US Open: Bold Predictions for the 2nd Week

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistSeptember 5, 2016

US Open: Bold Predictions for the 2nd Week

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    Grigor Dimitrov could give Andy Murray plenty of trouble.
    Grigor Dimitrov could give Andy Murray plenty of trouble.Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    The second week of the 2016 U.S. Open is ready for clashes of titans, as tennis fans will see if Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams can continue to win majors as usual or if Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber can chase down their dreams of the No. 1 ranking.

    Now that Rafael Nadal has fallen for the second year in a five-setter, the strong play from French stars Lucas Pouille, Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will be under the spotlight. Who will continue to surprise?

    There are outstanding matches, beginning with Monday’s early pairing between Dominic Thiem and Juan Martin del Potro, and by Tuesday we will get Djokovic vs. Tsonga. We’re looking at spectacular play and surprises.

    The women’s tour is equally if not more intriguing with Serena, Kerber, Simona Halep, Karolina Pliskova and a resurgent Caroline Wozniacki all legitimate star contenders. Who will come out on top?

    All of this and more in our “bold predictions” for the second week, where we present a few of the less obvious possibilities. Enjoy the final week of major tennis for 2016.

Best Match of the Week: Juan Martin del Potro vs. Dominic Thiem

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    Dominic Thiem is ready to roll.
    Dominic Thiem is ready to roll.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Dominic Thiem vs. Juan Martin del Potro is a blockbuster event that will delight tennis fans from Austria to Argentina. It’s two hard-hitting stars with a lot of heart and resolve, a match that looks like a coin toss.

    The 23-year-old Thiem has been the best of the new contenders in 2016, a stalwart grinder who has shown resolve on clay, improvement on grass and the kind of physical groundstrokes that could be a big winner on the ATP tour. He peaked in getting to the French Open semifinals, but he struggled with fatigue until a resurgence the past week.

    Del Potro is nearly 28 years old and often a top-10 star since he won the 2009 U.S. Open. Unfortunately, wrist surgeries have thwarted much of his prime years, and he’s come back strong only in recent months, charging through the Olympics by defeating Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal on his way to winning the silver medal.

    Who has the edge? Thiem appears refreshed and has younger legs. He’s willing to stay behind the baseline, perhaps too much, but his slice backhand can force Del Potro to move and deny some of that rhythm the Argentine has shown in pounding his offensive groundstrokes.

    Del Potro needs to establish his in-and-out forehand, serve well and have the energy for a possible four-hour match. He proved he could beat Thiem on Madrid’s clay last May.

    Our prediction is that this will be a close match decided by a few critical points, perhaps a memorable break or defensive retrieval. The survivor will have a tough, physical road to the final, perhaps meeting up with Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray.

    Give Del Potro the slight edge to squeak through.

Novak Djokovic Will Lose in the Quarterfinals

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    DON EMMERT/Getty Images

    He’s well rested and just off a convincing night’s work of destroying potential star Kyle Edmund. He retrieved hard forehands, created sick drop shots and won 17 of 18 points at net. It was the legendary champion schooling the student with all the guile and toughness that have made Novak Djokovic perhaps the greatest player in history.

    But King Novak is still not right.

    Never mind the medical timeout up 2-1 in the third set that had the trainer once again massaging the upper-arm muscles just above the right elbow. His first serves have less zing, if only by 8-10 mph. There’s still concern about that left wrist. He’s hitting solid backhands, even throwing in good slice, but is it the level that helped him capture the Grand Slam?

    No.

    By contrast, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is serving with plenty of power and hitting his forehand with the kind of pace that Juan Martin del Potro used to vanquish Djokovic at the Olympics. His opportunity to defeat the Serb in the quarterfinal is a rare championship moment that could propel him forward. More on that after the next slide.

    Djokovic might be the one player who could conceivably overcome his nagging injuries and run all the way to the title. He could, and maybe only playing five sets last week will be a huge asset. After all, if he gets Andy Murray in the final, he’s not going to hold back.

    But the run will end in the quarterfinal, and Djokovic’s perfect first half of the year winning two majors will now be shrouded by darker times of injuries recovery and rebuilding for 2017after the dogfight with Murray to keep his No. 1 ranking when the World Tour Finals comes calling in November.

Gael Monfils Will Get to the Semifinals

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    The Entertainer: Monfils is a crowd delight and he's becoming a bigger winner.
    Andres Kudacki/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Gael Monfils has turned up the heat since midsummer. The Frenchman won Washington D.C., got to the semifinals of the Rogers Cup and the quarterfinals of the Olympics.

    He’s finally doing what he’s always needed to do with his incredible tennis athleticism—he’s playing a little more conservative and a lot more consistent.

    Monfils perhaps catches a break in the quarterfinals, not because Rafael Nadal has been eliminated but because compatriot Lucas Pouille is coming off back-to-back five-setters and has been grinding away with tough matches since the gun went off to start the U.S. Open.

    Pouille hits excellent groundstrokes and follows them up at net as needed, but his legs will be fatigued.

    Monfils would then match up with Novak Djokovic or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the semifinals. He’s never defeated the Serb in 12 career matches, but he has won three of seven matches against his compatriot, including the last two.

    We think Monfils will get his chance against Tsonga, and on the next slide the winner will be...

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga Will Get to the U.S. Open Final

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    In 2008, a beaming young Jo-Wilfried Tsonga got all the way to the Australian Open final before losing to rising Novak Djokovic.

    It was the first of 12 major titles for the Serb (and counting), but it turned out to be the career highlight for Tsonga despite so many good wins and usually a top-10 ranking.

    Tsonga occasionally breaks out his best stuff for good major runs. He has been twice a semifinalist at Wimbledon and the French Open, and he's a quarterfinalist at the U.S. Open for the third time. He has also won two Masters 1000 tournaments (2008 Paris and 2014 Canada).

    Right now Tsonga is on a roll with his power, serving like a champion and putting pressure on his victims. He has the forehand and explosiveness to bother Djokovic like he did in blasting the Serb 6-2, 6-2 in Toronto two years ago, or taking the world No. 1 to two tiebreakers at Indian Wells in March.

    Djokovic still has not looked quite right, his own serve lacking its usual punch and questions about his wrist. Tsonga could be ready to capitalize.

    Tsonga would also have the momentum and bigger game to win the semifinal against Gael Monfils or Lucas Pouille. He would have a puncher’s chance against Andy Murray or perhaps a straight-up shot against another finalist from the bottom of the bracket.

    This could be his career’s biggest highlight coming up this week, but it’s going to take three huge wins. A finals appearance is in the cards.

Karolina Pliskova Will Push Serena Williams to the Limits

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    If there was a hot player coming into the U.S. Open, look no further than Karolina Pliskova. The lean athletic Czech is continuing the momentum that saw her overwhelm world No. 2 Angelique Kerber at Cincinnati’s Western & Southern Open.

    Now is the time for the 24-year-old to build on her potential after earning her way to the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Pliskova has the serve and power to defeat Venus Williams in the fourth round, (likely) Agnieszka Radwanska in the semifinals and threaten Serena Williams in the semifinals.

    Pliskova will be the most dangerous player Serena faces for the championship. She has the weapons to pull off the upset, but the difference will be the unsurpassed experience that the world No. 1 has accumulated in her brilliant career. There could be a shaky backhand or nervous reply that could cause the Czech to fall short.

    They have met only once, in the 2014 Stanford tournament when Serena prevailed 7-5, 6-2.

    Unless Pliskova knocks out Serenawhich she couldit will be tough for her to survive the pressure on the Arthur Ashe court, late at night with the New York City crowd roaring for the American.

    It should be a great match, but Serena will get through.

Caroline Wozniacki All the Way to the U.S. Open Final

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    EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/Getty Images

    It must be the U.S. Open, because Caroline Wozniacki is playing some of her best tennis. A finalist in 2009 and 2014, the Dane is a former No. 1-ranked player without a Grand Slam title to her resume.

    She’s had a lot of ups and downs since the early success in her career, making her seem like an old 26 years, but she’s a survivor, mirroring the defensive, backhanded approach that has been her foundation. She’s never completely out of contention when she’s got her game firing.

    Wozniacki also benefits from upsets in her portion of the draw. Third-seed Garbine Muguruza is long gone, and other seeds, including Belinda Bencic, Monica Puig and Johanna Konta, have been eliminated. She will be favored to defeat Anastasija Sevastova in the quarterfinals.

    Credit Wozniacki most of all for her huge victory over Madison Keys. While the American had 33 winners and 33 unforced errors, the Dane was nearly flawless with 12 winners and only seven unforced errors. She has the margin to upend nearly anyone on tour.

    Wozniacki’s confidence is soaring and her opportunity ahead is ripe. She’s looking strong enough to defeat Angelique Kerber and battle Serena Williams for the championship.

    Unless Serena is upset, Wozniacki will have to be content with getting to the final. It's a terrible matchup for the world No. 74 to try and overcome Serena's power, having lost 10 of 11 career matches against the legendary American.

Serena Williams to Win the U.S. Open with Attention to Details

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    There’s always plenty to motivate Serena Williams. She doesn’t win every major, but when the stakes are most important she’s usually the last woman standing.

    The U.S. Open is this year’s big decider. Will she or Angelique Kerber win two majors? Which of the two will hold the No. 1 ranking? Does Serena feel extra motivation to win in her home country on fast hard courts?

    Yes to everything.

    Unless Serena’s shoulder flares up with an injury or unless she plays an inexplicably poor match, it’s hard to see Simona Halep defeating her in the quarterfinals. Surviving Karolina Pliskova could get her a final against Kerber or Wozniacki.

    The deeper the tournament, the better Serena often plays. She’s not just a champion but a money player, someone who responds best to challenges. This year the challenges have been greater than in 2015, and she’s going to be more focused to perform with the little things, hustling for every inch on her footwork, rotating for that extra power and tracking down anything within reach on defense.

    Instead of outright domination, we will see Serena absorbed in the details that have made her a champion. She will get major no. 23 and assume her place in history with Steffi Graf trailing.

It Will Not Be Easy, but Andy Murray Will Win the U.S. Open

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    Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

    Andy Murray has a dangerous fourth-round match that might prove to be his most difficult hurdle to the U.S. Open final.

    Opponent Grigor Dimitrov has played with renewed vigor and confidence, the best tennis of his career since he swept Murray at Wimbledon 2014. He even defeated the Scot in Miami early this year, so he knows he has the weapons to win on a good day.

    But Murray will get through Dimitrov, dominate Kei Nishikori and take out a fatigued semifinalist. The world No. 2 is one of the fittest players on tour, and his consistency and heart will matter. He’s not going to let up knowing that Novak Djokovic could be removed by the time the final occurs.

    Enjoy Murray now. He’s at his absolute peak with airtight defense, persistent groundstrokes and greater confidence. We could very well see him win his second consecutive major, making it two each for his career at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

    It will be a war of attrition and Murray could drop five or six sets along the way, but the Scot will use the U.S. Open title to run after the year-end No. 1 ranking.

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