“U.S. Open draw revealed.” These were the dramatic words that the tournament’s website used to announce that the big event was officially on, that we could all start squinting and speculating. Sounds mysterious, doesn’t it? What was the big secret about the draw? Wasn’t it made in front of our eyes, on television? Wouldn’t that have been a more exciting way of putting it: “U.S. Open draw done before your very eyes.” Maybe next year.
Like everything else TV can get its hands and cameras on, the draws at the Slams have become an event unto themselves. Which is all to the good: Whatever you think of ESPN’s coverage—and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of you thought it was horrible—a draw is, at least in parts, a naturally dramatic event, one that shouldn’t be passed up. That’s especially true in tennis, where the brackets have such a huge effect on any tournament as a whole. The winner will hold the trophy, collect the cash, and get his name engraved in the roll call of legends, but what won’t be remembered is that he’ll only have had to beat seven of the 127 other players who showed up to get there.
Who has the easiest seven-person road to that silver trophy? Whose bad luck of the draw was revealed today? It’s time to open up the Open.
How’s this for a revelation? The first name we see is Caroline Wozniacki’s. In the absence of Serena Williams, last year’s runner-up has ascended to the top seed’s slot. While she is ranked No. 2 in the world, and while she played some of her best tennis of the year last week in Montreal, while she likes the Open’s hard courts, and while she’s tougher than she looks, it still must be a dizzyingly artificial position for Wozniacki to find herself in, one she would do best just to ignore. She’s hardly been a dominant, or even forceful, presence at the Slams this season, and she might not even be favored to get out of the round of 16, where she could meet Maria Sharapova.
On the other side is Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2009 French champion who has dropped to No. 11. You never know what Kuzzie is going to do next, but she has shown some signs of life recently. She won her first title of the year in San Diego and says she’s figured out how to hit her forehand, for one thing, which is good news—when Kuznetsova has things figured out, there are very few players she can’t beat. None, in fact. And she can certainly beat those who are arranged in front of her here. Li Na is the highest seed in Kuznetsova’s half of this section, and a few of the other talents—Kirilenko, U. Radwanska, Chakvetadze—will be hard-pressed to stay with her.
So who do we like: Woz, Shazz, or Kuz? I’ll take the latter two and see what happens.
First-round match to watch: Kuznetsova vs. 40-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm; Sharapova vs. Jarmila Groth
Here’s another surprise: Jelena Jankovic is the top seed in her section. While she’s picked herself up after last season’s stumble, she’s hardly been lights out at the majors either. If she makes the round of 16, she may find herself facing Yanina Wickmayer, who made her breakout run to the semis at the Open in 2009.
On the other side there’s Vera Zvonareva, seventh-seeded but, after her runner-up finish at Wimbledon, presumably newly confident in her ability at the majors. Her straightforward, timing-heavy game is a good fit for hard courts—she recorded a comeback win over Kim Clijsters on them last week in Canada—and the woman who beat her at Wimbledon, Serena Williams, isn’t here. But have we really reached the point where we can bet on Zvonareva to keep everything together for the better part of two weeks? There are good players near her: Lisicki, Petkovic, Petrova, and A. Radwanska, who has shown an affinity for these courts in the past.
First-round match for hopeful Americans to watch: Lisicki vs. Coco Vandeweghe
Unlike her sister, Venus Williams has recovered from injury just in time for the Open; good thing, because she wouldn't have wanted to miss a chance to play a Slam sans Serena. Venus’ draw looks, well, very good. Francesca Schiavone is the second-highest-seed, and Victoria Azarenka comes after that, neither of whom has ever reached a semi at the Open. Last year’s Open star, Melanie Oudin is also on the other side here, and while she faces a qualifier to start, Oudin has struggled with serve and scrutiny in equal measures; it’s been months since she put together a significant run at any event. The one potential burr in the saddle for Venus is the presence of Tsvetana Pironkova, the crafty Bulgarian who beat her at Wimbledon and who she could face in the third round here.
Semifinalist: V. Williams
On paper, this section should offer the most entertaining quarterfinal, between the second seed, Kim Clijsters, and the fifth seed, Sam Stosur. Clijsters has had the better results this summer, especially with her comeback win over Sharapova in the Cincy final. Stosur may have been the best player through the first half of the year, but she’s been up and down since her French Open final-round run. Hard courts would seem to be a natural surface for her muscular baseline game, but she’s had a better year on clay.
But there are roadblocks between the two: Petra Kvitova, Wimbledon semifinalist; Ana Ivanovic, prodigal daughter; and Marion Bartoli, strange hitter, are on Clijsters’ side. Dinara Safina, former No. 1, and dangerous-but-never-quite-dangerous-enough Elena Dementieva, are on the other.
First round match to watch and very possibly cringe at: Safina vs. Daniela Hantuchova
Semifinals: Sharapova d. Zvonareva; Clijsters d. V. Williams
Final: Sharapova d. Clijsters
Champion: Maria Sharapova
Nadal and New York, it hasn’t been a winning combination. But he’s been getting better, reaching the semis each of the last two years and lighting up a few night sessions. Nadal has struggled with his backhand so far this summer and hasn’t built the kind of momentum we associate with his Slam-winning runs. At the same time, he’s laid low and taken some of the heat off himself by seeming to revert to sketchier late season Nadal form. Either way, he’s still the top seed and the champ at the last two majors.
This time he has a moderately difficult but navigable path to the semis. Nadal starts with Gabashvili, an excitable free swinger, and then perhaps Istomin, who challenged him in Queens. Kohlschreiber, who took a set from him in Toronto, might come after that. On the other side are Verdasco, Ferrer, Gulbis, and Nalbandian, a guy who has generally given Nadal fits. The question is whether the Argentine can survive long enough to give them to him again.
First-round shot-maker’s special to watch: Chardy vs. Gulbis; First-round match with the best name combination: Fernando Verdasco vs. Fabio Fognini
This section is bracketed by two dark horses for the title, Andy Murray and (a longer shot, but still a shot) Tomas Berdych. Murray went coach-less and found his form in Toronto a couple weeks ago, and reminded us again of his skills on a hard-court. Saying “Murray” and “Slam winner” is suddenly not a joke anymore.
Who can stop them? Sam Querrey has the shots and the crowd, but he’s played a lot of tennis. Nicolas Almagro has been coming back to earth. John Isner may not make it there at all. Stan Wawrinka and Yen-Hsun Lu are OK. Radek Stepanek is here. Same for Tommy Robredo. I think the dark horses should make it to the finish line in the quarters. If it is Murray vs. Berdych, I’ll take Murray, but I ‘m not going to get the waxing that Berdych gave him in Paris out of my mind until then, either.
First-round match to watch: Stepanek vs. Julien Benneteau, two old pros with nice games; First-round match with the best name combination: Marco Chiudinelli vs. Jack Sock
This is a stacked and unpredictable section. Davydenko, Gasquet, Monfils, Baghdatis, Roddick, Fish, Petzschner, Djokovic: It’s made for tennis buffs and lovers of the unknown. The top seed, Djokovic, hasn’t looked like any kind of world-beater lately; ditto for the next seed, Davydenko, who must be waiting for fall’s money windfall. Roddick had his moments in Cincy, but three-out-of-five will be tough so soon after mono. Baghdatis is always possible, but never probable; that’s even more true for Monfils.
So what about Fish? He’s playing the best tennis of his career; at 28, he’s almost a new player. This is the moment. If not now, when?
Like Murray, Roger Federer has used the summer to return to form, so much so that he’s passed Nadal on most people’s lists of favorites. He’s had a few freakish double faults and untimely shanks, but he’s also moved well, returned with oomph, looked to press forward, and hit his topspin down-the-line backhand with confidence. His draw won’t change many opinions about his chances, either. Federer starts with someone named Brian Dabul, and looks ahead from there to a half where Jurgen Melzer is the next highest seed. On the other side, possibly waiting in the quarters, is a genuine obstacle in the form of Robin Soderling. The Sod is no sure thing, of course, and he’ll have to get past Dent or Falla, de Bakker, and perhaps Cilic.
By then, though, when the Open reaches its mellow middle, when the day matches in Ashe get quiet and dull, Federer seems to become unbeatable. The rowdiest tournament in the world can go very close to silent at times, and I can remember watching countless matches like that where Federer has slowly put a sleeper hold on his opponent. It’s nothing spectacular, but he’s hard to break down or get around on the hard courts at Flushing. And the only guy who has done it in the last six years, Juan Martin del Potro, won’t be one of the seven men he has to beat to hold the trophy for a sixth time.
Semifinals: Murray d. Nadal; Federer d. Fish
Final: Federer d. Murray
Champion: Roger Federer