Wrapping up the US Open, here are some thoughts I think I had while watching all that terrific tennis the last few weeks. Let’s get to it.
1) Rafael Nadal The King Of Hardcourts?
In one of the great returns to any sport, much less tennis, a once left-for-dead Rafael Nadal is now on top of the tennis world. At the start of the year many of us wondered not if he would ever win hardcourt titles again, but even if he would play on his least favorite surface! Now eight months later Nadal is undefeated on the hardstuff with a head-shaking 22-0 mark including titles at Indian Wells, Canada, Cincinnati and the US Open!
Absolutely no one saw that coming, and if they claim they did they are 100% lying.
Maybe the seven months of rehab/time off helped recharge Nadal’s knees and rev-up his desire. Maybe he’s winning so much because his main competition continues to flounder – Roger Federer isn’t what he once was, Novak Djokovic is dealing with confidence issues, and he hasn’t played Andy Murray yet on hardcourts because the Scot can’t win enough matches to play Rafa.
For all the talk of him being a clay court specialist, Nadal now has five Grand Slam titles off of the red dirt. FIVE! That’s one less than studs like Djokovic, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg have overall. And his 13 Slams is one shy of Sampras and four from Mr. Federer which at the rate he’s going he’ll reach in 20 months.
So for now, it’s Rafa’s time. But the winds will change again. That’s for certain.
2) We’ll never see Novak Djokovic’s 2011 level again
Probably not. Djokovic was at another stratosphere in 2011 when he went on that torrid streak to start the year, then he hung on to win his only US Open title. It’s tough to sustain, but now a few years older he’s struggling to win titles – just one from April.
Sure, he can go toe-to-toe with anybody on the planet, even Nadal, but during the key moments Monday night he once again fell apart mentally, just as he’s been doing much of the year.
Novak was up a break in the third and in position to take the match. Credit to Nadal for fighting, but where was Novak’s fury? Why the collapse?
There are good patches and then there are bad patches. But against the top players – Novak’s now lost to his big two rivals in the last two major finals – he just can’t seem to finish the job. And that’s between the ears.
Maybe Djokovic gets it back – often it can be just take one or two wins to turn the tide – or maybe not. But right now Nadal is now firmly in his head.
3) The end of Roger Federer
Big racquet, small racquet, I don’t see Roger ever returning to No. 1 and now he might never get back to a Slam final. That Tommy Robredo loss almost felt like a funeral in a way.
There’s little pop on the shots. The footwork isn’t there and nor was the timing. Robredo said he really didn’t do anything new except let Roger self destruct and that’s exactly what happened and has been happening.
That said, Roger could still get a good draw here and there and make a run, but as I’ve said before Federer’s game is based not on power – like a Sampras serve or Agassi groundstrokes – but on remarkable timing and precision. And like a finely-tuned sports car once there are calibration issues, performance quickly crumbles.
Federer’s now ranked No. 6 this week and looking ahead there’s a very real chance he won’t be in the Top 10 a year from, maybe not even in the Top 20.
But more often than not, when we write him off he roars back. And his best time of the year is ahead: the indoors. Let’s see.
4) Serena still strong
Like two ships passing in the night, Roger Federer and Serena Williams are both heading opposite directions as they turn 32. While Federer fights to stay relevant at majors, Serena’s winning them and winning them with greater frequency.
The US Open title was Serena’s fourth in the last six Slams and with Maria Sharapova harboring a serious shoulder injury, Petra Kvitova a mental mess, Li Na likely past her past her prime, it just leaves Victoria Azarenka and maybe Sloane Stephens are worthy foes.
Sunday night after a brief choke in the second Serena returned to hammering Azarenka in the third for an emphatic 6-1 finish.
Victoria’s played her tough but the Belrussian has never beaten Serena in a Slam. And for the foreseeable future that’s probably how it’s going to be.
As for Sloane, she’s got a lot of game and weaponry, just not the maturity, at least not yet.
What’s remarkable is that a few weeks from turning 32 Serena is still able to muster some of her best tennis. And she’s been through her share of injuries and even a life threatening embolism.
With 17 Slams she’s already tied Roger and soon she’ll pass the Swiss and eventually move ahead of 18s Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova. If she stays healthy – her only real opponent these days – she’ll have a shot at Graf’s 22 and maybe Court’s 24.
5) Where’s the variety?
One disconcerting thing I found while devouring all that tennis was the lack of variety in what I was watching. Everyone was just hammering away from the baseline, asking “Who’s got the bigger forehand”? I just got tedious after a while.
Wawrinka, Djokovic, Nadal, Ferrer, Robredo, Berdych, Raonic, Isner, Istomin, Granollers, Gasquet, etc, are all sort of the same in a way. Maybe it was because guys like Murray, Federer, Tomic, Monfils, Haas, Dolgopolov, Dimitrov and Janowicz didn’t make much noise that many matches appeared the same.
6) The end of 5-set matches is nigh
I’ll save it for a broader post, but after watching Del Potro-Hewitt, Wawrinka-Djokovic and even the 4-set Monday night final, it’s clear to me the best-of-5 format in Grand Slam play is on the endangered list. Because of scheduling and TV considerations, I expect all men’s matches at Grand Slams to go best-of-3 by the end of the decade, maybe within four years. That’s right, you heard it here first. At least in the U.S., casual tennis fans – like my friends and family – just don’t have the patience to sit through four to five hour matches.
So those are a few closing notes after a few weeks of tennis. Now four months until the Australian Open? Can we speed that up?
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