It’s Anybody’s Game: The Unpredictable Men’s Draw (U.S. Open Preview Part III of III)

Trophies Photo by @USOpenTrophies.

The 2014 U.S. Open men’s singles tournament is wide open.  The five men who own the last ten U.S. Open singles titles are (1) out of this year’s tournament with a wrist injury (Del Potro, 2009); (2) out of this year’s tournament with a wrist injury (Nadal, 2010 and 2013); (3) not yet back to top form after recovering from back surgery (Murray, 2012); (4) coming off terrible performances at two U.S. Open lead-up tournaments (Djokovic, 2011); and (5) 33 years old (Federer, 2004 – 2008).

Underdogs and rising stars alike are girding themselves at this moment to contend for unprecedented opportunities.

Out of the Lineup

In New York, both the men’s and the women’s singles draws are missing current Grand Slam title holders.  On the men’s side, it is 2010 and 2013 U.S. Open champion Rafael Nadal who is unable to play.

Nadal, a 14-year tour veteran who is currently ranked #2 in the world, has a congenitally deformed bone in his left foot, the terrible pain from which forced him to miss the 2006 Australian Open.  Custom arch supports that Nadal acquired to protect the foot in 2006 shifted the strains to his hips and knees.  Consequent knee problems caused him to miss both Wimbledon 2009 and seven months of competition in late 2012 and early 2013.

It is his right wrist (which, as a lefty, Nadal uses only for two-handed backhands) that keeps Nadal out of the 2014 U.S. Open.  According to Nadal’s doctor, the injury in early August was a freak occurrence which could have happened to any player. Unlike Nadal’s knee injuries, which have resulted from wear, his recent wrist injury is a simple case of bad luck.

Nadal has missed 7 of the 47 Grand Slam tournaments for which he has been eligible in his career.  Of the remaining 40 Slams, he has won 14.  (Roger Federer has won 17 of the 59 he has contested.)

Nadal has the highest overall match winning percentage of any player in tennis history.  Of the active players whom he has faced more than once, Nadal has a winning record against all except one (Russia’s Nikolay Davydenko), including against all of the players currently ranked in the Top 50.

With a broad smile, humble nature, and sunny personality, Nadal is wildly popular with fans. His absence is a heavy blow to the tournament.

Here is one fan’s collection of the 20 best points played by Nadal at the 2013 U.S. Open.

The 2014 Favorites

The tournament’s top two seeds, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, are heavily favored to meet in the final on September 8.  Each has won the tournament before — Djokovic in 2011 and Federer from 2004 through 2008 — and a case can be made for either of them to be the tournament favorite.

Novak Djokovic
ND_Wimby

Nationality:
Serbia
Age:
27
Ranking:
1
Height:
6’2″
Noise factor:
  Emits a distinctive two-stage grunt beginning three or four games into a match.  Fusses aloud and gesticulates on court when matches are not going well for him.  Roars in a manner some consider barbaric when he wins important points.

At its best, Djokovic’s tennis can be nearly perfect.  From absurd, Gumby-like stretch positions, he possesses the strength and accuracy to not only get every ball back into play but also send his shots to locations on the opposite baseline and put his opponents on the run.  When he takes control of a rally, he is capable of hitting a blistering kill shot from anywhere in the court, to anywhere in the court.  In that mode, he has no weaknesses and no peer.   His opponents are left with few to no good options.

Djokovic’s Achilles Heel throughout his career has been the inability to sustain his best level.  He maintained it spectacularly well for most of 2011 and early 2012, during which period he won four of five Grand Slams, but since mid-2012 his execution has failed him at crucial moments, most notably in the three Slam matches he lost to Nadal in 2013 and 2014.

At Wimbledon last month, Djokovic defeated Roger Federer in a tense five-set final, during which he recovered psychologically after failing to serve out the match in the fourth set.

‘Djokovic is back,’ declared all of the tennis experts, nearly in unison. ‘Since he has finally won another Slam final, he will begin to hit freely, and he will dominate for the rest of the year.’

Nope.

In each of his two summer hard court tournaments, Djokovic played two bad matches, barely scraping through one and then losing the second.

Now some of tennis’ conventional wisdom claims Djokovic’s puzzling weakness of late deprives him of the mantle of Favorite to win the U.S. Open. With that conclusion I disagree.

Djokovic’s underperformances usually occur when he is favored to win.  When he has something to prove, as he has in New York this year, he thrives.  Especially since Djokovic has been handed a very challenging draw, I expect that his steely competitive ferocity and technical near-perfection will be on display from the very first round.  The Djokovic who plays in New York this year should sweep through his section of the draw.

Update: Djokovic lost his semifinal match in four sets to current world #11 Kei Nishikori of Japan.

Roger Federer
RF_0626_BH
Nationality:
Switzerland
Age:
33
Ranking:
3
Height: 6’1″
Noise factor:
Grunts very rarely and then only on the serve.  After winning a point in a tight match, will yell, “Come on,” in a warning tone, as if to signal his opponent that momentum has shifted in Federer’s direction.

It is for good reason that Roger Federer is the best-known active male tennis player and commands by far the largest endorsement contracts.  He leads players across all eras with 17 Grand Slam titles, boasts 80 titles overall, and owns the record for the number of weeks as world #1.  He is also the most naturally graceful player ever to pick up a tennis racquet.

After a rough 2013, during which he dealt with chronic back pain, Federer is putting together an outstanding 2014 season.  He leads the tour in match wins, has reached seven tournament finals (including four in a row this summer), and has won three titles.

Federer comes into the U.S. Open having made the final in each of the two large warm-up tournaments and having won the title at the second.  Easy conventional wisdom picked him as the tournament favorite based on current form.

I think Federer has a good chance of reaching the final, in part because his draw puts few dangerous challengers in his way.  If Federer reaches the final and faces an opponent other than Djokovic, he will probably win.

However, in the case of a Federer/Djokovic final, I would pick Djokovic to win.  He has prevailed in the pair’s last two meetings in New York, and I believe that if Djokovic manages to navigate his challenging draw and reach the final, he will be playing well enough to defeat Federer.

Update: Federer lost his semifinal match in straight sets to current world #15 Marin Cilic of Croatia.

The Contenders

Several of the 126 other players in the singles draw have good chances to spoil a possible Djokovic/Federer final.

Stan Wawrinka
SWW_0624
Nationality:
Switzerland
Age:
29
Ranking:
4
Height:
6′
Noise factor:
Grunts, though not too loudly.  Has gotten into lively debates with chair umpires at least twice in 2014.

In 2013 and early 2014, Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka made an impressive splash on the Tour, after having languished for many years in Federer’s shadow.  Wawrinka started 2013 with a close loss to Djokovic in five sets at the Australian Open.  Although painful, the experience showed Wawrinka that he was nearly on a par with the top players and served to inspire him for the rest of the year.  Wawrinka reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open and finished the season in the Top 8.

January offered Wawrinka an Australian Open rematch with Djokovic in the quarterfinals, which Wawrinka won in brilliant fashion.  Riding a wave of confidence, Wawrinka reached his first Grand Slam final, against Nadal, four days later.  Wawrinka played inspired, flawless tennis to take the first set of the final.  Early in the second set, Nadal suffered a back injury that left him without a serve and nearly unable to move.  Wawrinka went on to win the final in four sets, earning his first and to-date only Grand Slam title.

Wawrinka followed up his Grand Slam title by winning his first title at the Masters 1000 level (one tier below the Grand Slams) in Monte Carlo in April.  He appeared in the spring destined to compete for the year’s top rankings.

By late May, though, Wawrinka’s season had turned south, beginning with a first-round loss at the French Open.  Whereas through April Wawrinka had notched a tour-leading six wins over players in the Top 10, since May he has lost four times to players ranked outside the Top 30.

Wawrinka plays an aggressive style of tennis with a great deal of power.  His one-handed backhanded is both beautiful to watch and dangerously accurate.  His forehand is a formidable weapon.  What brings him down when he loses is not his shots but poor decision-making.

If Wawrinka can recover in New York the mental toughness and clear thinking that carried him through the first half of 2014, he could beat anyone in the draw and hoist the trophy on September 8.

Update: Wawrinka lost his quarterfinal match in five sets to current world #11 Kei Nishikori of Japan.

David Ferrer
DF_0816_Smile
Nationality:
Spain
Age:
32
Ranking:
5
Height: 5’9″
Noise factor:
Emits a low, guttural grunt with every shot that he hits.  Has been known to berate himself in colorful Spanish when making too many mistakes on court.

David Ferrer is 5’9″ on his very tallest days and compact, short-waisted, and narrow-shouldered.  Unable to generate great power, he has perfected a style of tennis that succeeds without it.

His serves are accurate rather than big, catching opponents off-guard with service location.  His forehand is sharp and precise enough to drop on a dime anywhere in the court.  His speed and footwork are spectacular, enabling him to counterpunch against even the hardest hitters.  He excels at reading and returning his opponents’ serves, leading the Tour in return statistics every year.  He has an uncanny ability to break an opponent’s serve when he is serving for a set.

DF_0813_in_Motion

Ferrer may be the best on the Tour at understanding his own capabilities and wringing the maximum performance from his native talents.  He brings a great competitive intensity to every point in every match.  He wins by getting balls back into play, placing his shots in awkward locations, and wearing his opponents down.  Commentators have noted that anyone who steps onto a court to play Ferrer knows it’s going to hurt.

Some tennis fans find Ferrer’s relentless style boring, since it relies on consistency rather than variety.  It is effective, though.  Ferrer’s win/loss record in the more arduous Best of Five Set matches (which are played at the Grand Slams) is better than his record in Best of Three.  He reached the quarterfinals or better at 10 consecutive Grand Slams before falling early at Wimbledon last month.  He has finished in the Top 5 for the last three years and finished 2013 ranked #3, behind only Nadal and Djokovic.

Ferrer comes into New York after the best performances of his career in the summer hard court tournaments, having reached a quarterfinal and a final.  In both tournaments, he lost to Federer, taking a set in each of those losses.

By virtue of his #5 ranking, Ferrer earned the #4 seed when Nadal withdrew.  Ferrer is the highest seed in his quarter and faces a draw which, although challenging, does not offer obvious stumbling blocks to his reaching the semifinals.

Federer is the other top seed in Ferrer’s half.  Ferrer has never beaten Federer in 16 tries, but they have never faced each other in a Best of Five Sets match.  Because of his sheer brilliance as a shot maker, Federer would have the edge if they met in New York, but Ferrer can be counted on to give it his all.

Update: Ferrer lost his third round match in four sets to current world #31 Gilles Simon of France.

Grigor Dimitrov
GD_at_IW
Nationality:
Bulgaria
Age: 23
Ranking:
8
Height:
 6’3″
Noise factor:
Very quiet on the court.  Remains calm, with few displays of hot temper.

Grigor Dimitrov is a young star in the rise.  Blessed with grace, strength, and height, Dimitrov plays with a style frequently compared to Federer’s.  His matches offer a highly entertaining blend of spectacular shot making, intense competitive fire, and stylistic variety.

In years past, Dimitrov lacked the fitness to sustain tough rallies with the top players and often attempted to end points prematurely through high-risk kill shots that missed.  A year of hard work with one of tennis’ best coaches, Roger Rasheed, has given him new confidence in his fitness, which has translated into terrific results in 2014.

Possessing a beautiful game, good looks, an appealing personality, and a well-modulated on-court temperament, Dimitrov is one of the ATP’s most bankable rising stars.  If he stays healthy, he will win multiple Grand Slams.  Whether he will take his first in New York this year is hard to predict,  since his record at the Slams to date is uneven.

Dimitrov will meet Federer if both reach the quarterfinals in what would surely be one of the most highly rated and aesthetically pleasing matches of the tournament.

Update: Dimitrov lost his Round of 16 match in straight sets to current world #24 Gael Monfils.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
JWT_0809_Yay
Nationality:
France
Age:
29
Ranking:
10
Height: 6’2″
Noise factor:
Was louder early in his career. Still grunts, but not known today as a noisy player.

The affable and powerful Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who is built like a linebacker in American football, is one of a very few players to have beaten Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, and two-time Slam winner Andy Murray at least two times each.  A big server who is also a fast mover and very skillful at the net, Tsonga at his best can hit anyone off the court.  He has upset Federer at Grand Slam tournaments twice.

Inconsistency, both mentally and as a consequence of injuries, has been Tsonga’s bane.  At times he appears to be more interested in feeling sorry for himself than in grinding out points when he faces a tough defender.  For the second half of 2013 and the first half of 2014, his results were so unimpressive that tennis observers ceased to consider him a threat.

Then suddenly, in early August in Toronto he rediscovered spectacular and disciplined form.  He beat Djokovic, Murray, Dimitrov, and Federer over a period of five days in one of the greatest tournament performances in recent memory.  Although he lost early in the following week, citing understandable fatigue, his recent excellence in Canada makes him a serious contender in New York.

If Tsonga can reproduce his Toronto form and sustain it through seven Best of Five Set matches over two weeks, it might be he who hoists the trophy on September 8.

Update: Tsonga lost his Round of 16 match in straight sets to current world #9 Andy Murray.

The Dark Horses

Andy Murray
AM_0623
Nationality:
U.K.
Age:
27
Ranking:
9
Height: 6’3″
Noise factor:
Emits grunts whose pitches rise in direct proportion to his stress level.  Has been known to complain loudly in the direction of his player’s box when a match is not going his way.

Andy Murray won the U.S. Open in 2012 and Wimbledon in 2013.  He is considered by tennis fans to be a member of the Big Four (with Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic), who held the top rankings spots and dominated the Grand Slams and the Masters 1000 tournaments for several years.

For the 2014 U.S. Open I consider Murray to be only a Dark Horse, because he has not yet recovered his top form after having undergone back surgery last October.

Murray at his best is a difficult and frustrating opponent.  Like Djokovic, he excels at retrieving balls and returning them to play.  Whereas Djokovic’s strengths lie in power, flexibility, and precision, one of Murray’s greatest weapons is shot variety.  He drives his opponents batty by changing speeds and changing spins, all the while retrieving so many balls that an opponent is sometimes forced to hit five winning shots to take just one point.

In 2014 Murray has shown flashes of his pre-surgery brilliance, but he has not been able to sustain his best against the top players at the Slams.  If he were to find his form in the coming fortnight at the site of his first Grand Slam title, he could prevail over anyone.

Tomas Berdych
TB_0620

Nationality:
Czech Republic
Age:
28
Ranking:
7
Height: 6’5″
Noise factor:
Not especially loud when he plays.  Will occasionally argue sharply with a chair umpire during a tight match.

Berdych, like Tsonga, has recorded wins over each member of the Big Four and has reached one Grand Slam final.  Possessing the big serve and hard, flat ground strokes typical of tall players, Berdych is also an excellent mover for his size.

For several years, Berdych has consistently ranked just below the Big Four.  He usually beats the players ranked below him but can run into trouble against the top players when his game plan fails and he does not have a Plan B.

Berdych faces some challenging opposition in the early rounds, including a first round match with renowned battler and former world #1 Lleyton Hewitt.  If Berdych reaches the quarterfinals, he could face Ferrer, against whom he has a losing record but whom he defeated at this year’s Australian Open.  Were he to get past Ferrer, Berdych could face Federer.

Berdych’s draw works against him this year in New York.  He has a strong enough game, though, to get himself into the later rounds if some of his opposition melts away.

Update: Berdych lost his quarterfinal match in straight sets to current world #16 Marin Cilic of Croatia.

Milos Raonic
MR_0628
Nationality:
Canada
Age:
23
Ranking:
6
Height: 6’5″
Noise factor:
Fairly quiet.

Milos Raonic has a classic tall-man style of play to which many fans refer disparagingly as “serve-bot.”  He has an huge and high-bouncing serve, with which he either aces his opponents or puts opponents at such mechanical disadvantage that he can easily hit a winner on a second shot.

The resulting style — ace; ace; service winner; three-shot rally — can be boring but effective.  In 2014 Raonic has been one of the Tour’s most consistent performers, reaching quarterfinals or better at most of the large tournaments and thereby elevating his ranking into the Top 8.

Raonic has not yet been able to prevail over the top players, though, because they all excel at the return of serve.  Although Raonic has worked hard on his rallying skills and shot selection, every match he plays against a higher-ranked player reveals the weaknesses he still needs to shore up.

Raonic is much hyped as a rising star on the Tour.  His coach, former player Ivan Ljubicic, predicts that he will win Grand Slam titles.  That Raonic might do so in New York this year seems to me unlikely.

Update: Raonic lost his Round of 16 match in five sets to current world #11 Kei Nishikori of Japan.

Ernests Gulbis
EG_0603_BH
Nationality:
Latvia
Age:
25
Ranking:
12
Noise factor:
Known more for occasional bursts of temper (and racquet smashes) than for grunting.

Ernests Gulbis has talent, skills, and self-belief that enable him to beat any player (except, to date, Nadal) on any day.  He defeated Federer at this year’s French Open and has beaten Djokovic and Murray twice each.

Gulbis might have to beat Berdych, Ferrer, and Federer to reach the final.  In my opinion, Gulbis is one of the few players ranked outside of the Top 10 who has the ability to do that.  (Or he might lose in the first round.)

Update: Gulbis lost his second round match in five sets to current world #45 Dominic Thiem of Austria.

My Picks

Most likely to win the title?
Djokovic

It is hard to bet against him when he is so highly motivated.

My sentimental favorite?
Ferrer

It would be fantastic if the 32-year-old workhorse could get his hands on a Grand Slam trophy.

 

Quote for Today

“I know that there is one thing for sure: everybody is starting from scratch. Everybody starts from Monday.” – Novak Djokovic

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2 thoughts on “It’s Anybody’s Game: The Unpredictable Men’s Draw (U.S. Open Preview Part III of III)

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