The final Grand Slam of the year begins in earnest this week and the competition is pretty wide open. Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal are all Major winners this year and it is hard to separate them. Add to that the evergreen Roger Federer and 2009 winner Juan Martin Del Potro and you have a tournament that promises some tasty match-ups in the second week. The women’s competition is slightly less of an enigma – Serena Williams is the girl to beat but if she gets knocked out, anyone has a chance of taking the U.S Open crown.
Andy Murray goes into this Grand Slam in the slightly unfamiliar role as the man to beat. Instead of gunning after Djokovic, Nadal et al he is probably expected to at least make the final as the defending champion. How Murray deals with this added pressure will be interesting. He certainly has seem to find a formula that sees him peak at exactly the right time for the Grand Slams; 4 finals and two championship victories in his past four appearances is reminiscent of Federer at his peak. He won the Miami Masters earlier in the season on hard-courts but his form of late has been slightly lacklustre. Murray will need to raise his game significantly (which I’m sure he will) to retain his title.
One player who is in top form is the Spaniard Rafael Nadal. Two titles in consecutive weeks on the U.S hard-courts is the ideal preparation for a tilt at the U.S Open. For a man of his exceptional talents though, Nadal doesn’t have a great record in the majors on hard-courts. He has only won 2 Grand Slams (1 Australian Open, 1 U.S Open) on the hard stuff in his entire career and there is a feeling that Djokovic and Murray are both superior on hard-courts. He is the man in form but he will have to do something extra special to avoid being beaten once again by his nemeses.
Which brings us to Novak Djokovic. If God wanted to create the perfect hard-court player he would have probably made something very similar to the sinewy Serbian. Wonderfully athletic and as strong as an ox, he has the lean, fatless physique that us mere mortals can only dream of. But enough of my mini man-crush. His rippling torso has in fact helped him become probably the greatest hard-court player of the modern era, and add to that a freakish talent with a racquet, he is a good bet to add to his already bulging trophy cabinet. He himself has announced Nadal as the favourite in New York but I think he’s just playing a bit of mind games. Like Murray he has also reached 4 finals in his previous 4 appearances but has only managed to win one, which might play on his mind. Nevertheless, Djokovic is my (very ill-advised) tip to win.
Coming in slightly under the radar is the mercurial Argentinian, Juan Martin Del Potro. He won his first and only Grand Slam to date in New York four years ago and he is in top form on the hard-courts at the moment, winning the Citi Open and reaching the semi-finals of the Western and Southern Open. He played brilliantly during his run to the semi-finals of this summer’s Wimbledon, taking Djokovic to 5 sets and also showing unprecedented determination to overcome an injury in beating David Ferrer in the quarters. He has mighty ground strokes and an unstoppable serve – ideally suited to the fast hard-courts in the Big Apple. The only drawback is that Del Potro is not in the same league physically as Murray, Nadal, Djokovic. He does move well for a man of 6ft 6in tall, but his speed across the court is not as good as the top three. A dark horse, yes, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he made to at least the semi-finals.
This is the first time in more than a decade when I don’t count Roger Federer as one of the tournament favourites for a Grand Slam. The Swiss virtuoso has had a lean year by his very high standards and it would seem that age is catching up with him. He has won two tournaments this year, both on grass, yet his performances at the Grand Slams have been worrying. Defeated at the French Open by an inspired Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, he suffered an ignominious loss to Ukranian Sergei Stakhovsky (albeit to some brilliant serve-volley tennis) at the 2nd round of Wimbledon. Federer is still capable of superb tennis and I have no doubt that he could beat some of the top-4 ranked players, but I doubt whether his body can endure 2 weeks of intense Grand Slam tennis. There is a definite feeling of his star waning; players are no longer as fearful of him. The 32 year-old used to have this unbeatable aura about him – where players almost knew that they were going to lose before they even began the warm-up. Alas no longer. Thankfully, we can still marvel at his beautiful and sometimes balletic forehand. However, I doubt the man with the second best backhand on the tour (behind Richard Gasquet of course) will feature heavily in New York in the coming weeks.
On the women’s side, the peerless Serena Williams is still the girl to beat, and with confectionary entrepreneur and part-time tennis player Maria Sharapova out of the tournament injured, her task is made that bit easier. World number two Victoria Azarenka actually beat Williams in their most recent meeting in Cincinnati but the Belarusian has never won when it really matters at the Grand Slams. Petra Kvitova has an ideal game for the hard-court surface – she hits the ball very hard and could have a good fortnight if she gets going. Apart from those two there are very few players that can trouble Williams on the tour. Laura Robson is Britain’s best hope but she is nursing a wrist injury so do not expect her to repeat last year’s run to the last 16.
So there you have it. A pretty conservative prediction I know but hopefully an accurate one for once. Of course I’d love it if Murray won but for me Djokovic is the superior player on the hard-courts. It would certainly be a mouth-watering prospect if they both made it to the final. Here’s hoping.