The French/Wimbledon lollapalooza felt like a blur, and for the men, it seemed to decide everything but our next president in the span of about six weeks. If the headlines are to be believed, we now know that Nadal is King and the year-end No. 1, Roger Federer has hit the skids, and the Big Hitters are the new big thing, led by the vanguard of Robin Soderling, Tomas Berdych, and Juan Martin del Potro.
However, there are lots of tennis to be played this year, and with the Paris to London French-Wimbledon six-week whirlwind tour over, it's finally time to take a break and look ahead to the hard court season, where there are at least 10 players ready to step up and take a turn on the podium before the season is done.
Get up up off the sideline Jo-Willy! The hardcourt season is here. The Tsonga of old who would crack in big matches is gone. This is Tsonga 2.0 who has learned how to quiet his nerves. Add to that his trademark booming forehand and a more consistent serve, and you have a player who can really do some damage. The old Jo-Wilfried was beaten by Nadal at last year's US Open in straights. The new version has reached the semis of the Aussie Open, beating Nadal along the way. Just like his look-alike Muhammad Ali, it's time for Tsonga to "float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee."
Marin Cilic seems like he's been around a bit, but he's still only 21, and improving every year. He reached the Quarters of last years USO and followed it up with a Semifinal showing at the 2010 Aussie Open. The 6'6" Croatian with the size 16 shoes is heading onto his favorite surface, the hard courts, with fellow Croat Goran Ivanisevic in his corner as coach. With his powerful forehand and topspin backhand that is almost just as good, he should do some damage on the hard courts this season, a maybe better his showing at the US Open with a Semi or Finals appearance. He's only played Nadal and Federer once each, but has battled Murray five times, losing four. However, each match was a battle decided by a couple points and tiebreakers. Maybe this is the year Cilic starts taking on the big boys and coming away with some victories.
Davydenko has also fared well on the hard courts, winning eight tournaments. He has beaten all the top guns, including Nadal in three hard court finals through the years. Although he retired with a broken wrist in Indian Wells early this season, he has been back in action during Russia's Davis Cup match with Argentina. Although his form is still coming back, Kolya has won the ATP Tour Finals, along with three Masters Series tournaments during his career. He has often faltered in the Slams at the very last, but Davy will be anxious to get back on the hard courts to test his wrist, and to display his superb flat forehand and court quickness again. Expect his results to get better and better leading up to the U.S. Open.
When you've dealt the best clay court player of all time his only defeat at Roland Garros, the man who at one point had won 81 straight clay matches, and ended one of the most unbreakable streaks in professional sports against the greatest tennis player of all time, what do you do for an encore? You take your fearless brand of tennis to the hard courts, and use that belief and confidence to rack up some more trophies.
Bjorn Borg was breathlessly telling everyone that Soderling would be No. 1 real soon. You could excuse Borg for drinking the cult Kool-Aid and being a little giddy, as Soderling is a fellow Swede, but it hasn't turned out quite that way, as Nadal proceeded to roll him up and smoke him in the French final. Soderling, who was defending his title in the Swedish Open this week, is anxious to display his mastery on the hard courts, where a wounded Del Potro and Federer might allow Soderling an even greater opening to rise up in the rankings. He is No. 5, and could rise to No. 4 or No. 3 before the U.S. Open. Soderling's cannon serve and straight-arm forehand blasts will be on display, and as one of the new breed of Big Hitters, his success will help determine if the press clippings are just hype or if Soderling and others are here to stay.
Geez, Roddick has had some heartbreaking matches. But he keeps coming back. He still has that rocket serve and powerful forehand. His serve is Top Three on tour—it has supersonic speed and superb placement.
He also seems to be able to pull an ace out of his pocket at key points in the match. The rest of his game and his tactics have improved, he schooled Nadal on hard courts earlier this season, and did I mention that hard courts are his favorite. Now that clay and grass have come and gone, he is back to his comfort zone, and I would expect at least one title from him on the hard stuff this season.
Sure he's getting up there now in age, and you would think morale might be an issue, but he always gets well on the hard courts. He's playing in Atlanta this week and should be up there on the podium in the end. If he comes in healthy, make him one of the second tier of favorites at the U.S. Open, underneath Federer and Nadal. And did I also mention that he's one of two players besides the Big Two who are playing this season who have won a Hard Court Grand Slam?
Berd-Man is among the crop of Big Hitters receiving a lot of press lately, with the way they've been pushing Nadal, Federer and other hapless opponents all over the courts. Pushing them deep with big forehands, leaving them flailing helplessly at booming serves.
Berdych is often talked about along with Soderling and Del Potro, who have similar games, but Berdych has something they haven't got. He's younger than Soderling, and Berdych has a Feder-esque smoothness about his strokes that enables him to disguise his forehand and flick the shot cross-court or down the line with a fluidity and quickness that leaves opponents flat-footed on the court.
His game should play well on the hard courts, and has the chance to rise a few more rungs on the ladder by the end of the season. He'll face tough opponents in the quarters and semis in the bigger tournaments, but he's one opponent no one wants to see across the net.
This year betting on Djokovic has been a little like playing the slots. You pull the arm on the slot machine in one tournament, and it comes up three lemons. Next time you pull the lever, it comes up three gold bars. Novak rose up the charts like a rocket but once he got near the top he faltered a bit.
Now, it seems he's finding his game and confidence again. With a superb game, and a quirky personality that has made him a fan favorite, it would be great to see it continue. He's young, and he's already won a hard-court Slam at the Aussie Open, so here's hoping he gets well during the hard-court swing. Hard courts are his best surface, but he's one of the few players who have a great won-loss record on all three surfaces.
If his serve stabilizes, he will be right back in the mix with Federer and Nadal. As it is, he has a great backhand, and another weapon in his forehand, that he can disguise till the last second where it will go, and can whip it real fast into the corners, down the line, or deep and straight at you. The hard court season is heating up, and if Novak starts feeling it, the Djoker could go wild.
Andy Murray. Everyone talks about how his loss to Federer at the Aussie final shook him up bad. Well, time to get over it Andy. You're young, you have the game, the strategy. Take some more shots at Federer and Nadal.
Murray's game relies on counter-punching—how many times have you heard that?- but he also has a good serve, one that Nadal's uncle, Toni, has his nephew trying to emulate in his free time. Murray has one of the best backhands on tour. His defensive game relies on precise shotmaking, and the hard courts offer truer bounces than the grass or clay stuff, making hard courts suited for his game.
Opponents have been successful playing to his forehand, and being aggressive, moving him back deep and ending points early before he can work points to his advantage. In the short term, his game is still good enough to win a tournament or two leading up to the U.S. Open, and give him the confidence to take his game up a level. If he can shore up the forehand, and attack more often, he may rise further. If not, he will fall below Soderling to #5 in the rankings by the end of the season.
What Federer has done at the US Open is amazing. At perhaps the fastest tournament of the year, he has gone to six straight finals, winning five in a row. And he has done it against five different opponents. No one else has made even two consecutive finals there. His record there is 51-5.
Who would bet against the King? Well, he did lose last year to young gun Delpo, and he hasn't won a tournament since the Aussie Open, the longest drought ever for him. However, the one tournament he did win was the Aussie, a Grand Slam, and on hard courts. Roger has been taking time off to rest his back and leg, which bothered him at Wimbledon, to try and return in top form leading up to the U.S. Open.
There will be a little rust, but if he can regain some of his movement, his confidence will rise. Expect his form to get better and better as he plays his way back into shape for Flushing Meadows. He may win a tournament or two along the way as well. It's too soon to tell, though, as we'll have to see how he heals and the first few matches go for him. If his body cooperates it will be trouble. Did I mention Federer owns the most hard-court trophies of any opponent playing? More Hard Court Slams than the rest of the field combined, and then some? Need I go on? An in-form Federer is a nightmare for any opponent.
The French gave Nadal the nickname "The Alien" after watching his sublime artistry on their clay courts. Any who look at his big biceps and Popeye forearms and see only a brute haven't watched Nadal on clay. Seeing him run wide, slide several feet, stop suddenly at just the right moment several feet wide of the doubles alley, flick an impossible forehand off his back foot that "bends like Beckham" around the post and lands deep inside the court an inch inside the line for a winner—it compares to the grace of any Federer shot he has hit that leaves you dumbfounded.
Make no mistake, Nadal is still The Ogre, who will pound you till you submit. But he is also The Alien, who displays supreme artistry as well. Sure, his record on hard courts against several opponents isn't a winning one- Davydenko, Murray, Djokovic and others. However, he has won a Slam on hard courts- something Murray and Davy have yet to do. He is also coming in, having conquered all other arenas. This is the last on his list. He is playing sparingly, with only the Roger's Open and Cincinnati before the U.S. Open. He has improved his game- serve, flat forehand, aggressive play. Heck, he even won 23 of 25 net approaches against Murray at Wimbledon and a doubles title earlier this year.
The Alien has landed, and he wants to conquer the hard court world. I'm sure he would love to play Federer along the way, as well. If that happens, and he smokes Federer, at Flushing Meadows we may be seeing The Ogre and The Alien all rolled into one. And what chance will anyone have against that?