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Monday, 31 August 2015

Tennis Takes a Bite Out of the Big Apple
Welcome to the 2015 US Open


The final major of the tennis season is upon us.  Can you believe 9 months have flown by already since we started the grand slam season in Australia?  The months are sailing by faster than a Federer forehand shot.  We have seen some epic upsets, out of this world shots and amazing comebacks this season.  But the more things change, the more they stay the same.  The grand slam champions for 2015 have been a familiar bunch...and a small collective group.  Serena Williams has rolled through the grand slam season, winning the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon.  New York could see the first calendar year grand slam since Steffi Graf achieved the feat in 1988 (Graf would actually win 5 grand slam titles in a row) but more on this below.  On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic won his fifth Australian Open (a modern era record) and his third Wimbledon title to up his grand slam collection to nine overall.  If it wasn’t for Stan #Stanimal Wawrinka playing lights out tennis in the French Open championship, we would have a chance to see the double calendar grand slam over the next two weeks.

This year marks the 135th edition of the US Open.  A few interesting points to note as you hunker down for two weeks of intense tennis action:

1)    Tiebreaks – The US Open is the only major using tiebreaks in every set.  At the other three majors, the deciding set continues until a player wins by 2 games.  Not in New York.  If players are tied at 6 in the deciding set, bring on the tiebreaker to decide the winner.  Fans and players have mixed reactions to this.  The drama is heightened during a tiebreaker and this does ensure matches do not go on for hours (or days...see Isner-Mahut 2010 Wimbledon).  On the flip side, watching two great athletes go stroke for stroke for hours only to see it decided by a race to 7 points seems anti-climatic.  Sometimes the drama of who will break who’s serve first is intriguing.  Neither is wrong of course and it is nice to mix it up at least for one major.

2)    Goodbye Monday Night – For 2015, the men’s championship will (finally) move back to Sunday night.  For 2013 and 2014, the championship match was moved to Monday and was often criticized by players and fans.  Not this year though...we go back to the traditional Sunday championship....and I for one am quite happy with this.

3)    History, History, History – DYK the US Open is the only major to be played every year since inception?  While the other majors have seen years of no tournament played due to various reasons, the US Open has never missed crowning champions.  134 consecutive champions crowned thus far.  Incredible!

4)    Surface Change – The US Open has been played on three different surfaces.  In fact, when the tournament began in 1881, it was a grass surface.  There was even a brief period from 1975 – 1977 where the US Open was played on clay...CLAY!  Weird right?  Of course now the tournament is played on the hard courts we are used to seeing.  Interestingly enough, Jimmy Connors is the only player to win the US Open on all 3 surfaces.  Chris Evert won when the tournament was played on clay and hard court.
 
5)   US Open Series Champions? - The 2015 US Open Series champions were Andy Murray and...Karolina Pliskova?  Ok Murray I get, he won the Rogers Cup and reached the SF in Cincinnati.  He escaped with a narrow 5 point win to claim this title.  But Pliskova?  She also claimed a 5 point win for this.  I suppose consistency helps but still.  She had an average summer and really didn't beat anyone of high ranking.  She lost the final in Stanford, 3R in Cincinnati and QF in Connecticut.  Yet here she is with a shot at a cool $1M if she wins the US Open.  Ok, let's be honest that isn't going to happen.  In fact, if she makes 3R I would be shocked. Serena still has a shot at an extra pay day though finishing runner-up.  If she wins the US Open, she will take home an extra $500K.  Same with Novak Djokovic.  3rd place finishers John Isner and Simona Halep can win an extra $250K if they win their first grand slam.  Of course, for each round the top three players advance they take home a bit more extra money because of their US Open Series final placement.  I still like this idea and it does add a unique twist on the summer hard court series.  But Pliskova?  Really?  I mean congratulations of course but this still seems a bit shocking.

6)    The Action is Rolling Along Too – The US Open not only offers the main events we all know and love but there will also be junior action and wheelchair action to see while in New York.  In all the talk about the lengthy time between grand slam champions, we should take note of recent grand slam success on the wheelchair circuit.  In 2014, Stephane Houdet completed the grand slam in men’s wheelchair doubles.  Also in 2014, Yui Kamiji and Jordanne Whiley completed the grand slam in women’s doubles (a string of 5 consecutive grand slam wins).  Of course, nobody can forget the greatest wheelchair tennis athlete of all time, Dutch player Esther Vergeer who accomplished the grand slam feat twice in women’s doubles (combined with her 10 year undefeated streak in singles and her 21 grand slam singles titles).  Vergeer retired in 2013 and ended her career with a winning streak of 470 matches.  Of those matches, she faced a match point only ONCE (2008 Paralympic Games).  Vergeer is not only the greatest wheelchair athlete of all time but is, without question, the greatest and most dominant athlete of any sport of all time.  I only wish wheelchair tennis would receive more coverage during these grand slam events.  These are outstanding athletes as well and deserve a chance to showcase their talents on a world stage.
 
Ok, enough with the history lessons.  This isn’t history class, this is phys ed and we want to know what to expect for the 2015 US Open right?  While, as per tradition (history class still), before we reveal the #TwineTime predictions, let’s take a closer look at the favourites, the one’s to watch and the dark horse that can bust your bracket.  It is worth noting that a dark horse pick cannot be a player ranked for the event (outside top 32).

The Favorites

Novak Djokovic (#1) – No surprise here.  Novak elevates himself to another level during the grand slam events.  Being denied his shot at a calendar grand slam stings a bit but don’t tell Novak...he doesn’t seem to care.  The top ranked player in the world for the past 61 weeks (and 162 weeks overall) has had a good summer but not a great summer.  Back to back tournament final losses in Montreal and Cincinnati were tough but more concerning is these losses came to the biggest challengers for the US Open, Roger Federer (Cincinnati) and Andy Murray (Montreal).  Another telling stat is the US Open has never been kind to Novak.  He only has 1 title here and that was way back in 2011.  Now of course the past 3 years have seen him make at least the final four so results are still strong.  His draw is favourable this year so expect to see him back in at least the SF.  Can he actually get over the hump and back to winning in New York though? 

Serena Williams (#1) – If Novak being the favourite isn’t a surprise, what word do we use to describe Serena in this position?  I don’t think anyone is betting against her here.  Sure the loss to Bencic in Toronto was a bit of a surprise but Bencic played light’s out and caught Serena off guard.  She doesn’t usually have those kind of mental lapses in grand slam events.  She has 21 grand slam titles ranking her third all-time and one title behind Steffi Graf for second all-time.  Serena enters New York as the three-time defending champion and has not lost here since the 2011 final upset against Sam Stosur.  This is the first time she has had the chance to complete the calendar grand slam and I just don’t see her letting it slip away.  Her draw is a difficult one, probably more difficult than she has faced in awhile.  But when her back is against the wall, Serena comes out firing.  Time to make some history here folks!
The Challengers

Roger Federer (#2) – The 17-time grand slam champion is a legit challenger to Djokovic.  Sure Roger has not won a grand slam since 2012 Wimbledon and his last US Open title was 2008, the completion of a five-year championship run.  But this is also, arguably, the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) so never count him out.  The victory over Novak in Cincinnati leading into the US Open was a statement win.  Roger knows he can beat any player on tour and now has the confidence to beat Djokovic, something he has been lacking in the past.  He already holds the record for most grand slam titles for men, why not add to it?  There is always talk about whether this will be RFed’s final and best shot at a grand slam title.  I always think he is a threat at Wimbledon given his history but, outside of the All England Club, this year could be his best chance.
Serena Williams (#1) – No this is not a misprint.  I really am at a loss to find a player who can challenge Serena for this title.  I think the best player who can take down Serena...will be Serena.  If she gets in her own head or starts thinking she in unbeatable or gets distracted with the media and grand slam talk, she could falter.  It has happened before and it is not unheard of to see Serena self-destruct and suffer a weird upset loss.  There is a TON of pressure on her during this event.  Yes she is a proven champion.  Yes none of this is new to her.  But she is only human and sometimes things happen.  There are players in the draw who could give her a legit problem.  Look at players such as Petra Kvitova (#4), Simona Halep (#2), Victoria Azarenka (#20) and Montreal conqueror Belinda Bencic (#12) could all push Serena and are capable of knocking her off.  Unfortunately, Kvitova, Halep and Azarenka are all on the other side of the draw.  But Bencic could be waiting in the QF.

The Dark Horse
Alexander Zverev – The “German Giant” might be one of the best players you have never heard of.  Standing at a towering 6’6, Zverev is a former number 1 ranked junior boys player.  Having transitioned over to the ATP main tour in 2014, Zverev currently is ranked 81 in the world.  He enters the US Open off his first grand slam win at Wimbledon over the summer and has had some impressive results this year, including the R16 at Nottingham, SF of the Swedish Open and QF of the Citi Open.  He opens the US Open against fellow big German Phil Kohlschreiber, a rematch of their 2R match in Miami earlier this year (won by Kohlschreiber).  With only a 14-16 career ATP record, looks can be deceiving.  Do not be surprised to see Zverev upset his seeded German opponent in the opening round and perhaps find himself on the other side of the net against RFed in the third round.


Daria Gavrilova – I honestly thought about taking Dominica Cibulkova here because I think she will go very far this year (see below) but seems weird to pick your dark horse as a former Top 10 player and grand slam finalist (2014 Australian Open).  Enter Gavrilova!  Oh you haven’t heard much about her?  You will...and this will be the week it happens.  Currently ranked 36 in the world, I expect to see her seeded in all majors next year.  Daria will be making her US Open debut on Monday, coming off her first full calendar year of playing all 4 grand slams.  Look at this stat: one year ago Gavrilova was hovering around 368 in the world...she now sits at 36.  How is that for a rise in fame?  This year alone she has beaten Bencic (twice!), Ivanovic and Sharapova.  Oddly enough Maria was supposed to be her first round opponent until she withdrew on Sunday.  Again, advantage Gavrilova now!  Rather than playing the 3 ranked player in the world in your first US Open match, you now get lucky loser Daria Kasatkina (ranked 132) in a battle of Daria vs Daria.  The 21-year old is a former #1 ranked junior girls player and did win the 2010 US Open junior girls title.  With Sharapova out of her way, her draw opens up big time....huge opportunity for a career best performance.

Ok there is a brief primer on a few players to keep an eye on...many you probably should be watching already.  Now let’s get on to the fun part, the #TwineTime predictions!!  Here you go ball boys and ball girls...


MEN

Fourth Round

(1) Novak Djokovic def. (14) David Goffin

(8) Rafa Nadal def. (1) Milos Raonic

(16) Gael Monfils def. Alexandr Dolgopolov

(17) Grigor Dimitrov def. Martin Klizan

(5) Stan Wawrinka def. (11) Gilles Simon

(3) Andy Murray def. (15) Kevin Anderson

(12) Richard Gasquet def. (6) Tomas Berdych

(2) Roger Federer def. (21) Ivo Karlovic

Quarterfinals

(1) Djokovic def. (8) Nadal

(17) Dimitrov def. (16) Monfils

(5) Wawrinka def. (3) Murray

(2) Federer def. (12) Gasquet

Semifinals

(1) Djokovic def. (17) Dimitrov

(2) Federer def. (5) Wawrinka

MEN’S SINGLES CHAMPIONSHIP: (2) Roger Federer def. (1) Novak Djokovic in 5 sets – Cincinnati was a character win in this rivalry and came at a perfect time for Roger entering the US Open.  Roger never seems to lack confidence but it had to trouble him seeing Novak continue to strengthen his hold on #1 in the world and continue to beat Roger in grand slam matches.  New York will change that result.  This rivalry is instantly dubbed as one of the best of all-time in the sport.  They have played one another 41 times, with Roger holding a slim 21-20 lead.  Djokovic holds the advantage at the majors though, with a 9-7 H2H record.  When you look at playing on hard courts, Roger again takes a slim advantage 16-14.  The statistics do not lie...this rivalry is as close as it can possibly be.  This is the final everyone really wants to see and would be the perfect way to close the 2015 Grand Slam season.  Once again though, a Swiss man will hault the Djoker championship celebration....although this time it will be the GOAT who steps in his way.

 

MEN’S DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIP:  (3) Jean-Julien Rojer / Horia Tecau def. (1) Bob / Mike Bryan – Everyone continues to pick the Bryan brothers to win every major.  Yes, they are the number one team in the world but the major results just have not been there.  The Bryans have been shut out this year, in fact they only reached 1 grand slam final (French Open).  Meanwhile, Rojer / Tecau are the hottest doubles team on tour this year and have consistent grand slam results.  After back to back SF appearances in Australia and Paris, the duo finally broke through at Wimbledon, claiming the doubles crown.  This team enters with lots of confidence and I feel this is their tournament to lose.  I actually believe the only team who could beat them are the second seeded duo of Ivan Dodig / Marcelo Melo, who I think they will square off with in the SF.

 
WOMEN

Fourth Round

(1) Serena Williams def. (15) Aggie Radwanska

(12) Belinda Bencic def. Madison Brengle

(13) Ekaterina Makarova def. Daria Gavrilova

Dominika Cibulkova def. Roberta Vinci

(5) Petra Kvitova def. (9) Garbine Muguruza

(4) Caro Wozniacki def. (16) Sara Errani

(20) Victoria Azarenka def. (6) Lucie Safarova

(2) Simona Halep def. Camila Giorgi

Quarterfinals

(1) S. Williams def. (12) Bencic

Cibulkova def. (13) Makarova

(5) Kvitova def. (4) Wozniacki

(20) Azarenka def. (2) Halep

Semifinals

(1) S. Williams def. Cibulkova

(20) Azarenka def. (5) Kvitova

WOMEN’S SINGLES CHAMPIONSHIP: (1) Serena Williams def. (20) Vika Azarenka – Is there really a better player to face Serena in the final of the US Open, with a chance to deny her the calendar grand slam, than bitter rival Vika?  The subplots alone make this an epic championship match.  Serena has dominated the H2H mind you, leading 17-3 and a perfect 10-0 at the grand slams.  Azarenka is coming back from foot injury and is still climbing back up the rankings but Vika is without a doubt playing like a Top 5 player.  These two have already crossed paths at grand slam events this year, with Serena winning the French Open 3R match and the QF rematch at Wimbledon.  However, in both matches, Vika did take the opening set 6-3 and had her chance to knock off Serena.  I think we see a similar storyline play out in New York.  Finally Azarenka finds herself on the other side of the draw which could give her some confidence if she makes the final.  Azarenka will come out firing on all cylinders, taking the opening set 6-3 once again.  We know Serena has a history of starting slow.  But, with her back against the wall and starting to feel the grand slam slip away, Serena will break Vika to take a 4-2 lead in the second set and then it’s off to the races for the 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 win. 



WOMEN’S DOUBLES CHAMPIONSHIP: (1) Martina Hingis / Sania Mirza def. (3) Timea Babos / Kiki Mladenovic – After the talk of the calendar grand slam, it should be worth mentioning here the last active player to win the calendar grand slam was Martina Hingis, who accomplished the feat in women’s doubles in 1998.  Hingis is a former top ranked player in both singles and doubles, has 5 grand slam singles titles and, with her win at Wimbledon this summer, now has 10 grand slam doubles titles.  Let’s also not forget the 3 mixed doubles grand slam titles, including the 2015 Australian Open and 2015 Wimbledon.  This Swiss Miss is still playing like a champion!
There you have it my friends, a #TwineTime primer for all the action at the final grand slam for 2015.  What are your predictions?  Did I miss the mark or do you agree with me?  Share your thoughts below or on twitter.  I also hope some of you joined the TalkAboutTennis US Open suicide pool, adds a fun element of excitement to the grand slam events.  I participate (CanuckRaonic) in every one and will be tweeting my daily pics as long as I stay alive.  

Enjoy.....