierce wind hindering both players, Federer lost his serve despite having a 40-0 lead. Ferrer got the break for 3-1, and then rallied from 0-40 back to deuce on his serve. But two mistakes at that juncture cost Ferrer the match as he erred on a two-handed backhand into the net, and then drove a routine forehand long.

Federer was grateful to get out of that skirmish. He then cast aside Lleyton Hewitt to reach the semifinals. Waiting for him in the penultimate round was none other than Andy Murray, the newly turned world No. 2 who had upended the Swiss stylist four times in a row, with two of those victories occurring earlier this year. A fifth consecutive loss to such a crucial rival could have set Federer back considerably for the U.S. Open, but he took control of that match from the outset. Federer defeated Murray 6-2, 7-6 (8), and did so comprehensively.

I felt that Murray played a highly disappointing match. His return of serve--- arguably the best in the sport--- was simply nonexistent. He did not garner a single break point in the match, and amazingly never even reached deuce on his adversary’s serve. In the opening set, Federer connected with only 8 of 22 first serves (36%); he improved to 27 of 40 (68%) in the second set. But Murray simply did not have his usual feel or consistency on his returns, and Federer was able to march through service games largely untested.

In the first set, Federer broke for 3-1. At 30-30 in that fourth game, Murray unwisely tried a backhand drop shot that Federer handled easily. Federer got up there swiftly, guided his shot down the line, and easily anticipated a lob from Murray, which the world No. 1 devoured with an overhead winner. Federer then followed with a penetrating return down the middle--- a tactic he would repeat often to good gain--- and Murray drilled a two-hander long in response. Federer coasted to 4-1 and then had Murray down 0-40 in the sixth game. Murray rallied quickly to 30-40 and then reached deuce when he flicked a superb forehand half volley crosscourt off a blistering return from Federer. Federer could not get that shot back into play.

Murray held on for 2-4, but Federer was not thrown off stride. He took two games in a row to close out the set with a flourish. Murray--- thoroughly outplayed in the first set--- realized he had to start serving decidedly better, and he did just that. He had made only 42% of his first serves in the opening set. He improved to 57% in the second set, and did not get broken. His backcourt game was marginally better in that set, but his returns remained off the mark. In the tie-break, Federer was serving with a 3-0, double mini-break lead. Murray crept back to 3-4, but Federer took the next point and served at 5-3. Murray stepped up the pace on his next return, crushing a backhand that provoked a miss-hit from Federer.

Murray was in with a chance. He passed Federer cleanly with a crosscourt backhand for 5-5, then aced his adversary down the T for 6-5, reaching set point with that untouchable delivery. Federer responded with an unstoppable serve down the T for 6-6, and reached match point at 7-6 when Murray challenged a call on the service line, with the replay proving him wrong. Murray came out of that corner to reach set point for the second time with Federer serving at 7-8. Murray had the clear opening for a backhand pass down the line, but missed it wide. Two points later, Federer sealed the verdict, winning 6-2, 7-6 (8).

Although Murray did not play anything like one would expect from a world No. 2, Federer was first rate. Outside of the majors, it was right up there among his best performances of the year. The triumph carried him into the final on a high note. In the championship match, he collided with Novak Djokovic, who had won their last two encounters, taking each from a set down in Miami on hard courts and on clay in Rome. Djokovic had played a terrific match to beat Rafael Nadal 6-1, 6-4 in the semifinals. Not once did Djokovic lose his serve in that contest, and he kept Nadal at bay throughout with his depth and consistency off the ground.

In winning that match comfortably, Djokovic played a tactically sound match. But he needed to up the ante against Federer and be more aggressive, particularly off his forehand side. At the start of the final, he was far too conservative, and Federer was razor sharp off both sides. In the second game of the match, Djokovic fought in vain to hold on to his serve. That game featured eight deuces. Federer finally cashed in on his seventh break point to reach 2-0. Federer was returning much the way he did against Murray, going deep down the middle whenever possible, taking the angles away from his opponent. Federer raced to a 5-0 lead, and won the set 6-1. In four service games, he lost a mere three points.

As he had done effectively against Murray, Federer crowded Djokovic over and over again with kick second serves into the body. Djokovic was not much better at retaliating. But the Serbian managed to turn matters around briefly in the second set. He broke Federer for 2-0. On the penultimate point of that game, he threw up a lob and correctly anticipated where Federer’s smash was going. Djokovic cracked a forehand passing shot winner off that overhead, and then worked his way up to the net at break point, lunging for a forehand volley, forcing Federer into a passing shot error.

Djokovic held for 3-0. But, in the following game, Federer released two aces in a love game, and then broke Djokovic in the next game at the cost of only a single point. When Djokovic made an unforced error off the backhand at break point down, his distress was painfully evident. Federer struggled but held on for 3-3. To his credit, Djokovic plodded on, serving his way to a 5-4 lead. With Federer serving in the tenth game, Djokovic reached set point, but a poised and purposeful Federer hit a service winner out wide to the backhand and soon held on for 5-5.

At 5-5, Djokovic battled gamely through one last long service game. He had two game points but an obstinate and opportunistic Federer ran around his backhand for a stinging forehand return and got the break as Djokovic drove a backhand long under pressure. Federer served out the match at love, winning 6-1, 7-5, knocking off the No. 2 and No. 4 ranked players in the world back to back emphatically in straight sets, playing his most sustained top level tennis of the season. Not only was his second serve a notch better than it has been all year, but his second serve returns were much bolder and more aggressive as well.

On top of that, he was walloping the forehand and displaying ball control off that side like the Federer of old. I can’t help but feel that tennis of that caliber in his last tournament leading up to the Open--- he has now won four of his last five events since capturing Madrid in May--- will propel Federer into and eventually through the U.S. Open. He is almost overflowing with confidence.

That is not to say that Federer will be in a league of his own in New York. Murray--- who toppled Nadal in the semifinals a year ago before losing his first major final to Federer--- has made significant progress across 2009 and has captured five tournaments. His preparation for the Open has been excellent, including a Masters 1000 crown in Montreal prior to his semifinal run in Cincinnati. He is made of tough stock, and will be absolutely determined to secure his first “Big Four” title. But he gave away a substantial amount of psychological capitol by losing so comprehensively to Federer in Cincinnati.

Nadal has bounced back impressively in his return to the sport he plays so passionately. After ten weeks away, he managed to reach the quarterfinals of Montreal and sharply elevated his game in reaching the semifinals of Cincinnati. He seems to be moving freely and gaining confidence. But he was thoroughly outplayed by Djokovic in Cincinnati after bowing in straight sets against Juan Martin Del Potro in Montreal. I have my doubts that Nadal is quite ready to win the Open. He needs more matches, and perhaps he will find the conviction he will need over the fortnight in New York. But, maybe he won’t.

That leaves Andy Roddick, Juan Martin Del Potro and Djokovic among the major contenders. Djokovic remains an enigma. He has been sporadically brilliant this year, and bringing Todd Martin on board as an additional coach along with his old sidekick Marian Vajda will benefit the Serbian. I just don’t trust him in the latter stages of the biggest contests. His emotional fragility is a serious drawback. Del Potro was magnificent in winning Washington and reaching the final of Montreal. In that span, he stopped Roddick twice, beat Nadal once, and nearly defeated Murray.

Del Potro is devastatingly potent these days. His ground game is overwhelming and his forehand is much more solid than it was a year ago. His first and second serves have improved immeasurably. On any given day, he can beat anyone in the world, although he has yet to beat Federer. But Del Potro is entirely too vulnerable to physical breakdowns. To win the Open, he would need to survive a tough semifinal showdown and then come back the following day for a shot at the title. That may be too much for him now.

In my view, Roddick is primed for a good run this year at the Open. He was impressive in reaching the final of Washington and the semifinals of Montreal. He was two points away from a victory over Del Potro in Washington and had a match point against the towering Argentine in Montreal. He should have won at least one of those matches. Last week, he lost in two tie-breaks to Sam Querrey, wasting a 5-2 lead in the first of those tiebreakers.

Roddick was understandably on edge when he lost to Querrey; playing three weeks in a row had caught up with him. But he is playing some of the finest tennis of his career, and his agonizing loss to Federer in the Wimbledon final will only add to his already fierce determination to win a second U.S. Open. Buoyed by crowds who will cheer him on unabashedly and vociferously, Roddick will have a great U.S. Open.

But, in the last analysis, it all comes back to Federer. This tournament will essentially be in his hands. He is riding on the crest of a wave at the moment, and has no intention of allowing anything or anyone to get in the way of his goals. The view here is non-negotiable: Roger Federer is going to capture his sixth consecutive United States Open title.

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