US Open Tennis 2013: Winners and Losers of the First Week at Flushing Meadows

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2013

US Open Tennis 2013: Winners and Losers of the First Week at Flushing Meadows

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    Week 1 of the 2013 U.S. Open has dusted off more portraits of past champions who should be stepping aside for the Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray rivalry. Instead the reinvigorated legends Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are roaring forward.

    There is even a timeless reminder echoing back a decade ago to when a scrappy Australian champion went chest to chest against the entire ATP in his reign before the coming of Federer. So much for the next generation of tennis hopefuls.

    As always, we will sound off on this week's "Winners and Losers," where we examine the unusual, disappointing and triumphant happenings in professional tennis.

Loser: Agnieszka Radwanska

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    The U.S. Open has never been Agnieszka's favorite tournament, but this fourth-round exit is going to sting awhile longer.

    It's a particularly rueful loss after Radwanska bolted out to a 4-0 lead. Then came the collapse, losing all six remaining games in the first set and 12 of 16 games overall to close out the loss to No. 24 seed Ekaterina Makarova.

    As she bids to climb to the top of the WTA, Radwanska's beautiful shot-making and finesse defense have made it difficult for her to break through in the second week. She has made a single Grand Slam final appearance at Wimbledon 2012 and four quarterfinals appearances at Australia. She also made it to the French Open quarterfinals.

    At age 24, Radwanska has plenty of time and prime to get those elusive titles, but she will need more power and aggressive offense. Otherwise she may start to hear the kinds of whispers that ATP pro Andy Murray had to endure until 2012.

    Nobody wants to be labeled "best player not to win a major."

Winner: Rafael Nadal

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    It seems like every recent Winners and Losers column ends with a final slide of Nadal lifting a trophy or extending some kind of new winning streak.

    This time we will lead off with the Spaniard, who is setting the bar for all of tennis.

    Right now, the question isn't whether Nadal is playing well as a favorite to win the U.S. Open, but rather if anyone is even going to break his serve. He has held serve all 37 times in his first three matches.

    When you now watch the King of Clay feature an upgraded hard-court form and defend his serve like Pistol Pete Sampras, it's like giving 2006 Roger Federer a Novak Djokovic backhand. Add to that Nadal's peerless concentration and iron will, and it's going to take a mighty effort for someone to topple him.

    The second week will be tougher for Nadal, and the highly anticipated quarterfinals match with Federer is looming closer. If Nadal steamrolls that match, he might very well take the Swiss Maestro's rights from the "Express" moniker.

Loser: Young ATP Stars

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    Young, hopeful ATP stars continue to fizzle in Grand Slam play. Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic and Jerzy Janowicz were quickly discarded like yesterday's newspaper.

    Dimitrov and Tomic both lost five-set matches and will face long winters to mull over their inconsistent results. For all of their luster, they are light years from Grand Slam substance.

    At least we can put an asterisk next to Jerzy Janowicz. The young Polish phenom who was a Wimbledon semifinalist was clearly hampered by a back injury he suffered days before the U.S. Open. He lost in straight sets to world No. 247 Maximo Gonzalez.

    Janowicz was unable to serve well and missed his opportunity to get to the semifinals in the David Ferrer quarter. "I was in really good shape. That’s why I’m frickin’ disappointed," he said, via

    As veteran stars continue to dominate the ATP, the message is clear: Young players will need more experience, fitness and consistency. Nobody is certain who the next great players will be after the Fab Four ages into decline.

    This week, we will let the threesome munch on the burnt bagel award as they watch the rest of the U.S. Open.

Winner: Simona Halep

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    While the young ATP players continue to flounder, the WTA is finding new top talents like Simona Halep. Right now her tennis is sizzling hot after a third round serving of a breadstick and bagel (6-1, 6-0) to world No. 14 Maria Kirilenko.

    Halep has shown a growing appetite for winning titles (four in 2013) with improved efficiency. She has always had the capacity to hit with flat, baseline power, but now she is returning well and capitalizing on break points. In winning New Haven last week, she was nearly flawless with only four unforced errors and a 74 percent rate on first serves.

    That's an unbeatable combination.

    The road doesn't get any easier as she looks for the quarterfinals. She'll possibly have to go through Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams. Right now, it all seems very possible as she gains more experience and confidence. Watch out.

Loser: Sara Errani

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    It wasn't too much of a surprise that No. 4 seed Sara Errani was bounced out in the second round of the U.S. Open. She was not considered one of the favorites who could use power or an all-court game on concrete. She would rather be kicking up red brick dust and grinding away with loopy topspin.

    What was surprising was Errani's honesty in admitting that the pressure of being a favorite overwhelmed her, according to ESPNW:

    I think [it's] the pressure, everything is very difficult for me....[My strength] is to go there and fight. If I feel that I'm not fighting good for too much pressure, for not feeling good with myself doing that thing. Because I don't want to go on the court. I don't want to go to play. I don't want to play. I don't want to stay there on the court. I feel very bad. So that is the problem for me.

    It's tough to watch any competitor struggle with the pressures of their profession, particularly when it extracts the joy of playing the sport. It's a reminder of the internal battles every player must deal with at one time or another.

    For Errani, some time off, Italian food and European spring tournaments will go a long ways towards restoring her energy and talent.

Winners: Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray

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    A month ago, most of the smart money was heavily invested in Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray battling for the U.S. Open title. After all, they have met in three of the past four Grand Slam finals, and both are considered strongest on hard courts.

    Yet their two giant rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have overshadowed them again.

    But for all of the hot air in the bottom of the draw, Djokovic and Murray keep winning. They are expected to win, so there is no story. They are not coming back from injuries or layoffs or trying to add to more fabled legacies.

    For now, they might not mind performing behind the scenes. The week ahead is the ultimate proving grounds, and they are right on target to win the U.S. Open title, even if meeting in the final is not a possibility this time around. A semifinal clash will likely give one of them another crack at a second title.

    Just don't forget that they are still alive and well in the ATP.

Loser: Juan Martin Del Potro

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    Juan Martin del Potro expressed his admiration for Australian Open veteran Lleyton Hewitt and then went out and lost a five-setter to the feisty former No. 1 player.

    While Del Potro continued to struggle with his recurring left wrist injury and fatigue from his previous long match, it pales in comparison to the years of injuries and surgeries Hewitt has had to endure.

    Translation: There is no excuse for Del Potro to lose this match.

    Every player deals with injuries, and champions like Federer and Nadal have continued to battle around the times their bodies have betrayed them.

    Del Potro obviously does not have the skills to win 17 or 12 Grand Slam titles, but he doesn't possess the heart of Hewitt either. Until he learns to play with more of Hewitt's edge and desire, he will continue to fade from the peak of his 2009 U.S. Open title.

Winner: Lleyton Hewitt

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    Lleyton Hewitt deserves his own slide.

    For those new to tennis, Hewitt once ruled tennis over a decade ago with a slight frame of 5'11" and about 160 pounds. He played with feisty grit and vocal fire, pumped his fist and turned his cap backwards as if to press his face into any challenge.

    By age 24, Hewitt had won the 2001 U.S. Open and 2002 Wimbledon. He'd competed in finals with other Grand Slam appearances. He held the No. 1 ranking for 80 weeks during the interlude between the Pete Sampras and Roger Federer years.

    But he also paid the price with his body, suffering through injuries and surgeries that would have retired almost any other player.

    Hewitt plays on with a 32-year-old body that has felt the torments of old age and limitations of his counterpunching style. He has had to accept the life of a journeyman and swallow his pride.

    His victory over Juan Martin del Potro is his biggest win in years and a reminder of how much he just wants to play and win. The time is quickly coming when he will no longer be able to swing a racket as a professional, but his spirit will live on, always looking to scrap for one more big match win.

    For his career efforts and never-say-die attitude, Hewitt deserves the Golden Breadstick award. Perhaps he could impart some of this to fellow Aussie Bernard Tomic when the younger player shows he is willing to listen and internalize what greatness can be.

Loser: Martina Hingis

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    Tennis fans who expect Martina Hingis to weave some of her old championship magic will have to be patient. Times have changed, and Hingis, who had recently spent the last six years in a second retirement, has announced that she will play doubles.

    But her double duty with playing women's doubles and mixed doubles resulted in two quick losses.

    At least she demonstrated some of her old feistiness as she argued with the umpire, bounced her racket and clenched her fists, according to Will Swanton of Reuters (via Yahoo!). She added other laments: "My calf was killing me," she said. "I couldn't get up on my serve any more. And definitely the nerves. Not playing at a grand slam for six years doesn't help, either."

    It's not realistic to expect Hingis to resume a career as a top-notch player in singles. Too many years and long removed from her teenage reign atop tennis, it remains to be seen if she can enjoy playing and succeed enough with doubles.

Winner: WTA Favorites

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    There are always some surprises near the top of the WTA, where there is little separation of consistency and talent from most of the seeded players. But the top three players continue to win and prepare to play deep into the second week.

    Victoria Azarenka was tested in a three-set comeback against Alize Cornet, but looks ahead as a strong favorite against Ana Ivanovic. She might also battle Simona Halep en route to her destiny with a final clash versus Serena Williams.

    Meanwhile, Williams remains on track for a semifinal appearance. But she could still have to fight through No. 5 seed Li Na, who is playing excellent tennis.

    Williams was especially tough in dismissing Sloane Stephens. She rose to the challenge of playing another talented player, and it was her experience and intensity which seemed to lead the way. Her serve was dominating. She seemed to relish teeing off from the center of the baseline to win this war. Her ratio of winners to unforced errors (22-13) showed the difference between her and Stephens (15-29).

Loser: John Isner

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    For all of his extra efforts and success on hard courts this summer, it was not supposed to end this way for No. 13 seed John Isner.

    The American had been nearly flawless in holding his monstrous serve at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati two weeks ago. He had defeated Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, and he did not lose his serve to Rafael Nadal in his championship defeat.

    There was even tennis talk that Isner could ride his big serve and the American crowd as a potential dark-horse title contender.

    His opponent, Philipp Kohlschreiber, was more well-rounded from the baseline and at net. In retrospect, the German, a borderline top-20 player, only pulled off a minor upset, but it was another blow for Isner trying to peak for one or two career-defining Grand Slam runs.

    There may not be much time left for the big American to make a memorable moment that will outshine his 2010 Wimbledon marathon victory over Nicolas Mahut.

Winner: Roger Federer

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    Roger Federer is into the second week and gathering momentum. His three straight sets victories have been each more dominant than the previous; he has piled up a 54-21 games record.

    Best of all, his form is peaking just as a fourth round and probably quarterfinals appearance with Rafael Nadal appear on the horizon. He has conserved his energy, played aggressive tennis and is healthy.

    In a poll published on Thursday, Bleacher Report tennis fans gave Federer "a good or excellent chance" of defeating Nadal. Nearly 59 percent of responders opined that the match would be at least even or tight. Less than 14 percent of fans gave Federer no chance at defeating Nadal.

    Either Federer has quickly turned from his injured form into a big U.S. Open contender, or the belief and optimism for Federer are riding too high with his recent success against subpar competition.

    We will find out soon which one it is soon.

Loser: Fickle American Fans

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    There's nothing wrong with Americans rooting for an exciting tennis player like Frenchman Gael Monfils. He has style and flair, in large contrast to America's hard-serving John Isner.

    And so when Isner went up two sets on Monfils in their second-round match, the New York crowd began to cheer and chant for Monfils. Monfils expressed in how this energy helped him push the match to a fourth set:

    I always love playing in New York and I always had a good crowd here and many fans. Today they were behind me and they were very helpful for me to hang around and grab that third set. It was an amazing atmosphere out there and I am very thankful for them today.

    But Isner was disappointed that he could not garner more patriotic support, telling, "I was a little bit disappointed in that, actually. Not going to sugar-coat it. It was certainly, if I was playing him in France, it certainly wouldn’t be like that."

    The problem is not that Americans root for foreign players against their homegrown representatives. But for those who moan that American tennis needs to be better, or wish for one of their own to be a Grand Slam champion, they can't have it both ways.

    Maybe it doesn't matter at all if American players are not contenders for Grand Slam titles. However, anyone who complains about it and then cheers for their opponents needs to look in the mirror to examine a second face.