And So It Begins: Last-minute Thoughts About the 2016 French Open

TB_0518 World #8 Tomas Berdych on the velvety Roland Garros clay.

After six weeks and ten tournaments in nine countries, the men’s European clay court season arrives at its apogee and ultimate proving ground this coming week at the French Open.  Action begins tomorrow, May 22, with 16 singles matches at Roland Garros in Paris.

A few quick thoughts about what we have learned from the men’s clay court warm-up events —

Who’s Out

Roger Federer, suffering from a combination of knee and back injuries that kept him out of the Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid and led to early losses in Monte Carlo and Rome, withdrew from the French Open in advance of the tournament draw.  Federer, whose game is much better suited to grass than to clay, hopes to resume competition in time for the pre-Wimbledon grass court tournaments.

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Juan Martin del Potro, on the comeback trail from a series of four wrist surgeries, decided to forgo Roland Garros and move immediately to the grass, where he hopes his booming serve will pay dividends.

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The charismatic and highly talented Frenchman Gael Monfils — ever a crowd favorite, and one of the most upbeat and good-natured players on the tour — was forced to withdraw from Roland Garros after being hospitalized this week with a viral illness.

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Who Has Proven Himself to be a Dangerous Contender

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Twenty-two-year-old Austrian Dominic Thiem won the title today in Nice and reached the final in Munich, where he lost a very tight contest to German veteran Philipp Kohlschreiber.  Earlier, in Monte Carlo, he mounted a very stiff challenge to eventual champion Rafael Nadal.

Currently ranked 15 in the world and rising quickly, Thiem will surely win the French Open someday.  Five of his six titles to date, and two of his three in 2016, have come on clay.  His well-rounded game is precise, aggressive, and great fun to watch.

He will arrive in Paris brimming over with confidence from his win in Nice although perhaps somewhat tired.  He is a dangerous opponent for anyone.

 

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Japan’s Kei Nishikori, currently ranked #6 in the world, delivered several strong performances this year on the European clay.  He reached the final in Barcelona, where he lost a close match to Rafael Nadal.  At the Masters 1000 events in both Madrid and Rome, he played barnburner semifinal matches with World #1 Novak Djokovic, losing in two sets in Madrid and in three sets in Rome.

Over the course of his career, Nishikori has beaten every player now seeded ahead of him at Roland Garros (Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and Nadal).  His speed, footwork, and shotmaking, and his ability to rob opponents of time by “taking the ball early,” make him formidable on clay.  Fortuitously blessed with a good draw, Nishikori could easily reach the quarterfinals, where he might encounter Andy Murray.

If he keeps his health and fitness, Nishikori could well find himself hoisting the Coupe des Mousquetaires on June 5.

 

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Defending French Open champion Stan Wawrinka will arrive in Paris as he did last year, having bolstered his confidence with a victory at his home tournament in Geneva.

Owner of a powerful forehand, a strong serve, and a one-handed backhand that is both lethal and sublime, Wawrinka can beat anyone on the right day.  Although inconsistent and unpredictable, “Stan the Man,” as his sponsors call him, proved last year in Paris that he is capable of winning the title.

 

The Favorites?

The 2016 men’s singles competition at Roland Garros is the most open in years, with three players having emerged from the Masters 1000-level events as favorites (and perhaps even as co-favorites): Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal.

Nadal won the title in Monte Carlo without ever facing Djokovic.

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Djokovic won the title in Madrid without ever facing Nadal.

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Murray lost to Nadal in the semifinals of Monte Carlo and beat him in the semifinals of Madrid.

Murray lost to Djokovic in the final at Madrid and beat him in the final at Rome.

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Djokovic and Nadal faced each other once, in the quarterfinals of Rome, where Djokovic won 7-5 7-6.  Nadal said afterward that he was happy with his performace, that both sets had been “on his racquet,” and that he had been, “very, very, very close” to winning.

Only Nadal of the three favorites won two titles in the lead-up to Roland Garros: in Monte Carlo and in Barcelona (a competitive 500-level tournament where neither Murray nor Djokovic was in the field).

The tournament whose conditions (i.e., altitude, clay quality, weather) are most similar to Roland Garros is Monte Carlo.  Nadal won that title, beating Murray in the semifinal.  Djokovic lost in his first match.

Madrid, featuring high altitude and hard-packed clay, is the least like Roland Garros.  Djokovic won that title, beating Murray in the final.  Murray had beaten Nadal in the semifinal.

Rome, like Paris, is at sea level.  There, Murray beat Djokovic in a hard-fought, testy, and rainy final.

Can one divine French Open outcomes from this data?

First, a few words about the tournament draw.

Nadal’s Roland Garros draw is freakishly difficult.  His first opponent, the 6’4″ cannon-serving Australian Sam Groth, demands intense concentration from his opponent and offers no rally rhythm.  The last time Nadal opened a French Open campaign against a “serve-bot” (2011, against 6’10” John Isner), Nadal got down two sets to one and needed five sets to eke out a victory.

In the third round, Nadal could face the flamboyantly talented and dangerously unpredictable Fabio Fognini, who beat Nadal three times in 2015.  The fourth round could bring a meeting with Dominic Thiem (see above).

In the quarterfinal, Nadal could face France’s Jo Wilfried Tsonga, who has the physical skills to beat anyone on the tour, and who will have the enthusiastic support of the home crowd.  In the semifinal, Nadal could face Djokovic.

Over his first five rounds, Djokovic faces a relative cakewalk.  None of Djokovic’s early-round opponents has any recent history of success against him.

Murray will have a tricky first match against the wily 37-year-old Czech Radek Stepanek, whose variety and unpredictability can be maddeningly difficult to face.  En route to the quarterfinals, Murray could encounter two tricky serve-bots, John Isner and the 6’11” Ivo Karlovic, though neither is likely to threaten Murray’s exemplary return game and defense.

Murray could face formidable challenges in the quarterfinals against Nishikori and in the semifinals against Wawrinka.

Murray will not face either Djokovic or Nadal until the final.

 

What does their Rome match and other recent history say about a Djokovic/Nadal semifinal?

Djokovic owns a 26-23 career head-to-head record against Nadal and has won their last seven meetings, three of which have been on clay. Advantage, Djokovic?  Not necessarily.

From mid-2011 until mid-2012, Djokovic also won seven straight matches against Nadal.  By the end of his seventh loss (the 2012 Australian Open final), Nadal had figured out how to counter Djokovic’s new tactics.  When the two next met, at the 2012 French Open final, Nadal won.

Some commentators have suggested that Nadal’s loss to Djokovic in Rome earlier this month would put him at a mental disadvantage in Paris.  I am not so sure.

Nadal’s competitive psychology is such that he takes every opponent seriously and approaches every match with the idea that he “needs to play [his] best tennis in order to have chances to win.” (That phrase has appeared in his press conference transcripts innumerable times over the years.)

Had a few points gone differently in their match in Rome, and had Nadal prevailed over Djokovic, he likely would have thought, “OK, I won, but it was close. I still need to play my best to have chances to win.”  Djokovic, meanwhile, would have arrived at the following Nadal match full of vinegar and determination to avenge his recent loss.

Having lost in Rome, but having kept the match very close, Nadal will probably approach his next meeting with Djokovic with optimism (in addition to his usual intention to play his best).

The contest between Nadal and Djokovic in Rome proved that Nadal is ready to compete toe-to-toe with Djokovic.  Both players know that now.  This cannot be a comfortable feeling for Djokovic.

 

What about Andy Murray?

Murray has long been one of the sport’s greatest defenders – he can chase down and return shots all day – but aggressive play does not come naturally to him.  He has a decent first serve, but his second serve has traditionally been his most attackable weakness.  Mentally, he has not always exhibited the fortitude and consistency necessary to win against the best players.

In 2016, Murray has improved both his first serve and his second serve and implemented successful plans of attack against both of his major rivals.  During the Rome final against Djokovic, he managed to be the mentally and emotionally stronger combatant under very difficult and rainy conditions.

If Murray reaches a final against either Djokovic or Nadal, he can take some confidence from the fact that his most recent meeting with each on the clay courts this year was a win.

Murray has never in the past been considered a contender at Roland Garros, but as Stan Wawrinka demonstrated in 2015 (after losing in the first round of the 2014 French Open), history is irrelevant.

It is the best player on the day who wins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Reign in Spain: Four Lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Open

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(Please click here to read my preview of the 2016 European clay court men’s tennis season.)

The anomalously high altitude clay tennis tournament in Madrid came to a close on Sunday as Novak Djokovic defeated Andy Murray 6-2 3-6 6-3 to win the title, garnering his record 29th Masters 1000 crown.

The first set was all Djokovic as the Serbian World #1 delivered nearly flawless tennis and demonstrated that at his best he can send a tennis ball from any stretched position to any location on the court.  In the second set, Murray dug in for a fight.  Raising his aggressive intensity, and taking advantage of a dip in his opponent’s form, Murray broke serve early and held on to win the set.

The final set was nervy and tight, with each player alternating between brilliance and sloppiness and momentum shifting repeatedly.  Djokovic broke serve first but relinquished his advantage a few games later.   By forcing Murray into a defensive mindset, Djokovic broke for a second time but nearly broke himself back as he served for the match.  The 5-3 game was riddled with Djokovic errors.  Murray had at least four chances to break.  I lost count of the number of deuces and wasted match points before Djokovic was finally able to put the match away.

The result of the final set was at least as much about Murray’s suffering a mental block as it was about Djokovic’s exhibiting superior prowess on the court.  Especially in light of the fact that Madrid’s high-altitude courts are faster than the courts in Paris, Djokovic’s tight three-set win is no guarantor of his eventual victory at the French Open.

Four quick lessons from the 2016 Mutua Madrid Masters:

Watch out for Juan Martin del Potro.

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Juan Martin del Potro, the 6’6″, 27-year-old gentle giant from Tandil, Argentina (affectionately known as the Tower of Tandil), has suffered some of the worst injury luck of any player on the tour.  Only months after overpowering Roger Federer in a five-set slugfest to win the 2009 US Open, del Potro suffered a wrist injury that required surgery and forced him to miss most of the 2010 season.  He returned to the tour in 2011, played well enough to win the Olympic bronze medal in 2012, and finished 2013 in the Top 5.  His hopes for additional Grand Slam titles were dashed in early 2014, when he suffered an injury to his other wrist that also required surgery.  Twice in 2014 and 2015 he rehabbed and resumed training only to discover additional wrist problems.  In all, del Potro’s four wrist surgeries have forced him to miss three years of what might otherwise have been his prime.

The Argentine, who is beloved by many fans for his sweet temper, rejoined his tour colleagues in February and played his first clay match since 2013 in Munich last month.

This week in Madrid, del Potro signaled that he could pose a dangerous threat at the French Open.  In a highly anticipated first-round match against rising star Dominic Thiem, del Potro pounded serves, blasted groundstrokes, wrested control of rallies, and overpowered one of year’s most successful clay courters convincingly.  Afterward, Del Potro shed tears of joy and relief.

The rest of the tour would be wise to take note.

Del Potro is unlikely to win the French Open.  His match fitness is not yet sufficient to carry him through seven rounds of best-of-five-set matches later this month in Paris.  However, he could play the role of spoiler.  Del Potro will not be seeded in Roland Garros, so he will be a “dangerous floater” in the draw.  He could meet anyone in the tournament’s first two rounds, when the top players are most vulnerable.  Based upon del Potro’s performance against Thiem, an early meeting between del Potro and a tournament favorite could alter the event’s course significantly.

 

Andy Murray is in excellent form.

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Britain’s Andy Murray, a two-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic gold medalist, never much enjoyed playing on clay.  Having grown up on indoor hard courts in his native Scotland, and having stepped onto a clay court for the first time at age 15, Murray found movement on clay courts alien and uncomfortable and historically enjoyed his weakest results at clay events.

All this changed in 2015.  Murray won his first clay title at an April 250 event in Munich and followed that win with a victory at the Masters 1000 event in Madrid.

At the 2016 Madrid tournament, Murray again looked sharp.  With a beefed-up first serve and a much-improved second serve (traditionally his great weakness), Murray complemented his devastating defense and return game with impressive management of his own service.  He defeated Rafael Nadal in a cold, damp semifinal through dogged and aggressive play.  Although ultimately unable to overcome Novak Djokovic’s mental edge in the final, Murray played one of his strongest matches against Djokovic in years.

Murray has already reversed one important result in this clay court season by turning a defeat to Nadal in Monte Carlo into a win in Madrid.  His close loss to Djokovic this week could conceivably lead to a win in Paris.

Murray must be considered a contender, even if a long shot, for this year’s French Open, especially if he is able to advance through the draw without ever having to face Djokovic.

 

Novak Djokovic is a favorite, but not necessarily The Favorite, for the French Open.

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Novak Djokovic played much better in Madrid than he had played in Monte Carlo three weeks earlier.  Having had time to acclimate himself to clay and to rest from his grueling and victorious tear through the early-season hard court events, Djokovic demonstrated much-improved movement and ball-striking.

At times, he exhibited his robotically perfect best, returning every ball with power, precision, and devastating accuracy, dragging his opponents around the court, creating impossible angles, and dominating proceedings absolutely.  At other times, he displayed a mental vulnerability that has become increasingly commonplace for him in 2016.  He broke his own serve with a series of errors as he tried to serve out his semifinal match against Kei Nishikori.  He nearly repeated the feat in the final by gift-wrapping several break chances for Murray in the final game.

If Djokovic plays at his best in the crucial moments of his matches at Roland Garros, he will be nearly unbeatable.  However, if he allows his level to drop, as he did against Murray and at moments against Nishikori, he could be vulnerable to an upset.

 

Weather is a crucial factor on clay.

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Clay demands greater adaptability from tennis players than any other surface, because clay is the only surface on which play continues in the rain.  Grass courts are dangerously slippery in the rain.  Hard courts become ponds, and even in a drizzle a hard court’s painted lines become treacherous.  By contrast, clay courts can absorb water, allowing play to continue though a light shower.

When rain begins, though, clay tennis evolves in a matter of minutes into what is effectively a new sport.  Cooler temperatures and falling rain conspire to slow the ball’s transit through the air.  The balls grow heavy as they pick up water and wet clay.  The heavier balls refuse to take spin, reducing the effectiveness of top-spin shots and necessitating changes of strategy.  Players are required to hit harder while simultaneously recalibrating their shots for the new conditions.

In Madrid, the contrast between rainy clay and dry clay conditions was on display during the quarterfinal between Rafael Nadal and Joao Sousa, which was effectively two different matches.

During the first set, the sun shone through cloud cover.  Nadal controlled the rallies with his vicious top-spin, and Sousa generated a series of wild errors as he desperately tried to match his opponent’s power.  In less than 26 minutes, Nadal won the set 6-0.

Rain started during the second set.  The balls became heavy.  Nadal’s top-spin lost much of its bite.  Sousa’s flat bullet shots started landing in rather than out.  After playing to a draw for eight games, Sousa broke Nadal’s serve in the ninth game and took the set 6-4.

By the third set, the stadium’s roof had been closed for three games.  Although the rain no longer fell inside, the air was still cold, and the court and balls were still sodden.  Nadal continued to struggle for advantage until the balls were changed (according to the standard schedule) in the eighth game.  With, at long last, dry felt to deal with, Nadal was able to use his spin and power to advantage and break Sousa’s serve.  Nadal went on to win the set 6-3.

Whether the weather be wet or dry in Roland Garros this year will play a crucial role in determining the French Open champion.

 

This week the tour moves on to a Masters 1000 event in Rome, where the rainy weather is predicted to begin on Wednesday.

 

The French Open begins in two weeks.
Stay tuned.

 

Eleven Reasons to Watch the Men at the 2015 U.S. Open

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Men’s professional tennis is enjoying a Golden Age.  Two of the sport’s stars, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, are vying for the title of “Greatest of All Time.”  Close on their heels is Novak Djokovic, who currently dominates the tour and who will easily finish his career among the sport’s ten best.  Further enhancing the quality of tennis week by week is an unprecedented number of seasoned veterans in the Top 100, players who because of advances in sports medicine and training techniques are able to maintain their fitness well into their 30s and benefit on court from hard-earned emotional maturity.

The year’s fourth and final Grand Slam tournament, the U.S. Open – in which 128 men compete in best-of-five-set matches scheduled over two weeks – will see farewell performances from two of the sport’s sentimental favorites, scrapping efforts from up-and-coming stars, legacy-burnishing performances from all-time greats, and numerous gut-wrenching fights in which both combatants give their all.

Tennis is rarely more fun or more fascinating than during a Grand Slam.  Here are eleven reasons to watch in the days to come:

 

1. The Big Four! (Or are they the Fab Five?)

Four players – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray – have won 31 of the last 35 (and 37 of the last 43) Grand Slam tournaments, of which there are four per year, and 82 of the last 97 next-tier Masters 1000 tournaments, of which there are nine every year.  The quartet’s wholesale dominance of the sport earned them the moniker “The Big Four.”  Even as various members of the group have suffered injuries and illnesses or have otherwise slumped in recent years, a Big Four player (or two) has nearly always reached the finals of the important tournaments.

This summer, tennis writers decided to expand the Big Four into the Fab Five with the addition of 30-year-old Swiss player Stan Wawrinka, who has won as many Grand Slam titles as Andy Murray (two), and who soundly trounced Novak Djokovic in the final of this year’s French Open.

Why watch?

A match involving a Fab Five player promises jaw-dropping virtuosity, heart-stopping fight, and more than a little drama. If you have a chance to see one of these men play, I recommend that you take it.

Roger Federer

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The thirty-four-year-old Swiss Federer is the all-time leader in Grand Slam titles, with 17, and is tied with Djokovic for second place in Masters 1000 titles with 24.  He has earned a Career Grand Slam by winning titles at all four of Grand Slam tournaments (the Australian Open on hard court, the French Open on clay, Wimbledon on grass, and the U.S. Open on hard court).  Federer leads his head-to-head record with Djokovic 23-22, leads Murray 14-11, and leads Wawrinka 16-3.

Although Federer has not won a Grand Slam title since Wimbledon of 2012, he reached the Wimbledon final in both 2014 and 2015.  Best on grass and indoor hard courts, Federer is always dangerous on hard courts, where he can use his inimitable grace and unmatched variety to optimal offensive advantage.

In the lead-up to this year’s U.S. Open, Federer skipped the Masters 1000 tournament in Montreal in the first week of August and then won the Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati in the following week.  His fans, who include several prominent tennis commentators, are picking him to win this year’s U.S. Open title.  This he might be able to do, although his ability to prevail in seven best-of-five-set matches over a two week span has been called into question in recent years, especially in light of the competition offered by his rivals in the final rounds.

Rafael Nadal

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Twenty-nine-year old Spaniard Rafael Nadal is currently tied with Pete Sampras for second place in Grand Slam titles with 14, this in spite of his having missed seven of the 49 Grand Slam tournaments for which he has been eligible during his career.  His 33 percent Slam win rate (14 of 42) is higher than Federer’s (17 of 65) but lower than Bjorn Borg’s (11 of 27).

Nadal owns the most Masters 1000 titles of all time (27).  He is the only male player to have won at least one Grand Slam per year every year for 10 consecutive years.  He completed the Career Grand Slam at the tender age of 24 and owns an Olympic gold medal.  He is also the only male player in tennis history to win titles at Grand Slam tournaments on three different surfaces (hard court, clay, and grass) in the same year (2010).

Nadal has winning head-to-head records against each of the other players in the Fab Five: 23-10 against Federer (including 9-5 on hard courts), 23-21 against Djokovic, 15-6 against Murray, and 12-2 against Wawrinka.

For Nadal, 2015 has been a year in the wilderness.  A mid-2014 wrist injury followed by appendicitis meant that Nadal played only five matches in the second half of 2014, during three of which he was ill with appendicitis.  Although Nadal has made an art of returning from injuries repeatedly throughout his career, his most recent comeback has been rocky.  For the first time, Nadal has suffered failures in one of his greatest strengths: his mental toughness.  He has lacked confidence in his shots and decision-making and has lost several matches that in past years he would have won.

By practicing hard and with a positive attitude, Nadal has gradually reconstructed his game much as one might assemble a jigsaw puzzle: better and fuller over time but always with notable gaps.  At the Cincinnati Masters 1000, he played two excellent matches but managed to lose his second match to an opponent who was playing the best tennis of his life.  In New York this week, Nadal says he feels close to recovering his highest level.

If Nadal were to reach the U.S. Open final, he might in seven matches face five or six players who have defeated him in the last 12 months.  His draw will be a test of his tennis and of his character.

He could vanquish his demons and announce to the rest of the tour that he has recovered his top form.  Or he might fall at the first hurdle and return home to Mallorca and continue rebuilding.  In 2015, Nadal’s path is difficult to predict.

Novak Djokovic

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Twenty-eight-year-old Serb Novak Djokovic has dominated the tour in 2011, 2012, 2014, and 2015.  Whereas Nadal started winning at least one Slam title per year at the age of 19, Djokovic did not win his second Slam title until age 23, at the Australian Open of 2011.  Since that time, though, Djokovic has been on fire, winning eight Slam titles and reaching six additional Slam finals in the last five years.  During that same period, he has won 19 of his 24 Masters 1000 titles.

Djokovic owns winning head-to-head records over Murray (19-9) and Wawrinka (18-4).

Djokovic has an uncanny ability to reach every ball – at times with this body stretched or contorted to the extreme – and hit winning shots from anywhere on the court to anywhere in the court.  Djokovic gets to sharply-angled shots that would beat nearly anyone else on the tour and returns them so aggressively as to make a response from his opponent nearly impossible.  He is one of the most adept at return of serve, sending many players’ hardest serves back to the baseline at a server’s feet.  When Djokovic’s game is accurate and consistent, he is virtually unbeatable.

In 2015, Djokovic’s win-loss record is 56-5.  He has won two Grand Slams and four Masters 1000s, and he has reached the final in every tournament he has played except one.

And yet…

At the two tournaments whose titles he most wanted to win – the French Open and the Cincinnati Open, neither of whose trophies he has yet to hold – Djokovic lost in the final, to Stan Wawrinka and Roger Federer, respectively.

If Djokovic has a weakness, it is that his head can fail him on the largest stages.  He is only 9-8 in Grand Slam finals (compared to 17-9 for Federer and 14-6 for Nadal).  In his head-to-head history with Nadal, although Djokovic leads 17-13 in best-of-three-set matches at smaller tournaments, Nadal leads 9-4 at Grand Slams and 10-4 overall in the best-of-five-set format.

Based upon his 2015 record, Djokovic has to be the favorite to win the U.S. Open title, but based upon his career-long record at the Slams, he is not a sure bet.

Andy Murray

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One week older than Djokovic, Andy Murray owns two Grand Slam titles, the 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon.  The twenty-eight-year-old Scot won the 2012 Olympic gold medal at Wimbledon.  Murray also owns 10 Masters 1000 titles and has a winning record (8-6) against Wawrinka.

Murray is one of the greatest defenders tennis has ever seen.  He gets to nearly every ball and returns almost everything into play.  His befuddles and frustrates his opponents with constant changes of angle and spin.  Very few players have the aggressive power to hit past or through him.

Murray’s strength has also proven to be a weakness; throughout his career, he has tended to rely too heavily on his fitness and defensive genius rather than on playing aggressively when indicated, with the effect of limiting his success against the top players.  To win his Slam titles, Murray played more aggressively than is his natural wont.

Murray arrives at the 2015 U.S. Open in excellent form, having won the warm-up Masters 1000 event in Montreal over Djokovic.  Based on the draw released this week, to win in New York, Murray would probably have to beat Wawrinka, and then Federer, and then either Djokovic or Nadal.  Fit, enjoying his tennis, and fully recovered from late-2013 back surgery, Murray is ready this year for the challenge.

Stan Wawrinka

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Thirty-year-old Swiss Stan Wawrinka is a late bloomer who can be extremely dangerous.  Armed with a powerful forehand and a lethal, blistering one-handed backhand that he can direct either crosscourt or up the line, Wawrinka on a good day can beat anyone.

Wawrinka won his first Grand Slam title (of two) at the 2014 Australian Open, where he beat Nadal in the final.  After Wawrinka had dominated the first set, Nadal suffered a crippling back injury early in the second set.  He could barely move for the remainder of the match.  (Even hampered by his back, Nadal still managed to win the third set, as Wawrinka played terribly because of nerves.)  It’s possible that Wawrinka would have won that match even if Nadal had not been injured, but unfortunately for Wawrinka (and Nadal), we can never know.

Wawrinka’s second Grand Slam title came at the 2015 French Open, as a result of a truly brilliant aggressive performance against the pre-tournament favorite (and near-unanimous commentator pick) Djokovic.  (Two rounds earlier, Wawrinka had similarly dispatched Federer.)

Warinka won his lone Masters 1000 title in April of 2014, after winning his first Grand Slam.

To win in New York, Wawrinka might have to beat Murray, Federer, and then either Djokovic or Nadal.  This is formidable challenge, but Wawrinka’s powerful game and virtuosic backhand make it possible.

2. “Dark Horse” Contenders

A few players find themselves on commentators’ lists of “dark horse” candidates with outside shots at the title whenever a Grand Slam rolls around.  These are players who consistently finish the year near the top of the rankings and who have reached Grand Slam finals before (and, in the case of the three players listed here, have wins over Roger Federer).

Perennial “dark horses” include:

29-year-old Czech Tomas Berdych, a 6’5″ power hitter who reached the Wimbledon final in 2010 and won a Masters 1000 title in 2005.

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30-year-old Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, a big-serving shotmaker who reached the 2008 Australian Open final and owns two Masters 1000 titles.

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Another player likely to be considered a “dark horse” this year is the defending champion, 26-year-old, 6’6″ Croat Marin Cilic.  Cilic played consistent, powerful tennis throughout last year’s tournament, blasting Roger Federer off the court in the semifinal and then showing remarkable poise in winning the final in straight sets over Kei Nishikori.

Cilic’s 2015 has been inconsistent and relatively weak, hampered early in the year by injury.  Although he is unlikely to repeat as champion (he would probably have to beat Djokovic or Nadal, and then Murray or Federer), Cilic himself has shown that at a major tournament anything is possible.

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Why watch?

These three men are excellent, consistent players.  Especially in the early rounds, they can be counted on to entertain.

3. Understudies Waiting in the Wings

Mindful that the 28- to 34-year-old Big Four will retire within the next five to eight years, tennis broadcasters have made a deliberate and carefully engineered effort to cultivate fanbases for players of the next generation.  Three players in the 24- to 25-year-old range have emerged as the strongest threats to the Big Four.

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25-year-old Japanese Kei Nishikori, the 2014 U.S. Open finalist, has two wins over Federer, two wins over Djokovic, one win over Murray, and one win over Nadal.  Playing in a style very similar to that of Djokovic, Nishikori dominates opponents by hitting the ball early on the rise and redirecting it with his very effective backhand.

Nishikori’s weakness is physical fragility.  Several times during his career, he has chalked up big wins over top players only to find himself injured on the following day.  Nishikori sat out the Cincinnati tournament with a leg injury.  Whether that injury will hamper him in New York remains to be seen.

MR

Twenty-four-year-old, 6’5″ Canadian Milos Raonic has three wins over Murray, one win over Federer, and one win over Nadal.  Armed with a huge serve, improving rally skills, and a strong work ethic, Raonic plays as though he is determined to rise to the top (by any means necessary).

Raonic has not yet recovered fully from foot surgery that kept him out of this year’s French Open.  With his nearly unbreakable serve, he can be dangerous, but he might not be in good enough form to win this year in New York.

GD

Twenty-four-year-old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov has one win over Djokovic and two over Murray.  Blessed with grace and great talent, Dimitrov can hit such a variety of shots that he has drawn comparisons to Federer.

Dimitrov finished 2014 ranked 11 but has fallen to 17 in a 2015 campaign that has included some catastrophic losses.  Dimitrov has the talent and physical fitness necessary to win the U.S. Open.  Based upon his recent performance, though, he might not yet be mentally ready for the challenge.

Why watch?

Each of these three players is likely a future Slam winner.  Nishikori in full flight displays breathtaking dominance.  Raonic has one of the best serves on the tour.  Dimitrov regularly provides some of the most sublime gee-whiz moments of a tournament.

4. Favorites Taking a Final Bow

This year, two accomplished tour veterans will play the U.S. Open for the last time.

LH

Thirty-four-year-old Australian Lleyton Hewitt, winner of the 2001 U.S. Open and 2002 Wimbledon, will retire in January, after the 2016 Australian Open.  Known throughout his career as a scrappy fighter, Hewitt can be counted on to give an opponent everything he can handle and more.

MF

Thirty-three-year-old American Mardy Fish will retire at this U.S. Open.  Always a tough fighter with a strong backhand, Fish raised his game to a new level in 2010 and 2011 by taking off extra weight.  In early 2012, six months after reaching his career-high ranking of 7, Fish began to experience cardiac symptoms that required an ablation procedure and that led to crippling bouts of anxiety, effectively ending his career.

This summer – recovered, confident, and accompanied by his wife and infant son – Fish has played a farewell tour on the U.S. hard courts.  Speaking openly about his ordeal in an effort to help others who suffer with anxiety, Fish is enjoying his final professional matches as he prepares to retire on his own terms.

Why watch?

Hewitt’s and Fish’s final matches will surely be hard-fought.  Their curtain calls will be followed by moving tributes to well-loved and widely-respected veterans.

5. Young Guns: The Ten Teens

The U.S. Open men’s draw will feature 10 teenagers.  The last time there were as many teens – 1990 – none of these young men had been born.

Why watch?

These are possible stars of the future, some of whom might fill face each other in Grand Slam finals five to ten years from now.  Remember their names:

Hyeon Chung, 19, South Korea

Borna Coric, 18, Croatia

Jared Donaldson, 18, United States

Thanasi Kokkinakis, 19, Australia

Yoshihito Nishioka, 19, Japan

Tommy Paul, 18, United States

Andrey Rublev, 17, Russia

Frances Tiafoe, 17, United States

Elias Ymer, 19, Sweden

Alexander Zverev, 18, Germany

 

6. Veterans Still at their Best

In recent years, tennis has seen a growing number of players over 30 in the top 100 and in the top 50, including several players who are playing their best tennis now at ages that only a decade ago would have seemed impossible.

IK

Thirty-six-year old Croat Ivo Karlovic, or “Dr. Ivo,” as he is know affectionately on the tour, uses his 6’11” frame to generate unreachable serves that seem to come out of a tree.  Playing some of the best tennis of his career, Karlovic recently hit his 10,000th ace.

FL_0818_Ready

Carrying himself with confidence and calm consequent to his relatively advance years, thirty-three-year-old Spanish lefty Feliciano Lopez has reached his career-high ranking of 12 in 2015.  Now ranked 18th, Lopez arrives in New York in strong form.

GM

Thirty-two-year-old Luxembourger Gilles Muller is another relatively tall (6’4″) player, and another lefty, to play his best tennis well after the age of 30.  He reached his career-high ranking of 34 this past spring.

Why watch?

All three of these players excel at the highly entertaining and increasingly rare serve-and-volley style.  Their matches can be a treat to watch, and, since they usually involve few rallies, they can be relatively short.

7. Advantage: Height

Height presents a trade-off in tennis.  On the plus side, height gives a player a bigger serve, a wider reach at the net, and more powerful groundstrokes.  On the down side, tall players find it more difficult to move around the court.

Players at the top of the rankings, with a few exceptions, are typically at useful intermediate heights of  6’1″ and 6’4″.  However, in recent years, advances in equipment and training have enabled a growing number of very tall players to succeed on the tour.

Among the giants are the aforementioned Milos Raonic, Ivo Karlovic, Marin Cilic, and Tomas Berdych.  Others include South African Kevin Anderson (6’8″), Americans Sam Querrey (6’6″) and John Isner (6’10”), and Czechs Jiri Vesely (6’6″) and Lukas Rosol (6’5″).

Why watch?

Whether the growing ranks of the tall is good or bad for tennis is debatable, since taller players tend to play a relatively boring style of tennis derisively termed “servebot.”

That said, the athleticism and power of the taller players can be breathtaking.

8. The Beauty of the One-hander

Once upon a time, a typical tennis player used one hand to hit his backhand.  More recently, players have found that they need two hands on the backhand in order to cope with their opponents’ power and spin.  Thus, one-handers are becoming an endangered species.

Why watch?

One-handed backhands can be sublimely beautiful and shockingly effective.

If you have a chance to see one of these practitioners of the beautiful one-hander, grab it.

  • Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria)

 

  • Richard Gasquet (France)

 

  • Mikhail Youzhny (Russia)
  • Philipp Kohlschreiber (Germany)
  • Tommy Robredo (Spain)
  • Roger Federer (Switzerland)
  • Stan Wawrinka (Switzerland)

9. Never say die: Fighters to the End

The best-of-five-set format of the Grand Slams brings out the ultimate in an admirable breed of players who prevail over their opponents by outlasting them — by sustaining high-level tennis over many hours, fighting until the last point, and never giving up.  One exemplar of this fighting style is Nadal, who is said to play every point in a match as though it were his last.

Others include:

TR

33-year-old Spaniard Tommy Robredo, who holds the distinction of having come back from two-sets-to-none deficits to win in five sets at all four of the Grand Slam tournaments, and who very dramatically clawed his way back from two-sets-to-none deficits to win three consecutive matches at the 2013 French Open.

GS

30-year-old Frenchman Gilles Simon, who makes up for his relative lack of power with great defensive skills, determination, and guile.

DF_Joy

33-year-old Spaniard David Ferrer – probably the greatest maximizer of his talent on the tour.  Standing only 5’9″ on his very tallest days, Ferrer has made up for his lack of altitude and wingspan by working hard to cultivate consistency and great foot speed and by making the most of his strengths and minimizing the impact of his weaknesses.  Ferrer has a wickedly accurate forehand and a reliable backhand.  One of his greatest strengths is a talent for reading an opponent’s serve, throwing himself at the ball, and returning nearly any serve into play.

Ferrer has won one Masters 1000 title and reached a Grand Slam final at the French Open in 2013. With 24 career titles, Ferrer is only two titles shy of being the most accomplished male tennis player never to have won a Slam.

Why watch?

Commentators, and especially those who are not former players, sometimes dismiss the fighting style because it might lack flash or pizzazz.

In my opinion, the fighters’ matches can be the most riveting.  Every such contest is a great display of heart.

10. Broken to Love: Tantrums and other Misbehavior

EG_Smash

Like all sports, tennis has its bad boys.  I won’t give them much ink here, but it is not difficult to find tantrums, racquet smashes, verbal attacks on referees, line judges, and ballkids, and other appalling behavior via searches on Novak Djokovic, Jerzy Janowicz, Ernests Gulbis, Fabio Fognini, Ryan Harrison, or Nick Kyrgios.

Why watch?

Gulbis and Fognini can be perversely entertaining (especially Gulbis, shown above, who tends to be good-natured in his racquet smashes).  A Janowicz or Harrison tantrum can be a spectacle.  Kyrgios, who faces Murray in the first round in New York, may not last long in the tournament, which might be just as well.

11. The Home Team

Good_Smyczek_Moment_0901

There are sixteen American men in the draw.  Most are young.  It might be difficult for any to reach the fourth round of seven, but the home crowds – especially the home crowd behind the last U.S. man standing – can create magical moments.

Whom to watch?

Steve Johnson, Sam Querrey, Denis Kudla, Tim Symczek, Donald Young, Jared Donaldson, Frances Tiafoe, Ryan Harrison, John Isner, Tommy Paul, Mardy Fish, Ryan Shane, Jack Sock, Rajeev Ram, Austin Krajicek, and Bjorn Fratangelo.

Predictions

Preceding every Grand Slam is a suffocating flurry of predictions.  It seems that every tennis journalist in the world goes on record with guesses as to who will win, who will lose early, and who will surprise the field.  These predictions are then reported in the tennis media with a breathlessness more appropriate to actual results, as though those slated to win ought to be anointed champion on the spot.

I don’t understand the impulse to make predictions and pronouncements, and I don’t like the effect such predictions have on tennis commentary.  Play-by-play announcers, either consciously or not, inevitably shade their commentary to support their own biases, since nobody wants to be wrong.

Thus, my five predictions relate not to winners and losers but rather to other aspects of the game.

  • Tomas Berdych’s on-court attire will be loud and garish, but he will still make it look good.

TB_Kit_1  TB_Kit_2  TB_Kit_3  TB_Kit_4

  • Roger Federer will have the crowd solidly behind him at every match, even if he plays an American, unless both he and Nadal somehow manage to both reach the final, in which case the crowd support will be closer to 50-50.
  • Novak Djokovic will not get as much crowd support at any of his matches as he wants or as his fans believe he deserves.
  • John Isner and Ivo Karlovic, with their powerful serves and relatively weak return games, will average more tiebreaks in their matches than Djokovic, Federer, Murray, Wawrinka, and Nadal combined.
  • During the first week of New York heat, players will fight tooth-and-nail for five sweltering sets, as a matter of honor, merely for the right to play in the second or third round.

That is why the Grand Slams are so much fun to watch!