Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Open -- and shut

If you live in the United States, and haven’t made the trip to the tennis mecca of this country, Flushing Meadows, what are you waiting for? Most of us may never get into Wimbledon or the Australian Open, but this is our backyard, and the last major of the tennis calendar. This is the chance to see the fuzz fly -- on a massive stage.
This season has been both thrilling and disappointing in some ways. There’s the beginnings of a potentially great men’s rivalry, and the collapse of the women’s game. There’s the ending of one great career, and hints of greatness from others. There’s also the fact that it’s 1:30 in the morning, so let’s just get right into it.


1. Roger Federer: What hasn’t been said about the F-bomb? Truly, he’s got men’s tennis by the, er, throat. However, he’s had a long year, and it showed in his loss in Cincinnati against Andy Murray. That defeat might have been the best thing to happen to the man, though. He comes in rested, and refocused, and dangerous.
2. Rafael Nadal: The yin to Federer’s yang. He also suffered an early loss in Cincinnati to the resurgent (??) Juan Carlos Ferrero. Like Federer, he’s been making finals all year, and an extended rest before the U.S. Open won’t hurt him. But the difference between he and Federer is that Federer’s knows this surface like Nadal knows clay. A little more work on concrete wouldn’t have hurt Nadal, but he’s already shown his ability to adapt. His first round match is against Mark Philippoussis, and if he can escape that, he’ll have an easy ride to the semis.
3. Ivan Ljubicic: Wherefore art thou, Ivan? He’s got a big game, big serve, imposing shots -- and no majors. Must be between the ears. He’s drawn Feliciano Lopez in the first round, the only Spaniard who sucks on clay. Even if he gets out of that, he could face Richard Gasquet in the third round, and Lleyton Hewitt after that. Not good, Ivan. Not good.
4. David Nalbadian: Another big-time player with nothing to show for it. One of the few players to hold a winning record against Federer, Nalbandian has underachieved, losing to players that he should be able to beat. Sounds like his likely opponent in the second round, one Marat Safin. Break out the popcorn for that one.
5. James Blake: After tanking at Wimbledon, Blake has gone on to have a lackluster summer. He beat Andy Roddick for the second time in his career to hoist the Indianapolis title, but has been sliding since. He was seeded first at the Pilot Pen in New Haven, had a cushy draw, and couldn’t even get out of the starting gate. Did he play too much this summer? I think so. Damn the U.S. Open Series, James. Get ready for the big one next year. I see him losing to Dmitry Tursunov in the quarters.
6. Tommy Robredo: How did he get up here? Consistent results all year long, that’s how. He’s a solid player who’s beaten the likes of Nalbandian, Blake and Davydenko this year, and he’s got what it takes to make the quarterfinals. There, he’ll probably run into a brick wall named Nadal.
7. Nikolay Davydenko: Won New Haven, beating a librarian's row of cream puffs in the process. He’ll come away with some confidence, sure, but playing Andy Murray in the Round of 16 will be a shock to his system.
8. Marcos Baghdatis: The likable Cypriot will be the most hated man in Arthur Ashe Stadium come that second round match against Andre Agassi. He hasn’t done much this summer, and has shown some scattered results all year, from the Aussie Open finals to crashing out in the second round of the French. If Agassi’s fully rested and ready to go, Baghdatis could have a lot of time to sample the Greek food in New York.
9. Young Andrew Roddick: All right, Andy. You’ve got your props. You got a title this summer, and you and your camp say that you’re back. He did whip some contenders, like Andy Murray, Fernando Gonzalez and Ferrero. And he’s starting to hit his backhand. And he does have Jimmy Connors with him at the zoo of the majors. Under the lights of New York City, Andy could do anything. Like charge to the finals of the U.S. Open. Or lose in the Round of 16 to Agassi or Baghdatis.
10. Fernando Gonzalez: Watch him play, and you wonder why he hasn’t made any significant noise in a major yet. His fearless style of play is probably his biggest undoing. He goes for his shots -- and misses -- too much.

The stragglers:
Andre Agassi: Somehow, calling him a straggler seems wrong. But Agassi, even with the storied ending to a magnificent career, is a long shot. He’s got little chance of making the run he did last year because his body’s getting rickety. The hope: That he gets past Baghdatis and handles Sebastien Grosjean and Andy Roddick. The reality: Enter the doubles draw, Andre. Extend your stay.
Andy Murray (17th): He’s been a different player since Brad Gilbert grudgingly accepted more than $1 million to take Murray under his wing. Gilbert is probably a pain in the ass to have around, but it’s hard to deny the effect his has on his students. Murray has dropped the hangdog look in tough matches, and pulled most of them out. Roddick nipped him in Cincy, but he’d played all summer. He’ll be ready for a nice run at the Open.
Novak Djokovic and Gael Monfils (25th and 27th): Neither may get very far at the Open, but they have rather strong games and each is capable of an upset. Djokovic could very well take advantage of an injured Hewitt (knee) in the third round, while Monfils could get a shot at Nadal in the Round of 16.
Gaston Gaudio (21st): What, does he have a protected seeding or something? He won the French three years ago, for crying out loud.
Juan Carlos Ferrero (16th): Nice Cincy run. Now try it at a major.
Dmitry Tursunov (23rd): Fiery temper? Oh, yeah. Not even MacEnroe tried to break a ref’s hand before.
Marat Safin: To take a page out of Goran Ivanesevic’s book, let’s see who shows up to Queens: the bad Marat (busts a few racquets, loses in the first round to Robin Vik) or the good Marat (busts a few racquets, garners some fines, moons the crowd, and beats Nalbandian in the second round, only to lose to a Rochus brother).

First-round matches to see:
Lopez v. Ljubicic
Nadal v. Philippousis: Sheesh, not even Alexandra Stevenson gets wild cards anymore. Who does Philippousis know?
Murray v. Robert Kendrick: Was Kendrick’s performance against Nadal at Wimbledon a flash in the pan, or is he an American hope?
Tim Henman v. Greg Rusedski: The battle of the Brits. Go Tim (into the second round, where you’ll get dusted by Federer)!

Upset special:
I’m not throwing Andre under the bus. Later, Ljubicic.

The way it'll go down:
Semifinals: Federer v. Murray, Nadal v. Roddick
Final: Federer v. Nadal
Winner: Coin toss.

1. Amelie Mauresmo: About time she puts those mental demons to bed. Her win over Justine Henin-Hardenne was her first real major win, and she should be proud. Truth is, though, she’s the weakest top seed at a major in a long time. Just as easily as she could put together a run, she could be pushed by someone like Lisa Raymond or Ana Ivanovic. In order to cement her seeding, she’ll have to perform well here.
2. Justine Henin-Hardenne: How does she do it? She bailed at the Australian Open final, only to win the French and make the Wimbledon finals. She even comes in with a measure of confidence, heaving the Pilot Pen trophy, despite Lindsay Davenport doing most of the heavy lifting, (in disposing Mauresmo) then pulling up lame in the final. Even with her injury problems (both real and imaginary), she’s the closest to a sure thing the women’s game has got right now.
3. Maria Sharapova: After she beat Kim Clijsters in the San Diego final, and lost to Dementieva in the L.A. semis, Sharapova sure has made herself scarce. Let's hope she's been working on a 'Plan B' for her game. Even coming in somewhat cold, Sharapova can always challenge. Is she ready to make it to another Grand Slam final?
4. Elena Dementieva: Just when you thought it was safe to let her serve out a match ... She nearly let Jelena Jankovic back in during the Los Angeles final. Plus, she had Svetlana Kuznetsova on the ropes in New Haven and double-faulted her way to defeat. She’s such a strong all-around player that the weakness that is her serve really stands out. But she’s seeded fourth here, so she’s doing something right. Expect it to go wrong, though, if she faces Sam Stosur in the Round of 16.
5. Nadia Petrova: It’s been a long, tough road back from injury for the Russian. She’s a fine player, with big groundstrokes and a versatile game. But she’s been on the shelf for most of the summer. Can she shake off the rust by the time she faces Anna Chakvetadze in the Round of 16?
6. Svetlana Kuznetsova: During her match with Elena Dementieva in New Haven, she called for a coach’s time-out. Woman, you were playing the weakest server in women’s tennis and you need some advice? Hmm. Maybe you should try attacking the serve. Anyway, this former U.S. Open champion hasn’t been as strong as she was in 2004, when the tour was depleted by injury. She’ll need to stay focused in this draw, if she wants to advance past Jelena Jankovic in the 16s and Dementieva in the quarterfinals.
7. Patty Schnyder: Gotta give her credit for her staying power. She’s been consistent all year. Her lefty game usually makes for long matches. She has a nice draw, and with Lindsay Davenport dealing with a new injury, could make her way to the quarters.
8. Martina Hingis: Well, well, well. Look who’s in the Top 10 again. She lost in the Montreal finals to Ivanovic, but the Chessmaster is probably raring to make a real run in a major. Problem is, her first round match is against the talented Shuai Peng. If she can get out of that sticky situation, she can enjoy a fairly comfortable ride to the quarters. And although she’ll face Mauresmo, she’s gotta like her chances of getting into the Frenchwoman’s head.
9. Nicole Vaidisova: She’s cooled off somewhat since the French Open, and pleaded injury in withdrawing from the New Haven event. She could have been saving herself for another major run or she could be booted in round three by Jankovic.
10. Lindsay Davenport: Prediction: This will be the 30-year-old’s last major. Davenport has been frustrated by injury all season, and to be unable to compete against players she should be able to beat must be killing her. Her game is willing, but her body seems to be unable.

The stragglers:
Jelena Jankovic (19th): Pegging her for the semifinals, and maybe further. She combines a power game with variety, and she showed how much fun she has on court in her win against Serena in Los Angeles and even in her loss to Dementieva in the final.
Vera Zvonareva (33rd): She looks to be on the comeback trail this year, and she’s capable of taking care of Dementieva in the third round.
Serena Williams: Serena comes in to this tournament with a few matches under her belt, and unseeded. Can she beat Daniela Hantuchova, Ana Ivanovic, Amelie Mauresmo, and Dinara Safina or Martina Hingis just to reach the semis. Um, no.
The Chinese brigade: Peng, Na Li and Tiantian Sun are all floating around in the top half, and Li could beat Mary Pierce to make the Round of 16. Here’s a question: Where are all the up-and-coming Americans?
Chanda Rubin: Not quite who I had in mind, but it’s great that she’s playing again. What’s not great is that her first round is against Nicole Vaidisova. See Chanda while you can.

First round matches to watch:
Hingis v. Peng
Shenay Perry v. Eleni Daniilidou: Perry made waves at Wimbledon when she was the only American to advance past the third round. This is a great chance for her to make another run.
Vaidisova v. Rubin
Karolina Sprem v. Sania Mirza: Doesn’t look like Sprem can do much when the ref’s keeping the right score. But she should beat Mirza, who could use just one revolution of spin on her groundstrokes.
Vania King v. Alicia Molik: Molik’s another player who’s been sidelined by injury. At her peak, which was just before an inner ear infection, she was beating Venus Williams at the Australian and challenging Davenport.
Hantuchova v. Bethanie Mattek: Please, someone take Bethanie clothes shopping before this match. Do not let her emerge from the store with tube socks.
Bychkova v. Shavronskaia: Try saying that three times fast. By the time you're done, the match will be over.

Upset special:
Martina Hingis gets a Shanghai surprise.

The way it'll go down:
Semifinals: Mauresmo v. Sharapova, Henin-Hardenne v. Jankovic
Final: Mauresmo v. Jankovic
Winner: Mauresmo

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