By Chris Oddo | Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Roger Federer and Serena Williams are hot, but do Cincinnati titles make them the favorites in New York?
Photo Source: Jonathan Moore/Getty
After two fast and furious weeks on the hard courts, one would think we’d have a good idea of what was going to happen at the US Open next week. But, truth be told, the picture is cloudier than it has been in years. With Rafael Nadal out on the men’s side and Novak Djokovic in some sort of post-marital haze, the big four looks more like the Big Chill heading into New York.
Meanwhile, on the women’s side, last year’s runner-up Victoria Azarenka is nowhere near her form of a year ago, and all three Grand Slam winners from 2014 have serious questions marks to deal with as the US Open approaches.
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That said, some sense was made on the hard courts of Montreal, Toronto and Cincinnati. Here is what—we think—we learned.
1. Roger Federer is the Co-Favorite on the Men’s Side
Roger Federer has done nothing but impress this summer, backing up his Wimbledon final by reaching the final in Toronto and winning Cincinnati for a record sixth time. He’s a five-time US Open champion and he’s got momentum on his side, having notched a huge win over Andy Murray in the Cincinnati quarterfinals and then overcoming a big rough patch in the final to sail past David Ferrer for his 80th career title.
Federer also benefits from the fact that nobody else is really stepping up on the men’s side at the moment. Nadal has pulled out, Murray is not yet up to snuff, Wawrinka and Berdych are treading water and young gunners Dimitrov and Raonic don’t seem ready to pull a 2009 Delpo. All that, and Novak Djokovic’s surprisingly erratic form (we’ll get to that in a moment) leave Roger—we believe—as a worthy co-favorite next to Novak Djokovic (oddsmakers have Djokovic tabbed).
2. Serena Looks Strong on the Women’s Side
Serena Williams hasn’t reached the quarterfinals of a single Slam this year. It’s hard to believe, because many had her down with a chance to reach the lofty 20-Slam mark by the end of this season, and now it’s up in the air as to whether or not she’ll ever get to 18.
But Williams has been, by far, the best player in the WTA this season, winning five titles, including two in her last three events, and stretching her unbeaten mark against the top ten to 17 matches.
Perhaps we should chalk her three failures at the Slams to part fluke, part nerves and part injury, and once again declare Serena the woman to beat in New York? Just like on the men’s side, nobody on the women’s side seems likely to dethrone her. But if Serena should fall prey to the upset bug again, then chaos will reign supreme on the women’s side.
3. Novak Djokovic Needs to Find His Game, and Quick
The world No. 1 has a golden opportunity to win back-to-back Slams with Nadal out of the draw, and he really should, as the superior hard-court player on the ATP tour at the moment (he’s been to four straight U.S. Open finals), be chomping at the bit. Instead, he’s searching for his lost mojo, because somewhere between raising the Wimbledon trophy aloft and returning to Toronto after his wedding, Djokovic’s game slipped.
Was it lost in a luggage shuffle at Toronto International? Did Djokovic, in the throes of marital bliss, take his hands off the wheel for the first time since he began his remarkable rise to world-beater status in 2011, and is that all it takes to make the empire start to crumble? Is there now a crisis of confidence, or will Djokovic simply redouble his steely concentration and nerve and show up in New York like a man possessed?
We’re guessing the latter, but honestly, it’s hard to tell. The long-term trend is positive for Djokovic, but judging from what he displayed over the last two weeks in Canada and Cincy, it’s impossible to deny that he’s not in a funk.
4. Eugenie Bouchard is Vulnerable
After Wimbledon it looked like Eugenie Bouchard was on the express elevator to the top floor. Even though she was shellacked by Petra Kvitova in the final, most agreed that there wasn’t a whole lot she could have done about it. She didn’t choke or not show up, she just got beat by an otherworldly grass court maven.
But now that we’ve watched the perceived-to-be unflappable Bouchard struggle mightily—and mentally—in bowing out to Shelby Rogers in Montreal, then fall to Svetlana Kuznetsova in Cincy, it is becoming apparent that the 20-year-old Canadian is not at all impervious to speed bumps.
New York will be the ultimate test of Bouchard’s character and readiness to be a major force on the WTA Tour. If she stumbles again, she’s clearly in need of more time. If she breaks through to the last four here in New York, she’s a top five player for years to come, no ifs ands or buts about it.
5. It’s Now or Never for Andy Murray
Actually, we think Andy Murray is fine as far as long term projections go. He’s always been on his own time table, and we shouldn’t expect that to change just because he’s a two-time Grand Slam champion now. But Murray’s in danger of having a very sub-par Grand Slam season if he doesn’t come up with some magic in New York. What’s holding him back? He hasn’t reached a final since winning Wimbledon more than a year ago, and while he’s shown glimpses of greatness, he doesn’t appear to have the same intestinal fortitude that he had with Lendl at the helm.
Murray, who is seeded 8th in New York, doesn’t necessarily have to win the US Open to prove he’s ready for an uptick in form on a consistent basis, but if he doesn’t at least make some noise in the year’s last Slam his season would go down as a terribly disappointing one, no matter what happens in Asia this fall.
6. Ana Ivanovic Could be Ready for Her New York Party
With three titles, 47 wins (including one over Serena Williams and two over Maria Sharapova), Ana Ivanovic has crept back into the WTA’s top ten and is looking like a player who could do serious damage in New York. Her backhand has been steady, shoring up her game and allowing her to score with the forehand, and Ivanovic’s confidence seems to be growing with each passing week. Having never reached past the quarterfinals at the US Open (she has not been to the last four of a Slam since Roland Garros, 2008), Ivanovic could be ready to threaten for this title for the first time this year.
7. Nick Kyrgios is Poised for a Letdown
The future is indeed bright for rising Aussie Nick Kyrgios, but the shellacking that Andy Murray gave him in Toronto could be a harbinger of things to come for one of the biggest breakout stars of 2014. He probably won’t be able to dominate as much with his serve and quick strikes on the hard court, which means he’ll have to be that much more consistent and that much more fit. Can he do it? Oh yeah, this kid is on the rise for sure, but we’re not so sure the time is now.
Still, he’s not the guy any top player is going to want to see next to their name in the first round.
8. Simona Halep is Right on the Cusp of Greatness
Simona Halep has done nothing to make us believe that she isn’t the real No. 2 in the WTA rankings. She fell to Maria Sharapova in a hard-fought three-setter in Cincinnati, but the Romanian is clearly in good enough form to go deep and maybe go all the way in New York.
But Halep will have to take the next step if she wants the type of respect that tennis fans give to Grand Slam winners. She’ll have to find a way to win a battle with Maria Sharapova (like she didn’t last week or in the French Open final) or whoever else stands between her and a Grand Slam title (Bouchard at Wimbledon is another good example, though, in her defense, she did pick up an injury in that match), and she’ll have to do it sooner than later.
9. Forget about Petra Kvitova in New York
Old habits die hard. The last time Petra Kvitova won Wimbledon she went to New York and dropped her first-round match to Alexander Dulgheru in straight-sets. It was a tepid performance that featured 52 unforced errors, and last week in Cincinnati, when Kvitova fell to Elina Svitolina by a similar scoreline it was eerily reminiscent. Kvitova, a giant talent with the ability to dictate on any surface, just isn’t build for long stretches of scorching-hot play on the North American hard courts. Get her indoors on the other side of the pond, or at Wimbledon or maybe even Melbourne, and she's a phenom. But here in New York, sadly, she's anything but until she can somehow prove otherwise. She amazed at Wimbledon again this year, and our bet is that she’ll be gone from New York by Labor Day.
10. This Year’s American Darlings Will Be Madison Keys and Venus Williams
Every year, American women not named Serena show up in droves and make the stars and stripes feel like a tennis nation. Last year it was Alison Riske, Christina McHale, and Sloane Stephens and Victoria Duval. Each of those three could very well make noise in 2014, but we’re tipping big runs from both Madison Keys and Venus Williams in New York. Keys, a budding, bashing talent has been due for a breakout at a Slam for a long time, and Venus at 34 looks as lethal as she has in years.
Unlike Montreal, where Venus reached the final after knocking off Serena for the first time in five years, the seven-time Slam champion will benefit from having a day between matches. And while the crowds were screaming for her in Canada, you better believe that they’ll be going nuts for both Keys and Williams in New York.