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Steve Flink: US Open Projections

8/28/2010 2:00:00 PM

by Steve Flink

FLUSHING MEADOWS---   The fortnight ahead will be very intriguing for both the men and the women as they move through the last major championship of the season on the hard courts here in New York. It will be a chance for all of the sport’s leading players to claim a Grand Slam championship at the end of a long summer, to step forward with gusto and leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of victory, to put everything they have into winning the U.S. Open. It will be an opportunity for the best competitors in the business to put themselves fully on the line in search of a high honor.

What I find most compelling about this tournament is this: it is hard to imagine anyone other than Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Andy Murray securing the men’s crown, while the women’s event is wide open and much harder to predict with seven or eight candidates having a reasonable chance to capture the title. In my view, although he did not play anything like his best tennis in either Toronto or Cincinnati, despite the fact that he has yet to reach even the final of the U.S. Open, and not overlooking the prevailing view that his premier rivals are decidedly more at ease on hard courts than he is, Rafael Nadal is going to take this U.S. Open.  He will become the first man since Rod Laver won a second Grand Slam in 1969 to sweep the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same season, which would be no mean feat. Moreover, Nadal would join Fred Perry, Don Budge, Roy Emerson, Laver, Andre Agassi and Federer as the only men ever to record career Grand Slams.

Nadal should have time to play his way into top flight form over the fortnight. He could struggle a bit with Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber in the third round. Kohlschreiber took the first set recently from Nadal in Canada and gave him a tough four set skirmish at the Australian Open early in the year, but he has never beaten the Spaniard. Nadal might meet No. 15 seed Ivan Ljubicic--- his Indian Wells conqueror--- in the round of 16, but this time around that result would inevitably be reversed. In the quarters, Nadal could come up against David Ferrer, Ernests Gulbis, David Nalbandian or Fernando Verdasco. An in form Nalbandian--- who had a match point against Andy Roddick in the 2003 Open semifinals—could worry Nadal to a degree, as could the explosive Gulbis. But Nadal would surely wear these men down over the best of five sets.

That would take Nadal into the penultimate round. The guess here is that he will confront either Murray or Tomas Berdych in the semifinals. Berdych took Murray apart at the French Open in the round of 16 but the view here is that Murray would gain revenge. Not easily, however. I envision a five set skirmish with Murray narrowly prevailing in the end. Nadal versus Murray has the potential to be a blockbuster. Murray has always given Nadal serious problems on hard courts, knocking him out of the 2008 US. Open in the semifinals, beating him at the Australian Open this year, ousting him in the semifinals of Toronto this summer. But Nadal is the world’s best player, and in my view he will find a way to remove Murray in three closely contested sets, much the way he did when they met at Wimbledon. Nadal will improve his second serve returns immensely from what he produced against Murray in Toronto. On top of that, he will keep Murray at bay with good strategic serving of his own. Nadal wins this encounter 7-5, 6-4, 7-6 (5) to move into the final, sweeping five points in a row from 2-5 down in the tie-break to close the account.

On the opposite half of the draw, Federer will face some interesting challenges. In Halle back in June, Lleyton Hewitt ended a 15 match losing streak against the 16 time Grand Slam tournament champion, upending Federer in the final. Hewitt--- seeded at No. 32--- should play Federer again in the third round of the Open and he won’t bow out easily. A year ago he took a set off Federer at the U.S. Open and he will do the same this time, but Federer once more will be the victor in four sets. Federer will move on comfortably into the quarterfinals, and face none other than Robin Soderling. The big Swede toppled Federer in a four set quarterfinal at Roland Garros, and they have not met since. Soderling will come at Federer full force, serving big, using his potent inside-out forehand (perhaps the biggest in the sport) to break down Federer’s backhand wing, playing the kind of tennis he did to beat Federer in Paris.

Federer will be determined to gain revenge. He will serve with more pace and precision than he did in Paris, and his returns will also be sharper. He will look to control the agenda of the match by using his own inside-out forehand to push Soderling deep and wide. This contest has five sets written all over it. Federer will win the first set, drop the next two, then recoup to take the fourth. Soderling will answer the bell in the fifth and put Federer on the brink of defeat. The Swede will serve for the match at 5-4 in the fifth but Federer will hang on and break back in clutch fashion. They will move into a tie-break to decide it all, and it will be entirely up for grabs. Federer will trail 1-3, take the next four points, but then get caught at 5-5. Serving in the deuce court, Federer will gamble, going for a second serve ace down the T. His serve will clip the center service line for an ace. An astonished and agitated Soderling will make a wild error off the forehand on the next point, allowing a deeply relieved Federer to reach the semifinals, coming through 7-6 in the fifth set.

The No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic’s section of the draw is loaded with first rate players. Djokovic has been a pillar of consistency across the last three years at the Open, losing to only one man: Federer. The Swiss beat the Serbian in the 2007 final, and ousted him in the 2008 and 2009 semifinals. But Djokovic may be ripe for an upset loss this time around. He played unimpressive tennis for the most part over the summer. The soaring Mardy Fish will likely beat Marcos Baghdatis in the third round, setting up a round of 16 appointment with Djokovic. With the American crowd cheering him on unabashedly, Fish will cut down Djokovic in four sets for a place in the quarterfinals.

Waiting for him there will be none other than 2003 champion Andy Roddick. Roddick and Fish played twice over the summer, with Fish the victor both times. On this occasion, Fish will out serve Roddick for a set, but then the former world No. 1 will buckle down and record a four set win. So Roddick would then play his old rival Federer for a place in the final. Despite a 2-19 record against his adversary--- including a loss in the 2006 final--- Roddick will acquit himself well, taking the first set, going up a break in the second, sending the American crowd into an exhilarated state. But Federer will have the composure, the resolve and the shot making imagination to turn it around for a four set victory.

That would set the stage for Round 22 of the remarkable Nadal-Federer rivalry, which the Spaniard leads 14-7. They have met in seven previous Grand Slam tournament finals, with Nadal ahead 5-2. He won their only final round meeting at the Australian Open, beat the Swiss all three times they clashed in the finals of the French Open, and is 1-2 against Federer in Wimbledon finals. But this is their first ever U.S. Open meeting, and it is a beauty. Nadal has trouble getting untracked in the first set, and trails 2-4, 15-40. He then raises his game considerably to take the set 7-5. Federer retaliates boldly and serves impeccably to take the second set 6-4, but Nadal strikes back aggressively to win the third 6-3, surprising Federer by taking the short ball off the forehand and approaching repeatedly deep to the backhand. Nadal is unstoppable now. Swinging his slice serve wide in the Ad Court with conviction, going out wide surprisingly often with his deuce court delivery to Federer’s forehand, making magnificent returns off the backhand side, Nadal wins 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 to collect a ninth Grand Slam championship.

As for the women, one of the key matches of the tournament will be a round of 16 meeting between 2009 finalist Caroline Wozniacki and No. 14 seed Maria Sharapova, the 2006 champion. Wozniacki is the top seed this time around, and she plays as if she believes she deserves that status. Her ground game is more reliable than Sharapova’s, she is moving her rival from side to side with cool precision, and Wozniacki takes the first set confidently 6-3. But Sharapova will not stand for that. Her first serve starts clicking impeccably and she wins more and more free points with it. Her grunting gets louder. Her ground strokes are much more precise and potent. The tempo has changed and Wozniacki is helpless to do anything about it. Sharapova wins 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. She then stops 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova to reach the semifinals.

In that round, Sharapova confronts 2008 finalist Jelena Jankovic, who finds her best tennis at last after a disappointing, injury-ridden summer. But Sharapova overwhelms Jankovic with a brilliant display of controlled aggression, casting aside the Serbian as easily as she did in the semifinals of the 2008 Australian Open, where the Russian captured her third and most recent Grand Slam tournament crown. Sharapova is in the final.

On the bottom half of the draw, No. 2 seed Kim Clijsters is conducting business with supreme self assurance and admirable ball control, exploiting her extraordinary speed afoot and dismissing rivals comprehensively. Clijsters has only a few anxious moments en route to the semifinals. No. 10 seed Victoria Azarenka and 2000-2001 U.S. Open champion Venus Williams square off in the quarterfinals. Venus--- sidelined with a knee injury--- had not competed in a tournament since Wimbledon. She has played her way into respectable form, but Azarenka has found her range completely and she is up for this stirring battle under the lights.

Williams serves stupendously to win the first set, but Azarenka starts feasting on the American’s second serve by the early stages of the following set. Venus is hard pressed to find a way to break the rhythm of her rival. Azarenka can’t miss a return over the last set-and-a-half, and she comes away deservedly with a 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory. Azarenka takes that win and pushes on with determination against Clijsters in a terrific semifinal. Pounding the ball with supreme efficiency, taking calculated risks, refusing to allow Clijsters much of a chance to dictate, Azarenka sweeps through the opening set 6-2 and builds a 3-1 lead in the second set. Clijsters then starts redirecting her ground strokes skillfully, especially off her two-handed backhand. She catches Azarenka off guard. She reasserts herself thoroughly. Clijsters rallies gamely to win 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 for a place in the final.

Clijsters is on a roll in New York and is beginning to feel almost invincible at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. She won the tournament in 2005, did not play from 2006-2008, then triumphed again last year. She fully believes she is going to beat Maria Sharapova for a third crown, but the 2006 champion is every bit as confident and unwavering. When they met recently in the final of Cincinnati, Sharapova had three match points for a decisive straight set win, but lost that agonizing contest in three sets.

This time, they reverse roles. Clijsters is striking the ball immaculately at the outset, finding the corners, rushing a beleaguered Sharapova into clusters of mistakes. Moreover, Clijsters is returning beautifully and is giving nothing away. The sprightly Belgian takes the first set 6-3, and the second set is locked at 5-5. Sharapova is serving with more authority and conviction now, keeping her tenuously in the match. In the eleventh game of the second set, Sharapova is down break point five times, but unleashes excellent first serves each time to fight her way out of danger. With two straight aces, she holds for 6-5, and then Sharapova goes for broke on every second serve return. She takes the set 7-5, rolls to 3-0 in the final set, and almost breaks the match wide open. Clijsters--- down 0-40 in the fourth game--- somehow holds on.

That is jarring for Sharapova. She loses her serve in the fifth game on a double fault, and a reawakened Clijsters gets back to 3-3. Both players hold up until Clijsters serves at 5-6. She goes wide in the deuce court with a first serve at 30-30, but Sharapova anticipates perfectly, driving a return down the line for a winner. Clijsters is serving at 5-6, 30-40, match point down. She goes down the T, and Sharapova is caught off guard. She barely gets the return over the net, allowing Clijsters to rip a forehand approach deep to the Sharapova forehand. Sharapova reacts instinctively, walloping a forehand pass acutely crosscourt. It is a clean winner. Sharapova has defeated Clijsters 3-6, 7-5, 7-5 for a fourth career Grand Slam tournament win, and perhaps most satisfying triumph.

So there you have it. As I mentioned at the outset, the women’s event could be won by a wide range of players. But the way I see it, Sharapova is ready to get the job done. As for the men, a very good case could be made that Federer will capture his sixth crown, and there is no reason Murray could not secure his first major title. And yet, I believe Nadal will win because his goal all year has been to come through at the U.S. Open, and he knows how to bring out his best on the biggest occasions. He has never wanted a tournament more. Rafael Nadal—singularly intense and driven, the toughest player mentally in the game of tennis-- will find a way win the U.S. Open.

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