The Age of (Limited) Possibility
First there was the age of Roger. Then there was Roger and Rafa. Then there was Roger, Rafa, and Novak. Now, as we can see when we look at the results of the last seven Grand Slams, we’re officially in the Age of the Big 4. Whether you consider that a healthy expansion of possibilities or a disappointing dilution of talent and personality will depend on your loyalties.
In 2012, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and Andy Murray divvied up the four majors between them. The trend has continued so far in 2013: Djokovic defended his turf in Australia, as did in Nadal in Paris; at Wimbledon, Murray took Federer's place in the winner's circle. For the parity to continue, it’s now up to Federer to do the same to Murray at the U.S. Open. It won’t be easy, as we’ll see in a minute.
The final major of 2013 is hardly wide open—the Big 4 have won all 15 Grand Slams played in this decade. But none of them is a heavy favorite, either. Nadal has won the last two hard-court events, Djokovic is No. 1, Murray is the defending champ and Wimbledon winner, and Federer, who seems fit enough for another run, remains Federer. Their draws are out; let’s see what they might face over the next two weeks.
Djokovic, the No. 1 seed, has had a fine season, but it has been marred by an inability to rise to the biggest occasions. He played poorly in the Wimbledon final, and lost ultra-tight matches to Nadal at the French Open and in Montreal—two years ago, he was winning those matches against Rafa. But Novak is still the safest bet of anyone to go deep at the Open. He’s reached the semis or better at 13 straight majors, and he hasn’t lost before the last four at Flushing Meadows since 2006. Djokovic has also made the final here three years running.
This time he’ll start against Ricardis Berankis, an undersized but skilled baseliner who’s better than his ranking of No. 126, but probably not so much better that he’ll win a set from Djokovic (the two have never played). If Novak wins that, he’ll play the winner of Benjamin Becker and Lukas Rosol. That also shouldn’t be a problem. Djokovic won his only meeting with Becker in straights, and he leveled Rosol 1 and 0 this spring in Miami. Of greater interest is Djokovic’s potential third-round opponent, Grigor Dimitrov, who upset him in Madrid in May.
Of even greater interest than that is Djokovic’s potential quaterfinal opponent: Juan Martin del Potro. The two have split their last two matches: Del Potro got him 6-4 in the third at Indian Wells, while Djokovic won their show-stopper in the Wimbledon semis. Del Potro is 3-9 in their lifetime head to head, but those two matches should give him confidence if they face each other again here. Del Potro is also a crowd favorite in New York, and he got the lion’s share of the love when they played at Flushing last year. But don’t pencil the big man into the quarters just yet. He might play Lleyton Hewitt in the second round; the Aussie, a former Open champ, won their last meeting, at Queen’s in June.
Also here: Tommy Haas, who lands in Djokovic’s quarter in a third straight major. Haas lost to him in straights at the French and Wimbledon, though he won their meeting earlier in the year in Miami.
First round shotmaker’s special: David Goffin vs. Alexandr Dolgopolov
Returning: Brian Baker, who gets Hewitt first.
Semifinalist: Novak Djokovic
What’s Andy Murray’s reward for beating the world No. 1 to win Wimbledon? A slot on his side of the draw at the U.S. Open. But if a semifinal against Djokovic seems a little unfair—the two have met in three major finals in the past 12 months—Murray should be happy with what he has to face before that.
Murray will start against the last of the serve-and-volleyers, Michael Llodra. Murray’s return game has been too good for the Frenchman in the past; he’s 3-0 against him. After that, the names in Murray’s half are Hanescu, L. Mayer, Klizan, F. Mayer, Monaco, Seppi, Malisse, Lacko, Kamke, S. Johnson, Istomin, and Almagro. It’s hard to ask for a nicer path to the quarters than that.
It could be a different story if and when Murray makes it there. New No. 5 Tomas Berdych heads up the bottom half of this second, and he took Murray out last week in Cincy 3 and 4, before losing two close sets to Nadal in the semifinals. Last year at the Open, though, it was Murray who ground down Berdych in a windy semifinal.
Also here: No. 9 seed Stan Wawrinka, who could be due for another hot streak; he opens against Radek Stepanek.
Semifinalist: Andy Murray
I know he doesn’t think he belongs there, but I’m guessing David Ferrer could get used to this No. 4 thing. This time he not only steers clear of the Top 3 seeds, but he avoids the fourth member of the Big 4, Federer, as well. Instead, Ferrer can gaze across his bracket this afternoon and find that the highest-ranked obstacle before the semifinals is...Richard Gasquet.
Ferrer, however, would be wise not to look ahead—at all. The Spaniard has been more Little than Beast since getting blitzed by del Potro at Wimbledon. In his two hard-court events since, Ferrer has lost to Alex Bogomolov, Jr. and Dmitry Tursunov, and neither match was competitive. In New York, he’ll start against a qualifier and would face the winner of Bautista Agut and Bellucci after that. A bigger problem might come in the following round, where Ferrer might play Ernests Gulbis. Ferru won their only meeting, way back in 2007, 6-2, 6-1.
For Gulbis and the rest of the players here, this is a land of opportunity. Two players who should be primed to take advantage are next-generation sluggers Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janowicz. Raonic broke out of a slump when he made the final in Montreal; Janowicz has already been to a major semi this year, at Wimbledon. Raonic is on Gasquet’s side, Janowicz is on Ferrer’s; each opens with a qualifier. While Raonic typically disappoints, and Janowicz’s nerves could easily fray in New York, it wouldn’t be surprise to see them meet in the quarters.
Slumping: Janko Tipsarevic, quarterfinalist last year, is seeded 18th. He plays Cuevas first.
Possible second-round blast off: Janowicz vs. Jack Sock
Sleeper: No. 32 seed Dmitry Tursunov is on Gasquet’s side; he's been playing well.
Best-named match: Jan-Lennard Struff vs. Guillaume Rufin
Semifinalist: Jerzy Janowicz
You knew it was bound to happen, right? No. 2 Nadal and No. 7 Federer are in the same quarter, just as they were in Indian Wells, at Wimbledon, and in Cincinnati. In a sense, though, they’re fortunate this time. If they play, it will be one match earlier than Djokovic and Murray, but the winner between Roger and Rafa will then face a less-imposing opponent in the semis. The most dangerous and experienced high seeds, Berdych and del Potro, are safely in the opposite half. Novak and Andy may have to take care of them in the quarters, and then each other in the semis.
Nadal is the top seed in this quarter, and after his wins in Montreal and Cincy, he’s a slight favorite to win the tournament. Never forget the knees, however; many of us thought he was the favorite to win Wimbledon as well. And Nadal’s draw isn’t the easiest.
First up is the ever unlucky Ryan Harrison. The American took the first set of their match in Indian Wells this spring to a tiebreaker; a night crowd in New York could inspire him to win a set this time. Could. Harrison was utterly outclassed when he faced Djokovic in Australia this year. After that, Nadal might get Vasek Pospisil, who made a semifinal run in Montreal. Scarier, perhaps, is the sight of John Isner in his half. But Isner, who has never thrived in three-of-five, will have to dig deep and play more efficiently than normal to get there. He might face Gael Monfils in the second round. Also near Rafa: Verdasco, Davydenko, and Dodig, all of whom own at least one win over him.
How about Federer? After a spasmodic summer, he says he’s rested and ready. He should have a chance to work his way into the event; aside from the Nadal thing, his draw is a good one. Federer opens against Grega Zemjla; he has won both of their encounters easily. The other names in his way are Giraldo, Berlocq, Zeballos, Mannarino, Pella, Querrey, Robredo, Matosevic, Haase, Ramos, Tomic, and Nishikori. Even at 32, Federer will be a heavy favorite in all of those matches. Only Nishikori has a win over him.
If Nadal and Federer face off, I like Rafa in four. He’s won their three matches this year, and he did it without his best for much of the time in Cincinnati.
Second-round match that they should just start in a fifth-set tiebreaker: Isner vs. Monfils
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Murray; Nadal d. Janowicz
Final: Djokovic d. Nadal
If these two meet in the final, it could obviously go either way. Rafa won their last two matches, 9-7 in the fifth and 7-6 in the third, but he had to play extremely well to beat Djokovic on hard courts in Montreal. Any slip and the advantage goes back to Nole.