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Monday, 7 September 2015

#BetweenTheBaselines Mid-Major Report
The #USOpen2015 begins week number two

The opening week of any tennis major is always exciting.  Who will be the upset victims?  Who will surprise the prognosticators with a deep run into the second week?  How will the top players do?  The first week of the US Open proved to be no disappointment on suspense, drama, story lines and excitement.

Let's take a quick look back at the week that was in New York with the traditional #TwineTime mid-major report.


US-A+!! - If I was to ask you which nation would have the most players still playing on the women's side of the draw entering R3, who would you have predicted?  Based on rankings, the Czech Republic have three players in the top 10.  The Russians always come up big at the majors.  Italy has consistently produced big results at the majors and Fed Cup.  And of course never count out Spain right?  Well you would be wrong on all accounts!  New York really has been home to the Red, White and Blue during the opening week.  The American women have not disappointed the home nation fans.  Heading into R3 action, 7 American women were still in the draw.  Sure the familiar names of Serena Williams, Madison Keys and even Venus Williams were alive.  But what about some of the other names pushing through:  Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Madison Brengle, Varvara Lepchenko and Shelby Rogers (a qualifier).  These 4 ladies all defied the player rankings and found themselves in R3.  Now of course there could have been more had many American women not found themselves drawn against one another.  Look at Mattek-Sands.  She eliminated 2 American women (Sloane Stephens and CoCo Vandeweghe) before battling Serena.  The American men and women face an increase of media attention and scrutiny during the US Open year after year.  Outside of Serena, there has been little cause of celebration.  The women turned things around this year though with outstanding results in the opening week.  Of course Lepchenko went out in R4 vs Vika Azarenka leaving Serena vs. Venus as the last American women standing....as usual.  Whichever survives their encounter on Tuesday though will wear the Red, White and Blue proud for the rest of the tournament. 


Red, White and Bleu? - The French has stormed New York and appear primed to take over.  Four players representing Republique Francaise entered the 4th round.  One of those players, Benoit Paire, provided the biggest upset on the men's draw to date when he eliminated last year's finalist, and the #4 seed, Kei Nishikori in the opening round.  Paire also demolished the ageless #26 seed Tommy Robredo in the third round.  Paire's R4 opponent was fellow frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.  J-W Tsonga is having a resurrection of a career over the opening week.  His ranking has dropped over the past few years but the #19 seed here in New York finds himself in the QF after dispatching his countrymen.  Another strong French performance came from #27 seed Jeremy Chardy.  Chardy eliminated #7 David Ferrer in R3 only to come up short against defending champ #9 seed Marin Cilic in R4.  Tsonga could still be joined in the QF by another French player though as #12 seed Richard Gasquet has lived up to his predictability at a major in reaching R4.  He will be in tough though facing #6 Tommy "The Birdman" Berdych.  Regardless of the outcome, the French have seized the court in New York and look to put a new definition on Red, White and Blue flying over the US Open.


The REAL Big 4 - Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka have shown why they are the real big four in tennis.  Ok sure Nishikori was seeded ahead of Stan here but look how that turned out!  These four men rolled through the opening rounds and seemed poised for SF berths.  Heading into today's action, the 4 men have lost 4 sets COMBINED.  And Murray accounts for 3 of those.  Of the four, Murray has had the toughest battle but he has survived and looks primed for a strong second week.  Don't be surprised come QF time we see #Djoker, #Stanimal, #RFed and Murray still standing.  The only sad point is Federer, Murray and Stan are all on the same side of the draw.  In fact, Stan and Murray could be QF opponents.  Advantage: Novak!


Williams Winning...Venus Williams That Is - Ok sure lots of talk about Serena, more on her below, but the real Williams story line from the opening week is big sis Venus.  Don't tell Venus it is 2015 because she is playing like it's 2001 when she won her second US Open.  Ok maybe a bit of a stretch there, her game will never be back to that top level but she has been playing outstanding tennis.  Her straight sets win over #12 Belinda Bencic was the comeback win her fans have been looking for.  And perhaps a bit of revenge for little sis?  Remember Bencic owns a win over Serena at the Rogers Cup this summer.  Of course now Venus will battle her sister in a blockbuster QF match Tuesday night under the lights.  Imagine if Venus was the player to deny Serena a shot at the grand slam!  That would be quite the supper table come Thanksgiving.


The Other Williams....Serena I Mean - Serena is moving along with a ton of pressure on her.  She has not lost at the US Open since the 2011 final (vs. Stosur).  And while she continues to win, you can tell her comfort level on the court is not the same.  At times she looks tight or uneasy.  Sometimes swinging away and piling up some uncharacteristic unforced errors.  But this is Serena and she still wins.  She was pushed in R3 by compatriot Mattek-Sands but fought back, won the match in 3 sets and then dominated another big hitting American, Madison Keys, in R4.  But with every win mounts increasing pressure on Serena.  The grand slam is calling and approaching faster and faster, how will she handle the pressure?  Add in the psychological factor of playing sister Venus in the QF and who knows what will happen.  I think it is safe to say whichever Williams survives on Tuesday, SHOULD find herself playing for the title next weekend.  As #TwineTime mentioned in the US Open preview, found HERE, the biggest obstacle for Serena will be Serena.


And you retire...and you retire...and you retire -  We often see retirements at majors, whether it be from extreme heat down under or a rolled ankle on clay.  We expect this to happen and it is something you cannot avoid.  However, this year's US Open has become almost laughable with all the retirements.  On the men's side, 10 first round retires...10!  2 first round retires on the women's draw (to top two seed Serena and Halep oddly enough) set a new record for total retires for the opening round of a major with 12.  Since the opening round, the numbers have dropped and matches are actually being completed with only 3 additional on the men's side and none on the women's (minus the freak accident forcing Genie Bouchard to withdraw completely).  And it is worth noting some of these retirements were very legit.  The case in point is Jack Sock's R2 retirement due to heat (image below).  This was a very scary moment when he fainted on court and something nobody wants to ever see happen to any athlete.  However, there is something to be said with that many players withdrawing in an opening round.  How many of those players were not fit to be playing at all and just jumped on the court for the payday and points?  Quite disappointing for fans who pay money to see competitive major matches and are denied because a player not fit to play still does just for cash.  The sportsmanship side of me says a player should withdraw prior to if they cannot play their best and give a lucky loser from qualifying the chance to play (see how that worked for Russian Daria Kasatkina who made R3).  But from the athlete perspective, why pass up the money and points.  In a sport where not all players receive the sponsorship of their higher ranked competitors, sometimes the cash is a strong enough incentive...bills need to be paid right?  Still disappointing for the fans of the sport though.


Deflate Gate of Top 10 - The women's draw has been in complete chaos before the tournament started.  #3 Maria Sharapova withdrew on the dawn of the event.  After the opening round, four more Top 10 players would leave New York.  By the end of R2, we would only see three of the Top 10 survive.  Luckily for the WTA all three players (Serena, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova) continue to be alive in the draw not making for a complete embarrassment.  Sure, every fan loves to see a few upsets and a few of the top seeds go down early.  But this is your tour Top 10!  To see only 3 make it out of R2 is not a way to draw interest.  With a tour already struggling to mount momentum behind Serena completely dominating, this is not a positive sign.  If we increase the sample size to the Top 20 players, only 2 more (Madison Keys and Vika Azarenka) even made R4.  Heck lets look at all 32 seeded players.  Of the 32, we lost 22 by the end of R3.  And only 5 of 20 top players made the forth round of a major?  Yikes!  

But now we head into week two....time to get serious.  The laughter and fun on the court with players turns into stone faces and determination.  Once you make it to the second week, every player really starts saying to themselves "Hey, I can win this thing!"  Will we see more upsets from those unseeded players who are still standing?  Will the favorites continue to roll?  Can Serena accomplish the calendar grand slam?  Buckle in and get ready to answer these questions and more over the final week of the 2015 grand slam season.