U.S. Open preview roundtable: Predictions, draw analysis and more
U.S. Open preview roundtable (cont.)
With the U.S. Open starting Monday, SI.com's tennis analysts evaluate top storylines and predict the winners.
Richard Deitsch: Like American expatriate Rick Blaine in Casablanca, I am a rank sentimentalist. I won't be alone in watching seventh-seeded (so odd to type) Roger Federer after three summer losses to players outside the top 50. No tennis tournament in the world has a fonder appreciation for the fading champion than the U.S. Open, and the crowds will lift Federer for every match. He and Rafael Nadal are on a collision course for the quarterfinals, the match I'm anticipating the most. (A semifinal between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic in the other half of the draw would be a close second.) I'm also very curious how John Isner deals with Nadal in a potential fourth-round match. Could the American pull off the major upset under the lights? (Alas, probably not.)
Bruce Jenkins: I'd rather see a Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal match more than any other, and they've wound up in the same quarter -- a particularly intriguing group, to be sure. It's hard to beat Bernard Tomic-Kei Nishikori or John Isner-Gail Monfils for potential second-round action, and so much for Isner's chance to reach the final weekend; there's just too much talent here. I'd like to see Brian Baker get back on the relevance map by upsetting Lleyton Hewitt in the first round. A Novak Djokovic-Juan Martin del Potro quarterfinal would be a gem, although Djokovic may have to get past Grigor Dimitrov first.
Andrew Lawrence: Who else? Lamonf, aka France's Gael Monfils. Granted, this has been far from his best year; thanks to an assortment of injuries, the former No. 7 is ranked 43rd and title-less this year. Furthermore, hard court isn't his surface. But when Monfils plays, you're virtually guaranteed a great show. Seeing Monfils play his singular brand of straight-to-YouTube tennis -- a game that gets bolder and bolder the more the crowd eggs him on -- is one of the Open's special pleasures. A potential fourth-round match against Rafael Nadal would be a treat, but Monfils might have to get past John Isner in the second round first.
Courtney Nguyen: The obvious answer is the potential Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal quarterfinal. Their 31st meeting, last week in Cincinnati, produced some great tennis, and even though he lost, Federer played Nadal close. But I'm also going to pick the Ernests Gulbis storyline as my undercard here. He's been gifted a draw that, based on his talent, should enable him to make the quarterfinals, if not the semifinals. He's been drawn into the weakest quarter, which is topped by No. 4 David Ferrer, who has been struggling. The always unreliable Richard Gasquet. Jerzy Janowicz and Milos Raonic are also in that quarter. This is a huge opportunity for all of them.
Jon Wertheim: The fate of the Big Four, individually and collectively. We analogize this to your favorite TV show: No matter what happens, you're watching and you're engrossed in the plot. Does Rafael Nadal win (as he did at the French Open), crash out early (as he did at Wimbledon) or something in between? Does Roger Federer have some magic left in the wand or is this the beginning of the end? Can Andy Murray back up his 2012 title (and Wimbledon title)? Can Novak Djokovic return to the winner's circle?
Deitsch: The final weekend. I think we all want to see Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka meet for the title after watching the two slug it out for two hours and 29 minutes last week in the final of the Western & Southern Open. You know Williams will be looking for blood here after Azarenka snapped her 14-match winning streak by prevailing 8-6 in a nervy third-set tiebreaker. Before that, though, everyone should be rooting for the Tennis Gods to grant us Williams-Sloane Stephens in the fourth round. I'll also be watching Venus Williams-Kirsten Flipkens in the first round. Is this the final U.S. Open for Venus?
Jenkins: A chance for Venus Williams to shine, although her draw could be tricky. Right off the bat, she gets Kirsten Flipkens, who defeated Venus 0-6, 6-4, 6-2 earlier this month in Toronto. But I never put anything past Venus, and I'm repulsed by those urging her to retire; she has too much more to give. Beyond that, a Laura Robson-Caroline Garcia match could be a highlight of the second round. I'd love to see Andrea Petkovic upset Petra Kvitova in the second round and break out her latest dance. Eugenie Bouchard, on the verge of being very well known, could take a huge step by beating Angelique Kerber in the second round.
Lawrence: If Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens don't meet in the fourth round, it would be a travesty. Their quarterfinal clash at the Australian Open in January was such a seismic event, throwing the relationship between the two women completely off its axis. Confidants became frenemies. Kim Clijsters became Stephens' favorite player. A rematch would be straight up, totally without pretense and, hopefully, injury. If Serena hadn't rolled her ankle in Melbourne, there might never have been a rift between her and Stephens in the first place.
Nguyen: The potential Serena Williams-Sloane Stephens fourth-round throwdown. The two haven't played since Stephens upended her non-mentor in Melbourne, and a lot has happened (all off the court) since then. Put it under the lights on Ashe and the U.S. Open gets a riveting battle.
Wertheim: The (hopefully) inevitable Serena Williams-Victoria Azarenka final. Azarenka's defeat of Serena in Cincinnati is a plot-thickener. Storylines such as whether Sloane Stephens can handle the big stage, whether one of the other Americans can make a splash and whether any of the many erratic WTAers can bring their A-game are secondary issues. Serena-Azarenka is the headliner.
Deitsch: I generally prefer underdogs -- Luke Skywalker, all Buffalo teams, Canada -- but I miss the days of Darth Fed rolling everybody with his sublime play. At his peak, he's the best I've ever seen, and I love watching the iconic athletes (such as Usain Bolt and Michael Jordan) at the height of their physical powers. Greatness is always compelling.
Jenkins: We see it so often in tennis: An aging star enters the twilight, appreciative crowds showing more adulation than ever before. But Federer's case hardly compares to that of John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras or any other player who, for one reason or another, turned off the public. Federer has been a beloved figure from the very beginning of his epic run, his elegance too spellbinding to dismiss. I think he's even more compelling as an underdog, because he's still capable of greatness at any time.
Lawrence: Federer isn't Federer unless he's the overdog, at the peak of his powers, liquifying minds one acute angle at a time. But there's no question that he's more compelling now that the field has caught up to him. Now, there's no taking his early-round matches for granted, no dismissing the double- or -- upset willing -- triple-digit ranking holders. Every Federer match matters because he could be gone before you know it.
Nguyen: Underdog. Watching Federer struggle, show flashes of brilliance, only to struggle again has been compelling theater in 2013. He still has great tennis in him and, even at his worst (which is effectively what he's been at this year), I still believe he can beat any player on any day. His body just has to cooperate.
Wertheim: This, admittedly, is as much heart as it is head ... but I don't yet think of Federer as this underdog worthy of this nostalgic pity. I still think he has good tennis left. Maybe not seven matches of good tennis. Maybe not sufficient good tennis to beat an in-form Nadal or Djokovic or Murray. But the gilding isn't entirely peeled off. I suspect that he gets a warm reception. I suspect that for a variety of reasons -- he basically picks when he wants to play; he's back to his old racket -- he won't lose unfashionably early, as he did at Wimbledon. I suspect that he does not win the title. I propose we enjoy Federer while he's still here and, without being naive about his decline, hold of on the retirement talk.
Deitsch: Hard to find a candidate. No. 3 Agnieszka Radwanska and No. 5 Li Na immediately come to mind, but neither has a U.S. Open history that inspires hope. (Radwanska has made the quarterfinals of every major except the U.S. Open, while Li's only quarterfinal came in 2009.) No. 4 Sara Errani was just waxed in New Haven. Though No. 6 Caroline Wozniacki has a dream draw, I've been burned way too many times picking her at a major. If I had to bet on someone spoiling the Serena-Azarenka express, it'd be the winner of the potential quarterfinal between Radwanska and Li. But I would not bet much.
Jenkins: Sloane Stephens. It won't be easy getting past Jamie Hampton in the third round, but a victory there would pit Stephens against Serena in a match guaranteed to put the spotlight directly on the women's tour. Beyond that, I can't see potential semifinal opponents Agnieszka Radwanska or Li Na halting a Williams run to the final. Azarenka, meanwhile, would appear to have it made. She faces no real threats in her quarter, and would likely face Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals.
Lawrence: On Azarenka's side of the draw there's Samantha Stosur, who upset Serena in the 2011 U.S. Open final and beat Vika in the Southern California Open final three weeks ago. On Serena's side of the draw there's former French Open champion Li Na, a solid hard-court player who can really find the lines when she isn't overthinking her game.
Nguyen: Caroline Wozniacki, 2013 U.S. Open finalist. You heard it here first. The Dane has to be beaming after seeing her cake draw. She's in the bottom half with Azarenka, but her quarter is remarkably weak. Wozniacki is starting to play well again, and she gave Azarenka a good match in last week's loss in Cincinnati.
Wertheim: Sloane Stephens. She relishes the big moments, she will have crowd support and she can draw on her defeat of Serena in Australia and her recent comeback win over Sharapova. The other higher-ranked candidates -- Petra Kvitova, Li Na and Samantha Stosur come immediately to mind -- simply haven't shown the self-belief.
Deitsch: Novak Djokovic. Nadal is the hottest player on tour, but I think he gets picked off somewhere, and maybe it's in the final against Djokovic. I think the Serb is smarting from the Wimbledon pasting he took from Andy Murray. He's made the last three finals in New York, winning in 2011 and nearly rallying from two sets down to beat Murray last year. I roll with the Djoker here.
Jenkins: Rafael Nadal, completing a hard-court run many felt would be beyond his physical capability. If he plays Federer in the quarters, that's always been a favorable matchup for Nadal. Not only that, but Nadal would likely get a huge break in the semifinals, drawing Milos Raonic, Jerzy Janowicz or David Ferrer. Andy Murray should have a breezy run to the quarters, where he'll knock off Tomas Berdych, and that would likely set up a Murray-Djokovic semifinal. I'll take Murray there, with Djokovic being a bit off-form of late. Then it's Rafa's show for the title.
Lawrence: Rafael Nadal. He got a much more favorable draw than Djokovic, who has Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro on his side. If one of those guys doesn't pick off Djokovic, they're sure to tire him out for the final. Del Potro pretty much did exactly that to Djokovic in the Wimbledon semifinals.
Nguyen: Rafael Nadal. I've spent much of this year betting against Nadal, especially on hard courts. No more. He's going to cap his incredible comeback season with his first hard-court Slam title since 2010.
Wertheim: Rafael Nadal. He's been dynamite on the U.S. hard courts. He appears to have cracked the Djokovic Riddle that stumped him for so long. After taking July off, he appears to be moving fine. If he tweaks his knee, all bets are off. But right now, he's in form, he's healthy and he's back at the peak of his mental powers. It wouldn't be a shock if any of the Big Four won. But I think you have to go with Nadal right now.
Deitsch: Victoria Azarenka. Her half of the draw is a cakewalk until the finals. She's only 3-12 against Serena, but she's won their last two hard-court meetings and had the 2012 U.S. Open final in her hands before letting it go. This year, Vika takes it.
Jenkins: Sloane Stephens. It's so tempting to pick Serena, for no matter what happens on tour, she's the best in the world -- and virtually unbeatable when her mind and body are in perfect harmony. That certainly wasn't the case at the Australian Open, where a subpar Williams lost to Stephens. But sometimes the "chalk' pick is just too easy. I know it's a bit early for Stephens' life-changing breakthrough, but I'll take the gamble. That would give Stephens a chance to avenge her controversial loss to Azarenka in Australia -- and hey, why not? If Stephens does reach this final, she won't be stopped.
Lawrence: Serena Williams. Yeah, she could self-destruct again, but if she doesn't she will destroy the field. Just destroy it.
Nguyen: Serena Williams. No opponent is particularly dangerous for her in the top half of the draw. If she faces Azarenka in the final, the motivation will be sky-high. Azarenka is 2-0 against Serena on hard courts this year, and the Belarusian came very close to beating her in last year's U.S. Open final. If history tells us anything, it's that Serena does revenge pretty darn well.
Wertheim: Serena Williams. Credit Azarenka for her win over Serena in Cincinnati. But let's acknowledge the difference between a big stage and the biggest stage. I have to go with Serena.