“This year’s US Open appears to be the most open (pardon the pun) in many years and it is not hard to understand why,” our guest writer begins, as he previews the United States Open Tennis Championships tournament, which begins today. It is our hope that you’ll enjoy this delicious piece of writing as much as we did. – Editor.
WHERE HAVE YOU GONE, NOVAK DJOKOVIC?
This year’s US Open appears to be the most open (pardon the pun) in many years and it is not hard to understand why. There is a palpable sense in men’s tennis that the era of “Big 4” dominance is coming to a belated end. Novak Djokovic, not very long ago an invincible hegemon that utterly dominated men’s tennis, will be absent with injuries, both physical and psychological. His puzzlingly swift fall from the heights of holding all four major titles simultaneously after breaking his Roland Garros hoodoo in June 2016 has exacted a toll on his psyche. Or is it the other way around? Either way, the Djoker will be absent resting his injured elbow and nursing his bruised ego. Will we ever see him return to anything like his erstwhile perma-running, uber-retrieving, mentally unassailable self? Not in 2017 at any rate. His first majorless year since 2010 is now confirmed. Having now turned 30, it will be interesting to see what is left in his tank as he approaches the latter stages of his illustrious career.
ANDY’S HIP AND OTHER HARDSHIPS
Andy Murray also turned 30 this year and, unlike his nemesis Djokovic, will be at Flushing Meadow despite an injured hip. He closed 2016 in a fierce blaze of riot with a second win at Wimbledon presaging a stellar finish to the year as he collared titles at the Olympics, Paris Masters and the ATP World Tour Finals, where he beat Djokovic in the final having, by then, usurped him as World No. 1. However, despite an early win in Dubai and a deep run to the semis at Roland Garros, 2017 has not been kind to the Scotsman. His Wimbledon title defense ended in a painful, physically and otherwise, defeat to Sam Querrey in the last eight and this after a shock 4th round loss at the Aussie Open to Mischa, the older (and lesser) of the Zverev brothers. Early failures at Indian Wells, Madrid and Rome coupled with the hip problems that have seen him miss the traditional US Open warm ups in Montreal and Cincinatti mean that Murray goes into the final Slam of the year looking like a very long shot indeed.
RAFA’S REVIVAL: BACK TO 2005-2007?
Ironically, it is the older two of the dominant quartet who have fared much better this year, against all the odds. Rafael Nadal, at 31, has had his best year on tour since 2013. He easily regained the French Open title, winning for an unprecedented 10th time in Roland Garros in June. He also reached the Aussie Open final in Melbourne, losing a classic five-setter to Federer having been a break up in the fifth. Add to this his dominance of the clay circuit with wins in Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Madrid and his run to the Final in Miami (where he was again stopped by Federer, suitably attired in kryptonite green), to say nothing of his recent return to No. 1 in the ranking, and it is clear that Rafa should be very happy with his work in 2017. Still, some major question marks remain against his chances in New York. For a start, all his tournament wins this year have come on clay and he has not won a significant title away from his favourite surface since his annus mirabilis in 2013. Still, he is likely to be seeded no. 1 in New York and this could make his draw relatively straightforward, at least until the semis. As such, it would be premature to write him off. He might have one more hard court miracle left in him yet.
FEDEX’S INDIAN SUMMER
Speaking of miracles, Roger Federer’s unlikely renaissance in 2017 is certainly not far short of sorcery. At 36 years of age and having taken the second half of 2016 off he has a) Won his first major in 5 years at the Australian Open in an epic 5 set final against his erstwhile nemesis, Nadal. b) Followed it up with the Masters 1000 Sunshine double at Indian Wells and Miami, eviscerating Nadal en route to both titles and c) Won an unprecedented 8th title, without dropping a set, at Wimbledon having skipped the entire clay season. This made 2017 his first multiple major winning year since 2009 when he finally completed his career grand slam. Contrary to the breathless media hype though, Federer’s 2017 has not come out of nowhere after years of inexorable decline. As many astute watchers of the game predicted long ago, Federer has aged better than most and, after a terrible 2013, he remodeled his game by changing his racquet, hiring Stefan Edberg as his coach and adopting a more attacking style of play designed to shorten the rallies while, hopefully, lengthening his career. He immediately showed signs of a renaissance in both 2014 and 2015. He reached three major finals in this period, losing only to peak Djokovic each time while picking up a number of Masters titles. The injury setbacks he suffered in 2016, coupled with his age, seemed to signal the end of a glorious career. But the pundits reckoned without his love of the game and his unparalleled natural talent. Historically, very few male players can make a virtue out of taking six months off the tour and Federer belongs to this very small club.
Now that 2017 has delivered the additional majors that many had felt he was capable of winning a couple of years earlier and provided a fitting postscript to the most gilded career of them all, is the US Open a bridge too far, even for Fed? Probably, it is. The hard courts there are not as fast as those in Melbourne and the back tweak he suffered in Montreal was a timely reminder that not even Federer can deny the march of time. However, with his retooled backhand and his superb, all court attacking style, he is justifiably the current favourite. A 20th slam at Flushing Meadow would be a “joke”, the great man himself has said. For Fedheads everywhere, and they are legion, what divine humour that would be!
THE LOST BOYS
Now, we come to the “Lost Generation”. This refers to that group of players that came after the Nadal-Djokovic-Murray cohort (people often forget that Federer actually belongs to the generation BEFORE that of his main rivals of the past decade). These unfortunate young men have been utterly eclipsed by the golden group before them and have wilted in the face of the challenge of displacing them. Among this dismal number you will find Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, among others, whose middling careers have falling short of the high hopes once held for them. Dimitrov, saddled with the unfortunate moniker of “Baby Fed” has attracted at least as much attention for his love life as he has for anything he has managed to do on the court. Raonic, with his booming serve and heavy groundstrokes, has done better than Dimitrov but has also failed to develop as hoped. Perhaps Baby Fed’s first ever Masters 1000 win in Cincinatti last week, at the ripe old age of 26, may signal a belated awakening that sees him romp to victory in New York. Very few are betting on this, however. The proof of this generation’s failure can be found in the current ATP Top 20 where the top 5 ranked players are all aged over 30, something unprecedented in the history of Men’s tennis in the Open era.
There is much talk of men’s tennis skipping the Lost Generation and moving to the next one. Here, there is plenty of potential and excitement. 2017 has been something of a barmitzvah for the giant German, Alexander (Sasha) Zverev, the younger (and greater) of the aforementioned Zverev brothers. He has announced himself by winning two Masters 1000 titles (in Rome and Montreal) and has the game, booming forehands and great mobility around the court for one so tall (he is 6’6”), to achieve great things. He took Nadal to five sets in Melbourne, beat Djokovic in Rome and overcame Federer in the Montreal final. The main knock against him is that he is yet to go further than the 4th round in any major and there are question marks about his ability to navigate seven best-of-five matches over a two week period from a stamina perspective. The 23 yr old Austrian, Dominic Thiem, is another contender. He is a formidable backcourt competitor who is something of a clay court specialist. He has reached the semis at Roland Garros in each of the last two years as well at the finals in Madrid and Barcelona this year. This suggests that his chances in New York may be slim but he may well be one for the future. The most intriguing member of the NextGen crew however is the Australian, Nick Kyrgios. Full of bravado, no little drama and a brittle temperament, Kyrgios is as controversial as he is talented. He possesses a massive serve(possibly the fastest on the tour at the moment) as well as a murderous forehand. He has a nice touch at the net too. However, all these attributes pale into insignificance when he is possessed by one of his many tantrums. No one knows if he can ever become the player he should because of this epic volatility. Still, he has beaten Djokovic twice this year, swatted Nadal aside just last week in Montreal and played one of the best matches of the year against Federer in the Miami semis when he was marginally on the wrong end of a high quality match that finished 7-6,6-7,7-6 in Federer’s favour. If he somehow escapes his demons, he can produce a major shock at the Flushing Meadow. On the other hand, should the mood take him, he can lose in the first round. No one really knows which Nick will turn up on any given day.
AND IN CONCLUSION: WHO KNOWS?
So, who will win the Men’s Singles title at the 2017 US Open on Sunday, September 9th 2017? To quote Rodgers & Hammerstein, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”: This year’s US Open appears to be the most open (pardon the pun) in many years …….
Editor’s Note: Andy Murray has since pulled out of the tournament.