US Open: Federer, Serena primed for glory

Welcome back to isportsweb’s tennis section! I hope you’ve enjoyed the hard court season during my little hiatus there, in which we’ve seen a lot to get us ready for the upcoming finale of the Grand Slam calendar, the US Open, which I will once again be attending. Let’s get right to it. 

We’ve had a number of tournaments from which to draw conclusions since Novak Djokovic won his second Wimbledon title last month, and the standings at the top of the men’s game are as follows; 

Roger Federer: one title, one runner-up showing, and the very real possibility that he is playing the very best hard court tennis he’s played in about five years. 

Novak Djokovic: zero titles, zero finals, and multiple losses to lower-seeded opponents (such as David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whom he beats in his sleep when he’s at his best). 

Rafael Nadal: zero titles, zero finals in zero appearances, with his withdrawal from the US Open announcement coming a few days ago. He injured his right wrist, and before you bring up the obvious point that Nadal is left-handed, remember that he does hit a two-handed backhand, and a large portion of a tennis player’s ability to be effective comes from wrist movement. This is especially true in the case of Nadal, who hits with more spin than just about anyone else on tour. All that pop, especially those amazing finishes that he applies to his groundstrokes, comes from the wrists, and without them, he isn’t nearly as effective. Remember how long it took Juan Martín del Potro to get right after his slew of wrist injuries? And he’s a flat hitter, a banger whose game is less dependent on spin. Of all the injuries that Rafa could have sustained, a wrist ailment seems pretty manageable, especially considering the nagging nature of his knee issues of years past, and to his credit, he always comes back stronger than ever. Get well soon, Rafa, you will be missed. 

Andy Murray: zero titles, zero finals and zero convincing showings in any of the tournaments that he’s played since Wimbledon, putting on display the fragility of his mental status following the loss of his coach and the back surgery he had earlier this year. It seems amazing that Murray has so consistently underperformed this season, but his lack of a signature win or even a signature moment, a moment that made you think, “there’s the two-time Grand Slam champ and the hope of all Britannia, there’s Andy Murray!” yield only one possible outcome. Andy Murray just needs to take some time off, regroup, make sure his back is 100%, find a coach that can handle his fragile psyche, and come back next season ready to play once again. Roger Federer has made it clear that he’s never going away, and as long as Djokovic still exists in physical form, titles won’t come to Murray easily. He needs to press the reset button and just start over. I hope he comes back strongly next season. 

On to more pressing matters: the US Open. The draw hasn’t been released yet, but the absence of Nadal and Djokovic’s shaky play since the Wimbledon final bode extraordinarily well for five-time champion Federer. If things hold, and there’s no reason to think that they will or won’t at this point, I’d take Federer in the title match. I think he senses that with the absence of Nadal, the door is open for him to add to his title count, thanks to the dynamic described here and here. David Ferrer has continued to fight valiantly for his place in the game, but the spry Spaniard finds himself outclassed, out-powered, and out-hit nearly every time he sniffs a major title. Milos Raonic is very good, but finds himself unable to break through. Despite one title this summer, he got absolutely whitewashed by Federer in the semifinals of the Cincinnati Masters, as strong a piece of proof as any that raw power is no match for finesse and experience in the men’s game. Combine that with Federer’s strong play this summer, and I think he’s primed for a deep run at Flushing. He’ll want to avenge early exits in the tournament these last two years, and truth be told, his run of great play at Wimbledon makes me think he’s got at least one major title left in him. 

On the women’s side of the draw, Serena Williams has finally started to play the kind of tennis we expected her to play since her ridiculously dominant 2013. She was so far ahead of the rest of the field in points that losing early, even at the events where she had points to defend, did nothing to dent her hold on the number one ranking. She just kept on chugging, and finally looks like the Serena of last year. 

She’s turned in two dominating title runs (in California and Cincinnati), and looks ready to salvage what has been an otherwise disappointing year (by her standards) despite her continued reign as number one. She blitzed through an admittedly tired Ana Ivanovic in Cincinnati, laying to rest any doubt about the idea that Ivanovic had her number after ousting her in Melbourne back in January. Ivanovic took out Maria Sharapova in a marathon semifinal en route to losing in the title match, and the French Open champion has yet to reach a final since hoisting the trophy in Paris. 

The women’s field is even more wide open thanks to the sudden crumbling of Li Na, who has been nowhere to be found since winning the Australian Open. She lost to Serena in the final of the Sony Open in Miami in March, and hasn’t made a single final since. Victoria Azarenka is still working herself back from injury, and with how long it seems to be taking Andy Murray to come back, don’t expect great things from her in New York. 

Simona Halep continues her strong play, claiming a title in her home country of Romania, and now has a firm grip on the number two ranking. She will look to rebound from her heartbreaking French Open loss, and I think that this could be the tournament in which she does it. She’ll be the number two seed and won’t have to face Williams until the final, and other than Sharapova, I don’t think there are many players who can beat her. Unlike the slow clay of Paris, the hard courts of Flushing will definitely be a boon to her-speed will become more of a factor, and balls that she hits will not sit up quite as high for power players like Sharapova to tee off on. If Williams is playing at her best, as always, it’s her title to lose. But if she displays any weaknesses, you can bet that Halep will exploit them and contend for the title. 

A big story coming out of the summer is the resurgence of Venus Williams, these days usually relegated to the lower seeds of major tournaments and ignominious, early exits as she loses her consistency and composure against lesser opponents. In the first Serena vs. Venus match that actually mattered in a long time, Venus took out her little sister en route to a loss in the final of the Rogers Cup to perennial contender Agnieszka Radwanska. It just goes to show that even with her autoimmune disorder, even with the fact that she’s in her mid-thirties, even with the fact that her best years are without doubt behind her, the beautiful, eloquent, impossibly graceful Venus is still a threat on the court from time to time. 

Venus Williams has struggled mightily over the last few seasons, but her strong hard court play has supporters hoping for a good run at the US Open.

Venus Williams has struggled mightily over the last few seasons, but her strong hard court play has supporters hoping for a good run at the US Open.

Venus Williams is, in my opinion, one of the most extraordinary people, male or female, currently playing a professional sport right now. Her personal crusade for equal pay for women, at a time when she had everything to lose as the number one player in the world, made headlines and established her as someone who would not stand for injustice, to her eternal credit. It was later made into a Nine for IX documentary (ESPN’s female equivalent of its acclaimed 30 for 30 series). She’s one of those people that has always seemed to be above the game even while she was playing it, too mature to get too caught up in winning or losing, but loving taking part in it anyway. It’s been a privilege to watch her continue to struggle and play her heart out even when she knows that both time and health are not in her court anymore. Maybe she’ll get a favorable draw and make a run at the US Open, but probably not. It seems weird to think that in contrast to ten years ago, when her tennis made us pay attention to the wonderful work that she was doing off the court, now the off-the-court stuff makes us pay extra attention when her on the court abilities come out from time to time. Perhaps that’s the way of it with all great athletes who also happen to be great people or humanitarians. Either way, I hope she keeps up her strong run of play, as it would be wonderful to see her in good form at the Open. 

Finally, let’s talk about the “shot clock.” At Wimbledon, much was made of the idea of a timer that limits the amount of time that players can take between points, as players like Rafael Nadal can take what seems like ages to prepare to serve again. There’s an awesome video that shows Roger Federer serving out an entire game in the time it takes Rafa to play one point and get ready for the next serve There currently is such a limit (it’s 20 seconds at the Grand Slams and 25 at other tour events for the men, but it is rarely enforced by the chair umpires), so perhaps the first idea would be to actually start enforcing the rules that are already in place. However, this can become an exercise in arbitrariness and unfair practices, as there is no guarantee that all umpires will do so equally.

It matters because taking too long between points is beneficial to players who are possibly less fit, and cuts down on the advantage that players who are in better shape have against their more winded opponents. Many players have made a living on grinding down less-conditioned players. Andre Agassi was legendary for being quick between his serves, hastening the next point so as to continue dishing out cardio punishment with his pinpoint groundstrokes. Federer is also quite quick about his routine between points. Nadal (and I’m sorry to be picking on Rafa, but he is guilty of this) and many others will towel themselves constantly, check and recheck multiple balls, go through elaborate pre-serve routines, and finally serve the ball. 

I’m not saying that I’m advocating for change, but the people who say that a rule is being broken definitely do have a point. I don’t think it’s as relevant as it might have been 20 or even ten years ago, when not everyone was as conditioned as they are now, and that gave some players a distinct advantage, and when I watch tennis, I never think to myself, “I wish there were about five seconds fewer between points, that would really take this match to the next level.” I think an increase in good-faith effort by the umpires to prevent abuse of the rule is appropriate, but a shot clock that will impose a penalty, after rallies that can stretch out for scores of shots, or in the fifth set of a tense match when the crowd is going crazy and the players are soaking it in and channeling the energy into their next serves, seems draconian and inappropriate. Tennis is still (ostensibly) a gentleman’s and ladies’ game, and treating the players as children runs contrary to much of what the sport stands for. 

Keep it right here for more updates as we gear up for the year’s last major.