Thursday, 26 August 2010

US Open Preview

Who will win the US Open? There are now more genuine contenders to win major titles, and beat some of the greatest players in tennis history, than at any point in my time as a true fan (which began with the classic Wimbledon of 2001), and even before then. It promises to be a great tournament, with, by my reckoning, 7 realistic contenders, which makes it the most exciting, open, and unpredictable major for years.

The aura of invincibility surrounding Roger Federer, which he had so marvellously rebuilt following its complete destruction by Rafael Nadal between the French Open of 2008 and the 2009 Australian Open, seems again to have disappeared. His astonishing, resoundingly unrivalled 6-year stretch of consecutive major semi-finals was ended by Robin Soderling, telling the rest of the world that they too can beat Federer on the big stage. Tomas Berdych was listening. Critics and pundits are struggling to find reasons for Federer's relative loss of form of late. He remains highly motivated to play and, more importantly, to win, and still produces performances of great quality. I think the problem lies in his preparation. A keen follower of the sport could be forgiven for thinking Federer lacks forethought going into matches. He seems to have no gameplan, and believes his way of playing will naturally see him past his opponents. Federer lacked a clear plan-B against Soderling and Berdych for when his A-game wasn't working, or better yet a tactical plan-A to prevent the two from playing to their clear strengths. Both players were far too powerful for Federer. Hopefully this is something his exciting new partnership with Paul Annacone can rectify. Also stood in Federer's way, something I have said for a long time, is his lack of mental strength. A player needs the mentality of a champion to win 16 Grand Slam titles, for sure, but Federer, throughout his career, has had moments of self-doubt, even fear when playing Nadal. Federer hides it so well, but he is not, in my opinion, the fearless, unflappable front-runner of a Sampras, Borg or Nadal, despite his clear technical superiority. That said, Federer remains probably the best hard-court player in the world, but he will have to play his best tennis to win at Flushing Meadows, something which the Federer of 2010 does not guarantee – there are several players in the draw who can beat him if he does not.

That would presumably make Rafael Nadal the overwhelming favourite to win. His appetite for the game is larger than ever, having regained his French Open and Wimbledon titles without anyone getting close to him. When Nadal is at his best he seems unbeatable, and his 8 victories in Grand Slams have been achieved on all three surfaces. If his victory at the 2009 Australian Open showed us one thing, it was that Nadal can beat Federer even when Federer plays his best – and on a hard court too. Having watched that match, I have never seen Federer play better outside Wimbledon. His backhand was better than ever, his forehand brutal. But Nadal beat him. Nadal can be against the ropes for an entire set, never look like winning, and steal it on a tie-break. No other player can do that, and it can be so incredibly demoralising. Federer's tears exemplified his utter disappointment that he had lost that match. However, Nadal is so much less consistent on a hard court, thus he is beatable. 7 of his 8 major victories have been on clay and grass courts, somewhat paradoxically the two surfaces best-suited to his game. To a player like Murray, Djokovic, or even a Berdych or a Soderling, Nadal will seem like much less scary at the other end of a hard court, than on clay or grass. Murray has beaten Nadal in four of their last five hard-court encounters, two of which were in Grand Slams. For a player who barely looked worthy of the same court as Nadal in his semi-final defeat in this year's Wimbledon, Murray will fancy his chances this time around, as will a few others. With many hungry players around him, Nadal will have to play some spectacular tennis to win here.

Indeed, Murray's game matches well against Nadal's on a hard-court. The US Open will suit all-around play, and quick play. More balls go past Nadal than on clay, while the balls he gets back (which will still be a very high amount) will come back to him on a hard-court where they may not on grass. It will be so much harder for Nadal to bully a player like Murray than at Roland Garros or Wimbledon. Moreover, Murray has always claimed hard-courts to be his preferred surface. It suits his fierce baseline play, back to its aggressive best at the Rogers Cup, his huge serve, as well as his under-rated speed and court-coverage. He has all the elements to win in New York, and if these pieces of his game come together, I can certainly see him lifting the trophy next Sunday. The only major barrier is himself more than other players around him. He has been beaten in recent majors by the likes of Cilic (at last year's US Open), Verdasco, Gonzalez and Berdych. The point is not that he loses to lower-ranked opponents; this is forgivable as they are all quality players. The problem is that he has a tendency to lose in the same way to the same type of player, power players who dominate him, while he becomes flat. His attitude, as well as the manner during the defeats to Cilic and Berdych at this year's French were as disappointing as they were predictable. He has an extremely difficult draw, but the aggressive and clever Murray, the one who dominated Cilic and Isner in Australia, and who destroyed the field in Toronto two weeks ago, can win this title.

The tournament is blessed-enough with three bona-fide contenders, but there are others. Robin Soderling beat Nadal and Federer in consecutive years at Roland Garros, and has backed-up his rise to the top with consistent rankings points. He can beat any player in the world on his day and is becoming increasingly consistent and confident to boot. Meanwhile, Tomas Berdych is suddenly fulfilling his great potential and showed enough quality in his defeats of Federer and Djokovic (losing a total of 1 set) at Wimbledon to have any player afraid should they meet him. Novak Djokovic, somewhat tennis' forgotten man of late, has a huge game and is rebuilding his serve and his confidence. He will be a threat, as will Nikolay Davydenko, who, before injury hit, was producing tennis of quality to rival the world's best too.

With so many contenders promising an open tournament, the effect is that the top players, the Federers and Nadals, are now more susceptible to earlier defeats, making the tournament even more open. This will pave the way for some of the lesser contenders to get through. This applies to the likes of Andy Roddick, who will be looking for home support after a hugely disappointing 2010, and perhaps some outsiders. Names like Roddick, like John Isner, the frustratingly inconsistent Ernests Gulbis and David Nalbandian, possibly the most dangerous man in the draw, I will not be surprised to see in the latter stages. From the quarter-finals onwards we are set for some classics, which will make the tournament even harder to win, with players likely to have to beat at least three of the aforementioned big names to lift the trophy. Federer is seeded to meet Soderling in the quarter-finals, followed by Djokovic and Nadal/Murray, while Murray will theoretically have to beat Berdych, Nadal and Federer to lift the trophy, not the kindest draw for the Scot. Difficult matches go as far back as Round Four, with Cilic, Roddick and Ferrer among the more dangerous names. Winning a Grand Slam title has never been harder than this.

Another effect of the tournament's openness is that it gives these new contenders a real hunger for victory. With 9 of the last 10 majors shared between Federer and Nadal, the peripheral players in the sport can smell their chance to make a name for themselves. Del Potro forced his way through, and his rise has been sadly cut short. Now someone else has the chance to step up to the plate. One of them is ready.
I believe that 7 players can genuinely win this title. This is something tennis hasn't seen in years, and will provide a thrilling fortnight of competition. Federer and Nadal dominated the last decade, as did Sampras in the 90s. Few could get close to him. Not even in tennis' golden years in the late-70s/early 80s were there 7 realistic winners.

So who will win? My point was that we have an unprecedented number of contenders for this title, and that this tournament is almost impossible to predict. Form dictates I should not provide an answer, but after over 1,000 words of analysis I feel I should. I have an inkling Nadal will complete his career Grand Slam this week at just 24, and third consecutive major, and throw a huge spanner in the works as to Federer's 'Greatest of all-time' billing, but am willing one of the other 6 contenders to prove me wrong, which they are certainly capable of doing. Or it will be Murray, but as a Brit, far too accustomed to our invariable sporting failure, my gut is getting in the way of this one. Nadal. No, Murray. No, Nadal.