U.S. Open 2011: The Top 10 Questions to Be Answered at the Year's Final Major

Sean SingerContributor ISeptember 1, 2011

U.S. Open 2011: The Top 10 Questions to Be Answered at the Year's Final Major

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    Only three days have passed at the year's final Grand Slam event, but already the courts on Flushing Meadow have been abuzz with drama. There were many critical questions swirling around before the onset of play this past Sunday, and already many of these questions have been answered.

    Many wondered if Li Na and Petra Kvitova, who had suffered pretty poor losses this summer since winning their respective Grand Slams earlier this year,  would be able to shake off their rust and get back to the form that won them their maiden Slam titles. The answer, sadly, was a resounding "no", as each crashed out in straight sets earlier this week. 

    In addition, the fitness level of Venus Williams was being highly speculated before her opening match, though she seemed to disprove the naysayers by having a relatively powerful win over Vesna Dolonts on Monday evening. However, earlier today she withdrew before her match with rising star Sabine Lisicki due to a diagnosis with Sjogren's syndrome (an auto-immune disease that has caused her to experience fatigue and joint pain). The loss of many title contenders on the women's side has answered a few questions that many had going into their year's open.

    On the men's side, Djokovic was able to prove he can get through his shoulder injury and still be a dominating force at Flushing Meadows this year. In addition, Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal scraping through unusually tough matches showed they might not be at their best level, but they were not going to be crashing out early this year. 

    However, many of the most important questions, both on the women's and men's sides, remain to be answered. Luckily for tennis fans worldwide, they only need to wait 11 more days to get all the answers they want. 

#10: How Will the Young Americans Fare the Rest of This Fortnight?

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    Heading into this year's US Open, questions about the state of American tennis were abound. Everyone aware of the current stars of American tennis, such as Roddick, Fish, and the Williams Sisters, but it's the up-and-coming rising stars that seem to be getting a majority of the spotlight at this year's US Open. The aforementioned four American superstars are all great players, but they are also headed toward the age where retirement seems inevitable in the next five years. 

    Because of the impending retirement of the players that Americans have grown so accustomed to rooting for, everyone is scrambling to find a young American star upon whom they can bestow their adoration and devotion. So far this US Open, the young Americans haven't disappointed. 

    Of those left in the draw, the young American men, represented primarily by John Isner (who isn't very young but is still rising in the game), Jack Sock, and Donald Young. Isner, a towering Georgia native with a booming serve, looked primed to get to the fourth round of this year's open. Due to the withdrawl of Robin Soderling, the first seed Isner could meet is 18th seed and former champion Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina in the fourth round. Though this match would be incredibly difficult for Isner, it is a winnable match. Regardless of how he comes through that match, Isner has a great chance of making the second week here. 

    Young and Sock, on the other hand, would be pulling off big upsets to survive their second round matches. Sock plays Roddick who, on paper, should blow the young American off the court. Sock just won his first tour-level match ever in the first round a few days ago, so he is still going to have to play his best tennis to take down Roddick, even though the American veteran has been struggling of late. 

    Young, on the other hand, goes up against the wily Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka. Wawrinka performs well in New York and, though Donald has been known to play well here, looks like the clear favorite to make it through to the third round. That being said, both Sock and Young possess weapons that could lead them to pull off big upsets. 

    The women's side, on the other hand, looks a bit more promising. Sloane Stephens, a rising American star, came through a tough three-set match against relative unknown Reka-Luca Jani in the first round. She players 23rd seed Shahar Peer who, though experienced, has not been having a great summer. Stephens, if playing well, could pull off an upset against Peer and make the third round.

    Possibly the most emotional moment of the tournament so far came when Irina Falconi won an incredibly tight three-set match, on Arthur Ashe, against 16th seed Dominika Cibulkova. The Slovakian was heavy favorite to win and, after winning the first set with relative ease, looked primed to come through quickly. Falconi, though, had other plans and ended the match with an exquisite drop shot while on the run. Falconi, now in the third round, will have her hands full against the big serving German Sabine Lisicki. She doesn't have much of a game to challenge Lisicki, but her performance today has put her in the hearts and minds of millions of tennis fans. 

    Finally and probably most importantly, Christina McHale's stellar performance in upsetting 8th-seeded Marion Bartoli of France was the highlight of the day for American fans. McHale has been showing amazing form this summer, beating Wozniacki and Kuznetsova within the past month. Her draw is not incredibly difficult, given that she has a winnable match against Maria Kirilenko in the next round. After that, she could face either Nadia Petrova or Samantha Stosur, each of whom is a very tough player. That being said, she could come through. 

    Regardless, the 19-year-old New Jersey native's performance today has given many hope for the future of American tennis. Regardless of how she performs in the next round, she shows a lot of promise. 

    Though it is impossible to know who will come through and who won't, one thing is for sure: many eyes will be on these young players in the next couple of days. 

#9: Can Juan Martin Del Potro Return to the Top of the Men's Game?

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    Juan Martin Del Potro looked to be one of the game's most promising stars when he won the 2009 US Open title, beating Roger Federer in the final in five sets. However, injury soon took him out of the game and he has been climbing back ever since. 

    This year, Del Potro has suffered from a few unfortunate draws, often meeting one of the top four men before getting deep into a tournament. This year, though, the toughest player he could meet before the quarterfinals is American John Isner, a player that Del Potro would be favorite to win against. Because of this, Del Potro's draw looks primed for him to make a statement about his return to the top of the game. 

    If he makes it to the quarter-finals, his true test begins there. He would most likely meet fourth-ranked Scotsman Andy Murray in that round, a player who is on form and one of the top favorites to take the title. If he can beat Murray and make it back to the semifinals here in Flushing Meadows, he will announce his return to the sport. 

    The true test for Del Potro seems to be Murray, as he would likely face Nadal in the semifinals. Nadal is not playing his absolute best this summer and, if Del Potro were to meet him in the semifinals, it would not be much of a shock to see Del Potro win as he is more of a hard-court player than Nadal. That being said, Del Potro will have to be at his best to take out Nadal. 

    Del Potro does not seem to be in a state where he will win this year's US Open, but his draw gives him a definite chance to make a deep run. 

#8: Will Maria Sharapova Be Able to Control Her Serve and Her Nerves?

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    After her first-round struggle against young Brit Heather Watson, many people wondered if Sharapova was in-form enough to actually make a deep run here in Flushing Meadows. However, at the evening session on Day 3, Sharapova delivered a relentless display of power tennis against Anastasiya Yakimova of Belarus, winning the match 6-1, 6-1. 

    Most impressively, Sharapova was able to hit only three double faults, all coming at the beginning of the match. Her serve and her forehand were weapons which, for Sharapova, is a good sign. If she can keep those shots in line, she is very tough to beat. 

    That being said, Sharapova is incredibly streaky. She has matches where she looks like she could beat any player in the world, and she sometimes follows those with matches where fans wonder how she has managed to win three Grand Slam titles.

    Sharapova's draw looks great for her and, if she can keep her game in check, she should be a relative shoe-in for the final. She is coming up against Flavia Pennetta of Italy in the third round who, in all honesty, could present her toughest challenge until the semi-finals. The fourth round would be against either Shuai Peng of China or Julia Goerges of Germany, but she has beaten each of these players in Grand Slams in 2011 so she would be expected to make it through. 

    In the semi-final match, Sharapova will most likely meet either Vera Zvonareva or Sabine Lisicki. Coincidentally, Sharapova played Lisicki in the semifinals of this year's Wimbledon and Zvonareva in the semifinals of this year's Cincinnati Open, winning both. 

    Sharapova's route to the final appears to be in her hands. The title, though, is not entirely in her hands, as Serena will take Sharapova down in the final if she is having a good day. 

    It will be interesting to see how Sharapova handles the pressure of expectation, being a prime favorite to make it to the final this year.

#7: How Will Nadal Withstand the Signs of Fatigue?

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    In 2011, Nadal has, pretty definitively, been the bridesmaid. He made the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, but quickly got his act together, making the finals in Indian Wells and Miami. However, he lost in both finals to a red-hot Novak Djokovic.

    In the clay court season, Nadal won titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Soon after, though, he was taken down again in two consecutive finals by Djokovic, this time in Madrid and Rome. He re-claimed his French Open crown in early June and entered Wimbledon as one of the favorites. He did not disappoint, making it to the final. However, once again, that thorn in his side Djokovic took him down in four sets in the final. This match represented Djokovic truly ascending to No. 1 in the world, knocking Nadal down to No. 2. 

    Since the Wimbledon final, Nadal has not been on his game. Losing in his first match in Montreal and his second match in Cincinnati, Nadal is not incredibly on-form headed into this year's final Slam. Sporting blisters on his hands and what appears to be fatigue, Nadal will need to overcome a lot if he wants to repeat his victory in Flushing Meadows last year. 

    All of that being said, if anyone can overcome their physical and mental woes in a Grand Slam, it is Rafael Nadal. His draw is not particularly difficult and he should, barring any physical issues, make it through to the semifinals. There he will most likely be tested by either Murray or Del Potro, but, if he is on his game, Nadal can absolutely win against either man. 

    The final could be an interesting one between Nadal and Djokovic, but one between Federer and Nadal would be most likely be more well-contested. Djokovic has had Nadal's number this year, so hopefully Rafa can put his game together and give Nole a run for his money in New York.

#6: Is It Caroline's Time to Shine?

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    Caroline Woznacki, the current World No. 1 and 2009 US Open finalist, is, very publicly, seeking her first Grand Slam title. The press has not been kind to Wozniacki and, frankly, many women's tennis fans are getting tired of seeing players wield the No. 1 ranking when they have not yet won a Grand Slam. 

    However, the ranking system awards consistency and, without doubt, Wozniacki is consistent. She is a dream player for the WTA, as she plays many events and, usually, wins them. She is less consistent at the big events, often losing to bigger hitters and more experienced players. 

    This year has been disappointing for Woznacki in the Slams. Reaching the semifinals in Australia and losing a tough three-setter to Li Na, Wozniacki looked to be on form headed into the French Open. However, she crashed out early in both the French Open and Wimbledon, to Slovaks Daniela Hantuchova and Dominika Cibulkova, respectively. 

    In addition, Wozniacki's summer was not too stellar as she was not able to win a match at this summer's Premier 5 events in Toronto and Cincinnati (the former was won by Serena Williams, while the latter was won by Maria Sharapova). However, Wozniacki soon got her game together in New Haven where she literally appears to be unable to lose a match, winning her fourth straight title at that venue. 

    If Wozniacki is going to win a Slam, her best chances are at the US Open. She has had her best results here and, when on-form, the court really suits her style of play. She needs to be more aggressive and hope that Serena falls before the semifinals, where she would meet her if they both made it that far. If Serena falls and Wozniacki plays well, she should make it to the final. 

    That being said, Serena does not seem inclined to fall and, if she faces Serena, Wozniacki does not appear to have much of a chance. Caroline simply does not have the weapons to threat the American, while the American is too powerful to be troubled by Wozniacki's style of play.

    This is, sadly for her, not Wozniacki's slam to win. However, if the mighty tennis gods shine their graces upon her and call for early upsets of Sharapova and Serena, she has a very strong shot of taking home the title.

#5: How Will Novak Handle Being the Favorite?

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    The 2011 US Open is, oddly enough, only the second time Djokovic has entered a Grand Slam event as the overall favorite to win. He has had an amazing year, but he was only a slight slight favorite to win this year's French Open, given his wins over Nadal on hard and clay courts earlier that year. However, at the French, as the favorite, he incurred his first loss of the year and only non-health related loss so far.

    Roger Federer played an incredible match to take Djokovic out, but it will be interesting to see how Djokovic handles having all eyes on him. He seems to play best when he flies under the radar a bit (like at this year's Australian Open and Wimbledon Championships, where all eyes seemed to be on Roger and Nadal). Djokovic has always been in the mix, but he has never been viewed as a "cut above" like he is these days. 

    In addition, Djokovic's shoulder injury is raising a lot of questions around the grounds of Flushing Meadows. He seemed physically and mentally exhausted in the Cincinnati final against Andy Murray, a match in which he ultimately retired. If Djokovic is not physically fit, the men's game is too tough these days for him to be able to win the US Open. 

    With that in mind, one has to also consider Djokovic's performances this year. He has beaten nearly every player he has faced and he has a winning record against the other members of the top four. He made the finals of Cincinnati, where he was not playing his best, the week after he won in Montreal. 

    If Djokovic is on his game, it is pretty hard to bet against him. However, it will be interesting to see how he handles being the clear favorite.

#4: Will a New WTA Star Rise to Fame?

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    The WTA is no stranger to surprise slam winners. This year, the only "expected" slam winner was Clijsters at this year's US Open. Since then, Li Na and Petra Kvitova have won the other two Slams, each of whom were top eight seeds at the Slam they won but they were not the favorites at the beginning of the fortnight. 

    As was mentioned earlier, both Kvitova and Na are out of the 2011 US Open already, so the chance of them repeating is non-existent. However, the WTA has a few other rising stars who seem to be coming to a boil, ready to burst to stardom rather soon. 

    First and foremost, Sabine Lisicki is on a tear this summer. She won a Wimbledon tune-up in Birmingham, which she followed up with a stellar run to the Wimbledon semi-finals as a wild card. Lisicki followed her Wimbledon performance up with strong showings at all of her summer hard court ventures, making the semifinals in Stanford and the quarterfinals in San Diego. 

    Her most dominant performance, though, came in Dallas last week. Though she did not face any incredible players, she lost only 13 games in five matches. For those who aren't too skilled mathematically, that's an average of about 2-3 games per match. She lost three games in her first set against Indian Sania Mirza in the first round, which was the most games she lost in a set in the entire tournament. Lisicki's booming serve (reaching the low 120 mph range often) and powerful strokes make her a very dangerous player and someone that many expect to be in the top 10 within a year. 

    Lisicki does not have the easiest draw, as she will most likely take on World No. 2 Vera Zvonareva in the fourth round. She lost to Zvonareva earlier this summer, but if she can come through that much, she would be favorite to make the semi-finals. She would likely play Sharapova at this stage and, given that Sharapova can be very fragile at times, Lisicki could come through this match and make the finals of her first Grand Slam. She has to play well, but it is far from impossible.

    Andrea Petkovic has had a steady rise in the rankings this year, reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian and French Opens. She also had a great summer, reaching the semifinals in Cincinnati. Petkovic is the most likely quarterfinal opponent of Caroline Wozniacki, as Simona Halep upset Li Na, thus opening Petkovic's draw immensely. If Petkovic stays on form, she will reach her third quarter-final of the year. 

    In the quarter-final, Petkovic will have to be on-form to beat Wozniacki. After that, the same logic that was used with Wozniacki is applied: if Serena is standing on the opposite side of the net from her in the semi-finals, she does not have much of a chance. If there is somebody else there, Petkovic could make a final run. 

    In addition, there are other up-and-comers in the draw that could cause a lot of drama in the next 10 days. The big question remains the same, though: will the WTA finally get a new star?

#3: Will Andy Murray Be Able to Overcome the Big Three and Win a Slam?

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    If Andy Murray is never unable to win a Grand Slam event, he will, without doubt, go down in history as the best player to never win a Slam. However, he still has many more years before people can actually write him off from Slam contention. 

    The issue with Murray is two-fold. First, he seems to be unable to beat the members of the "Big Three" (Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer—though I know that goes without saying) in the pressure moments of Slams. In addition, if he is able to beat one of them, rarely does he repeat. The second issue, though, is that Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have been permanent fixtures in Slam semifinals this year. If Murray is to win a Slam, he will invariably have to go through one of them to win. 

    In all sincerity, Murray will most likely have to beat three Grand Slam champions to win this year's US Open. He will start with a quarter-final against Juan Martin Del Potro. If he can get through that, he will, assuming all is well with him physically, play Rafael Nadal. Murray has a strong record against Nadal in New York, but he could be tired from his quarter-final and, thus, unable to give his best against Rafa. 

    If he does come through Nadal, Murray will most likely play either Federer or Djokovic in the final. Either player would give Murray hell and, nine times out of 10, beat Murray in a Grand Slam final. Murray will need to play at 110 percent to be able to beat Djokovic or Federer. Djokovic retired against him in the final of Cincinnati just a few weeks ago, but Djokovic will not succumb to mental or physical woes in a Grand Slam final; he will give it his all to his dying breath. 

    The issue is, the big three all have something against Murray. Nadal and Federer have invaluable Grand Slam experience, having won 10+ each. Djokovic is having one of the best seasons in tennis history, giving him enough confidence to take down any player. 

    Is it possible for Murray to win this year's US Open? Yes. Is it likely? No. He will need to play his absolute best from the quarter-finals on and hope for weary opponents. The sad truth is that Murray has not been able to produce the kind of tennis he plays in smaller tournaments in Slams. Frankly, I don't see him changing that pattern just yet. 

    On the flip side, if Nadal, Novak, and Roger suffer upsets (which is unlikely but possible given they are all struggling in some way at the moment—Roger with his form, Nadal and Djokovic physically), Murray would win the tournament, most likely with relative ease. Sadly, like Wozniacki, this does not seem to be Murray's Slam to win.

#2: Will Serena Be Able to Maintain Her Momentum?

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    With Venus Williams now out of the US Open due to illness, the pressure falls pretty squarely onto the shoulders of Serena. She has been the favorite since the beginning of the tournament, but her path to the final is not nearly as easy as Sharapova's or Zvonareva's. 

    Serena is, understandably, the favorite, as she has played unbelievably this summer, winning both of the tournaments she actually wanted to win (something tells me her retirement in Cincinnati had a little bit to do with Kim Kardashian's wedding that weekend..). She didn't just beat top players, she crushed players like Stosur, Sharapova, Lisicki, and Azarenka. All of the aforementioned players were in-form this summer, but they were nothing compared to the force of nature that was Serena Williams. 

    However, on the negative side, no one's path to the final is harder than that of Serena Williams. She should have no problems in her second round match against Michaella Krajicek of the Netherlands, but it gets much trickier after that. As the 28th seed, Serena is slated to meet No. 4 seed Azarenka in the third round. Azarenka has always posed problems for Serena on hard courts (barring this summer in Toronto), so that match could be contested well. Serena is known for her ability to work into tournaments, so Azarenka has a much better chance of beating her in the third round than she would in the semifinals. 

    If Serena comes through that match (which she should), she will have her easiest match in the fourth round. The toughest competitor she could meet is a struggling Ivanovic, whom she should be able to beat relatively easily.

    Serena will most likely play Jelena Jankovic of Serbia or Francesca Schiavone of Italy in the quarterfinal. Both players have been ranked in the top five, but Jankovic has been ranked No. 1 while Schiavone has won a Grand Slam. The clear pick to get to the quarterfinal against Serena is Jelena Jankovic, given her form this summer and win over Schiavone just a few weeks ago, and Serena would be the clear favorite against Jankovic. However, Jankovic has beaten Serena in hard court Slams before, so she would be a tough player for Serena to take down. 

    In the semi-finals, Serena would most likely take on No. 1 Wozniacki. Wozniacki doesn't have the weapons to challenge Williams, but if Williams is off her game then Wozniacki could give her problems. In the final, Serena will most likely play Sharapova, barring any major upsets. 

    Serena will be the favorite in any match she enters. However, the women's game is very susceptible to upsets and, as Serena showed at Wimbledon this year, she is human (sort of). This is Serena's tournament to win, but it won't be an easy task for her.

#1: Can Federer End 2011 on a Positive Note and Re-Enter the Winner's Circle?

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    Roger Federer, by his own standards and by those of his fans, has not had a stellar 2011. Universally considered the greatest tennis player to ever live, Federer has a lot of pressure on his shoulders. Unfortunately, he has not been able to overcome that pressure this year. However, his poor results this year are not entirely due to his own error. 

    2011 has seen the rise of a re-born Novak Djokovic, who has seemed, for the majority of the year, to be unbeatable. Also, Federer's best performance of the year came at this year's French Open, where he was able to take out Djokovic in a remarkable semifinal. Sadly, though, Federer will most likely never be able to beat Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros, so he was unable to take home the title. 

    At this year's US Open, Federer looks like he has a pretty clear path to the quarterfinals. His toughest match will be a third round against either rising star Bernard Tomic of Australia or the dangerous hard-court Croat Marin Cilic. This round is, for Roger, very winnable. Each of those players could take a set off of Roger, but his experience should reign supreme. 

    In the quarter-finals, though, Roger's struggle will truly begin. He will probably end up meeting either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France or Marty Fish of the United States in that round. Fish is having an amazing summer, winning the US Open Series, and Tsonga is the man who beat Federer in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon this year. That being said, Federer should be able to beat either of those players if he is on form. 

    Federer's true test will come in the semifinals, where he will most likely face-off against Novak Djokovic. This would be their third Slam semifinal this year, with Novak winning in January in Australia and Roger winning in June in France. This match would have all the makings of a classic, as each player would be fighting for glory. Federer would be going for his record 17th Grand Slam title, while Djokovic would be playing to maintain his incredible record this year. Federer will need to play his absolute best to win this match.

    The winner of the Federer-Djokovic semifinal will most likely be the favorite to win the title against either Nadal or Murray, as neither Nadal or Murray would be favored to beat Djokovic or Roger on the New York hard courts. 

    Federer is fighting for more than just glory at this year's US Open. If he is unable to perform, it is likely that whispers of retirement will soon enter his press conferences and media outlets. He is a fan favorite, and as such many devotees would rather see him go out on top than watch him slide down the rankings. Although Federer has a lot to prove, he has done it in the past and is very capable of doing it again. 

    The 2011 US Open is arguably Roger Federer's most important Slam to date.