Power Ranking the Top 20 Men's Players Heading into 2014 US Open Tennis

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistAugust 20, 2014

Power Ranking the Top 20 Men's Players Heading into 2014 US Open Tennis

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Tennis' U.S. Open Series has given an alternative exam to the ATP Rankings. Following Masters 1000 tournaments at Canada and Cincinnati, some players have faded, while others have shown they will be relevant.

    The following article ranks the top 20 contenders specific to the U.S. Open. Recent hard-court performances and potential are important factors in our consideration. We will briefly mention where players No. 20-11 (descending order) stand as dark-horse players, and then provide more depth and analyses for the top 10.

    Which of these contenders stands the best chance to compete for the title?

20-16. Gasquet, Isner, Dolgopolov, Kohlschreiber, Monfils

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    Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    Also Considered: Mikhail Youzhny, Roberto Bautista Agut, Feliciano Lopez, Leonardo Mayer, Julien Benneteau

    20. Richard GasquetHe was a semifinalist a year ago at the U.S. Open but don't expect anything beyond the round of 16. Gasquet has been solid against weak competition, but he has faltered against more talented players.

    19. John Isner: He will need to do more than dominate with his huge serve, but Isner usually plays better on American soil, even if he pines for more crowd support.

    18. Alexandr Dolgopolov: His fine play on American hard courts in the spring proves that he can be a dangerous player. And if he serves like he did at Wimbledon, the fast courts should help give more power to his total game.

    17. Philipp Kohlschreiber: The only player besides Novak Djokovic to take a set off of Rafael Nadal at the 2013 U.S. Open, Kohlschreiber is unafraid to use his attacking variety against top players. He could advance four or five matches depending on the draw and his form.

    16. Gael Monfils: He's not consistent enough to make it to the second weekend, but he's very capable of beating anyone on a given day. He has played several drama-filled matches in recent months.

15-11. Anderson, Robredo, Gulbis, Cilic, Nishikori

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    15. Kevin Anderson: He has been quietly posting a career year with added consistency and toughness with his groundstrokes. Of course he will only go so far as his big serve will allow him, but he has already created headaches for top players.

    14. Tommy Robredo: He conquered Novak Djokovic at Cincinnati last week and Roger Federer at the U.S. Open last year. Robredo will play well from the baseline and try to outlast any opponent who is not willing to put in the extra legwork and energy. (Djokovic is nodding.)

    13. Ernests Gulbis: The French Open semifinalist carries a dangerous reputation, but we are more likely to see him get upset than to do the upsetting. Gulbis has a puncher's chance at overcoming the top players, but we never know when it will happen.

    12. Marin CilicHas he already maximized his talent, or is he poised for a breakthrough? The U.S. Open is a wide-open affair that could see someone like Cilic claim a semifinal berth.

    11. Kei Nishikori: Following his clay-court peaks at Barcelona and Madrid, Nishikori has battled ailments and the loss of his top form. Can he get back his springtime groove that saw him hit sharp-angled groundstrokes with improved power? He needs to be 100 percent healthy to make a deep bid.

10. David Ferrer

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    David Kohl/Associated Press

    ATP Ranking: 5

    David Ferrer's warranty has long since expired, but even with occasional engine trouble, the gritty Spaniard still has some mileage in his body. Credit him first and foremost for grinding to the final of the Western & Southern Open where he pushed Roger Federer to a final set.

    There are few players who can be considered a lock for the second week at the U.S. Open, but Ferrer has been remarkably consistent. He almost always beats the players he is favored to defeat, but injuries and fatigue have assaulted him at times in 2014.

    The trouble is that Ferrer does not strike fear in any of the top contenders. He wears down opponents and forces them to play with greater resolve, but he does not have the weapons to truly control big matches.

    Maybe it's possible he does win the U.S. Open, something like five percent odds, but it will be difficult for him to match last year's quarterfinals appearance.

9. Tomas Berdych

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    ATP Ranking: 7

    Like Ferrer, Tomas Berdych is usually reliable in getting to the second week, but in big matches he will often collapse like a cheap lawn chair.

    Berdych's best showing at the U.S. Open occurred in 2012. He defeated Roger Federer on his way to the semifinals, but he ultimately fell apart in heavy winds against eventual champion Andy Murray. Although he's a clean ball-striker, wind can bother his high-serving tosses, and he loses his baseline rhythm when scrambling for more misdirected balls.

    But the 2014 ATP field could be ripe for a talented veteran to put on a career run. The top players are hardly invincible lately, so could Berdych capture his first major title? If so, he might keep wearing those odd-floral shirt designs out of superstitious necessity. Let's hope not.

8. Milos Raonic

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    Jonathan Moore/Getty Images

    ATP Ranking: 6

    Canadian Milos Raonic has put in a lot of work to help his ground game, but as always his aerial attack must overwhelm and break the spirits of his opponents. He has moved up the rankings while going deeper into bigger tournaments.

    Now if he could only beat Roger Federer. The Swiss champion has hammered and exposed him in five sets from Wimbledon to Cincinnati.

    Raonic's success has not put much of a dent in the very best champions. Until he wins weekend matches, he will be typecast as a serving machine who defeats weaker competition but is otherwise limited. In today's tennis, a championship is almost always determined by groundstrokes.

7. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    ATP Ranking: 10

    A few weeks ago, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was hanging on to the top 20, and it looked as if his career was in decline.

    In just a few days, and with the strength of four impressive wins at the Canada Open, Tsonga unleashed an impressive combination of serving and powerful forehands. He dominated Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov and Roger Federer.

    This is enough to gain the tennis world's attention, and it warrants attention for his candidacy to win the U.S. Open. And as the theme of 2014 goes, "If Stanislas Wawrinka can win a major, why not other second-tier contenders."

    After a quick exit at Cincinnati, Tsonga should have enough rest and confidence to challenge for the final weekend at the U.S. Open. His mental resolve in big matches has usually been questioned, but perhaps his latest coaching team with Nicolas Escude and Thierry Ascione is already helping him to cross this barrier.

6. Stanislas Wawrinka

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    ATP Ranking: 4

    It's already been a great year for Stanislas Wawrinka after bagging the Australian Open and the Monte Carlo Masters. But along with the achievements come expectations and the following reality: Wawrinka is not a reliable champion but rather a streaky hitter with wonderful aggression who is unafraid to stare down the best in the world. He will die by his big groundstrokes just as he can win at the highest level.

    Wawrinka's game is best suited for hard courts. Besides the Australian crown, he was a semifinalist last year at the U.S. Open, forcing Djokovic to go five sets. If he gets out of the early rounds, he is experienced enough to finish off a title if he is clicking on all cylinders.

    But he must avoid streaks of unforced errors if he hopes to get one more major.

5. Andy Murray

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    ATP Ranking: 9

    Murray is rated higher than his ranking because he won the 2012 U.S. Open, and he has been the fourth-best player of the past 10 years. Despite his struggles in 2014, including a comeback from back surgery and a coaching change, Murray has flashed enough of his good tennis to be a top contender.

    But there are still more questions than answers, most notably his instinctual tendencies to play defensive tennis first and not capitalize on more offensive shots.

    His lack of initiative has cost him in big matches this year, including a resounding defeat to Dimitrov at Wimbledon. Federer has also had his number by being more of an aggressor. Murray will need to change his mentality if he plays them again.

    It should be noted that Murray was the only player to take a set from scorching Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at Canada, and he fell to Federer at Cincinnati. So he may not be far off, but he will need to close big matches if he is to lift his third major trophy.

4. Grigor Dimitrov

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    ATP Ranking: 8

    Wimbledon semifinalist Grigor Dimitrov has shown very good progress in 2014, especially with his strength, fitness and improved belief in big matches. In less than a year, he has won titles on all surfaces. But what he needs is a major title.

    His talent is scary-good, and it's just a matter of time before he does nab one of these titles. The odds are against it at the U.S. Open, but if he puts it all together he is on the short list that now excludes absentee Rafael Nadal.

    Dimitrov's serve and forehand are championship-caliber, but his backhand might be the key. Lately, he has reverted to more slice (underspin) shots, which takes away from his aggressive mentality. On fast hard courts, he will need to hit deeper, harder topspin shots that can at least set up his forehand or force his opponents to make errors.

3. Rafael Nadal

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    ATP Ranking: 2

    The picture of Rafael Nadal (above) has been used over and over in recent weeks. It's the last series of photos with Nadal after a tennis match, and we are likely to see this photo many more times in the weeks and months ahead. Nadal will not defend his 2013 U.S. title because of his right-wrist injury.

    A few weeks ago, I offered the opinion that Nadal and his team would and should try to prioritize his schedule to accomodate his injuries and help him peak for the venues he can best win. It's not surprising at all that his absence during Canada and Cincinnati has led to his decision to miss the U.S. Open.

    Likewise, it would not be surprising at all to see him forego the fall season, to instead focus on the 2015 Australian Open. Then he could save his legs for another run on clay. Whether or not tennis fans agree that he should do this, there is a good chance that something along these lines will occur.

    As far as Nadal's ATP No. 2 ranking, he deserves to be listed near the top, even though he is not playing the U.S. Open. However, if Federer wins it, he will displace Nadal for No. 2. At any rate, there's a great chance Nadal will fall behind Federer at some point in the upcoming weeks.

2. Roger Federer

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    ATP Ranking: 3

    The No. 2 ranking might not be a big deal to Roger Federer, but it would be his if he wins his 18th major at the 2014 U.S. Open.

    The past two weeks have shown him to be the most consistent and tireless player. After a disappointing final match for the Rogers Cup, Federer summoned up even greater energy to outlast a tougher draw and win the Cincinnati Masters. Perhaps bigger than the title, Federer was able to win a Masters final and feel that he is ready to win another major.

    Things will have to go his way, however. The draw has an eerie way of throwing certain matchup difficulties at top stars. Federer would rather not play some of the heavy hitters such as Gulbis or Tsonga. They could prove problematic before a potential semifinal match.

    And there is always Djokovic at the end, even if he and Federer have only squared off twice in the final of a major. They have still waged classic matches, and each presents problems for the other. They are your odds-on finalists, but nobody would be overly shocked to see either of them defeated earlier. The days of the super-dominant champion may be over for a time.

1. Novak Djokovic

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    ATP Ranking: 1

    Is it really just Novak Djokovic's tournament to win or lose? The world No. 1 is usually the favorite wherever he goes, but his early exits at Canada and Cincinnati bring a few concerns.

    Most of all, he did not play with energy or aggression, and he might need to reinvigorate his intensity by pretending that each match he must get up for rival Rafael Nadal.

    So, let's look at what Djokovic does have going for him to win the U.S. Open:

    1. Plenty of rest means his energy should be as good as ever. He did not overexert himself at Canada and Cincinnati.
    2. Health appears good.
    3. Rival Nadal will not be a possible final's opponent.
    4. He favors hard courts and has been a five-time U.S. Open finalist.
    5. Although Federer, Murray and Wawrinka have given him trouble in the past, none of them are a lock to go deep into the second week either. Some of the other strong contenders could clear the path of his No. 1 seed.
    6. Last year presented a strong finish to the tennis season, and he knows he can keep a firm grasp on No. 1 by playing well. But the U.S. Open will be his first priority.

    Everyone else has more questions than Djokovic, but the Serbian only needs to take care of his own training and match play. If so, he is the odds-on favorite to hold up his second U.S. Open trophy and eighth major.