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Apocalypse Now: U.S. Open preview

Cataclysmic letdowns and showdowns ahead at 2008 U.S. Open. Neither Nadal nor Federer will make the final.

By Wyman Meers
Outsports.com

Rafael Nadal is the new world No. 1 in men’s tennis, having won not only his customary French Open title this year but also every tournament of note since, including his first Wimbledon championship and the Olympic gold medal in Beijing. Nadal’s ascent to the top spot brought to an end the 235-week stranglehold that living legend Roger Federer held on the tennis world.

James Blake will make the finals / Brent Mullins photo
Dethroning the king was no easy feat and Nadal is now charged with the task of restoring order to the traumatized landscape that surrounds him, a world that – however unintentionally - he helped to create.

Certainly Nadal has the game to be everything tennis needs at this moment; he is reliable, steady, and gentle yet strong. But in assessing what the tennis season has been and wondering how players will fare heading into the U.S. Open, something seems wrong. There is an uneasiness that comes from lack of direction.

After all, 2008 was supposed to be the year that Roger Federer made history. The owner of 12 major titles, Federer was poised to at least tie Pete Sampras’s record tally of 14 Grand Slam championships. Yet Federer enters the U.S. Open having gone 0-for-3 in major tournaments this year.

The weary Swiss must now salvage his nightmarish season with a title defense in New York or go Slam-less in 2008, a scenario so unfathomable just one short year ago that it is surely a sign of the apocalypse.


The Fates

Newly top-seeded Rafael Nadal opens up the men’s draw. Rafa has played and won a lot of tennis matches this season. He will have to fight fatigue as much as his opponents in his quest to win a third consecutive major championship (fourth if you count the Olympics). In the past, Nadal has historically struggled in the second half of the season as the wear and tear of his grinding baseline style becomes more palpable. Tellingly, he has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. If Nadal continues to show the form that he’s held since the start of the clay court season this past spring, however, there are few players that can beat him.

Confidence alone should carry Rafa into the fourth round, but there he is likely to face off against either the 6’10”Croatian, Ivo Karlovic, or the always dangerous Czech Tomas Berdych. An off-form Rafael would certainly have to fight to advance to the quarters. An in-form Nadal should have little trouble. Nadal’s opponent in the final eight is most likely to be American James Blake, fresh off an Olympic upset of Roger Federer. Blake has always saved his best tennis for his home Grand Slam and will not be intimidated by Nadal, having beaten Rafa in the third round of the 2005 U.S. Open.

The second quarter of the men’s draw is anchored by another Spaniard, David Ferrer, who was a semifinalist at this event one year ago. A return trip to the semis is possible, but there are several men in this section who could easily upend the Spanish fourth seed. Perhaps the most intriguing player in the entire top half of the men’s draw is Ferrer’s potential fourth round opponent, Juan Martin Del Potro, a 19-year-old Argentine with the talent to make a run for the upper echelons of men’s tennis in a few years. Del Potro took advantage of this Olympic year to dominate the stateside summer season, winning four consecutive tournaments and building the type of confidence that make him a dark horse pick for the semifinals. The player to come out of the Ferrer/Del Potro section will then likely face enigmatic Scot Andy Murray or former U.S. Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzney for a spot in the final four.

The third quarter of the men’s draw is populated with veterans and youngsters, promising several dynamic matches as it unfolds to decide who will advance to the third semifinalist position.

Novak Djokovic, the third-ranked Australian Open champion and Olympic bronze medalist, is the favorite to reach the penultimate round but he is not a sure thing. This quarter features two past champions, 2003 winner Andy Roddick and Marat Safin, who bludgeoned Pete Sampras eight years ago in the 2000 final. Both former winners face irksome veterans in their opening matches. Roddick drew French magician Fabrice Santoro and Safin opposes American nutball Vince Spadea. Lurking in this section of the draw are also promising youngster Ernests Gulbis of Latvia, crafty German Nicolas Keifer,Chile’s Olympic silver medalist Fernando Gonzalez, former number one Carlos Moya, Australian Open runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, and a one-time U.S. Open semifinalist in American Robby Genepri.

At the bottom of the draw stands suddenly second-ranked Roger Federer. He has lost an unusually high number of matches this year. The once almighty Fed now seems as susceptible to upsets at the hands of journeymen as he is to epic losses against top players. Appearances aside, however, the fact of the matter is that Roger Federer has won the U.S. Open title in each of the past four years and finished runner-up to Nadal in both Paris and London in 2008. He will be hungry to prove himself and the best-of-five sets format should offer him more time to find his game in a crisis situation against lesser players. While there are a few talented players in this section – such as Germany’s Tommy Haas, steady Russian Nikolay Davydenko, sexy Serb Janko Tipsarevic, and jokester Dimitry Tursanov – it seems that, nearly nine months into the season, Federer has finally gotten a break.

The question remains, however, as to whether or not Federer can consolidate that break and defend his U.S. Open title.

The Furies

Meanwhile, the women’s tour has been in a season-long cataclysmic state that defies explanation. The best players in the game are fickle and erratic. Veterans find motivation in fits and starts while the young players are either unwilling or unable to fulfill their potential. All the players struggle with injuries that threaten to steal them from the game at any given moment.

After decades of domination by one or two top players, women’s tennis today suffers the cruel curse of the greater depth it always wanted combined with a lack of conviction from its most talented athletes. Last year’s winner, Justine Henin, is not returning to defend her title. She retired this spring after losing the motivation to compete. The disarray she left behind has produced a revolving door of sometimes controversial number one players and world rankings that mean little-to-nothing in terms of predicting which players will advance in any given tournament.

French Open champion Ana Ivanovic is the women’s top seed and current number one. Returning to tennis after arecent thumb injury, Ivanovic will be rested but rusty. She may very well have to fight off former number one Amelie Mauresmo in the third round, as Momo has been playing with more aggression and renewed motivation in the weeks leading up to the U.S. Open. Russia’s Nadia Petrova has also shown signs of a return to form this summer and stands in Ana’s path to the quarterfinals. Yet the player poised to emerge from the top quarter of the draw is Dinara Safina, the Canadian Open winner and Olympic silver medalist. Safina was runner-up to Ivanovic at the French Open and has been more consistent than most as the season has progressed. Dinara has the game to win the U.S. Open, but she has yet to prove that she can manage her mind when the stakes are highest.

The second quarter is the marquee portion of the women’s draw. Superstar sisters Venus and Serena Williams bookend this section, and there is seemingly no one in-between to stop the sisters from advancing to a quarterfinal showdown. At their best, Venus and Serena are still quite possibly the best female tennis players in the world and they’ve undergone a resurgence this summer. Venus defeated Serena in a thrilling Wimbledon final and, as a doubles team, they are the Wimbledon champions and Olympic gold medalists. Other than the misfortune of drawing one another, the sisters have a nice quarter of the draw and it is very easy to imagine someone named Williams advancing to the championship match.

Russia’s Elena Dementieva won the biggest title of her career by claiming the Olympic gold medal in Beijing. The victory should imbue her with confidence and reinstates her as the best player never to have won a major title. The surprise Olympic victory also underscores the turbulent nature of contemporary women’s tennis, reminding fans that there is no guarantee Elena will be able to follow her Olympic success with a deep run at the U.S. Open. Still, her draw is favorable, promising a potential showdown with the lately lackluster Anna Chakvetadze before a quarterfinal meeting with 2004 US Open Champion Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Another former champion sits in the bottom half of the draw, America’s own Lindsay Davenport, who claimed her only title in New York ten years ago in 1998. Davenport played well at the beginning of the year in her post-childbirth return to tennis, but has been injured and fallen off the radar a bit since. If she is healthy enough to compete, Lindsay has a favorable draw and could easily advance to the quarterfinals. There she would most likely play second-ranked Jelena Jankovic, whom Davenport beat at the start of the season. Jankovic briefly sat on top of the women’s rankings, but has yet to prove she can produce her best tennis on the game’s grandest stages.

The Revelation

Surveying the damage that surrounds him, Rafael Nadal must certainly sense the importance of this task and the immense challenges before him. Will he succumb to pressure and the physical toll of his own incredible success? Will he be able to live up to the responsibility of being number one in the world? Not only does he now shoulder the weight of statistically being better than the best man to every play the game, but he is also the only standard bearer for tennis as a whole. The affable powerhouse from Mallorca, Spain, is already ranked number one in the world, but a U.S. Open victory would confirm that he is at long last second to no one.

Until then, in 2008, chaos reigns.

Prophecies

Women’s Semifinals:

Dinara Safina d. Serena Williams; Elena Dementieva d. Lindsay Davenport

Women’s Final:

Dinara Safina d. Elena Dementieva

Men’s Semifinals:

James Blake d. Andy Murray; Novak Djokovic d. Roger Federer

Men’s Final:
Novak Djokovic d. James Blake