by Todd Pechter
Flushing Meadows, New York, Monday August 25th, 2014
Ah, it is that time of year again. The time of year when anyone with any interest in tennis is focused on New York. The time of year when 128 men and 128 women from a truly international pool of talent come here hoping to make a significant impact on the sport. Here, at the very outset of the 2014 US Open, it is the time of year when a player can dream of emerging as champion. It is now, before a single match has been played, that the possibilities are limitless: In two weeks time, anyone in the field of competitors could be celebrating on center court, their name permanently engraved on the victor’s trophy.
…Well, yeah, technically that’s all true. It is indeed a possibility that some relatively new face could win this tournament. Brilliant minds will tell you that although there are 3 or 4 names in the mens draw that can be considered heavy favorites, the final outcome cannot be stated with 100% certainty — Of course, if those same brilliant minds have been following tennis over the past few years, they might add that any player outside of those 3-4 names probably has a better chance of being struck by lightning than they have of being the 2014 US Open Champion.
Fast Forward to Monday, September 1st, 2014
We are now a little past the midpoint of this year’s Open, and while major thunderstorms passed through yesterday that delayed some of the matches, no one on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was hit by lightning. As such, the tournament is moving along in somewhat predictable fashion. More than half of the excited, determined and bright young faces of only a few days ago have had their dream of winning here shattered by a first or second round defeat. For some of those players such a showing is a positive step forward in their careers, but it will take a few days removed from the despair of losing for that kind of thinking to kick in.
And among those still remaining are the 3-4 names that occupy the short list of prime suspects one would look to in attempting to figure out who will win a Grand Slam Tennis event. For the men: Djokovic and Federer come into the 2nd week as the strongest contenders for the title here, with Murray and possibly Wawrinka as secondary choices. For the women: Serena Williams. Let’s do a quick rundown of those names before we give our picks.
Stan Wawrinka is a darn good all-around player. He’s also been pretty consistent, staying in the top 20 for six years running and currently being ranked #4 in the world. He won his only Grand Slam title earlier this year at the Australian Open, showing he will not wilt under the enormity of the moment. As good as Wawrinka is though, there is nothing that he does on the court that the other top names that follow don’t do as well or better. And while he might catch one of the other top players when they are having an off day, the way the draw is set up he will need to defeat two of them to win the tournament. That’s not going to happen.
Next is Andy Murray, a man who obviously has the talent and potential to win any tournament he enters. Between 2011 and 2013, Murray was a semi-finalist or better in 9 out of 12 Grand Slam events. As part of those strong showings, Murray won the US Open in 2012, and Wimbledon in 2013 — and it is that Wimbledon title that has caused a slight hiccup in Murray’s career. Being the first Brit to win Wimbledon in 77 years, Murray achieved a status in his homeland on a par with gods… tennis gods that is. All the requests/demands for his time has got to be a distraction, so one has to forgive him if his game has slipped a little. And the evidence shows that it has: Since winning Wimbledon, Murray has only gotten past the quarterfinals in one of the four Grand Slam eventsand hehas dropped 5 spots in the rankings to his current #9. Murray has attempted a bit of a shakeup to his ‘team’, hiring former top womens player, Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. As great a player as Mauresmo was (she won the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2006) it does not seem possible that she could be as great a motivating force as Murray’s previous coach, Ivan Lendl. Also not boding well for Murray is the possibility that he might have to beat all 3 of the other top players discussed here in order to claim the Open title. That’s not going to happen.
That brings us to the top two players on the mens side, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic. A strong case could be made for either one of them winning the 2014 US open.
Federer has a lot going in his favor. Last year, we picked Rafael Nadal to win the US Open, mainly on the basis that he was the hottest player coming into the tournament. Strictly on that basis Federer has the edge, winning the last tournament he played in (the Cincinnati Masters) and being a finalist in the tournament prior to that (the Canadian Open). By contrast, Djokovic lost in the third round of the two tournaments he played in before coming to the US Open (the Rogers Cup and the Cincinnati Masters).
And speaking of Nadal, his absence is a huge factor in Federer’s chances here. People tend to think of Nadal as a clay court specialist — no doubt he is master of that surface — but he is a major factor on hard courts as well. While he has never played Nadal at the Open, Federer has lost 9 of the 15 matches the two have played on similar hard courts. As such, Nadal’s withdrawal from the Open would appear to be far more advantageous to Federer, since Djokovic is 14-7 on hardcourts vs Nadal.
Another major factor that seems to have the stars aligning in Federer’s favor is the luck of the draw. Simply put, Federer should have a lot easier time just getting into the finals than Djokovic (or Murray or Wawrinka). Most of the players still in the tournament are ranked in the top 20, so any of them are certainly capable of making Federer at least work hard to advance. The better and more dangerous of those players, however, are in Djokovic’s half of the draw.
The last thing to mention that weighs heavily for Federer at this point in his career is that he is unquestionably the fan favorite. He is now 33 years old, and there is no telling how much longer he can stay near the top of the sport and seriously contend for major titles. If Federer starts to flounder in any of his matches, a boisterous crowd cheering him on might be the impetus that puts him on track.
….And with all this going in Federer’s favor, the pick here is for Djokovic coming out on top. The reasoning here is that, much like his game counter attacks whatever the opponent on the other side of the net is attempting to do, the case can be made that Djokovic can provide counterpoints to any of Federer’s theoretical advantages. As far as who the hotter player is, Djokovic’s Wimbledon win a few weeks ago could be seen as a far better indication of how a player is performing than the two lesser tournaments since then in which Federer has performed better. And while it is true that Nadal might have been a big obstacle for Federer, his absence certainly does not hurt Djokovic.
In regards to the draw being much better for Federer, all of the competitors left are very good, and to think any match is going to be easy would be a big mistake for either player. As a final counterpoint, it’s great that Federer has the crowd in his corner. Were he a spectator at these matches, Djokovic would probably be rooting for him too. But remember, Federer had that same kind of support a few weeks ago at Wimbledon, and he could not pull off the victory there. If he can’t beat Djokovic playing in his favorite tournament on the grass surface that he is supposedly master of, how can Federer expect to beat Djokovic at the Open? Brilliant minds will tell you that he can’t, and that if the two do meet in finals, expect Djokovic to emerge the Champion. Then again, the brilliant minds have probably never come across such a brilliant tennis player as Roger Federer.
Moving to the women’s side, as it has been the case for many years now, the single name that comes up is Serena Williams: If she is in top form, no one can beat her. The remaining woman in the draw with the best chance of upsetting her at this year’s Open is a resurgent Caroline Wozniacki, the 10th seed here. If the two do meet, it would be in the finals and if that does happen, Wozniacki plays that human backboard style of tennis that could potentially unravel Williams. Wozniacki has the ability to force an opponent to hit two or three “winners” every point. That kind of thing can be rather unnerving for Wozniacki’s opposition, and there have certainly been instances in her career where Serena Williams has become unnerved. Still, the pick for this year is Williams.