August 27, 2014

ZAKOUR | U.S. Open Favorites

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BY JOHN ZAKOUR

It is late August, so that means that the the U.S. Open, tennis’ only domestic major tournament, is gearing up. If you are like many casual fans, it might be hard to appreciate the guys who aren’t named Federer or Nadal. So I have put together a guide to the men’s side in order to help all of us and maximize enjoyment.

The U.S. Open is played on relatively fast and slick blue hard courts. The Flushing, New York campus notably features the biggest venue in tennis, Arthur Ashe stadium court, with a holding capacity of over 22,000

This year, it’s Federer, Djokovic, and then everyone else. It’s two men versus the field, and if not for Nadal’s injury, it would be the top three against the field.

Novak Djokovic: The number one player in the world has been around the championship for a while, making his way into the last four Open finals, but only winning one (in 2011). Djokovic relies on his world class retrieving skills, revamped serve, weaponized serve return, and maybe the best two handed backhand in the world.

Djokovic is fresh off beating Roger Federer in the Wimbledon final after five dramatic and amazing sets, but his current form is a bit of an enigma. He was upset in the early rounds in both tournaments leading up to the Open, which might be a result of being preoccupied with parenthood, as he is expecting his first baby soon. Djokovic probably has the odds in his favor but has a brutal draw and could easily be upended by either Andy Murray or Tsonga in the quarters.

Roger Federer: The greatest ever, Federer also doubles as the most beloved and is the brand name in tennis. The Swiss maestro, now the ripe age of 33, is enjoying a resurgent season. Federer is in with a real chance at this year’s Open, with a reasonable draw to boot. He recently switched to a new racket, but still features the aesthetic brand of tennis that won him a record 17 major titles. His forehand is maybe the greatest, versatile, and most beautiful weapon in the history of the sport. His backhand, while still a good shot, is often picked on by the top players in the world. Federer’s slice backhand, a staple of his game, plays well on hard courts here. His hyper-aggressive attacking game, looking to move forward towards the net any chance he gets, is aided by New York’s courts. Federer is playing the best tennis of anyone in the world on hard court and remains my pick to take the title.

Andy Murray: The volatile Scotsman has been more down than up this season. Murray just has not been playing the same recently, evidenced by his drop down to nine in the world rankings. He is one of four players in the mix who has won the title before and is trying to salvage his season since he has been routed in the last two majors, losing to Rafael Nadal and Grigor Dimitrov. Neither match resembled Murray at his best.

His hard court season has been a mixed bag despite good recent form, losing to eventual champions Tsonga and Federer. Murray could be finally getting healthy, and if so his troubles boil down to his head. Decision making and consistency are always problems for maybe the best defensive player on tour, but if Murray can keep his wits about him, he is has a good chance of making a run in New York and possibly of making it to another final.

Grigor Dimitrov: Grigor’s first claim to fame was earning the nickname “Baby Fed” for his uncanny resemblance to Federer’s game. His backhand, forehand, and serve all could win Federer look alike competitions, but Grigor has a style all his own. He is not the graceful mover who floats above the court, but a more athletic and dogged returner, with a dramatic flair.

Unlike Federer, Grigor likes to absolutely rip his backhand and actually plays a somewhat different, if not totally dissimilar, brand of tennis. He is coming off his first major semifinal at Wimbledon and leads the charge of the young guns on the old guard’s throne. His game translates to all surfaces, but he has struggled mightily in Flushing historically. He would do well to reach Federer in the quarters and give him a scare.

Milos Raonic: This Canadian features the biggest and most daunting serve in the world, firing missiles off his outstretched racket. If the hype is to be believed, Milos is the next big thing in tennis. But I’m not so convinced, at least not yet. Raonic has a few big results, including his Wimbledon semifinal, but is 0-14 against the big three and has yet to play a match that shows that he can compete with them. He has been routed by Federer twice this year, failed to take a set off Djokovic in Paris, and was embarrassed by Nadal in the Montreal final. He had a lot of success against Murray, for what it’s worth, although Murray cruised by him when they met in New York. Raonic is still young and improving, but I doubt he has the all around game to win a major title.

Stan Wawrinka: The other Swiss player finally emerged from his compatriots’ shadow by winning his maiden slam at this year’s Australian Open. Wawrinka is not as well rounded on the court as Federer or Djokovic, but is definitely as good when it comes to just crushing a tennis ball and making shots. He is up and down, but is actually 4-1 against the top three players in the world this year. If his current season is any indication and Wawrinka manages to avoid upset and get to Djokovic and Federer, he is probably winning it all.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: The Frenchmen has a huge game, but is as mercurial as they come. He won the Toronto Masters in such emphatic fashion, beating Djokovic, Murray, and Federer along the way, that he forced himself on this list. It would take a similar Herculean effort for him to win the title this fortnight, but if anyone is capable of a run, it’s Tsonga.

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