Well, the story of the 2011 season so far, on both hard courts and everywhere, has been the utter domination by Novak Djokovic. Djokovic is close to on pace to eclipse John McEnroe’s 1984 82-3 season. He probably won’t play enough to equal Federer’s 95 wins in 2006, but should be well ahead of that in percentage. Federer stopped Novak from his chance at the first Calendar Year Grand Slam since Rod Laver in 1969 by beating him in the French Open semis, but that shouldn’t detract from what an incredible year this has been for him.
1. Novak Djokovic: Honestly, I want to put him as the only favorite on this list. He has not lost a match and has only dropped 8 sets on hard courts this entire year. The faster courts in the US give him a tiny bit of trouble because his serve is usually returnable and his game all starts from his return of serve, but that hasn’t caused him to drop a match in these last two weeks. He keeps the ball deep, moves his opponents around, and unloads on big shots at every opportunity. His speed and flexibility also make him extremely hard to hit past. He seemed a little disinterested at times these past two weeks in tune-ups, but he still won 9 straight matches until a shoulder injury forced him to retire in the Cincinnati final against Murray earlier today. It would be foolish to expect anything but his best at the US Open. The only real matter of concern should be his shoulder, but hopefully he will be able to rest and have it at 100% for the US Open.
2. Roger Federer: Federer is one of the top hard court players in US Open history. While he has been susceptible to losing to big hitters over the past few years, it still took his opponents’ absolute best performances to take Federer out. Roger’s game plays out beautifully on this surface and he does have the distinction of being the only person to have beaten Djokovic so far this year. We’ve learned never to count Federer out, and with Nadal’s recent woes he is probably the first in line to step up if Djokovic falters just a tiny bit.
3. Rafael Nadal: I seriously considered putting him in the “bad bets” section. Naal has never been great in the American summer Masters events, so his early exits in Montreal and Cincinnati didn’t bother me. What does bother me in Rafa’s attitude on the court. He looks beaten and seems to lack confidence out there. There’s really no other way to put it-he choked away his match to Dodig in Montreal and tried to choke against Verdasco in Cincinnati before Fernando out-choked him. Nadal is a great competitor and is trying to find some way to fight this, but at the moment it’s very tough to imagine Nadal winning this tournament. He makes the favorites list because he is one of the most talented players on tour, but if he doesn’t bring his top game back that might chance very soon.
Next In Line:
While writing my previews for the French open and Wimbledon, there was one player I really couldn’t place. I couldn’t really call Andy Murray a favorite because he has yet to show the mental fortitude needed over two entire weeks to beat the top players and win a Grand Slam. He has come very close but until he shows an overabundance of confidence and game during the lead-ups to a Slam or wins a set in a Slam final, I can’t in good faith call him a favorite. I also can’t call him a dark horse because he is clearly one of the most talented player on tour and is obviously first in line to step up if the top 3 falter. So, I’m adding a fourth category just for Murray (but I will find others to add in here).
1. Andy Murray: I guess I ruined the surprise with that introduction. Murray has shown time and again that he has the ability to beat the top players, even on the top stages. He has just never been able to do it on the very biggest stage-a Grand Slam final. He has shown the ability to beat even an on-form Djokovic this year, coming within a few points of winning in Rome. He won in Cincinnati earlier today, but Novak was very obviously hampered by an injury .Murray has never contested a Grand Slam final against someone other than Federer or Djokovic, but I would think that he would have to be the favorite if he manages to meet anyone else there.
2. Mardy Fish: What a summer this guy has had. I considered putting him as a favorite if he had beaten Murray in the Cincinnati semifinals. Fish doesn’t have anything particularly spectacular in his game. He keeps his returns (and all his shots) deep and takes his opportunities to open up the court or hit outright winners with big shots down the lines. His new fitness allows him to play much better defense and his volleying and net approaches have improved drastically recently. He has shown the ability to beat anyone on tour, especially on this surface. Also, most importantly, his confidence is through the roof. He said it best himself. He came into his match with Nadal at Wimbledon knowing he would lose; he came into his match against Nadal in Cincinnati believing he could win. The one issue is that he does not have the consistency that has been the trademark of Grand Slam champions these past 7 years. He lost to Gulbis in Los Angeles and had a just bizarre match against Wawrinka in Montreal where Fish took the second set to a tiebreak despite being broken 4 times. He can beat anyone on tour, but if he has matches like those along the way he won’t even get a chance. He did help himself by reaching the semifinals in Cincinnati, which was just enough to beat out Tomas Berdych for the #8 seed at the US Open.
1. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Tsonga plays a great game on hard courts. He hits big, has a great 1-2 punch with his serve and first forehand, and does well at the net. He has reached a Grand Slam final on this surface before. He has beaten Federer twice in a row and has a winning record against Djokovic in his career (Novak has won the last two though). When Tsonga is at his best he is very tough for anyone to beat. Unfortunately, he has managed that level very few times in his career. He seems to be working towards it this year, especially since Wimbledon, so if he can pull out his top game for 2 weeks he could do something amazing.
2. Juan Martin Del Potro: I’m not sure how long I can stay on this Del Potro train. He has not shown the form he exhibited in the summer of 2009 since his comeback. Still, he did win this event the last time he competed here. He has the talent to hit just about anyone off the court when his game is on. Djokovic is a bad match-up for him, but if he gets the right draw and find his 2009 form then Del Potro could be playing well into the second week in Flushing Meadows.
1. Robin Soderling: If Soderling was in form he could actually challenge to win this title. Unfortunately, Robin has been injured and at this point it’s not even a given that he will be able to compete in New York City. But even if he does, he will not be 100% and will not have had match experience on hard courts since Miami in March. He did very well on the hard courts early in the season and his game is really suited for this surface; i just can’t see him doing well coming off this injury.
2. David Ferrer: Ferrer will be #5 when the rankings update tomorrow and will be the #5 seed at the US Open. Still, he is also coming off an injury (a broken finger) and has very little experience on the hard courts this year. His game and movement are also designed for clay. I feel like he will really struggle at the US Open with his limited warm-up time and his lack of any big weapons on hard courts.
3. Andy Roddick: He won’t even be a top 20 seed here, but I think this needs to be said. If he want to ever bring back his old forehand and attaking game, Roddick will be able to challenge just about anyone. Since it looks less and less like he is going to do that, and since more small injuries seem to be cropping up, it’s really beginning to feel like we are heading towards the end of Roddick’s career. He will probably do better than last year, when he lost to mono-fatigue and Janko Tipsarevic in the second round. But I would not expect much more of him, especially since he will most likely meet someone seeded higher than himself in the third round.
If you haven’t read my Slam previews in the past, floating seeds is my term for players who aren’t seeded but have the talent to be or could be, but they just aren’t for whatever reason. These are the players who can really bust up the draw because they could meet anyone in any round. John Isner drawing to meet Nadal in the first round of the French Open was a perfect example of a floating seed.
1. Kevin Anderson: Sitting currently at #34 in the World (when the rankings update tomorrow), the South African giant may actually be seeded at the US Open, especially with Raonic and Soderling doubtful. But assuming he isn’t seeded, the huge-serving Anderson will be a tough out for anyone. Big servers, especially on fast hard courts, are always tough to break and if the match comes down to tiebreaks then anything can happen.
2. Bernard Tomic/Ryan Harrison/Grigor Dimitrov: These three young guns are most likely the future top players of the sport. They have proven in the past to have the talent and the ability to fight and content with just about anyone. They are not consistent enough yet to have a high enough ranking to be seeded. But any of these three can compete with and even beat anyone they draw in any given match.
3. Xavier Malisse: A poor summer this year has dropped him out of the top 50, but this is Malisse’s favorite surface and when he is on he has the potential to beat just about anyone (except Federer, who he never seems to try against) on this surface.
4. Lleyton Hewitt: Lleyton is probably the toughest fighter in all of tennis. As long as he is physically able to play, he will be out there and fighting with whoever he draws. Hewitt can lose just about any match at this point in his career, but he also can win any given match. If he draws a top player we should be in for an enjoyable match to watch and a possible upset.