Saturday, August 27, 2011

2011 US Open preview

2011 US Open preview

Djokovic has been dominant in 2011, but, after the two North American hard-court tune-up events, he does come to New York with a couple of question marks over his head. He won a very close match over Mardy Fish in the final in Montreal, but it was his performance in Cincy that was more concerning. In the semis against Gael Monfils, Djokovic went into the type of frustrated funk we used to see from him, but which he had banished from his brain so far this year. While he recovered in time to win that match in three, Djokovic had very little left, mentally or physically, for the final against Andy Murray, and he eventually retired with a shoulder problem. Are these shades of Nadal in Melbourne? Rafa came there after catching a virus, retired with a leg injury in the quarters, and never looked like the world's best player.

Djokovic’s draw won’t hurt him. He opens with a qualifier, gets the winner of Pere Riba and Carlos Berlocq second, and is scheduled, if all goes according to plan—which, of course, it never does—to face Monfils again in the quarters. Possible obstacles: Davydenko in the third round; Gasquet, I suppose, in the fourth; and a semi-hot-handed Tomas Berdych in the quarters.

Djokovic may be hurting or a little burnt from all the winning, but he likes New York, he likes hard courts, he’s been to two finals here, and he hasn’t lost to any of these guys in a long time.

First-round matches to watch: Gael Monfils vs. Grigor Dimitrov; Gasquet vs. Sergiy Stakhovsky; Davydenko vs. Ivan Dodig

One reason that it’s all on Nole at the moment is that his two putative rivals, Federer and Nadal, have been so iffy of late. Federer has landed, yet again, in Djokovic’s half, and he comes in on the heels of two demoralizing defeats to younger, bigger hitters, Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. But a five-time champ is always a five-time champ, and Federer has already pulled off one Slam stunner over Djokovic, in Paris, this season.

Federer starts with Santiago Giraldo, gets the winner of Dudi Sela and Thomaz Bellucci after that, and might see an up-and-comer in either Ryan Harrison or Bernard Tomic in the third round. If he gets through all of that, the seeds he might face in the second week include the hard-charging Mardy Fish and the sporadically charging Tsonga, who has beaten Federer twice this summer already. It’s not a draw guaranteed to make Federer feel old—Fish is a fellow elder statesman—but it is one that should force him to up his game. The days when Federer could scroll down his bracket to find a line-up of familiar whipping boys—Davydenko, Youzhny, the old Berdych, the old Soderling—are behind him.

Just as intriguing is Fish’s fate. Is he now fit and confident enough in his game and his game plan that a bad day or a bout of nerves won’t sink him? His win over Nadal in Cincy made me think so, but his tight second-set loss to Murray in the next round was a tonic—the doubts linger. Still, Fish has come a long way, so far that anything less than a serious run at the semis would be a bitter disappointment to him. You probably couldn’t have said that even as late as last year. He likes the surface, and he’ll have the crowd.

First-round matches to watch: Harrison vs. Marin Cilic; Radek Stepanek vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber; Tomic against whichever qualifier he can trip up

Third Quarter
It’s nice to be the fourth seed these days. It's not that Andy Murray hasn’t earned the position, but it does make life a little easier knowing that your section won’t include one of the winners of the last seven majors. Instead, Murray looks across his quarter and finds sixth-seeded and currently-in-decline Robin Soderling. He also sees, in this relatively quiet corner of the tournament, Juan Martin del Potro, Stanislas Wawrinka, John Isner, and Marcos Baghdatis.

Murray is in a familiar situation. He’s pulled himself together admirably, after the sting of a late Wimbledon loss, to win one of the Open tune-ups, this time in Cincinnati. In other words, he’s gotten his fans hopes up yet again, and we know what happens then (the hopes go down, in case you don’t know). Two years ago Murray lost early and badly to Cilic; last year he did the same against Wawrinka. Murray has always loved the Open, he won it as a junior, and it once seemed to be a more likely place for him to break through than in the cauldron of Wimbledon. It still does, and I’ve picked him to win here before. His draw looks good this year, and he’s on the opposite side from Djokovic, but lots of things have looked good for him in the past.

Dark (and exceedingly tall) horses: Del Potro, who has a soft first few rounds, and John Isner, who is in Soderling’s section and has had a good week in Winston-Salem.

Tricky first round: Murray vs. Somdev Devvarman; the Indian won’t give the counter-puncher much to punch

Budding American feel-good story: Alex Bogomolov, Jr., who is having an unlikely Indian Summer; he might get the Sod in the second round

The Hyphen Bowl: Guillermo Garcia-Lopez vs. Daniel Gimeno-Traver (Who has the better hyphen? We’ll find out soon)

Fourth Quarter
He’s the defending champ and a Letterman guest, but Rafael Nadal comes to New York in weakness rather than strength. A close loss to Dodig and a not-close loss to Fish have us wondering where Rafa’s confidence is. Did his defeats at the hands of Djokovic affect him that much, to the point where he’s not the same player in general? The way he talks, it doesn’t sound all that hard to believe.

Last year, Nadal didn’t dominate the summer season either, but all of that changed when he walked onto Ashe Stadium in black clothes, yellow sneakers, and armed with a new 130-m.p.h. serve. I wouldn’t count on him getting his aura back so quickly this time around. There hasn’t been a sense that he’s building to anything; if anything, it's been the opposite. His nerves nearly unraveled him against Fernando Verdasco in Cincy.

Nadal plays Andrey Golubev first, perhaps Mahut second, and most interestingly, Ljubicic or Nalbandian after that, both of whom have troubled him in the past. Overall, though, this is a draw that Rafa should welcome. He’s scheduled to face David Ferrer in the quarters; while Ferrer has beaten him twice in hard-court majors, he’s also been injured of late, and Nadal has owned him everywhere else. Otherwise, there’s not much that meets the eye: The two other top seeds here are Youzhny and Almagro. If Nadal is searching for his lost confidence, this is the right quarter to find it.

Dark horse: Andy Roddick—he’s been struggling with mind and body, but he’ll have the crowd and he has a nice draw; a night match against Ferrer in the third round might do the trick.


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