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Monday, 29 August 2016

#BetweenTheBaselines: 2016 U.S. Open Preview
The final grand slam of the season hits the hard courts


You know summer is officially on it's last swing when the final tennis grand slam of the season rolls around.  The 2016 U.S. Open kicks off this week meaning the end of August is around the corner and the Fall season is not too far ahead of us.

But before we start missing the glory days of hot sun and warm beaches, let's celebrate the excitement around, arguably, the loudest grand slam of the tennis tour.  The U.S. Open, in classic New York style, usually produces some of the loudest, most excited and, occasionally, unruly tennis fans packing Arthur Ashe Stadium for classic night matches.  New Yorkers love their sports and tennis is no exception!

The 2016 U.S. Open will be the 136th edition of the tournament....and perhaps enters surrounded by the most questions.  Not sure what I mean?  Try on some of these questions below:

  • No RF? - Can we really have a U.S. Open without the #GOAT Roger Federer?  This year we will find out.  With Federer taking the remainder of the year off to heal from injury, the New York crowd will have to survive without him.  He is a HUGE favourite with tennis fans at any event in the world but the U.S. Open crowd certainly gives him one of the largest cheers everytime he steps on the court.  We will still see lots of RF merchandise in the crowd being worn by Fed Fans but Roger's absence will be felt.  Worth mentioning here, the crowd will also miss grand slam contender Tomas Berdych and grand slam champions Vika Azarenka and Maria Sharapova.
  • No repeat champion? - One thing for sure we know when analyzing the draw is there will not be a repeat winner on the women's side.  Italy's Flavia Pennetta was a true underdog dark horse story winner last year.  After collecting her trophy she pulled yet another surprise...she retired in her victory speech.  The women's field is already wide open as it is, not having a defending champion to pull for (or against) adds another bit of intrigue.
  • Rio Rebound? - Every 4 years the U.S. Open has to deal with players coming into the event perhaps a bit more exhausted, physically and mentally, as a result of the Summer Olympics.  Rio closed it's court only a few weeks ago and here we are with the best players in tennis getting ready to compete for the final major.  Will those who competed in Rio be able to sustain the high level of play for the next two weeks and compete for the major?  Or will we see those players who skipped Rio rise to the top looking more fresh and ready for the grueling two weeks of grand slam action?  No player will feel the pressure more perhaps than surprise gold medal winner Monica Puig!
  • Djoker, Murray or someone else? - Everyone already expects the men's final to be contested between #1 Novak Djokovic and #2 Andy Murray.  Djokovic is #1 for a reason and did win the opening two slams of the season.  Murray won Wimbledon and became the first player, men or women, to repeat Olympic gold.  But Novak's play has been questionable, especially after losing early at Wimbledon and a tough R1 loss in Rio to Juan Martin del Potro.  Is he feeling it physically?  Mentally?  Emotionally?  And what about Murray?  Winning back-to-back big events is HUGE but is he going to come to New York a bit tired?  Can he keep up his high level of play and intensity for two more weeks?  The men's field is very deep and if either Djokovic or Murray are not on their games, upsets can occur quick and a surprise champion might emerge after all is said and done.
  • What about Serena? - What can we make of Serena going into this final grand slam of the season?  Yes, she did win Wimbledon to tie the career grand slam total wins mark of 22.  But remember she also lost the Australian Open and French Open finals.  She also underwhelmed in Rio, coming home empty handed in both singles and doubles.  She is plagued with a bad shoulder right now.  She hasn't played a tour event since May, outside the grand slams and Rio of course, and she isn't getting any younger.  Can she pull through and win the big #23 grand slam or will the injuries and lack of playing catch up to her?  You never count her out but, this year, if I was playing on the WTA Tour I would think this U.S. Open could be the best time to capitalize and take her down.  She could lose the #1 ranking as well....a ranking she has held for 184 weeks and counting.
  • Beware the Unseeded? - I don't think there has ever been a grand slam where the talk has been more about the quality of the unseeded players over the seeded players.  Many people are even predicting more seeded players will fall in the opening few rounds than we have ever seen before and perhaps we even see one or two unseeded players, on both the men's and women's draw, make the quarterfinals or further.  Can you really blame anyone for thinking this way though?  Look at some of the unseeded players scattered throughout the draw: Juan Martin del Potro, Mikhail Youzhny, Fernando Verdasco, Ekaterina Makarova, Genie Bouchard, Lucie Safarova, Caroline Wozniacki.  These are all players who have made deep runs in recent grand slams (or won before in the case of delPo).  If you were a seeded player, especially in that 15-32 seed range, would you want to see any of those names as your first or second round opponent?
  • US Open Series $$$ - The 2016 US Open Series champions were Kei Nishikori and Aggie Radwanska.  Both players would collect an extra $1M should they also win the U.S. Open.  Of course, they also will receive bonus money for each round they advance in the tournament too.  2nd place finishers Grigor Dimitrov and Johanna Konta could collect an extra $500K if they win their first grand slam.  And 3rd place finishers Milos Raonic and Simona Halep are playing for an additional $250K.  I think three, maybe four, of these players will be making very deep runs over the next two weeks....not only on court but also at the bank!

And these are just the major plotlines we know of going into the U.S. Open.  Imagine the drama, excitement and new plot twists that will flow from the action on the courts themselves.  This U.S. Open is going to be wide open with almost an "expect the unexpected" feel surrounding it.  You almost can't predict what will happen....but you sure know #TwineTime will try!

MEN

(1) Novak Djokovic Quarter

For Novak to repeat his title from a year ago, he is going to have to navigate through a fairly tricky draw.  His opening round opponent, the tall Pole Jerzy Janowicz, is a former Wimbledon semifinalist.  It doesn't start easy and it won't get any easier moving forward, if he survives.  Jiri Vesely could be waiting in R2, a guy who has already defeated Novak on tour this season.  Mikhail Youzhny, #20 John Isner and #13 Richard Gasquet could also present tough challenges before the QF.  If you want a real dark horse in this section though look out for the Brit Kyle Edmund or even qualifier Steve Darcis.  Both players are capable of pulling off an upset or two along the way, given the less-than-stellar play of seeded players Gasquet and Isner as of late.

A potential QF opponent would be 2014 U.S. Open champ #9 Marin Cilic.  Cilic comes to New York fresh off a title win at the lead-up event in Cincy and looks ready for another long grand slam run.  But it won't be easy in Cilic's section either.  Double Rio medalist #26 Jack Sock awaits as a possible R3 opponent with #9 JW Tsonga and big serving #23 Kevin Anderson as possible R4 opponents.  If you want a dark horse to look out for, watch qualifier Mischa Zverev from Germany.

#TwineTime Predictions:

Fourth Round
(1) Novak Djokovic over Steve Darcis
(9) Marin Cilic over (23) Kevin Anderson

Quarterfinal

(1) Djokovic over (9) Cilic

(4) Rafa Nadal Quarter

Questions on the future of Rafa Nadal were swirling all over the place heading into Rio.  Is Rafa back?  How is his health?  Can his body continue competing with the best in the world?  He quickly silenced critics and answered those questions with his amazing play.  Rafa looked great in Rio, collecting the men's doubles gold medal and losing the bronze medal to Nishikori.  All on hard courts too!  A deep grand slam run is not out of the question for Nadal.  He opens with tricky Denis Istomin, who has a reputation of giving top players trouble in the past.  Andreas Seppi, Thomaz Bellucci and fellow Spaniard #31 Albert Ramos-Vinolas could pose a tough path just to R4 though...and watch out for the unseeded Russian Andrey Kuznetsov.  #15 Roberto Bautista Agut or Wimbledon QF #23 Lucas Pouille could be waiting in R4 too.  Bellucci could be the dark horse of the quarter though, especially after a deep run in front of the home nation crowd in Rio.  But, as with all players who competed in Rio, will fatigue set in for him in New York?  If so, his R1 opponent Kuznetsov could become Mr. Opportunistic and make a run to R3 or R4.

Should Nadal survive his section, hard serving Canadian Milos Raonic could be waiting in the QF.  Raonic skipped Rio and now we will see if this decision pays off in the long run.  Raonic made the Wimbledon SF and many thought he could perhaps be the first player outside the major 4 to win a major the last few years.  He certainly cannot complain about his draw, partnered with #32 Benoit Paire as a potential R3 opponent and facing little resistance before that.  His fourth round opponent could be Gael Monfils but Monfils also has question marks surrounding his body and potential injuries, especially at the U.S. Open after an already long season.  #18 Pablo Cuevas could surprise as well and make a run into week two.  

#TwineTime Predictions:

Fourth Round

(4) Rafa Nadal def. (15) Roberto Bautista Agut
(5) Milos Raonic def. (18) Pablo Cuevas

Quarterfinal

(5) Raonic def. (4) Nadal

(3) Stan Wawrinka Quarter

Two-time grand slam champion Wawrinka also skipped Rio and, similar to Raonic above, we will find out if this decision helped or hindered his chances at the U.S. Open championship.  Wawrinka has arguably the best back hand in the game and quietly moves about his business with little to no media attention.  Remember, Stan comes to New York ranked #3 in the world for a reason folks!  He loves the hard courts as well and usually produces big results at the grand slams.  He opens with a very tricky and dangerous Fernando Verdasco though, a former QF here and Aussie Open SF.  A tough opening round match but, should Wawrinka survive, it could be an early blessing in disguise for a long two-week championship run.  #27 Alexander Zverev could await in R3 but shouldn't be a huge threat to Wawrinka.  The other side of his section could come down to an all-out Aussie battle between #14 Nick Kyrgios and #17 Bernard Tomic.  Both are capable of deep runs...both are capable of being upset in early opening round action.  Both have great overall games....both are complete head cases.  Who knows which side will show up.  But...imagine the on-court intensity if we see a Wawrinka-Kygrios QF pairing!!  Remember the 2015 Rogers Cup incident where Kygrios said to Wawrinka, during a change over in their match, "Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend."  Kygrios incurred a $10K fine and I cannot imagine either of these two players have mended that bridge.

The other section of Wawrinka's draw is completely wide open.  Could this be the grand slam break out for rising Austrian star #8 Dominic Thiem?  Thiem also skipped Rio.  Thiem also has an amazing one-handed backhand.  Hmmm, sound familiar to another player named above?  Wimbledon darling #29 Sam Querrey could be a R3 opponent  though and will have the huge crowd support behind him.  Speaking of USA men, #19 Steve Johnson will have all eyes on him in New York as he comes in being the highest ranked American male in the draw.  Johnson had a great time in Rio, picking up a men's doubles bronze with Jack Sock and playing deep in the men's singles draw.  Ah but speaking about Rio, welcome the silver medal winner Juan Martin del Potro to the discussion here.  DelPo could not have asked for a better quarter to be drawn into.  After his welcome back party performance in Rio, the unseeded Argentine should be a huge threat to everyone.  A possible R2 pairing with Johnson and R3 with #11 David Ferrer or Fabio Fognini or Teymuraz Gabashvili are not too daunting for the big hitter.  JMDP was handed a wild card to compete here after his great run in Rio, including that opening round W over Djokovic...he is going to want to make the best of it.  Could we see another WC grand slam winner, similar to Goran Ivanisevic's 2001 Wimbledon triumph?

#TwineTime Predictions:

Fourth Round

(WC) Juan Martin del Potro def. (8) Dominic Thiem
(3) Stan Wawrinka def. (14) Nick Kygrios

Quarterfinal

(3) Wawrinka def. (WC) del Potro

(2) Andy Murray Quarter

The only back-to-back Olympic gold medal winner headlines the bottom half of the men's draw.  Andy Murray may be ranked #2 in the world rankings but over the past few months he has been playing like the #1 player in the world.  Murray looked dominant in his Wimbledon and Rio victories.  He even played the tune-up event in Cincy, losing the final and ending his remarkable 21-match winning streak.  Murray does find himself in a tricky section of the draw.  He draws Lucas Rosol in the opening round, Juan Monaco/Marcus Granollers in R2 and #30 Gilles Simon or comeback man qualifier Radek Stepanek perhaps in R3.  Not a scary gauntlet but still a group of players littered with experience who have made strong grand slam runs in the past.  Possible R4 opponents include #16 Feliciano Lopez or #22 Grigor Dimitrov.  Unseeded teenager Borna Coric, opening against Lopez, or seasoned vet unseeded Jeremy Chardy could be threats as well.  Imagine a R3 bout between Coric and Dimitrov though, with Murray waiting for the winner.

The other section of Murray's quarter should be #6 Kei Nishikori's for the taking.  Nishikori comes to New York off a bronze medal win in Rio and lots of confidence/momentum on his side.  Anything short of a QF showing (possibly vs. Murray) would be a huge surprise.  His draw is fairly simple too.  He faces German Becker in R1, a qualifier in R2 and possibly another German #25 Phil Kohlschreiber in R3.  #12 David Goffin could be his biggest challenge as a possible R4 opponent but Goffin could face competition from unseeded Victor Troicki or #21 Ivo Karlovic.

#TwineTime Predictions:

Fourth Round

(6) Kei Nishikori def. (12) David Goffin
(2) Andy Murray def. (22) Grigor Dimitrov

Quarterfinals

(2) Murray def. (6) Nishikori

Men's Final Four

Semifinals

(5) Raonic def. (1) Djokovic
(2) Murray def. (3) Wawrinka

Championship Final

(5) Milos Raonic def. (2) Andy Murray in 5 sets - The Canadian brings a grand slam title home to the Great White North and proves skipping Rio was the right move to make.  Murray makes a great run to the final but all the tennis over the past few months catches up to him in a marathon five-set championship final where the more fresh serving arm of Raonic proves to be the difference.

Men's Doubles Championship:  (4) Jamie Murray / Bruno Soares def. (2) Ivan Dodig / Marcelo Melo - A Brazilian didn't take gold on the court in Rio but with this final at least 1 Brazilian brings home a grand slam title!

WOMEN

(1) Serena Williams Quarter

The big question mark, Serena Williams!  As discussed above, who knows what mind frame and body condition Serena is in entering this tournament.  She looked horrible in her loss in Rio and hasn't really been on a tennis court since.  We could be in for the ultimate shocker right from the gate...Serena could lose her opening match to Ekaterina Makarova!  While that may feel like a huge upset, let's remember Makarova made the 2014 U.S. Open SF (where she lost to Serena) and took home gold in women's doubles in Rio.  She is currently ranked #30 in the world and just missed a seeded position because of the cut-off date.  Since 2012 she has made R3 or better at every U.S. Open too.  This is going to be a HUGE opening round game for both players.  Whomever survives though has to like their chances for a deep run.  #29 Ana Ivanovic is the other seeded player before R4 but perhaps watch out more unseeded Swede Johanna Larsson to make some noise early on and reach, at least, R3.  The bottom part of the section is wide open, led by #16 Sam Stosur and #23 Daria Kasatkina.  Unseeded players Camila Giorgi (vs. Stosur in R1) and the always dangerous Yaroslava Shvedova could create upset potential.

The second section of this quarter is led by #5 Simona Halep.  Halep has consistently played Top 5 tennis for years and was the 2014 French Open finalist.  A deep run in New York shouldn't be out of the question for her.  She has a tricky opening round opponent in Kirsten Flipkens (known to upset higher ranked players in the past) and could see Lucie Safarova or Daria Gavrilova in R2.  Rio women's doubles gold medal winner #19 Elena Vesnina or #11 Carla Suarez Navarro await as possible R4 opponents.

#TwineTime Predictions:

Fourth Round

(23) Daria Kasatkina def. Ekaterina Makarova
(5) Simona Halep def. (19) Elena Vesnina

Quarterfinal

(5) Halep def. (23) Kasatkina

(4) Aggie Radwanska Quarter

Watch out for Radwanska!  She has under performed on tour almost all season and is due for a strong showing at a grand slam.  The SF showing at the Aussie Open this year seems so far away now considering the results since.  However, Radwanska has discovered success late in the summer, reaching the QF in Cincy and winning the tune-up event in New Haven this past weekend.  Radwanka is one of the players still in contention for the #1 world ranking, a win here would vault her to the top.  She draws a qualifier in her opening round and possibly another in R2.  An enticing R3 match up with unseeded Genie Bouchard would be fun to watch and could be where Radwanska is prone to an upset.  As for the bottom of her section, get out the dart board and good luck.  #15 Timea Bacsinszky and #20 Kiki Bertens have had strong results at slams this season but have also looked lackluster at other events on tour.  Neither have been consistent....hmmm seems to be a theme for this section of the draw doesn't it?  Unseeded 2014 U.S. Open SF Peng Shuai is back as well after injury and could pose a dark horse threat along with teenager Ana Konjuh.  And, in New York, never count out an upset American female...this time it could be Varvara Lepchenko!

#6 Venus Williams highlights the other section of this quarter.  Venus looked awful in Rio, losing both her singles and doubles matches in R1 action.  Yes she is a former champion and has played inspiring tennis this season.  Her draw looks good for R1 but a R2 match up with either Yanina Wickmayer or Julia Gorges could be cause of concern.  #26 Laura Seigmund has been playing outstanding tennis this year as well and could pose a threat.  #10 Karolina Pliskova skipped Rio and comes to New York fresh off the biggest win of her career, beating Kerber in the Cincy final.  This could be the perfect opportunity for Pliskova to make a deep grand slam run.

#TwineTime Predictions:

Fourth Round

(4) Aggie Radwanska def. Varvara Lepchenko
(10) Karolina Pliskova def. (6) Venus Williams

Quarterfinals

(4) Radwanska def. (10) Pliskova

(3) Garbine Muguruza Quarter

The 2016 French Open champ, Garbine Muguruza, has really struggled since her big grand slam win in Paris.  Many expect her to be a top contender for many more grand slams in the future but this year's U.S. Open may not be the time.  She has been inconsistent and her play on the court has yielded way more unforced errors than winners as of late.  She also has a shot at claiming the #1 ranking if she wins this tournament.  Muguruza does have very winnable matches for the opening rounds but her draw will pick up and there are some tough players ahead of her.  Enter 2016 Rio Champ Monica Puig!  The question of how #32 Puig deals with her new found, dark horse success is yet to be seen.  If she brings her Rio game to New York...watch out!  If the media attention and pressure and stress get to her, she could be prone to an upset.  The top half of this section is loaded with potential as well.  #13 Johanna Konta and #24 Belinda Bencic highlight the potential from a seed perspective.  But watch out for unseeded players Andrea Petkovic, Tsvetana Pironkova and wildcard Virgine Razzano.  This section of the draw could be wide open for the taking!

The other section of this quarter is led by #8 Madison Keys.  While the US focus may be on the Williams sisters, the best hope for an American victor actually is Keys.  Keys lost the bronze medal match in Rio and I think this will only make her more hungry for a strong result in New York.  Her draw looks very favourable, getting fellow Americans in R1 and R2.  Her R3 opponent could be another American in #28 Coco Vandeweghe.  There are a few unseeded players to watch here though with Maria Sakkari and Naomi Osaka (vs. Vandeweghe in R1).  Both could make a R3 or better appearance.  As for the bottom half of this section...all I can say is YIKES!  We have #9 Svetlana Kuznetsova, unseeded Caroline Wozniacki and Francesca Schiavone.  Heck Kuznetsova and Schiavone play one another in R1...and these two have played some of the most epic (and long) matches in the history of the sport.  Not to mention #18 Barbara Strycova and the triad of Romanians (Monica Niculescu, Sorana Cirstea and qualifier Ana Bogdan).  Keys would appear to the overwhelming favourite but escaping this section could be like tip toeing through a mind field.  Watch your step along the way!

#TwineTime Predictions:

Fourth Round

(8) Madison Keys def. (9) Svetlana Kuznetsova
(13) Johanna Knota def. (32) Monica Puig

Quarterfinal 

(8) Keys over (13) Konta

(2) Angelique Kerber Quarter

Your future #1 ranked player in the world: #2 currently Angelique Kerber!  I believe Kerber will move to the #1 ranking spot by the end of the U.S. Open.  Will she win her second grand slam?  Maybe.  Will she outduel the other 3 ladies in the running for the ranking?  Absolutely!  Kerber won the Australian Open and was the runner-up at Wimbledon (both times facing Serena in the final).  She followed up her Wimbledon performance with a run to the gold medal match in Rio, coming up short against upset-minded Monica Puig.  After Rio, she played in Cincy with a chance to take the #1 ranking and, again, slipped up in the final.  With 3 runner-up finishes in a row, many ask if perhaps this will weigh in on her mental game heading into the final grand slam.  I think the opposite will occur.  Kerber is going to be hungrier than ever now to get over the hump and find the victory circle once again.  Kerber has a very winnable draw until a potential R4 encounter with #14 Petra Kvitova, Rio bronze medalist, or #22 Elina Svitolina, the Serena Rio slayer.  Both players could pose problems for Kerber...with Kvitova being tabbed as a great dark horse pick for this title.

Speaking of Serena Slayer, the other section of this quarter sees the Serena Slayer from the 2015 U.S. Open, #7 Roberta Vinci.  After the big SF win over Serena last year and the tough loss in the final, one has to be impressed with the year Vinci has put in with remaining in the Top 10.  Does she have another upset run in her this year?  Probably not and she will see a sharp dip in her rankings by not making the final.  Her section of the draw is littered with threats as well, led by #12 Dominika Cibulkova.  Cibulkova could be the perfect dark horse contender once again.  She made the QF at Wimbledon and has made the QF here before (2010).  This section also presents some great unseeded players to watch out for.  The list is led by the quartet of German's standing in the way of Vinci.  She could face a German opponent in R1, R2 and R3.  Watch out for Sabine Lisicki, Mona Barthel and Carina Witthoft.

#TwineTime Predictions:

Fourth Round

(12) Dominika Cibulkova def. (7) Roberta Vinci
(2) Angelique Kerber def. (14) Petra Kvitova

Quarterfinals

(2) Kerber def. (12) Cibulkova

Women's Final Four

Semifinals

(4) Radwanska def. (5) Halep
(2) Kerber def. (8) Keys

Championship Final


(2) Angelique Kerber def. (4) Aggie Radwanska in three sets - Your new #1 player in the world not only takes the top ranking but does so in style, collecting her second grand slam of the season.  This will hopefully be the welcome back party for Radwanska too.  Both of these players have the game to stay near or at the top of the rankings for a few years....perhaps even the build of a friendly rivalry on tour between them both would be great to see!

Women's Doubles Championship:  (5) Ekaterina Makarova / Elena Vesnina def. (4) Andrea Hlavackova / Lucie Hradecka - The Rio women's doubles gold medal winners continue to shine!

There you have it tennis fans...the #TwineTime preview and predictions for the 2016 U.S. Open!  Agree, disagree?  Have your say as well.  Comment your predictions below or find me on twitter.

Enjoy the final grand slam of 2016 everyone!!