With the draw less than 48 hours from completion I thought I’d get a little headstart and post a pre-preview of the US Open. First to answer the title question of “can Rafael Nadal win the US Open”? Can he do it and win three straight Majors completing the career Slam at the age of just 24. The cheap answer is it’s possible, but not likely this year.
First, I just read the US Open tennis odds and I have to agree with Roger Federer being installed as the favorite. After the Swiss, I’d put Murray second and then Nadal based on results this summer. After that the waters are muddied.
Overall, I think this year’s tournament will be as wide open as ever with generous helpings of suspense and surprise. At least I hope it is. However, I also have a feeling that the man standing with the big trophy and the winner’s prize come September 12 is not going to be a shock – we rarely see such Cinderella champions in New York.
So that said, here’s how I handicap the field as it stands right now:
Roger Federer: The Swiss won his first title in seven months on Sunday and suddenly he’s the US Open favorite? What gives? Well, for my money Federer actually looked pretty darn good last week in Cincinnati, where, albeit, he had only played three full matches. But in those matches he looked sharp, moved well and played the kind of tennis that has won him US Opens in the past.
After his stunning loss to Tomas Berdych at Wimbledon, things looked bleak for the former World No. 1, but once again he has turned things around just when everybody (myself included) was ready to bury him six feet under.
That said, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the 29-year-old’s performance in Toronto against his major foes Berdych, Novak Djokovic and in a final loss to Andy Murray. He did play much better in Cincinnati but against lesser competition – his only Top 15 win came against Nikolay Davydenko.
So there is some cause for concern. But Federer’s biggest ally in the Slams has been the best-of-five format because he’s fit and for many players he’s still a serious mental hurdle to overcome. The back-to-back semifinal/final format and the faster courts also help him.
Andy Murray: Like Federer, Murray was also going through a bad patch until this big win in Toronto where he beat David Nalbandian, Nadal and then Federer in succession without surrendering a single set. It was arguably Murray’s best three-match trifecta of his career and it earned him his first title of 2010.
But for the Scot, beating Federer in a Tennis Masters final doesn’t get him “over the hump” to beating him in a Slam final. Unfortunately for Murray, those are two very different, distinct accomplishments.
In two previous Grand Slams finals against Federer he’s failed to win a set, and until he actually wins a set in a Slam final it’s hard to put him as the favorite especially over someone who’s done it 16 times.
On the bright side for Murray, the back-to-back semifinal/final days at the US Open should help ease the pressure. Recall in Australia that Murray had two full days to tense and tighten up under the weight and pressure of the expectations. With the quick turnaround the final weekend in New York there’s just not that much time to feel that heat and to fully digest the moment.
Rafael Nadal: As I said, I think Nadal can win the US Open but for me his biggest obstacle is winning those back-to-back semifinal and final matches against quality competition on a fast hardcourt. That’s a tall order.
My guess is in the next 5-7 years if Nadal’s still around the US Open will add a day in between the semis and finals, and Nadal will have a better chance for his win. Otherwise, if the competition that final weekend is stiff – and it usually always is – the odds are stacked against the guy.
But the Rafa is the best fighter in the game and even though his last hardcourt title came back in March of 2009 at Indian Wells, you always have to give him a chance especially when he’s healthy. If upsets do happen then the door could be open for Nadal.
Novak Djokovic: After watching his uninspired display against Andy Roddick in Cincinnati, it’s hard to put the slimmer Serb among the favorites at the US Open. But I have to give credit where credit is due, and Novak usually manages to beat the guys he should and end up deep in Slams even when we don’t think he’s playing well.
And the US Open has been Djokovic’s most consistent Slam having reached at least the semifinals their the last three years. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see him back in the last four again, but I just don’t get the sense that he wants it bad enough to win the whole thing.
David Nalbandian: I’ll go out on a limb and put him among the favorites based solely on that incredible stretch of tennis he played mid-summer. It’s too bad that almost as expected Nalbandian’s level dropped off at the bigger events in Toronto and Cincinnati. But if he can get a good draw (avoid a Top 4 seed in the third round) and play his way in, I think he can reignite the fuse and make a serious run.
Like Murray though, I do wonder if mentally he could actually win the darn thing if the opportunity presented itself on that final Sunday.
Tomas Berdych: Big serve, big groundstrokes and a fast court should all aid the Czech big man. And he’s now got match experience reaching the Wimbledon finals and the French semifinals, but can continue the trend and go one round further?
What worries me about Berdych is a letdown. An outer court loss to some guy ranked outside the Top 50. I still fear he’s capable of such a loss.
And what happens should he face an American like Fish or Roddick in a night match with a hostile, vocal crowd against him? Does he have the mental makeup to handle those occasions? I remain skeptical.
Andy Roddick: After a post-Miami slump, Roddick showed some signs of life in Cincinnati last week. But you have to wonder how his energy-sapping mono will affect him in a best-of-five set format.
If he’s fit and if he gets the right draw in a favorable quarterfinal bracket – Djokovic, Soderling, Dayvdenko – I think he’s got a good chance to get the last eight and beyond. At the very least, his experience and steady play should win him some matches.
Mardy Fish: You have to love the way Mardy has played this summer. And unless he’s burned out from all the tennis, I expect him to at least get to the 16s in New York. But as I said, winning big matches in Masters events is much different than winning them at a Slam. Still, Mardy is a veteran now and I think he’ll build off his summer success with a good showing at the Open and maybe even a semifinal appearance.
Robin Soderling: Does anyone want to play this guy? I doubt it. The dangerous Swede has the game and the attitude to beat anyone, anywhere at anytime. But for some reason outdoor hardcourts have never been the strongest of surfaces and he’s still susceptible to the occasion off day.
The Top Fielders
Marcos Baghdatis: Marcos has nicely turned his game around this year and he always seems to play well in big matches at the Slams. I don’t think he’s back at the level where he was in 2006, but let’s hope he can keep his improving his form.
Fernando Verdasco: Has he overplayed? Probably. Does he have the game to make an impact at the US Open? Absolutely. When picking Fernando it’s usually hit and miss, often literally.
Sam Querrey: Sam has a game tailor made from Flushing, but he just hasn’t come up with the results at the Open or really at any Slam. Could this finally be the big breakthrough or did he again peak too early?
Marin Cilic: Cilic started out of the blocks this year about as well as anyone reaching his first Slam semifinal in Australia. But the Croatian has been on ice since. A quarterfinalist a year ago when he hammered Murray, he’s capable to get back in gear and salvage his season in New York.
Other guys who I think could make some waves are Feliciano Lopez, Ernests Gulbis, Lleyton Hewitt and Taylor Dent.
In the end, though, I think the title will be won by someone in the Top 4. Will it be Rafa? The draw will tell us more.
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