4 Things We Learned at the 2012 US Open

John DeMarzoContributor ISeptember 11, 2012

4 Things We Learned at the 2012 US Open

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    On Monday night, Great Britain's Andy Murray dethroned Serbia's Novak Djokovic in a five-set epic, 7-6 (10), 7-5, 2-6, 3-6, 6-2. With the win, Murray became the first British man to win a major since Fred Perry captured the 1936 U.S. Open. Murray's victory also prevented Djokovic from repeating as U.S. Open champion.

    The match, which took four hours and 54 minutes, tied for the longest U.S. Open men's final in history (the 1988 final between Ivan Lendl and Mats Wilander also went 4:54). It served as a spectacular encore for Sunday's women's final, when Serena Williams calmly stared down defeat and reeled off four consecutive games to top world no. 1 Victoria Azarenka 7-5 in the third set after the players split 6-2 sets to open the match.

    With the 2012 U.S. Open in the rearview mirror, it's time to take a look back at what we learned during the 15 days at Flushing Meadows.

Big Three? No, Big Four

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    Entering 2012, the book on Andy Murray was as follows: good enough to reach the final weekend of Grand Slams, but unable to take the next step and knock off one of the big three of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.

    Murray had always been more comfortable as a counterpuncher, preferring to let the opponent dictate the action, defend at an elite level and then hope for an error. Against most of the field, that worked. But against the triumvirate of Federer, Djokovic or Nadal? Not so much.

    With former Czech great Ivan Lendl at the helm as Murray's new coach, Andy breezed into the Australian Open semifinals, where he met the defending champion, Djokovic. The year before, Novak had defeated him easily for the title, but this time around, Murray, using a more aggressive style instilled in him by Lendl, took a two-sets-to-one lead before Djokovic forced a fifth and final set.

    Murray would fall behind 5-2 but fought back, breaking Djokovic at love when he was serving for the match and holding a break point at 5-5 which would have enabled him to serve for the match. But Djokovic saved the break point to hold, and then broke Murray to win the match. Djokovic would go on to defeat Rafael Nadal in a five-set thriller to repeat as the champion in Melbourne.

    Despite once again falling short, the sentiment was that the newly aggressive Murray was starting to build the game needed to challenge the top three. Murray's newfound confidence only grew when he advanced to his first Wimbledon final, where he faced the six-time champion Federer.

    Murray came roaring out of the gate, taking the first set before Federer turned back the clock with the same superb shotmaking that had netted him six previous Wimbledon titles. Murray would lose, 6-4 5-7 3-6 4-6, and nearly broke down on the court afterwards. But the message to be taken out of his on-court interview was, "I'm getting closer."

    Just four weeks later, on the first Sunday of August, Murray and Federer were once again set to contest a best-of-five match on the grass courts at Wimbledon. The stakes this time? An Olympic gold medal. Murray had said he was getting closer to a breakthrough, and on this day, he proved it, thrashing Federer 6-2 6-1 6-4 to capture the gold. Many people saw this as a breakthrough for Murray, although he had still yet to prove himself over the course of a two-week major.

    Well, let's just say that Murray has officially broken through. Despite some uneven play through the course of his run in Flushing Meadows, Andy advanced to the final, where he met the defending champion, Djokovic. In a tense, electric match, Murray emerged victorious, 7-6 (10) 7-5 2-6 3-6 6-2, outlasting the indefatigable Djokovic with a runaway fifth set.

    What are some of the biggest takeaways from Murray's win? Well, for the first time since 2003, four different men won the four majors. That year, Andre Agassi (Australian Open), Juan Carlos Ferrero (French Open), Federer (Wimbledon) and the recently retired Andy Roddick (U.S. Open) took home the majors. This year—in a neat bit of symmetry—world No. 1 Djokovic repeated in Australia, world No. 2 Nadal won his seventh French Open, world No. 3 Federer won his seventh Wimbledon and world No. 4 Murray won his maiden Slam in Flushing Meadows.

    Murray's win also raises an interesting debate: Who is the ATP Player of the Year? Had Djokovic won, it would have been impossible to pick against him, as he would have won two majors. The same could have been said about Federer, whose impressive late-career surge was temporarily halted by Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.

    But we can agree on one thing: Murray is the player of the summer, having won the Olympics and now the U.S. Open. It's quite possible that we won't know who the Player of the Year is until the fall season wraps up, with the ATP World Tour Finals scheduled for early November.

    We can also agree on this fact: Even though he doesn't yet have the resume of Federer, Djokovic or Nadal, there is no longer a zero next to Andy Murray's ledger at Grand Slam events. He's been a very consistent player for quite some time, and now, Murray has cracked the elite.

    Big Three? Not anymore. Big Four.

Novak Djokovic Is Human, After All

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    This year, there's still some debate as to who is the ATP Player of the Year. Last year, there was absolutely no question who that was: Novak Djokovic.

    The talented but enigmatic Djokovic shed the latter label last season, winning ten tournaments, including three Grand Slams (Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open) and a record-breaking five ATP Masters 1000 Tournaments. Until the fall, when his form dipped with a back injury, Djokovic lost a total of one completed match, starting 2011 with an incomprehensible 64-2 record.

    When 2012 dawned, it looked like Djokovic would pick up right where he left off in 2011, playing one of the greatest matches ever in defeating Rafael Nadal in five sets in the Australian Open final, 5-7 6-4 6-2 6-7 (5) 7-5.

    Between the 2011 Australian Open and 2011 French Open, Djokovic played six events and won them all, with titles in Dubai, Indian Wells, Miami, Belgrade, Madrid and Rome. Djokovic would enter all of those tournaments in 2012, but only emerged with one title, repeating as Miami champion.

    The biggest takeaway from this stretch was Nadal wresting back control of the rivalry that he once owned. Last year, Djokovic beat Nadal in two Masters 1000 clay court events, but this year, Nadal topped him in Monte Carlo and Rome to re-establish himself.

    Djokovic made the French Open final, again losing a clay event to Nadal, and failed to defend his Wimbledon title, losing to the eventual champion, Roger Federer. He then had a disappointment at the Olympics, failing to medal by losing in the semifinals to eventual gold medalist Andy Murray 5-7 5-7 and then the bronze medal match to Juan Martin del Potro, 5-7 4-6.

    Djokovic would go on to repeat as Toronto champion, but in a hotly anticipated Cincinnati final against Federer, he was bageled in the first set before losing a second-set tiebreaker. At the U.S. Open, Djokovic had smooth sailing to the finals, losing one set along the way, but in the final, simply ran into a player who's had his number this year.

    The bottom line: Djokovic would have had to have been superhuman to repeat his transcendent 2011.

Serena Williams Is the WTA Player of the Year

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    While the Player of the Year honors are still somewhat undecided on the men's side, there is no debate as to who the WTA Player of the Year is: Serena Williams.

    Despite enduring a turbulent first six months of 2012—punctuated by a fourth-round upset at the Australian Open by Ekaterina Makarova and a first-round flameout at the French Open at the hands of Virginie Razzano—Serena has been far and away the best woman in the world since then, winning her fifth Wimbledon title, first Olympic gold medal in singles and fourth U.S. Open.

    Williams has punctuated her rise to the top with authoritative wins over the other top women in the world. At Wimbledon, she took out defending champion Petra Kvitova and Australian Open champion and soon-to-be No. 1 Victoria Azarenka in straight sets and survived a three-set final against up-and-comer Agnieszka Radwanska to hoist the trophy.

    At the Olympics, Serena tore through the field, beating five players that were either currently or once ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the world. Some of her scores: 6-3 6-1 over former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, 6-1 6-0 over former No. 2 Vera Zvonareva and 6-0 6-3 over the player who started 2012 as No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki. Williams saved her best for last, routing current No. 1 Azarenka 6-1 6-2 and crushing Maria Sharapova, who was No. 1 one month prior, 6-0 6-1.

    Serena continued her roll at the U.S. Open, not dropping a set en route to reaching the final against Azarenka. When she took the first set 6-2, everybody figured Serena would breeze to the title. But Vika had other plans, taking the second set 6-2 and breaking late in the third set to take a 5-3 lead.

    However, Azarenka's nerves got the best of her, as she played a horrible service game while serving for the match, and after Serena held serve, Vika had two chances to send the match to a third-set tiebreak, but couldn't close the deal, as Williams converted her only championship point to win in Flushing Meadows for the first time since 2008.

    Had Azarenka won the U.S. Open, she would have a strong choice for Player of the Year, with two major titles and the most weeks of any woman at No. 1 this season. But she didn't, and as a result, it's Serena who has had the most dominant year on tour. If she plays this fall—last year, she didn't play after the U.S. Open—and stays in current form, she could be threatening for the No. 1 ranking at the age of 31.

Victoria Azarenka Is the Best of the Rest

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    While the 2012 U.S. Open showed that Serena Williams is by far the best player in the world right now despite her No. 4 ranking, it also showed that Victoria Azarenka is leading the chase pack.

    Azarenka started off her 2012 on a tear, winning her first major title at the Australian Open with a straight-sets victory over Maria Sharapova, 6-3 6-0. Vika would win her first 26 matches of 2012 before losing in Miami to Marion Bartoli in the quarterfinals.

    After a dip in form during the clay season—lowlighted by getting beaten at Stuttgart by Sharapova and falling in the fourth round at the French Open to Dominika Cibulkova, abdicating the No. 1 ranking to Sharapova in the process—Azarenka rediscovered her form on the grass at Wimbledon, making the semifinals both at that tournament and at the Olympics, losing to Williams both times.

    Once the U.S. Open rolled around, Vika really made her case as a legitimate No. 1. She tore through the first four rounds against lower-seeded players before she took out the defending champion Samantha Stosur in the quarterfinals 6-1 4-6 7-6 (5) and then prevailed in a tense three-set match with Sharapova, 3-6 6-2 6-4.

    She then nearly took down Serena in the final, as she had the match on her racket at 5-4 in the final set but couldn't close, as Williams took the title 6-2 2-6 7-5. Still, Azarenka, more than any other player recently, has shown that she has what it takes to compete with Serena.

    She has also re-established the upper hand in her tense rivalry with Sharapova, who she has beaten in three significant matches this season (Australian Open and Indian Wells finals and the U.S. Open semifinal) as opposed to suffering just one loss to her (Stuttgart final).

    When Serena slows down and retires—which may not be for another year or two—it looks like the next generation of women's tennis is in good hands with the only 23-year-old Azarenka, whose game is still coalescing (she needs a better serve, for one). Vika will contend for and win multiple Grand Slams down the line.