Who’s going to win the U.S Open?

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.

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The return of the serve-volley

How refreshing was it to see Sergei Stakhovsky beat Roger Federer the other day?  Any victory against the Swiss genius should be heralded but it was the manner in which Stakhovsky played that made victory all the more special.  He got his tactics spot-on with a bit of old-fashioned serve-volley tennis.  It was a joy to behold.

            Serve-volley tennis has been on the decline since primate Pete Sampras hung up his racket.  In days gone by, all the big guns used to serve-volley: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Boris Becker, Goran Ivanisevic, Steffan Edberg, the list is endless.  These days however it is a dying art.  The ground strokes and service return of your average tennis player have improved no-end to the detriment of the volley.  Nowadays a venture into the net is about as common as a yeti.  The problem is that because the ground strokes are so good, the volley has to be near perfect otherwise the man at the net is just a sitting duck and will be passed easily.  Consequently, volleying has no longer become an integral part of the game at a junior level where players rarely learn how to play the shot properly and confidently.

            Since Sampras retired, few players have had success with the tactic.  Federer used to serve-volley a lot more often in his early career – indeed he beat Sampras in 2001 and also won Wimbledon in 2003 with that strategy.  Recently he used it as a surprise tactic.  Perhaps, with his advancing years, he should re-embrace the serve-volley in a bid to shorten the points.  It may well prolong his career.

            Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski used to serve-volley with varying degrees of success.  Rusedski employed it throughout his career, reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2002, memorably beating Andy Roddick in straight sets in the process.  Henman reached numerous Wimbledon semi-finals with a serve-volley game and it worked well until he played someone who was better than him.  Henman’s serve was not quite good enough to trouble the top players and so could be returned with interest as Lleyton Hewitt, Sampras and Ivanisevic all proved.

Roddick had a fearsome serve and used to back it up with some pretty handy volleying.  He never used it as his stock tactic, though perhaps he should have because his ground strokes (especially his backhand) were pretty ropey.  He still reached three Wimbledon finals, all defeats to Federer and played one of the all-time great matches in his 2009 loss to the Swiss maestro.

            Other recent exponents of the art of serve-volley include Sebastian Grosjean – who beat Tim Henman at Wimbledon in 2004, Michael Llodra – who has yet to win anything of note but his commitment to the tactic is unwavering, Pat Rafter – who reached two consecutive Wimbledon finals in 2000 & 2001, and Radek Stepanek, who got soundly beaten by a young Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2005.  Britain had its own serve-volley hero in Chris Eaton who, in 2008, beat Boris Pasanski in the first round of Wimbledon.  He got absolutely mullered by Dimitri Tursunov in round two and has yet to do anything of note since, but we live in hope.

            Apart from Stakhovsky there are still the odd exponents of serve-volley at this year’s championships.  In his first round defeat, Gilles Simon employed the strategy against Feliciano Lopez who himself was partial to a little jaunt to the net after one of his serves now and again.  Jamaican/German Dustin Brown beat Lleyton Hewitt in round two with a spot of serve-volley action.  Even Andy Murray has been known to crack out a serve-volley but only very rarely.

            I hope that this mini-renaissance in serve-volley is not a mere flash in the pan but heralds a new era for grass-court tennis.  The modern game is all too often a slug-fest from the back of the court relying on brute power.  It is time a bit of finesse returned to the sport.  Sergei Stakhovsky I salute you for successfully bringing the archaic art form of serve-volley back to SW19.

Le French Open

The second Grand Slam of the year started at the weekend in Paris and it promises to be (hopefully) more intriguing than in recent memory.  King of the Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal, is still feeling his way back from injury and has not been as invincible as he once was on the red dirt.  World number one Novak Djokovic will be snapping at his heels like one of those yappy chiens posh French girls carry around in their Louise de Vittons handbags if the Spaniard is not as his absolute best.  You also can’t discount the evergreen Roger Federer, a former winner of this tournament back in 2009.  In the absence of Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga may fancy his chances of a run to the latter stages and David Ferrer will be another hoping to feature in the second week.  Here’s a rundown of the top contenders:

 

Rafael Nadal (Spain)

World Ranking: 4

Seeded: 3

 

The ‘Muscles from Mallorca’ is bidding for his 8th title on the Parisian clay and who would bet against him?  He has only lost once at Roland Garros, to an inspired Robin Soderling in 2009, and it is going to take a similarly superhuman effort to stop this clay-court juggernaut from adding to his already bulging trophy cabinet.  He did lose his Monte-Carlo title to Djokovic last month which will rankle with him and it remains to be seen whether his body can handle the rigours of a Grand Slam schedule after his injury problems.  If it can, expect to see Nadal’s fangs clenched around the famous trophy once again.

 

Novak Djokovic (Serbia)

World Ranking: 1

Seeded: 1

 

Djokovic is the man most likely to stop Nadal.  The Serbian doesn’t quite have the power of the Spaniard at the back of the court but if Nadal’s game is not bang on, you can bet your bottom Euro that Djokovic will be there to exploit any weakness.  He has supreme fitness so if the two do meet and it goes to 5 sets, he knows he has the stamina.  He has already beaten the Mallorcan on the clay this season but he has never won at Roland Garros and he has put in some rather tame performances in his previous finals defeats to Nadal.  He will be desperate to rectify this, and 2013 could be his best chance.

 

Roger Federer (Switzerland)

World Ranking: 3

Seeded: 2

 

Federer has had a quiet season so far, punctuated by an extended break in March to spend time with his family.  Consequently he is as fresh as a daisy and should have no trouble reaching the latter rounds.  He does tend to struggle against clay-court specialists of which there are a few in this year’s tournament.  His experience should see him through to at least the quarters but he doesn’t quite have the speed of old to last the pace in the longer rallies against the elite players.  The title will be beyond him but he makes tennis look like a piece of art so just sit back and revel in watching one of the game’s greats whilst you still can.

 

David Ferrer (Spain)

World Ranking: 5

Seeded: 4

 

The diminutive Spaniard reached the semis here last year, beating a certain Andy Murray in the process and a repeat performance is not out of the question (apart from the Murray bit).  He is not the most technically gifted player on tour but he has a relentless playing style, fighting tooth and nail for every point.  Ally that with a Mo Farah-esque stamina and you have a pretty handy clay-courter.  The problem with Ferrer is that he has a worryingly Henman-like record in grand-slams.  Semi-finals seem to be his maximum.  He is a very good player and he has won some big tournaments, just not the tournaments that really matter.  Credit to him, he has squeezed every last drop out of his potential but that potential is not good enough to beat the big boys.

 

Nicolas Almagro (Spain)

World Ranking: 13

Seeded: 11

 

This preview may seem like a bit of Spanish love-in, but they do have some quality players on the tour at the moment and Almagro is certainly one of those.  If God wanted to create the complete clay court player (and he’d somehow forgotten about Rafa Nadal) he could do worse than Nicolas Almagro.  The Spaniard knows the clay like Tim Henman knows Grand Slam semi-final defeats.  He has won some big tournaments in his career on the red stuff (all of his ATP finals appearances have been on clay) but the big one still eludes him.  He played one the best sets of tennis I have ever seen against Nadal in last year’s quarter-final, yet still lost on a tie-break (and lost the match in straight sets).  Rather like Ferrer, he doesn’t seem to win the matches that really matter against the top players.  That won’t change this year.

 

Richard Gasquet (France)

World Ranking: 9

Seeded: 7

 

The Frenchman has absolutely sod-all chance of winning in Paris but I have fallen slightly in love with him, or more specifically – his backhand.  In an era when the single-handed backhand is about as common as the sabre-toothed tiger (I was watching Marion Bartoli the other day and she has a double-handed forehand), the sight of Gasquet’s free-flowing caress of the tennis ball could make butter spontaneously combust.  He wields his racket like Monet with a paintbrush.  He is the latest in a rather stereotypical line of French flair players, inheriting the crown of Fabrice Santoro, Sebstian Grosjean et al.  Go to youtube and watch Gasquet’s defeat to Andy Murray at the French in 2010 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hGWkwaMWaDk).  Never has a loss looked so beautiful, so perfect.  Even your girlfriend would struggle to provide you with 6 minutes and 17 seconds of comparable enjoyment.  Gasquet is not without controversy.  In 2009 He failed a drugs test and got caught with a small amount of cocaine in his system in Miami.  Astonishingly, the ATP accepted his explanation which consisted of snogging a girl in a nightclub who had mysteriously just taken cocaine and transferred it into him.  The ATP must still think Father Christmas still exists.  Anyway, even though Gasquet won’t win the tournament, watch him whilst you have the chance.  You won’t regret it.

 

So this year’s French Open is slightly more ‘open’ than usual, in that more than one person has a realistic chance of winning.  I can’t see past Nadal or Djokovic for the title and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the finalists too.  Obviously they will deny the final the public really want – Gasquet vs Federer.  Keep believing.  It could happen.