By Mike McIntyre
I've always enjoyed the ups and downs that a year on the ATP Tour can bring us. When you have a season that lasts from January (or even the end of December) until November you are bound to have ebbs and flows and an ever changing wave of momentum that sees players rise and fall at different times in the schedule. Seemingly impervious to these ups and downs in recent years have been Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal who currently sit at number one and two in the Emirates World Rankings. Yet as the final Grand Slam of 2014 is set to begin, both of these steady talents find themselves on the outside of the list of favorites in New York - and for very different reasons at that.
It has been almost a week now since Nadal has announced what everyone suspected earlier this summer when he revealed a right wrist injury he sustained after Wimbledon. While he initially pulled-out only from Toronto and Cincinnati leaving the door open to a return at the U.S. Open, many believed that the Spaniard would be unable to make it back to the form required to compete in gruelling best-of-five set matches. The tournament will be without it's defending champion and one of its biggest stars.
Djokovic on the other hand will be participating at Flushing Meadows and seeking his second title in New York however his play this summer has not indicated that he is the front-runner by any stretch. A 2-2 hardcourt record in August and straight set losses to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tommy Robredo do not bode well for his chances over the next two weeks. While the loss in Toronto could be attributed to some rust after not playing since Wimbledon and getting married as well, the Cincy defeat had no excuse for a world number one. Djokovic's attention and tennis game seem to be elsewhere. Djokovic's faltering game coupled with the previously mentioned loss of Nadal in the draw and suddently there are 127 other players who are just chomping at the bit to make their mark in New York this year. That being said, let's take a look at the draw and who we might be watching play for the title in two week's time.
While Djokovic is the top seed and may very well surprise us all by suddenly returning to form, I feel that players like John Isner, Julien Benneteau and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga could prove otherwise.
Isner has always been a threat on the hardcourts of North America and typically has success at the smaller lead-up events such as Atlanta and Washington. He did win in Atlanta this year and then was bounced early in D.C. as well as Toronto and Cincinnati. Still, Isner has the serve and the home crowd that could propell him to a round of sixteen match against the struggling Djokovic. If Tsonga and Robredo can beat the Serb, why not Isner? While Djokovic has a 5-2 career head-to-head against Isner, the two have always had close matches. Isner made the quarter-finals of the Open in 2011 and I feel he is a strong candidate to repeat that again this year.
Tsonga put together a week that most players can only dream of when he knocked off four top-ten players in Toronto (Djokovic, Murray, Dimitrov and Federer) en route to the second Masters 1000 title of his career. Then, just after he appeared invincible, he fell in his opening round match in Cincy to Mikhail Youzhny. In all fairness, Youzhny is a top-level opponent and Tsonga did not have much time to recharge in-between events. A third round match with compatriot Julien Benneteau would be a tough one and could leave either vunerable to a round of sixteen encounter with Andy Murray who has justifiably (given his play) been flying under the radar. Before we discuss Murray, let's look at Benneteau. At 32 years old this veteran has been playing some fantastic tennis this year and is currently ranked 27th in the world. He reached the semi-finals in Cincinnati recently and is a guy I feel could have an unexpectedly deep run in New York. The one knock against Benneteau is that he has only made it past the third round of a Slam three times over the course of his career. He trails Tsonga 4-5 in their career meetings but has won their only encounter this year on hard court in Indian Wells.
Now we come to Murray who by his own admission has not had a strong season. He can only use the "returning from back surgery" excuse for so long and fans are growing impatient to see some results from his partnership with coach Amelia Mauresmo. Murray has failed to reach the finals of any event on tour so far in 2014. The last year that Murray did not win a tournament was in 2005 and the last year he failed to make a final was 2004. With most of the season behind us, Murray is running out of time to keep his streak going. Could he reverse his fortunes with a deep run here at the Open? It is not out of the question, but my prediction here is on Isner to rise to the occasion and surprise a lot of people.
My Pick: Isner d Murray
Could Canadian Milos Raonic make his third straight Grand Slam quarter-final at the Open? I'd put money on it if I were the betting type. Over the past four years this guy has done all the right things in terms of his learning curve as a professional tennis player. Deservingly ranked 6th in the world, this could be Raonic's best chance at his first major title. A third round match against either 10th seeded Kei Nishikori or a surging Jack Sock could test him but he has prevailed against both players in recent history. A quarter-final against Stan Wawrinka who is seeded 3rd would be fun to watch, but with Wawrinka's up and down play you just can't bank on him being there. I really think Raonic is the favorite in this part of the draw and perhaps even to make it to his first Slam final. Keep an eye out for fellow Canuck Vasek Pospisil who made the finals against Raonic in D.C. and pushed Roger Federer to three sets in Cincy recently. He could take out Wawrinka in the 3rd round.
My Pick: Raonic d. Wawrinka
Things get really interesting in this section of the draw and again we could see an unpredicatble name make it into the semi-finals. David Ferrer is the 4th seed and recently made the finals in Cincinnati and made Federer work for the title by taking him to a third set. Ferrer could see Marin Cilic in the round of sixteen and Cilic is my man to advance to the semis here. Lookout for Jerzy Janowicz who performed admirably in Cincy in defeating Grigor Dimitrov and then fell in the finals of Winston-Salem this past week to Lukas Rosol. He's full of confidence and if Cilic doesn't make it through it very well could be because of JJ. I wouldn't waste much hope on 6th seeded Tomas Berdych who has been absolutely miserable since the French Open. Take a look at American Steven Johnson who is quietly becoming a force for the struggling legion of American tennis players. Johnson is a true sleeper in this draw in my opinion and a guy who has worked his ranking up from the high 100s to 51st in the world over the course of the season.
My pick: Cilic d. Johnson
Many are calling this quarter the home of the future 2014 U.S. Open champion - Roger Federer. It's true that this is a golden opportunity for Fed to capture his 18th Slam title, but don't think it is going to be a walk in the park. Roger's forehand is not nearly as flawless as it used to be and although he is riding a huge wave of success from this summer, things almost seem too good to be true. He's looking good until the quarter-finals but lookout for a meeting there with either Gael Monfils or Grigor Dimitrov. Either has the capability of beating Roger and while Monfils spends too much time showboating, he could focus long enough to cause an upset. Dimitrov meanwhile has made the semis at Wimbledon and the semis at the Masters 1000 in Rome andToronto in 2014 and he is itching to prove he belongs in the top-ten. He is also one of but two players (Djokovic being the other) to have won an event on clay, hard and grass this year. I'm gonna go with Dimitrov over Federer in the quarters making this U.S. Open one to truly remember. The big four are in for some challenges and we are about to find out if those obstacles are going to present themselves here at the U.S. Open.
My Pick: Dimitrov d. Federer
Raonic d. Isner
Dimitrov d. Cilic
Raonic d. Dimitrov