It is the final week in August. Workers are eager to escape from their tedium to play in the remaining sun baked summer warmth. Beaches and pools teem with families and friends who enjoy the last days of summer before the school year begins. Barbecues and grills still sizzle with the aroma of an array of culinary delights, while fresh salads and sumptuous fruits lay in tempting displays on picnic tables. For tennis fans and players alike, though, these seasonal festivities lead to a single focal point. We and they are swooping in on the New York City borough of Queens, at Flushing Meadows, and the hard courts of the US Open, the year’s final slam event in tennis.
The context of this year’s US Open for the men is similar to last year. So far the first 3 Majors have produced 3 different winners: Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open; Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros (French Open); and Andy Murray at Wimbledon. However, the most in-form and consistent player of the year is without a doubt Rafael Nadal. Since his comeback to the tour in February after a seven-month absence, he has won an astonishing 9 titles, winning all but 2 finals out of 12 tournaments played, including Roland Garros and 5 Masters 1000 tournaments – 3 of those on hard courts.
Nadal’s results since his comeback are in the words of the struggling Mardy Fish “not normal”. As Andre Agassi has noted, historically, players that have been off a significant amount of time usually take approximately double the time to return to previous form. How and why Nadal has been able to get to a level that is seemingly above his peers in such a short time is a subject for another discussion. But there it is. His form cannot be ignored. If he can maintain his form for the duration of the US Open, while also taking into considering his draw, he has to be considered the favorite, though he would probably never admit that.
And yet, there can always be surprises in a Major. 128 players and 7 best of 5 set rounds over two weeks can introduce roadblocks to ultimate success. The key for every player is overcoming all of the roadblocks to gain the title. Players can underperform and over perform; players can get hurt. Court/ball conditions may be different from the previous year. Weather conditions can change abruptly leading to different playing conditions each day. There are many variables, many intangibles. One can be the favorite, but it is definitely no sure thing.
Much the same can be said about draw predictions before a single match has been played. We can make a good analysis made on the basis of the past, but since humans and varying conditions are involved, we can never be sure of the future. We can make predictions based on seeding, based on past performances of individual match-ups, based on overall class, based on consistency, based on favorite players of the moment. And it’s almost impossible to avoid one’s own biases, even though one makes an effort to be unbiased. But in the knock-out system of tennis, anyone can be eliminated and change the nature of the draw, thus invalidating one’s original prediction. It can be said that one may have as much success of predicting the outcome simply by choosing their favorite player or players.
But let’s pretend that on average, a reasoned analysis, even with the unknowns, can lead to better predictions than simply picking your favorite top player or players. So here it is:
Top Half and 1st Quarter
1st section – Novak Djokovic should have little trouble in the first two rounds getting past Ricardas Berankis and probably Benjamin Becker. His 3rd round opponent will likely be either Jarkko Nieminen or Grigor Dimitrov. Nieminen has not lost to Dimitrov in their only two meetings. Either one will probably be Novak’s earliest roadblock. He’s had a loss to each of them, and Nieminen has played him pretty close in his losing matches.
2nd section – #16 seed Fabio Fognini should get past Rajeev Ram and Granollers over Zopp, but then it can go either way between those two winners. The winner will likely prevail over any of the other 4 in this section, probably Benoit Paire, but one never knows with Paire as he can play wonderfully one day and atrociously the next.
In any case, the winner of the first section is likely to prevail against the winner of the second section in the 4th round and get through to the quarterfinal. I’ll pick Novak Djokovic over Nieminen or Dimitrov to make it to the quarterfinals.
3rd section – Tommy Haas plays Paul-Henri Mathieu in the first round. Mathieu beat Haas both times they played, way back in 2005. But Tommy is having a fairly solid year, while Mathieu’s ranking has plummeted. I’ll pick Tommy here despite the head-to-head record. The winner will likely beat either Lu or Gimeno-Traver. The other part of this section has David Goffin vs. Alex Dolgopolov, and Nicolas Mahut vs. Mikhail Youzhny. I see Youzhny coming out of here to play probably Haas. Their hardcourt record against each other is 3-2 in favor of Haas, but Tommy demolished Mikhail in their only slam meeting at Roland Garros this year. It could go either way, but I’ll pick Haas to advance in this section.
4th section – I can’t see anyone beating a healthy Juan Martin del Potro. He might play former #1 Lleyton Hewitt, but Hewitt would have to roll back the years to beat del Potro and I don’t see that happening.
Del Potro has never lost to Haas in 5 meetings all on hardcourts. He stands out to win here and make it to the quarterfinals against Novak Djokovic.
Quarterfinal – Juan Martin del Potro vs. Novak Djokovic
The last meeting between Djokovic and del Potro went the distance on grass at the Wimbledon semifinal, with Djokovic barely prevailing. But del Potro took their previous meeting on hardcourt at Indian Wells. It’s a toss up, but I think Djokovic’s confidence is a bit shaken, and as long as del Potro is healthy, he should be fresh for this battle.
1st Quarterfinal – Juan Martin del Potro to upset Novak Djokovic
Top Half and 2nd Quarter
1st Section – Murray heads this quarter and has a fairly easy road all the way to the quarterfinals. He should go through the first 3 rounds without too much trouble as he plays Michael Llodra in the first round, probably Hanescu in the 2nd, and a little tougher battle in the 3rd, probably against Florian Mayer, who hasn’t played badly this year.
2nd section – The highest seed in this section, Nicolas Almagro, is not a lock to win his first round match. He plays Dennis Istomin, who has beaten Almagro on both clay and grass in their only two meetings, both in 2010. Still, Istomin’s record at the US Open is not as good as Almagro’s. But no matter, whether it’s Almagro, Istomin, Malisse, or anyone else in this section, I don’t see anyone beating my projected 1st section winner, Andy Murray, who should make it to the quarterfinals.
3rd section – #9 seed Stan Wawrinka plays nemesis Radek Stepanek, who has beaten Stan all 4 times they have played. But the last match was in 2009, and Stepanek has fallen to world #58, while Stan is #10. This is actually a tricky section. James Blake plays Ivo Karlovic, who has done reasonably well after being out for a few months. Marcos Baghdatis plays Go Soeda, and Daniel Brands plays Kevin Anderson. I’ll go with Stan to win this section, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one of the other big servers gets through.
4th section – #5 seed Tomas Berdych tops this section, and I don’t see anyone troubling him here, with the possible exception of Julien Benneteau. That’s the likely 3rd round match, and I see Berdych winning that to advance to the 4th round, and probably play Wawrinka for the right to get into the quarterfinals. I can’t call this battle.
Quarterfinal – Murray vs. Berdych/Wawrinka – This quarterfinal match is difficult to call. Murray beat Berdych in a windy semifinal here last year, but Berdych can beat Murray when he is on as well — and just did in Cincinnati. A similar situation exists for Wawrinka vs. Murray. Stan beat Andy in their last US Open match in a tough 4 sets, but Andy has beaten Stan more on hardcourts. If one goes on the most recent form on hardcourts, Berdych is the man to beat even though Murray won Wimbledon. But then if Wawrinka and Berdych have a tough match, Murray might gain the advantage.
2nd Quarterfinal – Berdych/Murray/Wawrinka – Too close to call, but the order here is just a gut feeling. I believe Murray has more mental strength than the others, but the others can still hurt him with their game. This is a combination I would prefer to call before the quarterfinal.
Top Half Semifinal – Juan Martin del Potro d. Berdych/Murray/Wawrinka
Juan Martin might be tired after the Djokovic match, but the same goes for the other possible quarterfinalists. I think whomever wins this semifinal is likely to be quite exhausted for the final vs. the winner of the bottom half. I’m going to flip a coin and pick Juan Martin del Potro, but anyone could win this, and I would really prefer to wait till the semifinal to pick the match.
Bottom Half and 3rd Quarter
David Ferrer heads the undoubtably weakest quarter of the lot, which has a fair chance of producing a surprise quarterfinalist. With 8 qualifiers, a lucky loser, and 2 wild cards in this quarter, one shouldn’t wonder at the level of difficulty required to forge through.
1st section – I expect this to come down to Richard Gasquet and Dmitry Tursunov. Tursunov has had Gasquet’s number over the years, and I expect the 32nd seed to upset the number 8 seed.
2nd section – Milos Raonic and Feliciano Lopez should meet in the 3rd round. Lopez has beaten Raonic in their only meeting on clay, and could upset Raonic.
If Lopez beats Raonic, I believe he will beat Tursunov to advance to the quarterfinal, but in any event, I think the winner will go down to the winner from the other sections.
3rd section – This ultimately looks like a Jerzy Janowicz vs. Janko Tipsarevic match in the 3rd round. Tipsarevic is falling, and Janowicz is rising. Janowicz should take this section.
4th section – David Ferrer and Ernests Gulbis would be hard pressed to lose this section before meeting in the 3rd round. They have only played each other one time, 6 years ago when Gulbis was just under 19 and Ferrer 25. Ferrer won handily, but I think we have to forget that. Ferrer has been unsteady of late, and Gulbis is always unpredictable. I can’t call the winner of this match, but I think that player will lose to Janowicz.
Ferrer beat Janowicz in the Paris final last year, but Janowicz played his 8th match in 9 days and was clearly exhausted. I think Jerzy can beat David if he plays near his best level. Gulbis and Janowicz would be a very interesting match and either could win.
Quarterfinal – Lopez vs Janowicz/Gulbis/Ferrer
I think Lopez will lose to whomever wins the 4th round from the other side. I favor Janowicz over Ferrer, while Janowicz vs. Gulbis is a toss up. In a very open quarterfinal, I’m going to give the edge to Jerzy Janowicz who should have more confidence and less nervousness after getting to his first semifinal at Wimbledon. If it’s not Jerzy, it will be either Gulbis or Ferrer, but in any event, I believe they will lose to the winner of the 4th quarterfinal.
3rd Quarterfinal – Jerzy Janowicz d. Feliciano Lopez
Bottom Half and 4th Quarter
I’m not going to bother with analysis of each section in this quarter. World #2 Rafael Nadal has a fairly easy first couple of rounds (I don’t see Harrison troubling him), but the third could be tricky depending on the health and energy of Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko has only lost once to Nadal on a hardcourt in 7 matches (their first meeting, in 2006), and he leads their overall head-to-head 6-5. The other 4 wins by Nadal were on clay. They last played in 2012 in Madrid on the blue clay. Their last hardcourt match was in Doha in 2011, where Nadal lost 3 and 2. But in their relative form right now, it’s still difficult to pick Davydenko. If Nadal gets past Davydenko, he will probably face Fernando Verdasco in the 3rd round, and Verdasco can be tough on Nadal on hardcourts. If Nadal gets past Verdasco, he could have to deal with John Isner again in the 4th round, and we saw how close that was on the high bouncing courts this year in Cincinnati. The trouble for Isner is the amount of energy he will have left by the 4th round to fight Nadal in a best-of-5 match. Should Nadal get past the 3 roadblocks mentioned, Roger Federer will probably be there in the quarterfinal, as I don’t see anyone in Federer’s sections who should be beating him before then — though this year, with Federer’s inconsistent form, I guess anything is possible.
Quarterfinal – Rafael Nadal vs. Roger Federer
Nadal and Federer have never met at the US Open, even though Federer has 5 USO titles and a final to his credit, and Nadal 1 USO title and a final to his. It would be an interesting battle. Nadal certainly is riding high, and has definitely been the best player during 2013 so far, despite missing the AO and exiting early at Wimbledon. Their last match in Cincinnati was closer than it appeared, and the bounce was higher there this year than in the past, as many players mentioned.
The bounce makes all the difference to me in matches between these two. Nadal wins close to 100% when the bounce is higher as Federer cannot be as aggressive, especially on the backhand side, without making lots of errors, and Federer nearly 100% when the bounce is lower. Fortunately for Nadal, the trend overall on tour in the last few years favors higher bouncing surfaces, and they have mostly met on higher bouncing surfaces, and Rafa has a 2-to-1 ratio of matches won. How will it be in New York on Arthur Ashe at night? Arthur Ashe has been slowed over the past 3 years. Weather could also play a factor. Still, they both have to make the quarterfinals for this to play out.
As previously mentioned, Nadal is without a doubt the most in-form player on the planet right now. Will his form continue to hold? Will he be able to get past the 4th round without injury to his knees?
Roger Federer is very light on matches this year, between his back, racquet experimentation, and some poor matches. He has only played 43 matches up to the US Open, his lightest year since his first full-time year on the tour in 2000 where he played 41 leading to the US Open. In his winning US Open years, he played at least 64 matches prior to playing the US Open with the exception of 2007, where he only played 52. Still, his Cincinnati performance was encouraging for him, probably his best level since the Australian Open this year, or the World Tour Final in 2012. If he doesn’t have any problems with his back, then with his draw, he has a good chance. Only Nadal stands in his way.
Based on their most recent 2 or 3 tournaments, one would probably have to favor Nadal over Federer if they met in the quarterfinal, but I would never count Federer out at the US Open, even though his recent play has not been stellar, and he hasn’t won the title since 2008. But then again, nobody has won the US Open more than once since Federer won 5 in a row. Again, this is a match I would prefer to pick just beforehand. Conditions are such a factor in this match up. Nadal will take it if it’s high bouncing; if it’s low bouncing, Federer. Since it is a toss up to me at this point, I won’t separate them. But regardless, I think the winner of the bottom half will win the tournament as long as the draw does not open up in the top half, which would provide an easier path for the winner of that half.
4th Quarterfinanal – Rafael Nadal – Roger Federer – toss up
If I were forced to pick one or the other, I would probably have to go with Rafael Nadal, considering their relative form of late and the trend toward higher bouncing surfaces at most tournaments over the last few years.
Bottom Half Semifinal – Rafael Nadal/Roger Federer d. Jerzy Janowicz
Note that if Nadal and Janowicz meet, it could be a very interesting semifinal. It would not surprise me to see Janowicz pulled off an upset. If it’s Federer vs. Janowicz, I think Federer will take it.
Final – Rafael Nadal/Roger Federer d. a tired Juan Martin del Potro
That’s how I see it as of now, dear readers. The implications are clear. Anything other than a Djokovic, Nadal, or Murray win would mean no multiple slam winners this year. A Nadal win would probably seal a #1 ranking for the end of the year. A Murray or Djokovic win would help their cause. A first time winner would be a pleasant surprise. Anything is possible in tennis. Let’s hope for some great tennis, and wish health and good play to all of the players.
Credits: Cover Photo: Wallyg, (Creative Commons License)