The US Open 2011 looms ahead, and in barely a month we will be deep in prognostication as the final grand slam of the year comes upon us. It has been a fairly typical month and a half since the end of Wimbledon, and the intense competition in Europe it culminated. Its time for the hard court season, for new stories to emerge, or for old ones to prolong themselves.
The big names are the central focus, of course, and why shouldn't they be? Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are leading men's tennis in this golden summer of its time. The players of the tier below aren't exactly pushovers, either; Andy Murray, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Robin Soderling may well have been slam champs in another era.
Who will be our US Open champion this year? Its hard to say, and almost pointless to do so. What we can correctly crystal-ballgaze about, however, are the prospects for our top men's players over the next month and a half. Here they are.
The sky's the limit at the moment for the new world No. 1, and the US Open series, and US Open, only seem to proffer yet more opportunities for career-redefinition. He had only won one slam in the last three years before 2011 this season, but he now already has two, this year alone. Novak Djokovic is undoubtedly the world's greatest player, for the moment; hunger and revenge will surely be his goals in the coming weeks.
Hunger, because he is the world number one, and will be anxious to seal that ranking with some valuable Masters Series titles before the big one in New York. There he will find his reason for revenge, being a two time finalist, and two time semifinalist—thrice thwarted by Federer, and once, last year, by Nadal. It will be known, of course, that he heads there as a favourite for the championship in 2011.
Is he really our new king, or simply an overbearing, long-lived impostor? His form, and results, at the US Open series will clear things up for us.
Rafael Nadal has not entered this stretch of the season so glum in many years—the American hard court season used to be a period of the year when he was too exhausted to make deep inroads, but he changed that in 2008, sought something similar in 2009, and finally overturned that idea in 2010. He has progressively made himself a better American hard-court tennis player, but there is no doubting that he will be sternly up against it in 2011.
For one thing, he is no longer the world number one. Instead, he will only be graced with that evermore dubious '2' in any draw, and, it seems, perhaps for a lot of draw from now onwards. Novak Djokovic did almost everything correctly—save perhaps beating him at Paris—to overthrow the Spaniard, in what proved one of the most notable usurpations since Nadal's own overthrowing of Federer in 2008.
The Serb is in Nadal's head, and as he enters one of traditionally his weakest stretches of the year it will certainly play a crucial role, should the pair meet. Many observers will certainly be more interested in how Nadal handles it all—mainly for the fact that, for all that Djokovic has done to him in the last few months, he is still a favourite at the very highest level. Is Rafael Nadal still the man as he was—voracious, invincible, unbreakable?
For so many years Roger Federer was man of the moment, come the US Open series. All too often it was merely an opportunity to wrack up some complementary, but one felt, not entirely necessary, honours, having won Wimbledon, and claimed some major scalps in the earlier American hard court masters tournaments in March and April. Instead, he finds himself in a position he first found himself in 2008, and has since happened twice, last year and this year.
He is not the Wimbledon champion coming into the US, which is a substantial, if perhaps slightly intangible issue, since it has always been the confidence and strength he drew from the All-England Club that propelled him to new heights in America. Indeed Federer stands, in 2011, in one of the most critical, and interesting periods, of his career—maybe the apex of that downward curve we had all been insinuating from 2007 onwards.
Paul Annacone spoke recently about Federer's need to adapt his tactics—but how much does age, and the attendant problems of mental fatigue play into it? He has always been our most fluent ball-striker and tactician, but there has been too much evidence—a shocking loss of a two-set lead against Tsonga at Wimbledon the latest—of a certain tennis-weariness. Federer will in fact be turning 30 just in the next few weeks, and he certainly wont be getting any fresher. Not as much as he used to be to win the US Open, and certainly not as fresh he will need to be, to win the US Open nowadays.
If there were ever an enigma over the last few years, it must surely have been Andy Murray. Sure, his wily brand of pace-mixing would serve up a fine detective novel most times, but the reality is more disconcerting. A favourite for the last three years at the US Open, he has failed all three times to legitimate the hype.
Is the curse of Fred Perry really so debilitating ? We have yet to see. For Murray, at any rate, it has been about the concentration, and focus of motive, that has often abandoned him in the biggest situations. His losses in the last two years to Wawrinka and Cilic were woeful, to say the least, and certainly have not lived up to the promises he has offered on this surface.
It may be another tough summer for Andy,with the Big Three ruling the roost stronger than ever. But he is always the unquantifiable quantity.
Juan Martin Del Potro—a mouthful of a name, but a mouthful of a game, too. For Federer, Nadal, and not yet Djokovic, the Argentine’s forehand has on several occasions proved just the case.
2008 was his breakout year, with four straight titles in this US Open series, and it became clear that the American hard courts were his favoured hunting ground when he claimed the biggest one, at New York, the year after. Overnight he was transformed from an ambitious challenger to new champ.
2010 was a gap year, with injury plaguing his hopes, but in 2011 he comes off strong, with only defeats in the last two slams to the world’s top two, and on both occasions claiming a set (to Djokovic at Paris, and Nadal at Wimbledon). It may only get better in the next few weeks.
Soderling’s performances at the US Open, and US Open series, have generally been positive—the faster courts clearly favour his aggressive style, while this year’s title at Bastad must surely be a confidence booster heading into it. He thrashed his opposition there, a drubbing of Berdych and Ferrer, included.
His last two visits to New York were brought invariably to end by brain-cramp, Roger Federer. His abilities as a ball-striker, and confidence in 2011, however, must spell a good summer. It will obviously come down to how he fare against the very best, when, should he pose a fierce fight, we will really see where he’s at.
No bigger news could have come before the final than Jo-Wilfred Tsonga’s almost inexplicable, unbelievable, come-from-behind victory over Roger Federer at Wimbledon. The six-time champion had rarely faced such an indomitable force, and that day, it proved too much even for him.
Tsonga has had notable victories, too, in the US Open series, and the one two years ago at Montreal against Federer was unerringly reminiscent of the most recent. It was a unique victory from the brink, down 1-5 in the third. Can the Frenchman conjure up similar desperate measures this time round ?
Yes, and, inevitably, no. Yes because he has done so in the past, but no, because it isn’t exactly a winning strategy. It is, however, a party spoiling strategy.
America’s great hope, for so many years. For the first time in many years, and perhaps as a sing of things to come, Roddick isn’t anywhere to be seen in the top ten. His fortunes faded at Wimbledon as he was out-gunned by Feliciano Lopez, and he comes into the US Open series as something of an unknown.
That serve will be there, but, invariably, the crowd’s patriotic support. He may be gaining in years but his game hasn’t lost it all. His record at this stretch of the home-coming season hasn’t been too great—one marked by a four set loss to Janko Tipsarevic last year at the final season grand slam.
Will this year see the final efflorescence of an American great, or the beginnings of an heroic swan-song ?
Berdych tore through last year ‘s season like a bull enraged by red—he tore through Federer, and nearly did the same at Toronto at their next meeting. There is no doubt that the Czech has always had the game for this surface ; for now it is a matter of his fitness, and the question of exhaustion that must be looming at this time of year.
These are problems he would face anyway, but become serious issues when they deny him that consistency he so needs to challenge the best. He faded against Soderling at Bastad, while most of his 2011 has been miserable—or perhaps, a return to the realm he escaped for a short time last year. We may well see first round bloopers, or that occasional upset, at his expense.
He has won at Atlanta already, and looks to regain that rich vein of form he always seems to find at this period of the year. He made the final at Cincinnati last year, highlighted by a win over Andy Murray, and may well do the same again in 2011.
His game is troublesome enough, and in summer fresh enough, that it bothers even the best of players. At a time when exhaustion or weariness is an issue in the tennis season, Fish has over the last few years made some crucial pickings. Whatever it is, he has already started the US Open series on a strong note, and the momentum he seeks to build up may well bring up yet another inspiring story this time round.