The Rally: Surveying the Landscape

Thursday, September 19, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

This week in the Rally, Kamakshi Tandon and I look at the new, post-U.S. Open, post-Slam landscape on each tour. We'll have Part II Friday morning.

*****

Kamakshi,

It takes a major to clarify things, doesn't it? You can never say anything for sure about any particular trend until the next Grand Slam is over. Was Rafael Nadal for real on hard courts? If he had lost to Novak Djokovic in the U.S. Open final, we would still wonder. Had Vika overcome her fear of Serena? She did in Cincinnati, but she didn't in New York, and we all know which one means more. Historically, the ultimate example to me of the power of the Slam was the 1995 Open. Andre Agassi had beaten Pete Sampras that summer and won the two warm-up events, but the truth of their rivalry was revealed again at Flushing Meadows, where Sampras turned the tables back around.

Where do you think the Open left us? We now have two clear-cut Players of the Year, Rafa and Serena. They've had very similar seasons: Each dominated 2013, but only had one major to show for it, the French Open. For both of them, the U.S. Open was final confirmation of their No. 1 status for the season. 

It's good to have that clarity, in a way: If either had lost, it would have muddied the Player of the Year waters. Though I'm concerned on the women's side now that there's Serena...and everybody else. The recent falloff by Maria Sharapova hurts. I know that Azarenka is closer to being a legitimate rival of Serena's, but the Open made me realize that having that third player in the mix is important. Without Maria, the women's event at Flushing felt like a long wait until Serena and Azarenka inevitably faced off in the final. And while Vika gave her a match, it only went three sets because Serena got tight. I don't think the hoped-for rivalry between the two was given any more hope by that match. If anything, the distance between the two seemed greater than it did in the Open final last year.

On the men's side, Nadal is also all alone at No. 1, or will be soon. There is more of a question with him going forward, of course; the other two times he finished the season at the top, 2008 and 2010, he wasn't able to sustain it. How long can he beat his opponents and his knees this time? I do think Nadal's re-ascent is good for tennis in the sense that, at 27, his natural career-span isn't close to being over, and he's a star who can carry the sport as Federer continues to age. And unlike on the women's side, he has a proven rivalry with Djokovic, one that has gone back and forth in the past. I don't expect Rafa to have the upper hand, at least on hard courts, on Nole forever. Men's tennis should be able to build on their battle for a few more years.

Not that Fedal is in the rear-view mirror just yet. In fact, it might even be reaching its most intense period, as Nadal gets closer to Fed's 17 majors. Can he get there, Kamakshi? I thought before this tournament that if he won the Open, he would eventually do it. So I guess I think he will. Whether Federer will add to his total...I don't know.

*****

Hi Steve,

Yes, the Slams are the rubber stamp on the sport's developments, though some of that is because we treat them so. If Nadal had lost, would it have negated everything else he's done on hard courts this year? By how much? I always think back to Gaston Gaudio and Guillermo Coria—Gaudio won the French Open, and Coria didn't, but good luck convincing me not to put Coria ahead when talking about the greatest clay-court players.

But Nadal did win, as did Serena, which as you say, makes things a lot easier—no uncomfortable choices between official achievement and on court performance.

Don't get me wrong—of course the Slams are the most important (apart from anything else, just saying so—and the players believing so—makes it so). But one match, especially a close one, is still one match.

So going forward, the finals also sent interesting signals about where things might be going, as well as where they are—a trail to follow, so to speak. The Nadal-Djokovic rivarly has been fascinating to observe because the match-up keeps evolving and developing. In 2010, when Nadal won the U.S. Open for the first time, it felt a lot like this year—that he had raised his game to another level, finally conquered all. The next year, he was getting yet another beatdown from Djokovic, who looked like he had taken command for good. But already you could see Nadal starting to adapt and fight back, playing a little less predictably, taking more chances and hitting more down the line. There was more of that at the 2012 Australian Open final, and even though Nadal lost that match, I think Nadal realized that he could have won, should have won—and could and should win the next time they played.

A year ago, Nadal wasn't even playing, and it wasn't clear when he would play again. Now, he's on top of the world again. I wonder what Djokovic, in a similar position to Nadal two years ago, is thinking now. He beat Nadal on clay once this year, and could and should have won both their matches at the French Open and U.S. Open. Yes, he lost them both, which makes Nadal the leader by a mile. But it was a very close race, which might be worth remembering for future reference.

It's a similar story with Serena. In 2011, she looked and played tight—her first Slam final after a year away with injuries. Last year, Azarenka got into a winning position but couldn't hold on. This year Serena looked nervous again, especially when trying to close it out, though she did get it together in the third set. She also let the match get away in Cincinnati against Azarenka, though an injury probably didn't help, and blew a lead in the fourth round of Wimbledon against Sabine Lisicki. So while it looks like domination on top, perhaps a little vulnerability is creeping up underneath as well.

But as you asked, there's the question of who, apart from Azarenka, is there to challenge Serena. And that goes for the guys as well. For me, the letdown of the U.S. Open and the Grand Slam season as a whole was that we didn't really get anyone who's emerged as a real threat to the established names. The breakthroughs, the unexpected heroes at Flushing were generally blasts from the past—Flavia Pennetta, Lleyton Hewitt, Tommy Robredo. Li Na is a player who could challenge for Slams regularly, but she fell apart against Serena for no apparent reason and plus, she's 31. Stanislas Wawrinka seems like the most credible threat to beat the Big Four in a big match at the moment—good for him, of course, but he's 28.

Why do you think this is, Steve? When do you think it might change? The longer we wait, the more it seems like a new, young challenger has to emerge soon, yet we keep waiting.

Meanwhile, Nadal and Serena keep piling up the Slams, so it does mean we have history to watch. On Federer winning another Slam, I would say this is the first season where no began to seem more likely than yes. On how many Nadal might win, you just need to look at how dramatically his situation has changed year to year over the last four U.S. Opens. So much will depend on a couple of Grand Slam matches here and there—and they'll probably be pretty close, too.


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