10 Under-the-Radar Players to Watch at US Open 2014

Jeremy EcksteinFeatured ColumnistAugust 27, 2014

10 Under-the-Radar Players to Watch at US Open 2014

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    With the 2014 U.S. Open now thinning out half of the draw, there will be time enough to focus on the superstars like Serena Williams and Roger Federer. There are many other talented and dangerous players who are not Top 10 talents but still world-class players who could prove to beat anyone on their best day.

    We examine 10 players who figure to win at least two or three matches and could perhaps go further if they catch fire. These are the players who the favorites do not want to see. They are not household names to the average sports fan, but they are nevertheless recognized by tennis fans.

    These players have been selected from both the ATP and WTA. They are not listed in a particular order or priority for this column, but as equally noteworthy for their potential to go far in the next week or two.

Philipp Kohlschreiber

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    Don't sleep on veteran and No. 22 seed Philipp Kohlschreiber. At the very least you will get an honest effort and a semi-retro glance at traditional attacking tennis.

    The German is no stranger to battling the top stars in the ATP, and he has the nerves and composure to trouble players who are off their game.

    At the 2013 U.S. Open, Kohlschreiber got to the fourth round after outlasting America's best hope, John Isner, in four sets. He took the opening set from eventual champion Rafael Nadal, raising the Spaniard's boiling point and forcing him to play his A-game.

    On Monday, Kohlschreiber cruised through the first round against Argentine Facundo Bagnis, 62 76(3) 63. He will be heavily favored to defeat compatriot and fellow attacker Michael Llodra in what should be an exciting match for the fans. Then perhaps Isner again in the third round before a crack at No. 1-seed Novak Djokovic.

    If all goes well for Kohlschreiber, he could be the story of the first weekend.

Flavia Pennetta

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    It would be shocking if Flavia Pennetta could repeat her 2013 berth in the U.S. Open semifinals, but the 32-year-old has played her best tennis in the past year. Good backhand, solid strokes and understanding of where she wants to hit, if not a lot of power.

    She took out Julia Goerges in the first round, dominating the third set with the 6-3, 4-6, 6-1 victory. She will be favored to win two more times before possible meetings with streaking Ana Ivanovic and Serena Williams.

    Yikes.

    She is one to watch, but if she gets through this quarter of the bracket, the sky's the limit.

Benoit Paire

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    It's inexcusable that Benoit Paire has dropped to be the No. 98-ranked player in the world. The computers do not lie, so the blame must fall on the fiery Paire.

    Paire has excellent tools, including a brilliant backhand and strong reflexes. He is 25 years old and should be entering his prime to contend for the Top 10. Instead, he entered the U.S. Open with a 9-18 record, and his infamous Wimbledon comments in The Telegraph, saying that he does not like the atmosphere or the surface.

    Paire did not fare too well at Canada or Cincinnati, but he did outlast Cincinnati semifinalist Julien Benneteau in five sets in the U.S. Open first round on Monday.

    He should defeat Pablo Carreno Busta in the second round before getting a crack at Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Despite his struggles, Paire always has his next match to redeem the past, but his talent is always simmering somewhere along the fringes of underachievers.

Madison Keys

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    Remember, Madison Keys is only 19 years old, but she has already worked her way into the top 30 of the WTA rankings. It would be premature to label her a star, but she is an interesting prospect with a powerful game, and she has a grass-court title over Angelique Kerber.

    Her serve can top triple digits, and she seems unafraid to hit hard and work through her mistakes. If she can continue to improve her defense and footwork, she could be as dangerous as any player on tour.

    She just stomped first-round opponent Jarmila Gajdosova 6-0. 6-3. Aleksandra Krunic should be easy enough in the second round.

    Then reality and a great power match against Petra Kvitova.

    Can Keys stay within her own progress, or would she try to outgun the talented but sometimes erratic Kvitova? On the other hand, this is a great opportunity because Kvitova is more vulnerable on hard courts than grass.

Kei Nishikori

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    After a blazing start to 2014, Kei Nishikori reached his pinnacle, up a set and a break at the 2014 Madrid Masters final against Rafael Nadal. Then came the back injury. He hasn't been quite the same since with other injuries, including his toe during the recent North American swing.

    But he did look good in his first-round thrashing of Wayne Odesnik, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2. He hit 37 winners and converted on six break points. Best of all, his smooth athleticism and reflexes looked sharp.

    Maybe this is the time for him to make a strong run at a Grand Slam event. Typically, the best-of-five scenario is a grind for Nishikori, but training under coach Michael Chang should give him added toughness and endurance from a former star who never quit.

    If all goes to plan, Nishikori could sail into the fourth round for a Wimbledon rematch against Milos Raonic. That one could show just how much of a contender the Japanese star has become.

     

Angelique Kerber

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    Although Angelique Kerber is ranked No. 7 in the world, she has been overlooked by more decorated stars and rising potential stars. But Kerber is a definite sleeper and an underrated player who could create important upsets with her left-handed feistiness.

    Ask Maria Sharapova just how resilient Kerber was in their Wimbledon quarterfinals meeting, when Kerber held her nerves to pull off the three-set win after seven match point opportunities.

    Kerber is a conservative player who could probably take more chances with her offense, but she can keep the ball flat and bother players who would rather rip off more topspin and pace. She really should run through an easy draw to the quarterfinals for an interesting challenge against Agnieszka Radwanska.

    Could this be her career breakthrough? If so, she could be headed inside the top five. 

Dominic Thiem

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    Until next Wednesday, 20-year-old Dominic Thiem cannot legally buy alcohol in New York, although that's probably not his first priority as he competes at the U.S. Open.

    Thiem's strokes are big, and he looks like a more athletic and youthful Stanislas Wawrinka. Not that we expect him to win a major anytime soon, but he's already battling inside the top 50 of the ATP rankings.

    He must first get through Lukas Lacko before a likely chance at Ernest Gulbis, which could be an electric match of crisp and thunderous ball-striking.

    Thiem would not have the experience, but he does have an edge in composure over the mercurial Gulbis. It's potentially one of the best matches of the second round.

    Beyond that, the draw opens up in the third round, and then he could go toe-to-toe with Tomas Berdych. There's a lot of work to do, and this would be a terrific result, but we don't want you to miss looking in on one of the rising stars in tennis.

Andrea Petkovic

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    She has been one of the truly remarkable stories of 2014, and she has made good on a career-threatening injury. Meet Andrea Petkovic, who has already seen the risks and bad breaks as if she were a a 20-year veteran.

    How could anyone not feel good for her Family Circle Cup title at Charleston last spring? Her talent and footwork are world-class, and though she prefers clay, she was able to get to the Stanford semifinals, hanging in with World No. 1 Serena Williams for one set, before fading in the second.

    Her first-round win at Flushing Meadows set her up for an interesting match with Monica Puig, before possible opportunities versus Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova. If so, she will not be under the radar, but under the spotlight.

Marin Cilic

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    Many casual tennis fans might not know Marin Cilic, but the Croatian has had a consistent year with big challenges to the top players in tennis.

    Recently, he dueled Novak Djokovic to five sets in the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. At Canada, he lost to Roger Federer in three very tight sets. At Cincinnati, he dropped a third set to Stanislas Wawrinka.

    Get the picture?

    Cilic is a lot like Juan Martin del Potro—big forehand power in his case, but flawed at the wrong time. He can hit flat and use the whole court, but his footwork sometimes lags. He has power, but does not always use it to greatest success.

    Right now, he has either peaked or he is ready for a breakthrough.

    The breakthrough could happen now. Cilic could very well be the best player in his quarter.

    Yes, Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer are seeded higher, but Cilic has the tools to compete with them, if not the proven consistency and mentality. Any slippage from them and he could be the one taking on Roger Federer (that is, if the Swiss star makes it as well).

     

Kevin Anderson

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    One threat to Marin Cilic could be a third-round obstacle in the towering Kevin Anderson.

    The big server has added better groundstrokes and steady improvement in 2014. He's the classic hard-working veteran who keeps inching his way along new ground, not breaking any records but carving out an overlooked niche.

    But if we backtrack to the second round, Anderson could be taking on Jerzy Janowicz, a younger giant of a server with an explosive forehand and temperament to match.

    But this year, Anderson has proved to be a tougher competitor, and this could get him a few wins at the U.S. Open.