After another great ATP Masters Series/WTA Premier 5 Event, tennis fans have learned quite a bit about who the favorites are and what to expect at the last Grand Slam of the year, the U.S. Open. While there is still another week of tennis before the Open, most of the top players tend to skip the men's event in Winston-Salem, NC and the women's event in New Haven, CT (which is a shame because that is a great place to watch tennis) to fully prepare for the grueling two week tournament at Flushing Meadows. So before I give my preview of the U.S. Open with predictions and players to watch, here's a recap of what we learned from Cincinnati and the Western and Southern Open:
- Rafael Nadal is the overwhelming favorite for the U.S. Open title. He became the fourth player to win the Rogers Cup and the Western and Southern Open back-to-back. He's undefeated on hard courts this year and is 53-3 overall. He's made the finals in every tournament that he has entered except Wimbledon, where he lost in the first round. With his two wins in the last two weeks, he has moved from #5 in the ATP rankings to #2, which guarantees that he will be on the opposite side of the U.S. Open draw from #1 Novak Djokovic, who gave Nadal one of his three losses this year in Monte Carlo in April. There is a strong possibility that Nadal will end the year ranked #1 due to him not having any points to defend for the rest of the season because of his knee injury last year and the large amount of points Djokovic has to defend during the last two months of the season (1,500 points for winning the year-end Tour Finals, 1,200 for reaching the finals of the U.S. Open, and 1,000 points for winning the Shanghai Masters event). He could win Player of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year at year's end. He looks completely healthy, as he has shed the tape and wraps around his knee that he has worn in previous years. It will be shocking if he doesn't win the Open this year, which would give him 13 Grand Slam titles and put him only 4 behind Roger Federer for most all time. The fact that we can watch Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, who will go down in history as three of the best players of all time, makes it a honor to be a tennis fan right now.
- Victoria Azarenka proved that Serena Williams can be beaten. You can point to Serena's abdominal injury, the amount of matches she has played in the last two weeks, and even the humid conditions in Cincinnati at the end of the week as reasons why she lost to Vika in the final. And while Serena is still the favorite on the women's side for the Open, Azarenka proved on Sunday why she should never be counted out of any tournament. She has what the rest of the women's tour doesn't have - the belief and confidence that she can beat Serena on any day. That's what separates Azarenka from the rest of the ladies on tour. She can look across the net at Serena and not be afraid of her power or her talent. There is no question that Serena is one of the best tennis players ever, and her power and precision has never been seen on the women's tour. I've watched enough tennis to know that Serena has already won the majority of her matches before they even start, because her opponent is so intimidated and so defeated before one ball is even struck. Azarenka has come a long way professionally, but even when she was first breaking into the top tier of players she was never intimidated by her opponents, which makes her a viable contender to win any match against any player. She proved against Serena on Sunday that she never gives up, as she was able to turn her play around in the second and third set to win the match in a tiebreaker. If you would have told me that Azarenka would have even made three sets against Serena after how poorly she played in the semis I would have thought you were crazy. It just goes to show you what a fighter and a competitor Azarenka is.
- American tennis is not dead yet. John Isner made the final in Cincinnati, knocking off four players in the top 11 (Gasquet, Raonic, Djokovic, del Potro) before losing to Nadal in the final. James Blake looked better than he has in years in his first round win over #16 Jerzy Janowicz. Ryan Harrison played one of the best matches I've seen all year against #3 David Ferrer, bombing serves (including one at 152 mph!), chasing down shots all over the court, and showing the shot-making skills that U.S. tennis fans have been waiting for. Sloane Stephens knocked out #3 Maria Sharapova in the second round, then took #14 Jelena Jankovic to three sets in the round of 16. Venus Williams, Lauren Davis, Varvara Lepchenko, Vania King, and my personal favorite Jamie Hampton all won their first round matches, with King and Davis playing particularly well in their second round matches against seeded opponents (#2 Victoria Azarenka and #4 Li Na respectively). Besides Serena and Isner, American tennis does not have many stars or household names, but there are many talented players on both the men's and the women's side. A deep run at Flushing Meadows next week can make a star out of players like Harrison, Hampton, Madison Keys, or Taylor Townsend. The more Americans in the latter stages of the U.S. Open, the more interest there will be in the last major of the year.
- What's worse than watching a three-set tennis match with 18 breaks of serve? Watching on with 23 breaks of serve. We can thank Jelena Jankovic for participating in both of those gems, as her round of 16 match with Sloane Stephens (with 18 breaks of serve) prepared her for her semifinal match against Victoria Azarenka (with 23 breaks of serve). That's right 23 breaks of serve out of 27 service games. Not even a rabid tennis fan like me found this even remotely interesting, and I love watching Azarenka (the grunts, the constant flip of her braid, her looks - I'm a big fan). The serve is supposed to be an advantage, kicking off the point and putting the server in an offensive position to start the point. The only thing offensive about the serving in these women's matches was how poorly it was being executed. Thank God the UFC was on Saturday night so I didn't have to sit through 23 breaks of serve.
- One three-set loss to a player ranked in the top 20 will get you fired if you are Maria Sharapova's coach. You would have thought Jimmy Connors would have gotten more than a month to work with Sharapova, but I guess she needed someone to blame when she lost in three sets to a player in the top 20 in the world. Especially when she hasn't played since Wimbledon. So yeah that must have been her coach's fault since I can't see any other reason why she would have lost. I'm sure the photo shoots and promotion for her candy line and whatever else she did in between late June and the middle of August had less to do with her loss than her coach. I wonder if it "would have been the right fit for her career" if she would have won the first match and lost in the next round. It pains me to rip on Maria because she's always been a favorite of mine (I'll admit I watch women's tennis with my eyes if you know what I mean), but this was not a good week or a smart move on her part. The excuse she gave for his firing is about as believable as Ryan Dempster saying he didn't hit A-Rod on purpose on Sunday night.
- Roger Federer listened to me. I wrote a couple weeks ago that his racket change was going to signal the end of his career, so what happened? He switched back to his old racket and got to the quarters of Cincinnati, losing to Nadal in a tremendous match that harkened memories of their previous Grand Slam epic finals. The fact that he struggled in his earlier matches in the tournament, especially against Tommy Haas in the round of 16, indicated that switching rackets is something that takes time and practice and shouldn't be done in the middle of a season. Hopefully we will get to see the Roger Federer of old next week in New York, because due to his ranking dropping to #7 in the world his draw will probably be harder than it has ever been. And yes eventually I will stop referencing my article about Federer changing rackets. I mean he does have to retire at some point right?
I would also like to thank ESPN for airing all ten hours of Saturday's semifinal matches, which is the first good thing I've said about that network in a long time. I also loved it when Ryan Dempster plunked A-Rod on Sunday night, but since I was watching SummerSlam I missed it (all the good things happen when I'm not watching it live!). If you like what you've read you can check out my other posts on tjrsports.com and my other blog, which deals with sports other than tennis. You can also tweet me on Twitter @albinomamba44. What do I have in common with Jon Lester? We both tweet our Temple Run scores during Red Sox games.