The 2008 U.S. Open is complete. Roger Federer collected his 5th title, and Serena Williams won her 3rd championship in NY. Serena returning to #1 and Federer proving he still draws water in men’s tennis are compelling stories. Andy Murray was impressive. Novak Djokovic demonstrated that he may need better blinders in order to focus on prizes that are within reach. Juan Martin del Potro is more than promising. Jelena Jankovic demonstrated grit. Dinara Safina looks to be a future champion with weapons that might rival Serena’s power if harnessed properly.
Murray Rising and Rafa in NY
Andy Murray should not let a bad Monday ruin a great summer. His return of serve, on court analysis and emerging power game all bode well for his future. Murray’s adaptability is his greatest asset. I would not be shocked to see him win the big prize in Melbourne 2009 where some of the glare of the big stage is blunted by the laid back atmosphere of the Australian Open. Murray’s court coverage and shot making versus Nadal floored me. The players of “the string generation” are going to take baseline tennis to unimaginable levels even if Federer proved that judiciously moving forward still works on fast courts.
Rafa may have an issue with New York. To Nadal’s credit he plays every point with utmost effort and toughness. New York draws out reserves of toughness from more fragile players. Therefore, relative to his competition, Rafa’s intensity advantage declines at Flushing Meadows. The speed and unforgiving nature of the surface undermine his chances. To be sure, Rafa can win on hard courts as his success in Canada, Beijing, and Indian Wells prove. Some great European players have had a love-hate relationship with the U.S. Open. Prior to his 1991 and 1992 U.S. Open titles, Stefan Edberg lost in the first round in 1990 and got rocked in 1989 by a 37 year old Jimmy Connors. Bjorn Borg never solved the U.S. Open. Boris Becker only won the U.S. Open in 1989 despite his game being well suited to the fast courts.
Rafa playing after the Serena-Venus match along with his rescheduled Super Saturday match are part of the brash nature of the U.S. Open. Nadal will have to find his inner New Yorker to climb this mountain, and the likely improvements of Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro and the rise of lower tier players such as Sam Querrey demonstrate that Nadal’s obstacles are not going to diminish in the coming years. Still, I would not bet against Nadal.
Connors, Sampras and Federer’s 5 U.S. Open Titles
Roger Federer joined Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras as the only men of the Open Era to win 5 U.S. Open titles. Each man has a unique status associated with their 5 titles. Connors won on 3 surfaces: grass in 1974, green clay in 1976, and hard court in 1978, 1982 and 1983. Sampras won 5 titles that stretched from 1990-2002. The 13 year stretch demonstrates how long Sampras was a threat in New York. Federer winning 5 U.S. Open titles in 5 consecutive years is mind boggling. Roger’s final victims of Agassi, Hewitt, Roddick, Djokovic and Murray have combined to win 2 sets versus Federer’s 15.
GOAT of Hard Courts?
Greatest of All Time discussions are always tricky due to the changing nature of the game. Players even 10 years ago did not hit consistently with the type of spin that today’s strings make possible. I remember people in 1988 marveling at Steffi Graf “passing people who are on the baseline” rather than engaging in a back court war of attrition or rushing the net. Regularly pounding ground stroke winners past people is so common place today that no one even makes note of it.
Still, hard courts are a recent phenomenon in major tennis. The U.S. Open switched to hard courts in 1978 and the Australian Open in 1988. The pace of the courts and climate of the two majors are different, but players whose career started in or after 1988 can be compared in terms of hard court achievements. Pete Sampras won 5 U.S. Open and 2 Australian Open titles. Andre Agassi won 2 U.S. Open and 4 Australian Open titles. Roger Federer’s 5 U.S. Open titles, 3 Australian Open titles, 3 Indian Wells titles, 2 Miami titles, 2 Canadian titles and 2 Cincinnati titles give him at least a claim to being the most decorated hard court player in tennis history.
The Landscape of Women’s Tennis has Improved
One final note, the WTA has worried me recently as the general level of play has been spotty and injuries plague the top players. The Serena Williams – Jelena Jankovic match was a great contest between a power player and counter puncher holding nothing back. Both players put on a great show. This was doubly important as many CBS markets did not air any of the men’s final.
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