Saturday, 27 August 2011

US Open Preview: Top two fitness could open the door to a new winner

After Novak Djokovic retired during the second set of his Cincinnati final against Andy Murray last week, he was technically handed only his second defeat of the entire year, taking his 2011 record to a still superhuman 57 victories to just two losses. 

Before labelling Djokovic as almost unbeatable at present, we must remember that nobody can play at such a standard he has in every single match over a full season. After he finally lost his first match of the year to Roger Federer at Roland Garros, the Serb had commented that “you do feel a relief when you finish a tournament. If you finish victorious it’s much better than finishing with a loss”. In defeat, it seemed as though not only had a huge burden of pressure and expectation been lifted from his shoulders, after the intense media coverage of his record run; but also that he was in a way glad, due to fatigue, not to have to play another match, even if that match was a French Open final. After his rest, Djokovic went on to claim the Wimbledon trophy and has kept on winning since, making his defeat to Federer seem a mere anomaly. While he’s gotten more used to the pressure and expectation, the fatigue side of things may still come back to hinder his chances of US Open glory.

Novak Djokovic is the big favourite heading into the tournament (

The reason I’m bringing up this defeat as opposed to any of his 57 victories, or any of his magnificent performances against Rafael Nadal this year, is because Djokovic’s Cincinnati final performance against Andy Murray seemed to echo his French Open defeat, not least because he actually lost a match. He has set standards nobody in the world, not even Federer or Nadal, can keep up with, and with the unimaginable physicality and fitness required to sustain such a level of performance, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Djokovic should feel tired from time to time. We were reminded of this last week just as we were in Paris earlier in the year.

Just as it was in Paris, there is a possibility that this tournament may be a step too far for Djokovic, particularly with the names he has to beat in this era of the game. With Tomas Berdych and Gaël Monfils, both in form over the hardcourt season, lurking in Djokovic’s draw, the Serb will need to be at his fittest and best if he wants to capture his first US Open title and his fourth major. Even with the rest of the top four to contend with, we cannot just assume Djokovic can turn up and win as easily as he has made the game look at times this year.

Djokovic isn’t the only big name in the field with a tricky opponent or two standing in the way of the assumed semi-final berth. With dangerous names lurking in Federer’s quarter of the draw, namely Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and this year's US Open Series winner Mardy Fish, the former world number one will also be out to avoid an upset. Unless we see a sudden improvement in Federer’s game, certainly in terms of consistency, I would expect one of Tsonga or Fish to take him out. But even though the Swiss should no longer automatically be considered a favourite for the majors (something which I wrote on last month), if he really gets into the tournament and performs, just as he did at Roland Garros this year, he is still capable of winning. 

Indeed, over the past three years, the top four have consistently reached the business end in the major tournaments, with Roger Federer reaching the semi-finals in 9 of the 12 slams, Nadal 8, Djokovic and Murray both 7 times, a staggering domination of the biggest championships. Only Juan Martín Del Potro has wrestled one of the major’s from the current top three since 2005. Even so, Tsonga and Fish must be sensing the opportunity of an upset, as with many others just behind the top four, and this is probably their biggest opportunity in years of shocking the biggest names, given the question marks over Nadal, who, although he rarely plays a tournament at full fitness (and wins a large percentage of them too), was clearly hampered by blisters in Cincinnati, and Djokovic. 

US Open Series winner Mardy Fish is one of many players hopeful of an upset (Andy Kentla)

If Djokovic turns up in peak condition, I doubt he can be stopped right now, although either Murray or Nadal would run him very close in the final. We will probably know by the second week how well Djokovic is playing and how fit he is, but until then I would suggest that this is Andy Murray’s best chance yet of winning a major. He has a relatively favourable draw at his favourite tournament, the one best-suited to his game, potentially facing the sixth seed Robin Soderling, who has not had the best of seasons, with his other big hurdles to a semi-final spot Stanislas Wawrinka, who beat him at Flushing Meadows last year, and Del Potro.

Rafael Nadal would await Murray in the semis, bringing back memories for the Scot of two crushing Wimbledon semi-final defeats, but Murray’s game is far better matched against the Nadal on a hard court. He has greater penetration against Nadal on the surface, while the Spainiard’s serve is far less effective here (despite having won the championship last year). He would have every chance of beating Nadal, and would stand a chance against Djokovic too, if he can sense weakness in his opponent, or if there is weakness to be sensed. Added to that, Murray has made no secret of his desire to emulate Djokovic, training harder than ever and even switching to the ‘Djokovic diet’. The prospect of beating the Serb might carry Murray the extra mile. 

The door is not open solely to the Scot. The likes of Berdych, Monfils, Tsonga and particularly Fish, playing the best tennis of his career making him a true contender here, will fancy their chances of at least one upset. But it would still be a surprise if they did manage to make it through the draw, given the dominance we’ve come to expect from the biggest names in the sport. I still think there’s a chance we’ll see a new major winner here, and that man might be Andy Murray.

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