If Rafael Nadal is going to capture his third Wimbledon singles championship over the next two weeks, he is going to need to reach back with all of his resources to get an exceedingly difficult job done. In the third round, Nadal figures to take on the dangerous Milos Raonic, the 6’5” Canadian with one of the game’s most daunting serves. Raonic is seeded 31st after a remarkable first half of 2011, and he will test Nadal with the ferocity of that delivery and an overpowering ground game as well. Raonic will turn this contest into something of real value for the spectators, but Nadal will eventually pick him apart in four tough sets to make it to the fourth round.
Waiting for him then will be the 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, and the Spaniard will need to be in excellent form to prevail. Del Potro is not quite back to the level he reached when he toppled Roger Federer in a five set final at Flushing Meadows two years ago, but he is swiftly moving back to that lofty level. Del Potro will hold his own with Nadal from the baseline, and Nadal will need to keep pounding his forehand with extraordinary depth to prevent the Argentine from stepping in to blast winners off his two-handed backhand. Moreover, Nadal must be careful not to allow Del Potro to dictate off his explosive forehand, which is one of the game’s most formidable weapons. The way I see it, this match has five sets written all over it. In the end, Nadal’s mental toughness and unrelenting intensity will pull him though 6-4 in the final set.
The hard work will not be over. In the quarters, Nadal will meet either No. 6 seed, or more likely No. 10 seed Mardy Fish of the U.S. Fish has never done himself justice on the grass at Wimbledon. It is a surface that suits his attacking game to the hilt, although the courts are slower now than they used to be. Fish will take the opening set from Nadal with his best attacking play, and some searing backhand returns. But Nadal will gather himself, start swinging his slice serve wider and wider in the Ad court, and begin finding the range with his returns. Nadal will take this one in four sets.
His opponent in the semifinals will be none other than Andy Murray. This will be a rematch of a 2010 semifinal, which Nadal won in straight sets. Murray will have his share of tough battles en route to an appointment with Nadal. He will face No. 27 seed Marin Cilic in the third round, and that will result in a four set win for the No. 4 seed. In the round of 16, he will take on either Richard Gasquet or Stanislas Wawrinka. The guess here is that Gasquet will be Murray’s opponent in that round. Three years ago, he served for a straight set win over Murray before losing in five crackling sets. Gasquet is playing great tennis these days, and he will push Murray in some sparkling rallies from the outset of the contest. In the end, Murray will overcome Gasquet with a mixture of aggression off the ground and some timely defense. Murray’s first serve will make the difference as he wins in four sets. He will then repeat his Queen’s Club win over Andy Roddick, toppling the American in a straight set quarterfinal.
In the Nadal-Murray semifinal, the level of play will be astounding at times. Murray will not hold back from the baseline and will look to conclude points early with flattened out forehands and two-handed backhands. He will serve clusters of aces. But Nadal will be ready for the barrage that will inevitably be thrown at him. On the big points, Nadal will have the edge, and he will prevail from a set down, winning in four sets.
On the opposite half of the draw, there will be less drama. No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic has an uncluttered path into the quarterfinals, when he will meet No. 5 seed Robin Soderling. After a first round scare with Philipp Petzschner, Soderling will get into a good rhythm and storm into the last eight. But Djokovic will methodically dispose of the Swede in straight sets. Roger Federer’s draw is largely favorable, but he could and should meet John Isner in the fourth round. Ironically, Isner will play Nicolas Mahut in the opening round as they reprise their first round duel of 2010 that Isner won 70-68 in the fifth set over eleven hours and five minutes. But Isner will win more comfortably this time. Against Federer, Isner will push the six time champion hard, but he doesn’t have the returns to worry the Swiss over the long run. Federer prevails in four sets to reach the quarterfinals. The seedings indicate that Federer should take on No. 7 seed David Ferrer, but I believe he will confront No. 12 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga instead. Tsonga played very well at Queen’s Club and has a terrific grass court game. A first rate athlete with a top of the line first serve, good feel on the volley, and a gigantic forehand, Tsonga will put Federer in a bind, moving ahead by a set and a break. But Federer will salvage the second set in a close tie-break, and he will break down Tsonga’s backhand to win in four sets.
And so it will be Djokovic against Federer for the fourth consecutive time in a Grand Slam tournament semifinal. Djokovic won the first two of those meetings at the 2010 U.S. Open (saving two match points in a five set triumph) and then Federer upended the Serbian in four sets at Roland Garros a few weeks ago, ending Djokovic’s 43 match winning streak in the process. This time around, both men will be primed for a blockbuster of an appointment. Djokovic will be the surer of the two men from the baseline, which was not the case in Paris. He will be much more solid this time off the forehand, and will use his two-handed backhand down the line more frequently than he did in Paris.
Federer will be finding the corners with regularity on his serve, and stepping around convincingly to make his trademark inside-out forehand. Every set will be close and hard fought. Neither man will be giving away much ground. The match will be played at a high level. Djokovic will take the first set in a tie-break, but Federer will rally to win the second, 7-5. Djokovic will get an early break in the third and win that set 6-4, but Federer once more will bounce back to take the fourth in another tie-break. Early in the fifth, Federer will lead 2-0, but Djokovic will then raise his level considerably, especially off his returns. Djokovic will move past Federer in a dandy, 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-3.
That will put Djokovic and Nadal into their fifth head to head meeting in a final this year. Djokovic won the previous four times, and he will put himself in a position to be the victor again in this Centre Court showdown. The Serbian will dictate almost entirely in the early stages, and he will win the first set. The second set will be fought out fiercely before Nadal turns the corner to win it, 7-5. Nadal will then play his best tennis of the match in the third, taking his forehand down the line more often to keep Djokovic off balance and on the run, serving with greater pace and precision. Nadal will win the third set 6-3. But Djokovic will roar back in the fourth, and sweep through it 6-1 with some spectacular ball striking and strategic serving. His wide slice serve in the deuce court will give Nadal constant problems. And yet, in the fifth set, with everything on the line, it will be Nadal who steps it up and raises the bar. He will take more chances on his returns, go for his backhand crosscourt with more pace, and start moving around to unleash his fearsome inside-out forehand. Djokovic will not be able to stop the onslaught. Nadal will remain unbeaten at Wimbledon since 2007, coming through 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4.
As for the women, the quarters are projected to play out this way: No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki against No. 5 Maria Sharapova; No. 3 Li Na versus No. 7 Serena Williams; No. 4 Victoria Azarenka against No. 6 Francesca Schiavone; and No. 2 seed and 2010 finalist Vera Zvonareva facing No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova. Wozniacki, however, will struggle as always to beat Julia Georges (the No. 16 seed) in the round of 16. She will get through that match in three sets, but Sharapova will cut her down in straight sets. Serena Williams will have a rough battle on her hands in the round of 16 against Marion Bartoli, but Serena will win in three sets. But the French Open champion will not be intimidated by facing a Serena who is still not back in peak form after being gone from the game for nearly a year. The French Open champion will upend Serena win three sets.
And so it will be Li Na against Sharapova in a repeat of a recent French Open semifinal, which Li won in straight sets. This time around, Sharapova will be much happier in the grass, and she will be victorious in straight sets. On the bottom half of the draw, Venus Williams will defeat both Jelena Jankovic (the No. 15 seed), and No. 2 seed Zvonareva, but she will lose to the left-handed Kvitova. In the semifinals, Kvitova will surprise Azarenka, winning in three sets. But Kvitova will not be able to hold back the 2004 Wimbledon champion. Sharapova will stay away from Kvitova’s forehand as often as possible, and her first serve potency and accuracy will carry her to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 triumph. For the second time, Maria Sharapova will be the Wimbledon singles champion. She will garner her first Grand Slam singles title since the Australian Open of 2008, and secure her fourth major overall.
Nadal and Sharapova will be the Wimbledon singles champions of 2011. That is the way I see it.
I can’t wait for the French Open to get started on Sunday. The annual clay court festival at Roland Garros should be particularly compelling this time around. It would have been inconceivable even a few weeks ago to suggest that anyone other than Rafael Nadal could approach this tournament as the favorite, but Novak Djokovic’s stupendous 2011 campaign has altered the landscape of the sport. He has won seven tournaments in a row this season and 37 consecutive matches. His overall winning streak since last November is 39 straight matches. Across 2011, he has beaten Nadal four times, Federer thrice, and Andy Murray twice. Moreover, after losing his first nine career clay court clashes with the redoubtable Nadal, Djokovic has upended the Spaniard in two important finals on the dirt at Madrid and Rome.
On that form, he deserves the honor of being considered the man to beat in Paris. The results are undeniable, and he has been unstoppable. And yet, as much as I respect the way Djokovic has played and competed all year long, as deeply as I admire what he is doing, as often as I have sat back and marveled at how he has conducted himself, I am picking Nadal to win his sixth French Open in seven years. The way I see it, Nadal still has the edge over everyone—including the astonishing Djokovic—in a best of five set competition. In the end, the longer format can work in his favor if he fully exploits his physicality, which I expect him to do.
Let’s look at the draw. Nadal has an intriguing opening round assignment against the 6’9” American John Isner. Isner is one of the biggest serves in the sport and on fast courts his attacking style can make him a daunting opponent for anyone, including Nadal. But on the clay, he can’t stay with Nadal. Isner will still be tough to break but he doesn’t have the consistency off the ground to stay with the Spaniard in Nadal’s service games. There could be a close set or two, but Nadal will get the victory in straight sets. The top seed could then meet Nikolay Davydenko in the third round and countryman Fernando Verdasco in the round of 16, but he will sweep through that section of the draw.
The first serious test for Nadal could come in the quarterfinals against Sweden’s Robin Soderling. Soderling is the only man ever to beat Nadal at Roland Garros. He produced a monumental upset over the Spaniard in 2009 in the round of 16 and lost the final that year to Roger Federer. Last year, he ousted Federer in the quarters and made it to the final again, losing to Nadal in straight sets. Soderling is a remarkable player on any surface, a big server with an explosive forehand, and a man very much at home on clay. And yet, the view here is that he played almost beyond his means the last two years in Paris. His win over Federer last year was his only success against the Swiss in 17 career meetings; his victory over Nadal in 2010 was one of only two wins in seven appointments he has made with the Spaniard. This time around, Nadal will topple Soderling in a hard fought yet straight set contest.
On Nadal will go to the semifinals, where he will meet none other than No. 4 seed Andy Murray. Murray has never been beyond the quarters at Roland Garros, but he is playing his best ever brand of clay court tennis. He got to the semifinals in Monte Carlo and took a set off Nadal. In Rome, Murray served for the match against Djokovic and was within two points of a big victory before the Serbian struck back boldly to win in a final set tie-break. At Roland Garros, Murray may meet the imposing Milos Raonic in the third round, but the conditions on clay favor Murray against the big man from Canada. Murray could later meet Alexandr Dolgopolov or Jurgen Melzer, but I like his chances against anyone in his section. Murray will play his heart out against Nadal, and his admirable combination of timely offense with superb defensive skills will turn his contest with Nadal into a relatively long struggle. Murray will take the second set and push hard in the third before Nadal’s clay court mastery will take over. Nadal wins 6-4, 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 to reach the final.
On the opposite half of the draw, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic appear to be on a collision course. Federer has a tricky first round duel against the left-handed Feliciano Lopez, one of the few men in tennis capable of attacking on clay and serving-and-volleying with the regularity he exhibits on faster surfaces. Lopez played Federer in Madrid and led 5-2 in the final set tie-break, only to bungle an easy bounce smash wide that would have given him four match points. He should have won that match, but the fact remains he has never beaten Federer. Federer will be ready for the left-handed Spaniard this time, and will prevail in straight sets.
Federer will take on No. 7 seed David Ferrer in the quarters. Ferrer has the clay court skills to give Federer a very tough time, but he has never beaten the Swiss in eleven attempts over the course of their careers. He will take a set but Federer will move on to the semifinals in four.
Waiting for him there will be Djokovic. Djokovic will meet 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in the third round. Del Potro has been making rapid advances back toward the top of his game this season after missing most of 2010 when he had wrist surgery. He is confident now, striking the ball big and boldly off both sides, playing top of the line tennis. He is going to make Djokovic work hard, but Djokovic will prevail in four sets. In the fourth round, Djokovic could meet the gifted Richard Gasquet of France. The No. 13 seed will inevitably put together a brilliant sequence of shots for one set and worry Djokovic with his outstanding one-handed, topspin backhand. But Djokovic will wear him down and pull away comfortably to win in four sets. In the quarters, Djokovic will dissect No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych.
The Djokovic-Federer semifinal will be hotly contested and well played. Federer will take calculated risks, step inside the court whenever possible for inside-out forehand winners, and he will gamble with the backhand down the line. He will unsettle Djokovic for a while, but the Serbian will not be swayed for long. He will keep pummeling away with his two-handed backhand crosscourt and break down Federer’s weaker side. Moreover, Djokovic will do his share of dictating off his vastly improved forehand side, and he will move his first serve around skillfully. Djokovic will defeat Federer 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, displaying growing self assurance over the last two sets.
And so it will be “Round Five” of the Djokovic-Nadal 2011 head-to-head series in the final of the world’s premier clay court championship, and this could turn into an epic. Nadal knows he has to make his move in the early stages and not allow Djokovic the luxury of a big lead. He will fight furiously in the first two sets to stay with Djokovic, and it will not be easy. Djokovic will win the first set in a tie-break, but Nadal will find a way to impose himself by pounding his forehand crosscourt with his inimitable topspin, high to the two-hander of his adversary. Nadal will win the second set 7-5, and then sustain his momentum to take the third 6-4 as his forehand causes Djokovic some significant problems.
But Djokovic will not surrender. He will battle back from 2-4 down in the fourth set and capture five of the next six games to force a fifth set. The players will be exhausted yet exhilarated as they move through the fifth and final set. Djokovic will draw first blood and open up a 3-1 lead, but Nadal will make one last surge. He will raise his intensity and in the end his willpower will be the difference. Nadal retains his title, garnering a tenth Grand Slam championship by overcoming Djokovic 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4. It will be one of the finest battles in all of 2011.
The top seeded woman is, of course Caroline Wozniacki. She opens against 40-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan. Krumm was a semifinalist at Roland Garros in 1995 when she was only 24. She is a resourceful match player, but Wozniacki will record a tough straight set victory over the Japanese player. Wozniacki should meet 2010 finalist Sam Stosur in the quarterfinals, and the Australian is at her best on clay. Nevertheless, I envision Wozniacki prevailing in three sets for a place in the semifinals.
She could face No. 3 seed Vera Zvonareva in the penultimate round. Zvonareva has been entirely dependable at the last three majors, reaching the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open a year ago, and the semifinals of the Australian Open this season. She is expected to meet defending champion Francesca Schiavone in the quarters. Zvonareva should survive in three sets, but Wozniacki will defeat the Russian in three sets with her solid play from the baseline, and some help from a jittery Zvonareva.
On the opposite half of the draw, the seedings indicate that Victoria Azarenka should take on Li Na in one quarterfinal while standouts Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters clash in the other. I like Azarenka to topple Li, while Clijsters will narrowly escape defeat and beat Sharapova 7-5 in the final set. Clijsters will then win another close three set clash with Azarenka to set up a final round meeting with Wozniacki. The Belgian will be in pursuit of a third Grand Slam championships in a row while the Danish baseliner and world No. 1 will be looking for her first major crown.
Their final will be a worthy showdown for the world’s premier clay court title. Clijsters will use her superior foot speed and strategic acumen to win the first set 7-5, but Wozniacki will add weight and depth to her shots in the second set and take it 6-3. The final set will be a blockbuster. Wozniacki will serve for the match at 5-2 but Clijsters will then collect five games in a row for a 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 triumph. At long last, after losing the 2001 Roland Garros final to Jennifer Capriati 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 and then falling in straight sets against Justine Henin in the 2003 final, Kim Clijsters will put her name deservedly on the trophy at Roland Garros.
Now that the draw has been released for the first major of 2011, I am ready to make my predictions. The view here is that Rafael Nadal is going to win his second Australian Open title, his fourth major in a row, and his tenth career Grand Slam championship. He is on a great run at the premier events, and is primed to make yet another championship run. I believe Kim Clijsters is going to win the women’s event. She has captured the past two U.S. Opens, and has won three majors in New York overall. She has been the best woman hard court player in the world over the last year-and-a-half, and she will rise to this occasion with another sterling performance.
Let’s look at the men’s draw first. Nadal has a very favorable draw — at least the way I see it. He opens against the Brazilian Marcos Daniel, and could meet No. 31 seed and countryman Feliciano Lopez in the third round. His round of 16 contest figures to be against either John Isner (the No. 20 seed), or No. 15 seed Marin Cilic. Isner faces a potentially dangerous second round appointment in Radek Stepanek, and Cilic has gone steadily downhill since making the semifinals in Melbourne a year ago. Nadal should navigate his way through that section of the draw without too much difficulty.
In the quarterfinals, the Spaniard could play the Russian Mikhail Youzhny (Nadal handled Youzhny in straight sets in the semifinals of the 2010 U.S. Open), but David Nalbandian (who faces a stern test with Lleyton Hewitt in the opening round) could meet No. 7 seed David Ferrer in the third round and then earn the right to take on Youzhny — with the winner to play Nadal. That is a tough trio of players.
Nalbandian always presents problems for Nadal, Ferrer can make his compatriot work hard, and Youzhny is gifted. But Nadal will only confront one of them in the quarters, and will not concede more than a set...On he goes to the semifinals.
Waiting for him there will be either No. 4 seed Robin Soderling or No. 5 Andy Murray, the 2010 Australian Open finalist. That could be a blockbuster of a quarterfinal, a potential five set skirmish with major momentum shifts. Soderling’s ground game is explosive and he has a terrific first serve, while Murray will retaliate with his magnificent defense. Moreover, the British player will impose himself whenever he can by taking the initiative and nailing his backhand down the line. If Murray gets at least 60% of his first serves in, I believe he will prevail. The pick here: Murray in five sets.
A year ago, Murray was up two sets to love and a break in the third against Nadal in the quarters when the Spaniard retired with a knee injury. Murray also beat Nadal in a four set semifinal at the 2008 U.S. Open, but Nadal has twice upended Murray at Wimbledon, including a straight set semifinal win in the 2010 semifinals. Murray will take a very aggressive posture in this match, taking the ball early, stationing himself in front of the baseline to seize control of rallies, serving big on the first delivery and taking some chances on his second serve. But he will not find a solution to Nadal’s vastly improved first serve and will not be able to break the Spaniard more than twice. Nadal will be aggressive as well, and will send Murray scurrying all over the court by taking utter control off his forehand side. The wear and tear will be too much for Murray, who will bow in four sets.
On the other half of the draw, four time champion Roger Federer will be no mood to let go of his crown. Federer is the hottest player in the world at the moment. He closed 2010 by winning three of his last five tournaments, including the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. He opened his 2011 campaign with an impressive tournament victory in Doha. He is confident, deeply driven, and as purposeful as ever. He believes he is going to win this tournament. Federer will largely coast through the early rounds. He meets Lukas Lacko in the first round, might face Gilles Simon in the second round, and could well play Albert Montanes in the third round. Montanes upset Federer on clay in 2010.
But the way Federer is playing at the moment, he will charge through that section of the draw. He will then confront either Mardy Fish or Sam Querrey, who should meet in the third round. Federer will be tested by either American, and could lose a set. But that is as arduous as his fight will get. In the quarters, Federer is due to play No. 8 seed Andy Roddick, but the view here is that he will instead find himself up against the rapidly improving Gael Monfils, the No. 12 seed. Monfils must first deal with Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round, but I believe he will win that match in four sets, and then topple Roddick in five sets to earn a chance to play Federer.
Monfils upset Federer indoors at Paris last fall, saving five match points. It was his first win ever over the Swiss Maestro, and he will be bolstered by that triumph as he gets another opportunity to test himself against the world No. 2 in Melbourne. Monfils is learning at last to display sensible shot making and point construction rather than showboating so much. He will test Federer severely, winning the first set, dropping the next two, recouping with panache to take the fourth. But he will be weary in the fifth and Federer will pounce. Federer wins 6-2 in the final set for a place in the semifinals.
Meanwhile, No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open victor, will survive a hard fought, third round skirmish with countryman Viktor Troicki but will move on comfortably from there to face Tomas Berdych in the quarters. The No. 6 seed Berdych will be striking the ball commandingly from the baseline, but Djokovic will be too resourceful and he is the better athlete. Djokovic will take down Berdych in four sets, and set up a semifinal appointment with Federer. Since Djokovic upended Federer in the semifinals of the U.S.Open (saving two match points in the process) he has lost three in a row to his formidable rival. Djokovic did stop Federer at the 2008 Australian Open in the penultimate round on his way to taking his only major title.
Djokovic will make a go of it this time, but it will not be enough. Federer will be largely impenetrable, and his serve will be the big difference. Federer will keep Djokovic at bay on his returns and discourage the Serbian with his consistency. Federer will advance in four sets.
And so it will be Nadal and Federer meeting for the eighth time in a Grand Slam tournament final. Nadal owns a 5-2 edge in the series, winning three times in the finals of the French Open (2006-2008), losing two out of three Wimbledon finals (2006-2008), and winning a scintillating five set encounter in the final of the 20009 Australian Open. This battle in Melbourne will be much like that one. Both men will fully believe in their chances, but Nadal will move out in front, taking the opening set with one service break, not losing his own delivery. Federer will then shift into a higher gear, find his range off the forehand, and start attacking Nadal’s second serve with some regularity.
Federer will take the second and third sets. The fourth will go to a critical tie-break, with Federer within striking distance of the title. He will be up 5-3 in that tie-break, but Nadal will strike back boldly with a string of devastatingly potent forehand winners, taking four points in a row to even the match at two sets all. The fifth set will go on serve until 5-5, when Nadal will get the crucial break with some sparkling second serve returns. Serving for the match at 6-5, Nadal will trail 0-30 but will release two aces, and then recover to hold for the match. Nadal wins 6-4, 4-6, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-5. It will go down among the great Nadal-Federer skirmishes.
Among the women, top seeded Caroline Wozniacki will play 2010 finalist Justine Henin in the quarters. Henin will defeat No. 23 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round and will oust French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the round of 16. Wozniacki and Henin will stage a spirited encounter, with Henin seeking to break the rhythm of her industrious baseline opponent. In the end, however, Wozniacki will prevail 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 to reach the penultimate round. Venus Williams, seeded No. 4, should play No. 14 seed Maria Sharapova in the round of 16. Sharapova will be the more reliable player from the baseline, and will serve well when it counts, winning 7-5, 7-6 (4). Sharapova will then face No. 8 seed Victoria Azarenka for a place in the semifinals. Azarenka will be too much for Sharapova from the back of the court and her returns will be too sharp. Azarenka will advance in straight sets, and will come up against Wozniacki.
Wozniacki will start slowly and Azarenka will be ripping winners from all parts of the court, sweeping through the first set 6-2. Azarenka will move swiftly to a 3-1, 0-40 lead in the second set, but Wozniacki will hold on gamely there and never look back. Wozniacki wins this one 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. She is in the final. On the bottom half of the draw, Clijsters will open with a meeting against the slumping Dinara Safina, the former world No. 1 who has lost her way so badly. Clijsters will assert herself early, and her ground stroke consistency and superior footwork will carry her to a straight set win. Clijsters will play No. 13 seed Nadia Petrova in the round of 16, and will avenge her loss to the Russian at the 2010 Australian Open with a convincing straight set victory.
In the quarters, Clijsters will stop No. 7 seed Jelena Jankovic 7-5, 6-3, moving into the semifinals. In the semifinals, Clijsters will play an emotional match against No. 5 seed Sam Stosur. The Australian crowd will be highly charged and fully behind their best woman player. Stosur will storm out of the gates confidently. She will attack early and often and win the first set 6-3 from a startled Clijsters. But Clijsters will restore order in the end, and win 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. In the final, she will be hard pressed as Wozniacki will get a ton of balls back. Clijsters will be looking to exploit Wozniacki’s more vulnerable forehand side, but that will not be easy.
Nonetheless, Wozniacki will take a hard fought first set 7-5, rallying from 2-4 down. Clijsters will come back to take the second set 6-4, but will trail 1-4 in the third. Wozniacki will be serving in the sixth game of the third and final set, up two breaks, seemingly headed for her first major tournament victory. But Clijsters will strike back boldly. Upping the ante, going for calculated winners, taking the ball early and controlling points off her forehand side, the sprightly Belgian will win five games in a row for a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 triumph, and a second straight Grand Slam championship.
Nadal and Clijsters were popular winners at the 2010 U.S. Open, and they will be greeted effusively by the fans in Melbourne as they start the new season in style.
The way I see it, only four men and five women can be regarded as serious threats to win the world’s premier title this time around. In the end, among the men, the four prime candidates are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick. The five women whom I separate from the pack are Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Sam Stosur, although the latter is a long shot.
Let’s look at the draws. Federer may face some dangers from the fourth round on, but he should be relatively happy with his draw. Nadal’s path could be much more arduous. When Wimbledon announced they were upgrading Federer to No. 1 over Nadal in the seedings, it did not seem all that significant. But, as it turns out, the demotion of Nadal to No. 2 matters. Federer should move swiftly through the early rounds. The first seed he should meet is No. 30 Tommy Robredo. He could have a battle on his hands in the round of 16, when the Swiss would conceivably confront either the left-hander Feliciano Lopez (the No. 22 seed), or the Austrian southpaw Jurgen Melzer, a semifinalist at Roland Garros. On the grass, Lopez, who just made it to the semifinals at Queen’s Club with a win over Nadal, should have the edge. I see him facing Federer in the round of 16, and the Spaniard will win the first set. But Federer will come roaring back to gain the triumph in four sets for a place in the quarterfinals.
In that round, Federer will meet Tomas Berdych (the No. 12 seed), countryman Stanislas Wawrinka (No. 20) or No. 7 seed Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko does not seem to be sharp enough yet to advance that far. His long layoff with a wrist injury set him back considerably. I see Federer taking on Berdych. Berdych has some confidence after winning his last meeting against Federer in Miami, when he saved a match point against his old rival, toppling the 16 time Grand Slam tournament champion for the first time since 2004. Berdych has the explosive game and the returns to worry Federer to a degree, but will he serve well enough to get the job done? I doubt it. Federer will find his range and, after losing the second set, pull away for a comfortable four set victory.
That win propels Federer into the semifinals. A cluster of men will be fighting ferociously for a place in the penultimate round. Novak Djokovic, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2007 but largely a disappointing performer on the grass, is seeded third, and should be the favorite to come through that section of the draw. I don’t believe he will. Djokovic might need to work inordinately hard against 2002 Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt in the round of 16. Hewitt just ended a 15 match losing streak against Federer in the final of Halle on grass, and that win could give him a substantial boost. He is seeded 15th. The Hewitt-Djokovic match could be a beauty, with both men fighting it out hard from the backcourt. But Djokovic, despite continued problems with his serving rhythm, will get by Hewitt in a five set showdown.
Andy Roddick, meanwhile, will have his own daunting challenge to overcome in the round of 16. The No. 5 seed could take on No. 11 seed Marin Cilic after winning a demanding four set encounter with Philipp Kohlschreiber, who toppled the American at the 2008 Australian Open. Cilic will meet the American Mardy Fish--- one of the most dangerous floaters in the draw--- in the second round. I see Cilic prevailing in a five set contest there, and then moving on to a fourth round collision with Roddick. Cilic held back Roddick in five sets at the Australian Open back in January, and he will make a go of it again in Great Britain. But Roddick’s high first serve percentage and his grass court acumen will be the difference in this encounter. Roddick will be the winner in four tight sets. In the quarterfinals, Roddick and Djokovic will have a bruising confrontation. Roddick will be burned for a while by the scorching returns of Djokovic, who will also be the better man from the baseline. But, in the end, Roddick will elevate his game and attack at the right times. He will advance to the semifinals in five tumultuous sets.
And so Roddick and Federer will meet for the fifth time at the world’s premier championship. Not only did Federer stop Roddick in an epic last year--- overcoming the American 16-14 in the fifth set--- but he also beat the American in the 2004 and 2005 finals, plus the 2003 semifinals. Roddick is 2-19 in his career against Federer, and has had to settle for two isolated wins over his nemesis on hard courts, prevailing in the semifinals of Montreal in 2003 and again in Miami two years ago. But the fact remains that he has competed well almost every time he has played Federer over the last three years. They will have another blockbuster here in the semifinals. Roddick will drop the opening set in a tie-break as both men serve prodigiously, but the American will take the second set 6-4, and go on to win the third 7-5.
With his back to the wall, down a break in the fourth set, Federer will reassert himself, securing that set in another tie-break. But, at the start of the fifth set, Roddick will catch Federer off guard with one of his few great returns of the match off the backhand. He will have the early break, and he will not be halted. Roddick will come away with a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (3), 6-4 victory, and for the first time since 2002, Roger Federer will not be in the semifinals at the shrine of the sport.
On the other half, Nadal will be tested comprehensively. In the third round, he will do battle with Ernests Gulbis, the No. 27 seed from Latvia. Gulbis gave Nadal quite a scare in 2008 when they met at Wimbledon, losing in four sets. Their contest this time around will be similarly stressful for Nadal. Gulbis, after all, took a set off Nadal on the clay in Rome this season, and stayed with the Spaniard all the way to 4-4 in the final set before Nadal got the win. Gulbis is an enormously gifted player who can play on any surface, and Nadal will be hard pressed to break Gulbis more than a few times in this match. Gulbis will be overpowering and overwhelming at the outset, winning the first set. But Nadal will take the next two and then close out the match in a fourth set tie-break.
Yet Nadal’s struggles will not be over. He will play big John Isner in the round of 16. The 6’9” American played two impressive matches against Nadal earlier this year, taking a set off the Spaniard at Indian Wells, and acquitting himself well when they collided again on the clay in Madrid. Isner will not only be serving thunderbolts that seem to be coming down from the trees, but he will back his delivery up with some terrific low volleys off fine returns from Nadal. Isner will take command by winning the opening set in a tie-break, Nadal will capture the next two sets, and then Isner will regroup to win the fourth. The fifth set will be a tremendous tussle, but at 5-5 Nadal will break his daunting adversary and then serve out the match confidently. Nadal wins 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 5-7, 7-5.
In the quarterfinals, Nadal will find himself up against the man he just beat in the French Open final. Three years ago at Wimbledon, Soderling extended Nadal to 7-5 in the fifth set in the third round after losing the first two sets. Soderling is now a much more strategic and far superior server what he was was back then, and he will come at Nadal forcefully off the ground as well. But Nadal’s big point mastery will separate the two competitors. He will make some timely returns, refuse to lose his own serve more than once, and the Spaniard will be the victor over the Swede in four well played sets.
Waiting for Nadal in the semifinals will be Murray. Murray will have some anxious moments against Queen’s Club champion Sam Querrey in the fourth round. Querrey will build a two sets to one lead before Murray escapes with a five set triumph. In the quarters, the flamboyant Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will face Murray. Tsonga, the No. 10 seed, will move past No. 19 seed Nicolas Almagro, and then will win a spectacular five set clash with No. 9 seed Fernando Verdasco. Tsonga, however, will be worn down from some long matches, and Murray will be ready to exploit his edge. Moreover, the British crowd will lift the spirits of their man, and Murray will defeat Tsonga in four sets.
Nadal and Murray will have a fascinating showdown. Murray will have the upper hand early, serving as well as he can, acing Nadal down the T in the deuce court on some crucial points, taking control from the baseline with his two-handed backhand down the line and his inside-out forehand. Nadal will be slightly caught off guard, and he will play one nervous service game to lose the set. But Nadal will change the tempo of the match in the middle of the second set, adding velocity, spin and depth to his forehand, pushing Murray back farther and farther behind the baseline. Nadal will keep swinging his first serve wide to Murray’s two-handed backhand in the Ad court, and he will take the second and third sets. But Murray will reemerge in the fourth, and build a 5-2 lead.
The frenzied fans will be eagerly anticipating a fifth set, but Nadal will not go along with that scenario. The Spaniard will sweep five games in a row in a blaze of glory to get to the final. The fans will be absolutely torn as they watch Nadal and Roddick play for the title. They have seen Roddick lose those three finals to Federer across the years, and they vividly recall his gallant effort last July in the final. A large segment of the crowd believes Roddick deserves to be the Wimbledon champion at last, and they think it would be a fitting and crowning moment in his career. And yet, an equally big part of the audience is sympathetic to Nadal, who toppled Federer in the majestic final of 2008 but could not defend his title a year ago as tendinitis in his knees prevented him from playing.
This final will be exhilarating. Roddick will keep Nadal at bay with his explosive serve, and the kind of aggression off the forehand that he must produce. Roddick will flatten out that forehand over and over again, making Nadal pay a substantial price for every short ball. But Nadal will sedulously hold on to his own serve, and he will make some excellent returns off Roddick’s second serve. Nadal will also control a good share of the rallies, sending Roddick scurrying all over the court in pursuit of the Spaniard’s magnificent inside-out and crosscourt forehands, rolling his two-handed deep down the line and sharp crosscourt to keep on top of the points.
Nadal will win the first set by breaking serve at 4-4, but Roddick will strike back to win the second 7-5. The third will go to a tie-break, and it will be the pivotal set. Roddick will be serving at 4-3 in that sequence, up a mini-break, ready to take control of the contest. But a brilliant return from Nadal as he is stretched out wide on the forehand startles Roddick, who then double faults on the next point. Nadal wins the tie-break, and there is no halting him from there. Nadal beats Roddick 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-3, winning Wimbledon for the second time, taking his eighth Grand Slam championship, reaffirming his status as the best player in the world.
Top seeded and defending champion Serena Williams figures to meet No. 16 seed Maria Sharapova in the round of 16 in a rematch of the 2004 final, which the Russian won in straight sets. Since then, however, Serena has owned Maria. After Sharapova beat Williams later in 2004, Serena has won their last four head to head clashes. Williams will be keyed up for this contest, and her returns will be far better than Sharapova’s. Williams will win 6-4, 6-3. Williams will upend Li Na in a three set quarterfinal. Na will defeat No. 19 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round and then will topple No. 7 seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the round of 16. Meanwhile, Caroline Wozniacki--- the No. 3 seed--- will be upset in the fourth round by No. 14 Victoria Azarenka. Stosur will stop No. 10 seed Flavia Penetta in the fourth round, and will then defeat Azarenka 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in the quarters after Azarenka squanders three match points when serving for the match at 6-5 in the second set.
Williams will be looking to avenge her French Open loss to Stosur, and she will do just that. The No. 6 seed Stosur will serve for the opening set at 5-4, but Serena will strike back boldly to win 7-6 (4), 6-4. That win will put Serena back into the final. On the other half of the draw, No. 17 seed Henin has her work cut out for her. She will need to deal with No. 12 seed Nadia Petrova of Russia in the third round, and then will face countrywoman Clijsters in the match everyone will want to see. Henin has lost two agonizingly close matches to Clijsters this year, falling in final set tie-breaks in both Brisbane and Miami. But Henin, honing her grass court game impressively, striving to win the only major she had not yet taken, attacking skillfully on the grass and volleying crisply, will turn the tables on the No. 8 seed Clijsters. This time around, Henin wins 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in a high quality encounter.
After that emotional triumph, Henin will have much work left to do. In the quarterfinals, she will play Jelena Jankovic. Jankovic remains somewhat suspect on grass courts, but she will display improved form this year, making more aggressive returns, going for bigger shots during the rallies, getting better depth on her second serve. Jankovic will play her usual good match against Henin. Every time they step on a court for a match, it is inevitably close. But Henin will extend her record over Jankovic to 11-0 with a 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 victory over the No. 4 seed and former world No. 1, moving into the semifinals with that win.
No. 2 seed Venus Williams will have a stern test in the third round with the explosive Alisa Kleybanova of Russia. The No. 26 seed will push Venus to her limits in a big hitting encounter, making her share of second serve return winners. But the five time champion Venus will somehow carve out a 6-4, 6-7 (6), 7-5 triumph. Dinara Safina--- No. 1 in the world a year ago and the No. 20 seed now--- will stop Shahar Peer in the third round but she will lose to Venus emphatically in straight sets in the round of 16.
In the quarterfinals, Venus will stop Marion Bartoli of France in a repeat of the 2007 final. Bartoli will have beaten French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the round of 16. And so the stage will be set for Venus Williams to meet Justine Henin, for the right to earn a final round appointment against Serena Williams. It will be a blockbuster duel featuring the dynamic power of Williams on serve and off the ground with the all court acumen of Henin. Henin won’t be able to get to the net as much as she would like during the rallies, but she will go in behind her second serve returns.
Venus will need to keep her first serve percentage in the range of 70%. And Henin will be feeling an enormous amount of pressure on her second serve as Venus fires away with excellent returns. Justine will need to gamble from time to time with bigger second deliveries, and she will serve her share of double faults. Williams will come out of the blocks in style and sweep through the opening set 6-3, but Henin will gradually get her bearings and find her game. She will strike back to win the second set 7-5, and then will rally again from 2-4 down in the final set for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory.
For the second time in 2010, it will be Serena Williams versus Justine Henin in the final of a major. The storyline will be similar. Williams will serve brilliantly in the opening set and will take it 6-4 on one break, but Henin will rescue herself from 1-3 in the second set to make it one set all. At 3-3 in the final set, Serena will be down 0-40 on her serve, but she will release a pair of aces and a daring forehand winner down the line to make it back to deuce. Serena will hold on, break Justine in the following game, and serve out the match commandingly. Williams beats Henin 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. She will be the Wimbledon champion for the fourth time. She will capture her 13th major title. She will be on top of the world.
Looking ahead to the 2010 French Open which starts tomorrow, the view here is that Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin are both going to win their fifth titles on the Roland Garros clay in Paris. Nadal is an overwhelming favorite. And while Henin is the woman to beat she is not as prohibitive a favorite.
Let’s examine the draws, starting with the men. Defending champion Roger Federer should navigate his way through the first three rounds relatively easily. He could be tested significantly in the round of 16 by either his countryman Stanislas Wawrinka or the highly charged Frenchman Gael Monfils. Wawrinka has beaten Federer once, and that was on clay in Monte Carlo a year ago. Though he is a former Italian Open finalist and a formidable player on clay, Federer cast aside Wawrinka easily in their most recent meeting in Madrid. If he meets Wawrinka, Federer is a straight set victor; should he take on Monfils (who nearly pushed Federer into a fifth set in the 2008 Roland Garros semifinals) Federer comes through in four sets.
In the quarterfinals, Federer could meet 2009 finalist Robin Soderling, Albert Montanes of Spain (who recently surprised Federer in the semifinals of Estoril, Marin Cilic or Ernests Gulbis, the gifted Latvian. Gulbis beat Federer on clay in Rome this spring and pushed the world No. 1 to three sets in Madrid. The guess here is that Gulbis will earn another showdown with Federer, and it will be a beauty. Gulbis will give Federer cause for consternation throughout a riveting five set skirmish, which Federer ultimately takes 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5.
Andy Murray is seeded fourth and that would suggest he will play Federer in the semifinals. I don’t see that happening. Murray’s draw is not bad. He opens against the flamboyant Richard Gasquet of France, and will need to keep his composure if Gasquet starts sprinkling the court with his usual number of one-handed backhand winners. Gasquet is a great shot maker, but Murray will get through that match in four sets. Murray could take on the dangerous Marcos Baghdatis in the third round but he will use his defensive skills to overcome the Cypriot in another four set encounter.
Murray would potentially meet either Tomas Berdych or John Isner in the round of 16. I believe he will play Berdych, and Berdych is in many ways more comfortable on the clay. Berdych wins in five sets, and then combats the charismatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters. Tsonga gets the vociferous French crown fervently behind him, and is victorious in five tumultuous sets. So Tsonga sets up an appointment in the penultimate round with Federer. Tsonga will be fired up for this meeting and will feed off the energy of the crowd. He will make Federer work hard for a couple of sets, but Federer is too cagey and seasoned. He wins the match in four sets for a place in the final.
Nadal--- as long as his knees don’t act up--- is going to sweep into the quarterfinals, perhaps without the loss of a set. He could play Lleyton Hewitt in the third round and Ivan Ljubicic in the fourth round, but he will be dominant in those contests. In the quarters, Nadal figures to meet either 2009 semifinalist Fernando Gonzalez, countryman Nicolas Almagro, Philipp Kohlschreiber or Fernando Verdasco. Nadal crushed Verdasco in the Monte Carlo final recently, handled Kohlschreiber with ease when they last clashed, came from behind to beat Almagro convincingly in three sets at Madrid, and he won’t lose to “Gonzo” on clay.
On goes Nadal to the semifinals. Expected to meet him there is the No. 3 seed, the enigmatic Novak Djokovic. Djokovic was not the same stalwart clay court player this season that he was a year ago. The Serbian--- who reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2007 and 2008 before losing to Nadal--- might be well rested this year after skipping Madrid. He should advance to the quarterfinals comfortably enough, but in that round he would conceivably take on No. 9 seed David Ferrer. Ferrer had an excellent clay court campaign in 2010, and is playing perhaps the best tennis of his career. I see him toppling Djokovic in five sets.
But Nadal will not be daunted by yet another meeting with Ferrer. He stopped Ferrer in the semifinals of Monte Carlo and the final of Rome. Nadal will be hard pressed for a set or perhaps two, but he wins this battle of the Spaniards in four sets. And so we will have a matchup for the title between the defending champion Federer and the man who captured the crown the four previous years--- the redoubtable Nadal. Nadal is the only man in the past five years to beat Federer at Roland Garros. Not only did he topple the Swiss in the 2006, 2007 and 2008 championship matches, but he also halted Federer in the 2005 semifinals.
Federer will be inspired. He will approach this contest as if he has nothing to lose, and will take calculated risks all through an absorbing contest. As was the case in 2006 when he took the first set of the final from the Spaniard 6-1, Federer will catch Nadal slightly off guard at the outset. He will win a hard fought first set 7-5, but Nadal will not be daunted by that development. He will raise his game decidedly at the start of the second, take control of the match with his inimitable brand of consistency and aggression from the back of the court, and Nadal will come away with the crown, triumphing over Federer 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
Let’s shift to the women. The match of the tournament may well be Henin against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. Henin is seeded No. 22, but she will use this event to put herself back in the top ten. Henin will stop Maria Sharapova in an intriguing third round match. Serena will have a tough round of 16 meeting with Marion Bartoli, the former Wimbledon finalist. But for the third time at Roland Garros, Williams will face Henin. In a 2003 semifinal, when Serena was the defending champion, Henin won in three sets and went on to take her first title. Four years later, Henin stopped Serena in a straight set quarterfinal. The way I look at it, Henin will avenge her loss to Serena at the start of this year in the Australian Open final with a 7-5, 7-6 (5) triumph. The tennis will surpass anything we will see from the women in the entire tournament.
Henin will still have some tough tests thereafter. In the semifinals, she will play Jelena Jankovic. Henin owns a 10-0 record over Jankovic, but Jankovic tests her comprehensively every time they play. This one will be no exception. Jankovic will keep probing and extending the rallies, inviting Henin to miss some difficult shots, forcing the Belgian to go for some winners from outside her comfort zone. Jankovic will win the first set and go up a break in the second, but Henin’s big match class will show in the end. Henin wins 4-6, 7-5,6-4.
In the final, Henin will play No. 2 seed Venus Williams. I am not a big admirer of Venus’s clay court game. She did reach the final in 2002 before losing to her sister, but her results across the years have been largely disappointing. Venus starts with a tricky first round match against the wily left-hander Patty Schnyder. That is a match Venus could well lose, but I see her surviving on grit and gumption 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-5. In the round of 16, Venus should face Aravane Rezai of France. Rezai just ousted Venus in the finals of Madrid, and she will come close to toppling the American again. But experience and competitiveness will pull Venus through that battle, 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-4.
In the quarterfinals, Venus will have another arduous test before dismantling the woman who may have the most solid ground strokes in the women’s game. Elena Dementieva--- the No. 5 seed--- will give Venus a scare, but Venus will respond with a 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory. The Italian Flavia Penetta will make it through to meet Williams in the semifinals, and will threaten to repeat her 2008 victory over the American at Roland Garros. But Venus will turn the tables this time around with a 7-6 (4), 7-5 victory.
In the final, Henin will masterfully pick apart her worn out rival. All of the tough matches along the way will strengthen Henin’s resolve. She will break down the Williams forehand. She will return too well on the clay. She will know what she wants and realize how to go about her business. Justine Henin will be the 2010 French Open champion, defeating Venus Williams convincingly. The Belgian wins 6-4, 6-3.
And so a new season is upon us, and the first major of the year will start soon in Melbourne. It shapes up as one of the most intriguing and unpredictable Grand Slam events in quite a long while. Let’s start with the men’s draw, which is fascinating in many ways. On the top half of the draw, top seeded Roger Federer has his work cut out for him.
Federer will struggle to keep his astonishing streak of consistency alive at the premier events. Federer has reached 22 semifinals in a row on the Grand Slam stages, but this might be his most challenging test at a “Big Four” event in ages. He opens against the tenacious Russian Igor Andreev, the Russian baseliner who pushed him to five arduous sets in the third round of the U.S. Open in 2008. He should win more easily against Andreev this time around. Andreev drifted from No. 19 in the world at the end of 2008 to No. 35 at the conclusion of 2009 and is not playing with the same confidence he had when he met Federer in New York in that memorable five set appointment. Federer will win in four sets, but a sterner examination could come for him in the round of 16 against either the No. 15 seed Gilles Simon or 2005 Australian Open finalist and two time Grand Slam tournament winner Lleyton Hewitt.
The Simon-Hewitt match could go either way, but I give Hewitt a slight edge, and look for him to take on Federer in the round of 16. At the U.S. Open in 2009, Hewitt took the first set from Federer and had chances thereafter, but he bowed out in four sets. Should they clash in Melbourne--- and I expect that they will--- the atmosphere will be highly charged, and Hewitt will throw his heart and soul into that contest. He will be near the top of his game, and will make Federer work inordinately hard from the back of the court. Hewitt won’t be afraid to go frequently to the Federer forehand, using his backhand down the line to make the Swiss stretch, keeping his shots deep and luring the world No. 1 into mistakes.
The guess here is that Hewitt will build a two sets to one lead, but Federer will fight back with quiet ferocity and will eventually prevail in five sets for a place in the quarterfinals. Waiting for him there will be either Nikolay Davydenko--- the No. 6 seed--- or 2009 Australian Open semifinalist Fernando Verdasco. On current form, I like Davydenko’s chances. His recent record has been nothing less than stellar. He won Shanghai and the Barclays ATP World Finals in London late in 2009, then opened 2010 with a triumph on the hard courts of Brisbane, toppling Federer and Rafael Nadal in the last two rounds of that event.
Clearly, Davydenko is the hottest player in the world, but can he make something substantial happen in a best of five set format over the course of two weeks at a Grand Slam event? He has now ousted Federer two times in a row after losing his first 12 career confrontations against his old rival. Surely, Federer will be out to reverse that pattern and will be more motivated for this quarterfinal contest.
But Davydenko has a new mindset now, and he will no longer be daunted by the 15 time Grand Slam tournament champion. They will split the first two sets as Davydenko exploits his outstanding footwork and his improved ball striking off the forehand side. He will beat Federer to the punch in the backhand to backhand rallies. His serve will hold up well enough. In a scintillating display, Davydenko will win a pair of tie-breaks to knock Federer out of the tournament in four sets. It will be his biggest win ever at a major tournament. That will take Davydenko into the semifinals.
His opponent will be Novak Djokovic, the No. 3 seed and 2008 champion. Djokovic will move confidently into the quarterfinals with a win over No. 16 seed Tommy Robredo, and then he will fight his way past No. 8 seed Robin Soderling in four well played sets. The greater ground stroke consistency of Djokovic and the Serbian’s superior return of serve will carry him into the semifinals with a four set triumph, and he will then meet Davydenko.
As was the case the last two times they played--- when they split indoor matches against each other--- this will be a bruising battle. Neither player will find a glaring weakness in the other player’s game. From time to time, Djokovic will get shaky off the forehand; periodically, Davydenko’s forehand will be off the mark. But they will keep probing and the points will be long and demanding. Davydenko will win the first set, Djokovic will take the next two, and the Russian will rally to win the fourth set. In the fifth, Djokovic will get one crucial break at 4-4 in the fifth set, and will serve out the match for a well deserved victory. That will put him into his second Australian Open final.
On the opposite half of the draw, the defending champion Nadal will be striving to play his best tennis since the spring of 2009. Nadal won the first set of the Brisbane final from Davydenko 6-0, and had two match points in a second set tie-break before losing in three pendulum swinging sets. In Melbourne, he will meet the big serving American John Isner in the third round. It will take Nadal a set to find his range on his returns, but he will gradually pick Isner apart with dipping shots at the big man’s feet and some trademark passing shots off both sides.
Nadal will stop Isner in four sets, and will then meet No. 13 seed Radek Stepanek for a place in the quarterfinals. Stepanek will have beaten Ivo Karlovic in a blockbuster first round, four set encounter, but he will not be able to stay with Nadal despite trying to apply pressure continuously. Nadal will defeat Stepanek in straight sets, and will then take on Andy Murray in the most eagerly awaited of all the quarterfinals.
Murray will be match tough after beating Jurgen Melzer and Gael Monfils in four set showdowns. The Nadal-Murray match will be a beauty. Murray will be more aggressive than normal, realizing that good defense is not going to cut it against Nadal. Murray will take chances off his forehand, and will take his two-hander up the line as often as possible. He will serve big and look to win some quick points against the six time major champion. For his part, Nadal will be unerring, and he will keep Murray honest by sending his first serve out wide to the forehand just often enough to keep the British player off balance. This will be a top of the line contest, and not that much will separate the two great players. In the end, however, Nadal will wear Murray down and his growing self conviction, better ball control and poise under pressure will be all that he needs to record a 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (3) victory. Nadal will be in the semifinals with that win.
His opponent will presumably be U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro. Del Potro will survive a strenuous round of 16 meeting with Marin Cilic, but he will win that in five sets. In the quarters, it will be Del Potro against none other than Andy Roddick, who will beat 2007 finalist Fernando Gonzalez in the round of 16. Roddick will play a whale of a match against Del Potro, but will come up narrowly short of victory. Del Potro scraped by Roddick twice last summer on hard courts, and he will win another very tight battle this time around in five sets.
And so Del Potro--- who crushed Nadal twice last summer in Canada and New York--- will look to stop the Spaniard again with his big hitting from the baseline and his markedly improved first serve. His explosive style will be too good at the outset as the Argentine will blow Nadal off the court in a 6-3 first set. Both players will sense the importance of the second set, which will be beautifully played across the board. Nadal will impose himself more and more off the forehand, forcing Del Potro deep and wide to his opponent’s backhand, keeping him trapped too far behind the baseline.
Nadal will capture the second set in a tie-break, and thereafter his physicality will be too much for Del Potro. Nadal will get into a vicious ground stroke rhythm, and his relentless consistency will grind down Del Potro 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 7-5. He will be back in the final, and he will take on Djokovic. That one will come down largely to stamina, willpower, big point prowess, and heart. Djokovic will be on top of the world and in command of his game as he wins the first set 6-4, and he will build a 4-2 second set lead by keeping the points relatively short and not allowing Nadal much room to breathe. Djokovic will be lethal on his second serve returns, and will keep Nadal on the run by taking the ball early off the forehand.
But, in the crunch, Nadal will come through. He will persist with his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt until Djokovic’s normally trustworthy two-handed backhand finally starts to crack. Nadal will get the second set 7-5, and will win the third by 6-3. He will be within one set of a second Australian Open crown in a row, but Djokovic will not surrender. He will rediscover his rhythm, getting better depth off the forehand, finding some acute angles off the backhand. Djokovic will pick up his first serve percentage and win the fourth set 6-4.
So it will all come down to a fifth set after more than four hours of play. Djokovic will demonstrate that he is admirably fit, maybe fitter than he has ever been before. But Nadal will be on a crusade to win no matter what it takes. He will be down a break at 1-3 in the fifth, but will collect five of the last six games to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in five hours. Rafael Nadal will be back where he wants to be, winning his first tournament since May, gaining a seventh major title, playing his most inspired brand of tennis.
Among the women, Serena Williams will confront Sam Stosur in the round of 16, and the Australian fans will like the outset of that match. Stosur will be attacking skillfully, serving-and-volleying persistently, and keeping Serena at bay. Stosur will win that set 7-5, but Williams will not be thrown off stride and will gradually get her bearings and assert herself with controlled aggression from the baseline. She will win 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the quarterfinals. In the last eight, her opponent will be the rapidly rising Victoria Azarenka, the No. 7 seed who seemed on her way to a win over Serena before getting sick and losing in three sets to the American a year ago. Azarenka--- grunting loud, hitting the ball hard and flat, competing with unbridled intensity--- will make a real go of it in the opening set, but Williams will prevail in a tie-break and move on to a straight set victory by scores of 7-6 (6), 6-4. In the semifinals, I expect to see No. 4 seed Caroline Wozniacki play Williams.
Wozniacki will have potential meetings with Shahar Peer and Li Na to make it to the quarterfinals. In the last eight, she figures to play Venus Williams. Venus will come very close to winning, serving prodigiously for a set-and a-half to get within striking distance of a clear-cut victory, but Wozniacki will overtake Venus with her smoothly delivered ground strokes and her supreme accuracy. Wozniacki will stop Venus Williams in three sets, coming from behind for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory. But against Serena Williams, the story will be different. Serena will cut her down systematically. She will be in one of her unmistakably big match moods, bearing down hard, keeping her error count down, serving well under pressure. Serena Williams will win the match 7-5, 6-4, and thus arrive safely for the final. In the championship match, she will face No. 15 seed Kim Clijsters or 2004 champion Justine Henin.
Henin has not played a major since the 2008 Australian Open, but the seven time major tournament victor will knock out No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva in a terrific second round match. Dementieva will be too solid for Henin for a set, but then the Belgian will start opening up the court with her sharply angled two-handed backhand, and she will attack her second serve returns with regularity. Henin will sweep past Dementieva in the last two sets, prevailing 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. She will later dismiss No. 18 seed Virginie Razzano in the fourth round, and will meet countrywoman Clijsters in a stirring quarterfinal.
In the final of Brisbane at the start of this season, Clijsters overcame Henin in a thrilling battle that came down to a final set tie-break. Henin had two match points in the tenth game of the final set after recovering from a set and 4-1 down. It was an amazing match, played at a remarkably high level all the way through, and it could have gone either way. In Melbourne, they will have another strikingly close contest, and this time Henin will be the winner. Clijsters will be sharper in the beginning and will win the first set 7-5, but Henin will steady herself, stop double faulting as often as she did on big points in Brisbane, and her superior backcourt variety will make a big difference as she finds a way to thwart Clijsters. Henin will come through 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, and she will be in the semifinals. Waiting for her there will be Maria Sharapova.
Sharapova--- the 2008 Australian Open champion--- is seeded 14th this year but she will be ready to go from the beginning. She will beat Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals (No. 2 seed Dinara Safina will bow out early) and will then take on Henin in the penultimate round. This will be one of their finest contests. Sharapova will serve with great accuracy and her location will be excellent. Henin will counter with her customary low and biting returns, and she will take control of the rallies. The power of Sharapova will be answered by the purposeful play of Henin, who will cover the court considerably better than her opponent. In the end, Henin will narrowly move past Sharapova, winning 4-6, 7-6 (3),6-4.
That will give us a dream final between Henin--- the former world No. 1 who has always been the ultimate professional--- and Serena Williams, the best big match player in the women’s game. Henin will be fortunate in the early stages as an overanxious Serena self destructs under an avalanche of unforced errors, making wild mistakes off both sides. But the steely resolve of Williams will kick in, and she will pick up the quality of her serving and reduce her mistakes significantly to take the second set 6-4. The third and final set will feature both women at their best. Serena will release a barrage of scorching forehand winners while Henin will color the court with her spectacular one-handed topspin backhand. The quality of the tennis will be awe inspiring for the fans.
Henin will take a 4-1 final set lead with two service breaks in hand, but Williams will storm back to reach 4-4. They will stay on serve until 8-8, when Henin will break Williams with a blazing backhand down the line winner on the run at full stretch. Henin will serve out the match and win 1-6, 6-4, 10-8 for her most dramatic victory ever in a final at a major. It will be the best major final among the women since 2005 at Wimbledon, when Venus Williams saved a match point and defeated Lindsay Davenport 4-6 7-6 (4) 9-7.
After watching Roger Federer sweep past Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic back to back as he won the Masters 1000 tournament in Cincinnati, I was convinced he was playing his best tennis of the year, taking his game to a higher level than he had at the French Open and Wimbledon. That was his fourth victory in his last five tournaments, and there was no doubt in my mind that Federer believed he was right on course to step forward over the next fortnight and win a sixth United States Open in a row.
Now, he must be even more confident after seeing the draw for the Open. Federer could confront former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in the third round, but he just cast the Australian aside with consummate ease in Cincinnati and has not lost to his Australian rival since 2003. Federer could meet Tommy Robredo or James Blake in the round of 16; Blake might get inspired for a set but that would be his limit, and Robredo would be hard pressed to push Federer at all.
In the quarterfinals, Federer is slated to meet another man he has owned throughout his career: Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko does not think for an instant that he can beat Federer. Federer would thus cruise into the penultimate round of the tournament with little or no fuss at all. In the semifinals, he would conceivably meet the winner of the Andy Roddick-Novak Djokovic quarterfinal. More likely than not, Roddick will beat Djokovic. He has defeated the Serbian three times in a row, including a recent triumph in Montreal.
But let’s look at both scenarios. If Federer plays Roddick, he will take a 19-2 career record with him into that appointment, including their most recent showdown in the Wimbledon final. That record obscures the fact that Roddick has played Federer much tougher recently than was often the case in the past. The 27-year-old American was highly unlucky to lose the title match at Wimbledon after winning the first set and leading 6-2 in the second set tie-break. He battled gamely to the end before losing 16-14 in the fifth set. Earlier in the year, Roddick took sets off Federer in Miami and Madrid, and probably should have stopped Federer in the former skirmish.
If Roddick met Federer in the semifinals, the New York crowd would give him an unprecedented level of support. Roddick would undoubtedly be buoyed by having an audience so fervently on his side, and he is playing the finest tennis of his career. The 2003 US Open champion would give himself a chance to win against Federer. As is almost always the case when these two competitors clash, it would come down to at least two critical tie-breaks. Roddick will be tough to break, and Federer will protect his serve every bit or maybe even more sedulously.
In the end, Federer would win a blockbuster match from his old rival, coming away with a 6-7 (8), 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory. As was essentially the case at Wimbledon, Roddick would play the match of his life, but still lose. And what if Federer plays Djokovic? That one would be more straightforward. Djokovic compromised far too much on his first serve when he lost 6-1, 7-5 to Federer in Cincinnati. He seemed afraid to allow Federer too many cracks at second serves, and proceeded to add too much spin to his first delivery. Federer feasted on that recipe, and he will do the same if they play in New York. Federer will beat Djokovic 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.
On the other half of the draw, No. 2 seed Andy Murray has his work cut out for him. He could have a difficult time with Marin Cilic in the round of 16, but would win that contest in four sets. The real trouble starts in the quarterfinals. None of the top four seeds wanted any part of Juan Martin Del Potro in that round, but it is Murray who is stuck with the demanding assignment. Murray stopped Del Potro in a four set quarterfinal at the Open a year ago, but Del Potro has improved by leaps and bounds since then. Earlier this year, he beat Murray for the first time on clay in Madrid, and recently he lost narrowly to the British No. 1 in the final of Montreal. Murray barely got through that bruising battle, winning in the end largely on fitness.
My guess is that this quarterfinal would be played under the lights, which would probably benefit Del Potro. It would be a test of Murray’s subtle changes of pace and strategic acumen against Del Potro’s brute force. Del Potro has solidified his ground game impressively. His two-handed backhand was always a magnificent stroke while his forehand was fragile at times. Now the forehand is a much better stroke, and Del Potro has vastly improved his first and second serves. Murray will need to keep probing to find the slightest of weaknesses, because Del Potro will not give much away. This match has five sets written all over it. In the end, Murray will win by the skin of his teeth, as his mental toughness leads him to a 4-6, 7-5,7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-5 victory.
In the semifinals, I look for a Murray-Rafael Nadal confrontation. In the same round a year ago, Murray beat Nadal for the first time, ending a five match career losing streak against his opponent. This year, they have split two head to head matches. Nadal is appearing in only his third tournament since returning from a long absence with knee problems. Nadal will come into this semifinal after beating some big names along the way. In the opening round, he will beat Richard Gasquet, the brilliant shot maker from France who owns one of the game’s most remarkable one-handed backhands.
Nadal will take that match in straight sets, but he might have a rough battle on his hands in the round of 16 when he could play David Ferrer. Ferrer ousted an ailing Nadal in the round of 16 two years ago at the Open, and could push him hard again. But Nadal will turn the tables and win this time in four hard sets. In the quarterfinals, Nadal figures to face No. 7 seed Jo Wilfried Tsonga, the 2008 Australian Open finalist. Tsonga crushed Nadal in straight sets to make it to that final, but this time Nadal will pick him apart in four entertaining sets.
So Nadal will be in good form heading into his semifinal with Murray. But will that be good enough? Murray has the benefit of much more match play across the heart of 2009. Nadal still needs a few more tournaments to reach the upper level of his game. He needs a shade more confidence. These two great players will battle furiously through a long match, but Murray will have the slight edge in the end. He will prevail 7-6 (6), 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (7) in a four hour skirmish of the highest order.
And so it will be Murray against Federer for the second year in a row in the Open final. Murray will be more prepared this time, less in awe of his surroundings, better able to handle the experience of being in a major final. But Federer did himself a world of good when he beat Murray in Cincinnati. He will walk onto the court for this final fully believing he will win; Murray will be optimistic but not entirely convinced he can get the job done.
And yet, Murray will throw everything he has at Federer. He will return much better than he did in Cincinnati. He will serve clusters of aces and move his second serve around more skillfully than was the case the last time he played Federer. That will make it awkward for Federer to attack those second serve returns, and Murray will thus hold serve more easily. But Federer will keep rescuing himself on big break points with magnificent serving. He will frustrate his adversary with his bold and nerveless play under pressure. Murray will retaliate by catching Federer off guard with his outstanding backhand down the line, and he will more than hold his own from the back of the court.
It will be a superb final from both sides of the court, but Federer will win his 16th major in a hard fought encounter: 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (8). In the fourth set tie-break, Federer will save three set points to avert a fifth set.
As for the women, the view here is that Dinara Safina--- the top seed--- will find herself in an arduous quarterfinal against 2008 finalist Jelena Jankovic, the No. 5 seed. Safina did not play particularly good tennis over the summer after reaching the final of the French Open and the semifinals of Wimbledon. Jankovic has not had a good year until she won Cincinnati, but now her confidence is back. In that event, she beat Safina in the final. Jankovic will repeat that victory at the Open and move into the semifinals. She will meet Elena Dementieva in a repeat of the 2008 semifinals.
Dementieva will face a stern third round confrontation with Maria Sharapova, the 2006 Open victor. Dementieva just beat Sharapova on a windswept afternoon in the final of Toronto. That was a hard fought, straight set showdown. This time, the two Russians will fight furiously through three sets, across a long afternoon, through several shifts in momentum. Dementieva will survive, coming through 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 in a stirring battle. Sharapova will serve for the match at 5-3 in the third, but Dementieva will hang on and get out of that bind.
Dementieva will beat Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals, reversing the result of the 2004 US Open championship match. She will have been through a lot by the time she meets Jankovic, but Dementieva will be better for it. When Jankovic beat Dementieva in the semifinals of Cincinnati, she needed to save four match points. This time around, Dementieva will gain the upper hand early, and she will force the issue with her flatter, more stinging ground strokes. Dementieva will defeat Jankovic 7-5, 7-6 (4) and reach the final with that victory.
On the opposite half of the draw, No. 2 seed Serena Williams will take on No. 28 Sybille Bammer in the third round. Bammer recently ousted a subdued and listless Serena in Cincinnati, but Serena will be out for revenge against the left-hander, and she will get it with a tough two set victory, toppling her rival for the first time in three career meetings. Serena will play No. 10 seed Flavia Penetta in the quarters. Penetta has enjoyed her best year as a professional, and recently beat Venus Williams. But Serena will overpower Penetta 7-5, 6-4 in a compelling collision. I look for 2000-2001 champion Venus Williams---- the No. 3 seed--- to play No. 8 Victoria Azarenka in a scintillating quarterfinal.
Venus will win the first set, lose the second, and then force a third set tie-break. That will be a spectacular sequence, but Azarenka--- the loudest current grunter in the women’s game--- will narrowly escape with a 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7) victory, saving a match point when Venus drives a forehand long to end a dramatic exchange from the baseline.
In the semifinals, Serena will have a similarly close and high quality contest with Azarenka. Serena will be peaking by now, getting her forehand under control, opening up the court with her two-handed backhand, exploiting her first serve over and over again. Serena Williams will defeat Azarenka 7-5, 7-6(4) to move into the final.
When Serena recently played Dementieva in Toronto, she lost a tight first set in a tie-break, and then essentially went away. She seemed resigned to defeat. Dementieva took full advantage of it. But this situation reminds me a lot of the start of the 2009 season. Dementieva upended Serena in Sydney but when they met again, Williams beat Dementieva in the semifinals of the Australian Open. In the final of the U.S. Open, Williams and Dementieva will have a match reminiscent of their semifinal at Wimbledon, when Williams rallied from match point down to win 6-7, 7-5, 8-6 in the match of the year thus far in the women’s game.
This time around, Williams will win by scores of 7-5, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (2) as the two players push each other to their outer limits. As is so often the case, Serena will achieve the victory as much with her willpower as her shot making. She will win her 12th major title. Dementieva will lose gallantly. The world of women’s tennis will celebrate a classic final in the last major championship of 2009.
Every time we move toward another Grand Slam championship, before the first ball is struck, before the tournament has taken shape and the players have rounded into form, before all of the drama unfolds, the men’s and women’s singles draws are eagerly anticipated by all of us. At the least, the draws provide us with a sense of the many possibilities for the fortnight ahead. They give us a sense of what should or might occur, of which players have the toughest paths to the latter stages of the event, of what might be the most intriguing matchups.
This time around at Roland Garros, Rafael Nadal is the overwhelming favorite to rule on the red clay. He has never lost a match at the French Open, and no one has ever taken him to five sets at the world’s premier clay court event. Across his career in best of five set matches on clay, he has an astounding 45-0 record, and in that span has only twice been extended to five sets (by Guillermo Coria in the 2005 Italian Open final and by Roger Federer at the same event a year later). This season on clay, Nadal swept through Monte Carlo, Barcelona and Rome at the cost of only one set, winning those titles convincingly. Last weekend, he lost to Federer in the final of Madrid, suffering only his second loss in eleven career head to head clashes against the Swiss. But Nadal had come off a debilitating four hour, three minute duel with Novak Djokovic, saving three match points in that contest.
I believe that loss (which took place in high altitude in much faster conditions than Roland Garros) will only make Nadal more intense and motivated to win his fifth straight title at the French Open. A year ago, he did not concede a set in seven nearly impeccable matches, finishing his run with emphatic triumphs over Djokovic and Federer. That feat will be difficult but not impossible for Nadal to replicate. He might lose a few sets this year, but how can anyone topple him in a best of five set match on this surface? His ferocity as a competitor, his nearly inexhaustible supply of energy, and the immense consistency of his game will carry him to a seventh Grand Slam championship crown.
Let’s examine the draw. Nadal opens against a qualifier and should move through to the third round with ease. In that round, he might play Ivo Karlovic or former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt. They meet in a compelling first round match. If it is Karlovic who earns the right to play Nadal, he will extend a few sets with his huge first serve. But the 6’10” Croatian--- who took Nadal into a final set tie-break on the grass at Queen’s Club last June--- would not be able to impose himself on the clay and would bow in straight sets. Hewitt could make Nadal work hard for a while, but the 28-year-old Australian will not be able to contain Nadal from the back of the court for long. Nadal would advance in straight sets.
Thereafter, the task gets more challenging for the world No. 1. He figures to meet No. 14 seed David Ferrer in the round of 16. Ferrer was ranked as high as No. 4 in the world early in 2008, and he is one of the fastest players in the sport. He has been runner-up to Nadal the last two years in Barcelona, and is capable of making this an absorbing contest. Ferrer has a chance to take a set, but will do no more than that because Nadal will force his countryman to go for too much and Ferrer will inevitably start missing off both sides as he attempts low percentage shots.
On Nadal will go to the quarterfinals, where another Spaniard will almost surely be waiting for him. That player is No. 8 seed Fernando Verdasco, the man who fought so valiantly against Nadal in the semifinals of the Australian Open this year. Verdasco battled for five hours and 14 minutes in that suspenseful encounter at Melbourne before falling gallantly in five sets on the hard courts. They have met twice during this clay court season and Verdasco, despite some impressive passages, did not take a set from Nadal. In Madrid, with Nadal so uneasy in the high altitude, Verdasco led 4-0 in the second set but won only one more game in a 6-4, 7-5 defeat.
Verdasco will almost certainly play a much closer match than he had against Nadal a year ago at Roland Garros. On that occasion, Nadal advanced 6-1, 6-0, 6-2. But Verdasco has made significant strides since then. He is fitter, more solid and thoughtful from the baseline, more willing to win with grit instead of going so frequently for explosive winners. He will test Nadal but, in the end, Nadal will be too cagey and resilient. Nadal will win in three tight sets. The guess here is a 7-5, 6-4, 6-4 victory for Nadal.
In the semifinals, Nadal should be confronting world No. 3 Andy Murray. Murray has not yet been at his best on the European clay after an excellent start to the year on hard courts. He lost to Nadal in the semifinals of Madrid in straight sets, then fell surprisingly to Juan Monaco after winning a 6-1 first set in Rome, and was beaten for the first time by Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals of Madrid. I still get the feeling that Murray is improving on the clay and will play his best at Roland Garros.
Murray opens against the experienced Juan Ignacio Chela, the 29-year-old from Argentina. Murray will get through that one in straight sets. He may have a tough third round assignment against either Janko Tipsarevic or the No. 28 seed Feliciano Lopez. Either way, I like Murray’s chances for a straight set victory. In the round of 16, he should take on either No. 18 seed Radek Stepanek or No. 13 Marin Cilic, but by then he should be gaining confidence and playing well.
The seedings indicate that Murray would play No. 7 seed Gilles Simon of France in the quarters, but I have my doubts that Simon will get that far. He has not played with much authority for most of this year, and I believe he is more comfortable and a better player on hard courts. I look for No. 12 seed Fernando Gonzalez to come through that section of the draw and thus garner an appointment with Murray in the last eight. Gonzalez has one of the game’s most daunting forehands and he enjoys competing on clay, but Murray will eventually pick him apart in four sets.
That would put Murray up against Nadal in an enticing semifinal. Murray had never beaten Nadal in five previous meetings before upending the Spaniard in the semifinals of the 2008 U.S. Open on hard courts. He posted another win in their next meeting earlier this year in Rotterdam, although Nadal was playing hurt through much of that match. In their most recent showdown, Nadal was outmaneuvering Murray skillfully from the baseline in building a 6-2, 5-2 lead in Monte Carlo, but Murray fought back impressively to take that second set into a tie-break.
In the latter stages of that contest, Murray raised his game decidedly while Nadal became too cautious. Murray surely learned that he needed to be bolder in the rallies and take some calculated risks. He will undoubtedly approach this meeting determined to unsettle Nadal by being as aggressive as possible. But Nadal’s consistency will be too much for the British No. 1. In the end, Nadal will exploit his inside-out forehand to break down Murray’s forehand, and his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt will hurt Murray as well. Murray will be made to play too many high, awkward balls off his two-handed backhand. Nadal will win a hard fought battle 6-4, 7-6, 7-5.
That win would take Nadal into the final. The guess here is that the No. 2 seed Roger Federer and No. 4 Novak Djokovic will make it through to the penultimate round and on that occasion will give us perhaps the match of the tournament. Federer faces 30-year-old Alberto Martin in the first round. That is an ideal opening match for the Swiss, who will hit just enough balls but will not ever be unduly worried. Federer will win easily in straight sets. He could take on No. 32 seed Paul-Henri Mathieu in the third round but not even a vociferous French crowd will prevent Federer from achieving another routine victory.
In the round of 16, perhaps No. 15 seed James Blake, No. 19 seed Tomas Berdych or the intriguing Frenchman Jeremy Chardy will play Federer. Blake just lost badly to Federer in Madrid and was thoroughly outclassed. Berdych is more comfortable on clay than Blake but the No. 19 seed---- who took the first two sets from Federer this year at the Australian Open before fading in five--- is overmatched against the No. 2 seed on clay.
Andy Roddick is seeded sixth, and would theoretically meet Federer in the quarters. Roddick took a break from the clay court circuit before returning in Madrid. On the faster clay there, he took a set off Federer in the quarters. He will meet French wildcard Romain Jouan in the first round, could play the capable Spaniard Oscar Hernandez in the second round, and should he survive he would conceivably play the German Rainer Schuettler (the No. 27 seed) in the round of 32.
No. 11 seed Gael Monfils --- a semifinalist in 2008--- is expected to meet Jurgen Melzer in the third round, with the winner to play Roddick in the round of 16. I can’t see Roddick advancing to the quarterfinals, but it is awfully difficult to figure out who will face Federer in that round. There is an outside chance it could be Roddick, it might be Schuettler. Perhaps Monfils--- despite being short of match play after an injury--- will get on a good roll.
In the end, it doesn’t matter much. Federer will move through that section of the draw confidently, most likely without the loss of a set. In the penultimate round, it will be Djokovic standing across the net from the Swiss. Djokovic will need to be sharp from the outset. He plays 32-year-old Nicolas Lapentti of Ecuador in the first round. Lapentti was once a world top ten player, and remains formidable these days. But Djokovic will settle in by the middle of the second set and win in four sets.
In the third round, Djokovic should meet either Philipp Kohlschreiber, 2003 Roland Garros victor Juan Carlos Ferrero, or the revitalized Ivan Ljubicic. In any case, Djokovic will navigate his way safely through one of those players. In the round of 16, he will beat Tommy Robredo and then it should be time for Djokovic to play No. 5 seed Juan Martin Del Potro. Djokovic will be too quick, cunning and commanding for the big man from Argentina and he will win in straight sets.
Djokovic versus Federer: what more could we ask for? In 2008 and 2009, Djokovic went all the way to the semifinals before losing to Nadal both times. He has recently beaten Federer two times in a row for the first time in his career, upending his adversary in Miami on hard courts and in Rome on clay. Both times, Djokovic struck back from a set down to defeat Federer. Federer fell apart in Miami and lost seven straight games at one stage as his forehand all but disappeared. In Rome, Federer was up a set and a break and then led 3-1 in the final set. He never won another game.
In that match, Djokovic played remarkably well to pull out the triumph. It was a higher caliber contest and he competed impressively. Federer, however, picked up a good dose of confidence by winning Madrid after having not won a tournament since last autumn. He will carry that with him into Roland Garros. But Djokovic has had a terrific clay court season. He won a tournament in Serbia, made it to the finals of Monte Carlo and Rome before losing excellent matches to Nadal, and then lost honorably to Nadal in the Madrid semifinals despite reaching match point three times.
He is playing some of the most consistent tennis of his career. And so both men will go into this battle fully believing in themselves and their chances. It will come down in the end to a few crucial points. Federer may have the slight edge on serve and will win more free points with his delivery, but Djokovic might be slightly superior from the baseline, as was the case in Rome. Djokovic will be probing constantly, looking to use his crosscourt backhand to puncture holes in Federer’s backhand, trying to create openings to make Federer play difficult running forehands.
Federer will mix it up as only he can, using the backhand drop shot and the short backhand slice to draw Djokovic forward. There will be little to choose between two men absolutely determined to win a match of this consequence. Federer--- who has lost only to Nadal the last four years at Roland Garros-- will win a close first set and then Djokovic will strike back to control the next two sets. Federer will answer by claiming the fourth set in a tie-break, and then they will play on majestically through a gripping fifth set. Djokovic will wipe away some critical break points against him, and then at 5-5 he will break his opponent. It won’t be easy but Djokovic will serve out the match and gain the victory as a classic clash ends in style.
Djokovic will take heart from his stirring performances against Nadal en route to Roland Garros. He was the only player to take a set off Nadal before Madrid, and then it took some startling shot making from Nadal to oust Djokovic in Spain. On two of the three match points he saved, Nadal produced gutsy forehand winners; on the third, a deep, penetrating serve to Djokovic’s backhand coaxed the Serbian into hitting a two-hander long.
This will be a compelling final. Nadal will be aggressive and tenacious from the start and will win the first set, but a resolute Djokovic will come back strong to take the second. The third will be tight. Djokovic will realize it is a must win set, and know that he can’t afford to go down two sets to one. Nadal will gradually gain the upper hand by pounding away at Djokovic’s backhand until he can get just enough openings for inside-out forehands. Nadal will get too many tough returns back into play. He will win the third set 6-4, and drive his way relentlessly to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory. No one will say he hasn’t earned it.
I believe that Dinara Safina will live up to her status as the top seed and come away with her first major title. Safina was a finalist at Roland Garros a year ago, losing to a top of the line Ana Ivanovic. Safina then made it to the semifinals of the U.S. Open, and was runner-up at the Australian Open to Serena Williams. That is a string of consistency not to be overlooked.
Safina should come through the early rounds despite a few tough tests, and then will meet No. 15 seed Jie Zheng in the round of 16. Zheng is a find counter-attacker, agile and cagey, determined and purposeful. She will push Safina into a hard fought, three set contest, but Safina will pull away 6-2 in the final set. In the last eight, Safina should play either the No. 8 seed Ivanovic, or the No. 9 seed Victoria Azarenka. Safina will be primed to play either woman. She would like nothing more than to turn the tables on Ivanovic, and would do so in three sets. If she meets the rapidly improving Azarenka, Safina would prevail in two close sets with her slightly greater weight of shot.
Venus Williams--- the No. 3 seed--- has had a disappointing history at Roland Garros. She did reach the final in 2002, and in her 12 previous appearances at the French Open she has made it to four other quarterfinals, the most recent in 2006. But she has too often lost early in Paris. Venus could have an interesting first round clash with her countrywoman Bethanie Mattek-Sands. A second round meeting with either Lucie Safarova would not be easy. And in the third round, Venus would surely have some serious problems overcoming Agnes Szavay, the No. 29 seed from Hungary.
If she manages to prevail in her first three matches, Venus might play No. 16 seed Amelie Mauresmo, who has played some surprisingly good tennis in 2009. Mauresmo is a more relaxed competitor these days than she was in the heart of her career, when she was under so much pressure to win majors. She now has two Grand Slam championships in her collection, and is playing more for sheer enjoyment than ever before. Williams and Mauresmo would produce a spirited three set clash which could go either way. I go with Mauresmo.
No. 6 seed Vera Zvonareva played much better tennis at the end of 2008 and earlier this year than she is at the moment. She could play No. 25 seed Li Na in the third round, and might take on No. 11 Nadia Petrova in the round of 16. But I see Zvonareva earning a quarterfinal assignment with Mauresmo. Zvonareva will win that match with her speed and ground stroke consistency overcoming Mauresmo’s shot making sparkle.
Safina will be confident by the time she plays Zvonareva in the semifinals. Her power and control off the two-handed backhand will be too much for Zvonareva, and Safina will be back in the final with a straight set win.
In the bottom half of the draw, Serena Williams--- the No. 2 seed--- will be looking to rediscover her clay court game after being injured recently. Serena is on a great run at the majors. Since losing early at Roland Garros a year ago, she reached the final of Wimbledon and won the U.S. and Australian Opens. This is a big occasion player of the highest order.
But the fact remains that she has not played well over the years at Roland Garros. She won the tournament in 2002 over her sister Venus when she was at the absolute peak of her powers. In her next three appearances, she was once a semifinalist and twice reached the quarters. But then she fell in the third round to Katarina Srebotnik a year ago. Her preparation for this tournament has not been what she would have wanted.
Serena might have to play Shuai Peng of China (the No. 31 seed) in the third round and that will not be easy. She could well lose that match. If she wins, she would probably face No. 14 seed Flavia Pennetta. And if Serena somehow manages to keep on course, her quarterfinal opponent figures to be Svetlana Kuznetsova. I believe Kuznetsova, who is having a very good year, will take out Serena or anyone else and reach the semifinals. In the top section of that bottom half of the draw, the two players to watch most closely are No. 5 seed Jelena Jankovic and No. 4 Elena Dementieva.
Jankovic finished 2008 at the No. 1 ranked player in the world. She made it to her first major final at the 2008 U.S. Open. She was playing top of the line tennis. This year she has not been close to her best. She has suffered one surprising loss after another. And yet, if she can find her form, she is an excellent clay court player. In 2007 and 2008, she was a semifinalist at Roland Garros. Last year, she was serving at 4-3 in the final set against Ivanovic, on the verge of making the final. Had she won that match, she might have gone on to claim the title.
Jankovic faces a potentially stern test in the round of 16 against either Alize Cornet of France or the rapidly improving Caroline Wozniacki, the recent runner-up against Safina in Madrid. I believe Wozniacki will beat Cornet and then will spring the upset and beat Jankovic in three sets. In a hard fought quarterfinal, Wozniacki will topple Dementieva 7-5 in the final set.
So the surprising semifinal pairing will be Kuznetsova versus Wozniacki. Kuznetsova has a ton of big match experience on her side. She won the 2004 U.S. Open. She was runner-up to Justine Henin at Roland Garros in 2006. She made it to the U.S. Open final in 2007 and was a semifinalist at Roland Garros a year ago. Wozniacki will push Kuznetsova long and hard though three sets, across a number of momentum shifts. But Kuznetsova will be a three set winner in the end.
And so it will be Safina and Kuznetsova playing for the title. Both players will be filled with apprehension at the outset, but Kuznetsova will be marginally more stable from the baseline and will attack at opportune moments. She will win that set 7-5, but Safina will not be swayed. She will start taking control of the rallies and will cut down substantially on her unforced errors. Safina will come on strong and take the match 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 for her long awaited first Grand Slam championship.
Nadal and Safina will be the champions. That is the view from here.
In the weeks leading up to the 2009 Australian Open, most close followers of the game fully expected a magnificent opening to the season. Everything pointed to a riveting tournament for the men. Novak Djokovic was back to defend his crown. Roger Federer was there to restore his authority and chase a record tying 14th Grand Slam Championship. Andy Murray seemed poised to collect his first major after a brilliant second half of 2008 and an impressive start in 2009. And last, but not least, world No. 1 Rafael Nadal was utterly determined to prevail for the first time at a Grand Slam event on hard courts. With so many exhilarating possibilities, how could we go wrong?
Quite clearly, this was one of those rare moments when a big tournament was every bit as good as we could have anticipated, and possibly better. In the end, of course, it was Nadal more than anyone else who made the Australian Open sparkle. It was Nadal who competed for a total of nine hours and 37 minutes in ten soul searching sets in the semifinals and final to garner his sixth major championship so deservedly. It was Nadal who demonstrated once more that no one can match his mental toughness, his steely resolve under pressure, his durability and unflappability through long skirmishes against the fiercest of adversaries.
Defeating Fernando Verdasco and Roger Federer in back to back five set contests at the end of the fortnight was an astounding feat that even the indefatigable Nadal might not be able to replicate. His marathon five hours, 14 minute confrontation with the vastly improved Verdasco was a gripping spectacle. Verdasco had made considerable progress across 2008, finishing the season at No. 16 in the world after peaking earlier in the year at No. 11. He had trained with vigor in the off season under the guidance of the renowned Gil Reyes, Andre Agassi’s fitness guru. He had come into this major with a sense of self he had never known before.
Before Verdasco arrived for his appointment in the penultimate round with Nadal, he had raced through the first three rounds at the cost of a mere 12 games in nine sets, setting an Open Era record in the process. In the round of 16, he won a somewhat bizarre battle with Murray, rallying admirably for a 2-6, 6-1, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4 triumph over the No. 4 seed. I thought Murray would have a distinct advantage by having the luxury of serving first in the final set, but Verdasco competed honorably in that remarkable chapter.
Serving at 2-3, Verdasco was in a serious bind. Twice in that critical game, the 25-year-old Spanish lefty fought off break points, one with a bold ace down the T, another with a succession of penetrating ground strokes that left Murray unable to recover. Verdasco held on for 3-3, broke Murray in the following game, and never looked back. He then upended 2008 Australian Open finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in four hard fought sets to earn his duel of southpaws with Nadal.
Verdasco had only once taken a set off Nadal in six previous meetings, but the world No. 1 realized he was taking on a player who had moved to an entirely new and higher level. That was apparent from the outset of this crackling encounter. Nadal had two break points with Verdasco serving at 5-5 in the opening set, but was unable to convert. In the first set tie-break, Nadal was ahead 3-1 but his unwavering opponent collected six of the next eight points to seal the set. Nadal struck back ferociously to take the second and was twice up a break in the third, building leads of 2-0 and 4-2 as Verdasco seemed to be wilting under the assault.
And yet, the underdog found reserves of energy and bursts of inspiration. He battled back to force a tie-break, but in that sequence his ball control deserted him and Nadal confidently finished off that set with a blazing forehand winner and an ace. At two sets to one, his chances to run out the match seemed excellent. Early in the fourth set, Verdasco looked as if his body might finally betray him, but his serve did not. Both players held to set up another tie-break, and this time the inspired Verdasco could do almost no wrong, blasting winner after glorious winner off his big forehand, sweeping into a fifth set with his bold play under pressure.
All across the fifth set, Nadal was creating opportunities for himself, but Verdasco kept fending him off with unbridled yet controlled aggression. Verdasco saved two set points at 0-1 in that fifth set, wiped away another at 2-3, and cast aside two more at 3-4. Nadal was uncommonly tight on the big points, too cautious numerous times, burdened by wanting so badly to win a match of this consequence against a player he was expected to beat. At 4-4, Nadal fell behind 0-30 and was six points from a bruising defeat. Verdasco pulled a forehand wide on the next point, missed a routine forehand return at 15-30, and that was all the leeway Nadal needed.
Nadal held on gamely for 5-4 with a high forehand volley winner and a clean winner off the forehand. In the tenth game, Verdasco double faulted to fall behind 0-40, triple match point. He rallied to 30-40, but then double faulted again. Nadal--- despite being far below his best--- had found a way to survive a spirited performance from a worthy rival. That set up his final round appointment with Federer, who had wandered into dangerous territory himself in a fourth round collision with Tomas Berdych, dropping the first two sets of that clash before recouping for a five set triumph.
Thereafter, Federer settled into a comfort zone, dismantling Juan Martin Del Potro 6-3, 6-0, 6-0 in the quarters, and taking apart an overzealous Andy Roddick 6-2, 7-5, 7-5 in the semifinals. Federer did not lose his serve in either match. Roddick had worn down Djokovic on a stifling day in the heat after losing the first set in a tie-break, as Djokovic surrendered when he was down a break in the fourth. But Roddick--- the man who held serve more successfully than anyone else in the men’s game across 2008--- let himself down badly by failing to reach a tie-break in the second and third sets. In the crunch, his serve was found wanting.
So Nadal and Federer squared off for the 19th time in their illustrious rivalry. It was a match of wildly fluctuating fortunes, featuring many more service breaks than is customary in this series between the Swiss maestro and the Spanish gladiator. Nadal broke Federer no fewer than 7 times in five sets, but Federer broke the Spaniard six times. The number of breaks made for a particularly compelling encounter, and that pattern of unpredictability was apparent from the outset.
In the opening set, Nadal broke his primary rival in the opening game, lost his delivery twice to trail 4-2, and then struck back boldly to capture five of six games to seal the set by breaking two more times. In the second set, Nadal broke for 3-2 and seemed in command, but an unwavering Federer secured four games in a row to reach one set all.
The third set through the early stages of the fourth was when both men played their highest quality tennis of the match. Neither player broke serve in the third, but Nadal faced some trying moments late in the set. At 4-4, he was down 0-40 but burst out of that corner with some stupendous shot making and fine strategic serving. At 5-5, he was behind 15-40 and faced the music again. Now it was Federer’s turn to escape, and he did just that by saving a set point at 5-6 with an excellent first serve down the T that Nadal could not keep in play. In the ensuing tie-break, the two competitors were locked at 3-3 when Federer misfired flagrantly on an inside-out forehand off Nadal’s return down the middle.
That mini-break propelled Nadal through the rest of the tie-break. He nailed a forehand crosscourt winner for 5-3, lunged to his right for an excellent backhand volley winner into an open court for 6-3, and then ran out the sequence when Federer double faulted. Nadal was back in command at two sets to one.
In the early stages of the fourth set, the tennis was even more sublime. Nadal made it back from 2-0 to 2-2 and then had five break points in a pivotal fifth game. Had he broken there, he might well have gone on to record a four set victory, but Federer had other notions. He held on bravely with a superb mixture of touch and aggression. That hold--- so crucial to the Swiss player’s fortunes--- hurt Nadal severely. Federer glided to 5-2 and took the set comfortably 6-3. On to a fifth set they went, with the momentum seemingly on Federer’s side.
But Nadal realized what an advantage he had by serving first in the fifth set. He buckled down immediately. Remarkably, despite his exhausting semifinal with Verdasco, despite four more debilitating sets with Federer, despite everything, Nadal regrouped once more and his staying power was beyond dispute. The 22-year-old summoned all of his resources and his serve was never better than when he needed it most in the last set. He never gave Federer any room for encouragement, winning 16 of 19 points on serve in that fifth set, holding twice at love, once at 15, and once at 30.
Meanwhile, Nadal made only 3 unforced errors in a set lasting 43 points. Conversely, Federer lost his range completely, making 14 unprovoked mistakes. Nadal cleverly exposed Federer’s weakness on the high backhand with his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt. In turn, Federer lost confidence in his forehand and his footwork was not up to par. My view is that Federer was worn down by all the running he did across the first four sets.
The truth is that Nadal worked Federer inordinately hard, making him chase down an awful lot of wide balls to the forehand, then forcing the Swiss to scamper back to cover the wide backhand. The combination of Nadal’s penetrating inside-out forehand and his flat two-hander crosscourt did a considerable amount of damage. Federer looked spent in the fifth set and Nadal exploited the situation to the hilt, coming away with a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-2 triumph.
Nadal has now toppled Federer six times in eight meetings at the majors altogether. Strictly in the finals at Grand Slam events, Nadal has been victorious five of seven times. To be sure, he has beaten Federer three times in the finals of Roland Garros on the red clay, and once more in the semifinals of that event. But the fact remains that Nadal has completed a three surface sweep of Federer at the major events over the last year, ruling on the clay in Paris, the grass at Wimbledon, and the hard courts of Australia. Nadal holds a 13-6 career lead over Federer in their overall series. Considering that so many of their duels have been on the biggest occasions, Nadal’s head to head superiority is no small thing.
As I look at the rest of 2009 and envision the three upcoming majors, it is hard to image Nadal not collecting a fifth consecutive French Open crown. I believe Nadal, Federer and Murray all have a serious chance to win Wimbledon, and the same trio--- plus possibly Djokovic--- will be in strong contention at the U.S. Open. I remain almost certain that Murray will succeed in either London or New York. Federer displayed much grit and fortitude in bouncing back emphatically after a distressing year to capture his fifth straight U.S. Open. He salvaged his season with that triumph.
It could well be even more arduous for Federer to win a major in 2009. Murray has beaten him five of the last six times they had met. Nadal has his number. The likes of Tsonga, Verdasco and a few others will be somewhere in the mix. Nadal has never had this kind of start to a year. He has a huge head start, and will be all the more confident when he heads into the clay court season. Murray is not discouraged after Melbourne, but Federer might well be.
I am looking forward to the rest of 2009 because the men’s game has seldom been more compelling.
Now that the draw has just been released, I am ready to make my annual Australian Open forecast. The chief point of curiosity with respect to the men’s draw was where Andy Murray would end up. Much to Roger Federer’s delight, Murray---- the No. 4 seed--- fell into Rafael Nadal’s section of the draw. Since Federer has lost his last three meetings with the fast rising British player, and has been beaten by Murray five of the last six times they have clashed, he must have been somewhat relieved to find out that he would not have to deal with Murray until a potential final round collision.
The good news does not end there for the three time Australian Open victor. Federer opens with a comfortable first round assignment against the Italian Andreas Seppi. He routinely handles Seppi, and this time should be no different. In the third round, Federer could conceivably face 2005 champion Marat Safin. Safin toppled Federer in an epic semifinal that year, coming through 9-7 in the fifth set after a spectacular confrontation. Safin is seeded No. 26 this year, and is always a dangerously unpredictable player. But even if he plays reasonably well, Federer is simply not going to lose to the Russian this time around.
In the round of 16, Federer might take on Swiss compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka, or perhaps No. 20 seed Tomas Berdych. Berdych could be burdensome for Federer for a couple of sets, but he lacks the match playing acumen or consistency to do more than take a set from the No. 2 seed. I fully expect the No. 8 seed Del Potro to confront Federer in the quarters. Del Potro might have to avenge a Davis Cup loss he suffered against the wily, left-handed Feliciano Lopez in the third round, but he should survive in four sets. In the round of 16, either Marin Cilic or David Ferrer could take on Del Potro.
The guess here is that Cilic will be the one Del Potro plays in that round, and that could be quite a skirmish. But I like Del Potro’s more consistent and explosive ground game and his superior match playing temperament. Del Potro would advance and meet Federer for a place in the semifinals. Federer could have his hands full from the back of the court. Del Potro will push him hard during the rallies, and send a barrage of balls to his opponent’s backhand side. But Federer’s serve will be the determining factor in the contest. He will come from behind and win in a fourth set tie-break.
The No. 7 seed Roddick opens against a qualifier, and might have to play the man who beat him at this tournament a year ago--- Philipp Kohlschreiber. I don’t see lightening striking twice. If Roddick plays the German this year in the third round, he wins in four sets. In the round of 16, Roddick figures to meet old rival David Nalbandian, the No. 10 seed. Nalbandian will have some difficult foes to overcome along the way, including a tricky first round duel with the Frenchman Marc Gicquel. But I believe Nalbandian will muddle through his section of the draw.
The Roddick-Nalbandian round of 16 clash would be a spirited encounter. Roddick will need to attack forcefully and persistently. From the baseline, Nalbandian is the markedly superior player. His two-handed backhand is a much better shot than Roddick’s, and he will contain the American and prevent him from penetrating too much off the forehand. In the end, Roddick will get the job done in five exhilarating sets because his great first serve and willingness to go forward will give him the slightest of edges.
That will set up an enticing quarterfinal for Roddick against the defending champion Novak Djokovic. Djokovic opens against a qualifier and could meet No. 28 seed Paul-Henri Mathieu in the third round. Djokovic just handled Mathieu easily in Sydney, and will beat him again if they meet in Melbourne. In the round of 16, the Serbian figures to play either Mardy Fish or Robin Soderling. Fish played a respectable final against Djokovic at Indian Wells last year, and his attacking game could bother his adversary for a while. But Djokovic is too solid from the baseline to lose a best of five set match to Fish. He would prevail in four sets, as he would against the big hitting yet entirely too erratic Soderling.
So, the way I see it, Djokovic and Roddick will test each other for the second straight time in a Grand Slam event. At the U.S. Open last September, Djokovic was obliterating Roddick for two sets before the American struck back boldly to nearly take the match into a fifth set in the quarters. Djokovic hung on to win in a fourth set tie-break. I envision a similarly hard fought match in Melbourne. Roddick will throw a big mixture at Djokovic from start to finish, taking chances off the forehand to end rallies early, attempting some daring two-handed, down the line backhands whenever possible.
Djokovic will answer with his customary depth, pace and precision off the ground and he will have the upper hand in the longer rallies. Moreover, he will counter-attack effectively when Roddick inevitably moves forward. And yet, it will be a gripping, pendulum-swinging battle. Djokovic will come through, but he will need the full five sets to complete the job. That will take him into a compelling showdown with Federer as they stage a rematch of their 2008 semifinal. Djokovic, brimming with confidence after a scintillating 2007 season, won that encounter in straight sets after Federer led 5-3,0-30 in the opening set.
It seemed highly likely that Djokovic would meet Federer over and over again in 2008, but that was not the case. Federer beat Djokovic in Monte Carlo when Djokovic quit at a set and a break down. Thereafter, they played only one more time, with Federer overcoming a subdued Djokovic in four tough sets in the semifinals of the U.S. Open. Djokovic—clearly inhibited after turning the fans against him with some foolish post-match comments after his win over Roddick--- was apprehensive from the start, and Federer played one of his better matches of 2008 to prevail in four sets.
In this contest, both men will like their chances. Federer will be determined to make it to the first Grand Slam tournament final of 2009, while Djokovic will have his heart set on defending his crown and defeating Federer again. The serving efficiency of both men will be critical. There will be at least one and probably two tie-breaks. There will be shifts in momentum. Federer will try to control the climate of the match with his inside-out forehand, but Djokovic will counter with the same tactic. Djokovic will try as much as possible to make this a duel between his two-handed backhand and Federer’s one-handed stroke off that side.
Ultimately, not much will separate these two remarkable players, but Federer will be more confident in the tightest corners. He will recoup from two sets to one down, win a tie-break in the fourth set, and get the win by taking the fifth set 6-4. Nadal should have little trouble until a potential round of 16 meeting with either Richard Gasquet or 2007 Australian Open finalist Fernando Gonzalez. Either way, Nadal will advance without being stretched to his limits, although Gasquet could give him a tougher test. I see Nadal beating Gasquet in four sets or Gonzalez in straight sets. Nadal thus will move on to the quarters. In that round, he might meet No. 6 seed Gilles Simon, or perhaps play No. 12 seed Gael Monfils. Those two Frenchman have both had success over Nadal. Monfils beat Nadal 6-4, 6-4 in Doha a few weeks ago, and Simon stopped Nadal last autumn indoors in Madrid in a magnificent battle that went to a final set tie-break.
If Nadal faces Monfils, he will get revenge in four hard sets, dropping only the second. Should he play Simon, Nadal will pull away after a tight first set and win in straight sets. So Nadal would then be in the penultimate round. Murray, meanwhile, would be on a collision course with the Spaniard. Murray confronts the soon-to-be 34-year-old Andrei Pavel in the first round. He could well face the capable left-hander Jurgen Melzer in the third round. At the U.S. Open last year, Melzer nearly upset Murray before bowing in five sets.
But Murray will be much better prepared if they meet again in Melbourne. He will get the victory in straight sets. In the round of 16, Murray could play either Radek Stepanek or Fernando Verdasco. Stepanek does not have the consistency to stay with Murray from the baseline, and he will be forced to take too many chances. The left-handed Verdasco is a player Murray can handle any time. His explosive style plays well into Murray’s hands. I see Murray defeating either Verdasco or Stepanek in straight sets.
In the quarters, Murray might have to take on 2008 finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but the No. 5 seed Tsonga recently hurt his back and it is hard to know how close to the top of his game he will be. Other potential quarterfinal opponents for Murray are James Blake or Igor Andreev. Either of those players---- particularly Blake--- could get hot for one set, but Murray has too much versatility for both men and he will advance to the semifinals and an eagerly awaited battle with Nadal.
Nadal had never lost to Murray until the U.S. Open, but Murray won there for the first time in six career head-to-head contests. Recently, he beat Nadal in the final of an exhibition event. Nadal, however, will be fully charged emotionally for a match of this consequence. He will work Murray hard from the baseline, but Murray will counter with well executed risk taking and some timely winners. His first serve will keep Nadal largely at bay, but then again Nadal’s wide swinging lefty slice will cause Murray numerous problems as well.
This is an awfully difficult match to predict. In the end, I believe it will go right down to the wire. Nadal will be down two sets to one, but then will capture the fourth set and go up a break at 4-2 in the fifth. But Murray will make his move and gain a thrilling victory 9-7 in the fifth and final set.
Fortunately for Murray, he will have at least one and possibly two days off after that exhausting piece of business. He will need it, because Federer will be in a quietly ferocious mood to make amends for his recent string of losses to Murray. He will need to call on all of his big match experience as he tries to tie Pete Sampras’s record of 14 Grand Slam titles. Federer will give it his absolute all, fighting back from a set and a break down and moving ahead two sets to one. But Murray will not be swayed. He will not lose his serve in the last two sets, and Federer will gradually lose his range off the forehand. Murray will win his first major title, stopping Federer in an excellent final 6-4, 5-7, 5-7, 6-4, 6-3.
As for the women, top seeded Jelena Jankovic will move through the early rounds not with ease but with enough confidence to prevail. She could play Ai Sugiyama in the third round, Sybille Bammer in the round of 16 and conceivably Vera Zvonareva (the No. 7 seed) in the quarters. Jankovic will be ready for those meetings and will topple Zvonareva in three rigorous sets to make it to the semifinal round. Waiting for her there will be a woman who has given her all kinds of problems over the last year. I am referring to No. 3 seed Dinara Safina. Safina could have a tough round of 16 collision with Alize Cornet, but the will survive in three sets after dropping the first.
I see Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark taking on Safina in the quarterfinals. No. 5 seed Ana Ivanovic has been so unsettled as of late that I can’t see her going too far. Wozniacki will beat Ivanovic in the fourth round in straight sets. But Safina will find a way to upend Wozniacki in a three set quarterfinal. Safina will fully expect to beat Jankovic in the semifinals, but the Serbian—coming off a final round appearance in her last Grand slam event at the U.S. Open--- will use her remarkable ground stroke variety and wonderful ball control to wear down Safina. Jankovic will win that one 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 and make it into another major final.
No. 2 seed Serena Williams will gradually get her bearings. She will play Francesca Schiavone in the third round, Victoria Azarenka in the round of 16 and a surprise opponent in the quarterfinals. I don’t believe No. 8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova will make it to the last eight. Although Serena will not be at her best, she will still make it through to the semifinals. In that round, it will be Elena Dementieva standing across the net from her. Dementieva--- the No. 4 seed--- will have beaten No. 30 seed Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada in the third round and Patty Schnyder in the round of 16. On the quarters, the Russian will have quite a battle on her hands.
No. 6 seed Venus Williams--- having overcome rough opposition against Tamarine Tanasugarn in the third round in a three set match--- will then barely escape defeat against the Italian Flavia Penetta, the woman who beat her at the French Open last year. But Venus will get out of that clash 7-5 in the final set. Then she will face Dementieva, and this will be a bruising battle under the sun. Venus will win the first set and come close to a straight set victory, but Dementieva will strike back confidently and pull off a 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 quarterfinal victory.
And so it will be Dementieva against Serena Williams in the semifinals. Dementieva just beat Serena handily in the semifinals of Sydney, but this will be a much closer showdown. Serena will be looking to serve the Russian wide to the forehand in the deuce court, and will release some thunderous deliveries down the T in the advantage court. That first serve will keep Serena in the match and nearly win it for her, but in the end Dementieva will win because her ground game is much more dependable than Serena’s. That backcourt consistency will allow Dementieva to prevail 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 in the match of the tournament. Serena will squander a 5-3 lead in the third set.
That will set the stage for either Dementieva or Jankovic to win a first career Grand Slam crown. Dementieva will set the pace early on, using the weight of her shots to open up the court and force errors from Jankovic. Dementieva will serve for the first set, but Jankovic will respond ably under pressure. She will take that set in a tie-break and then gradually get control of the match. Jankovic will change pace and trajectories. She will roll her forehand deep and use her two-hander to create acute angles. In the battle of two-handers crosscourt, Jankovic will have the upper hand.
Jankovic will sense her big chance, and reach out and take it. She will beat Dementieva 7-6 (5), 6-4 and prove why she finished 2008 as the top ranked player in the world. She will be a worthy winner.
In the world of tennis--- as in the larger arena of life--- seasons come and go. Some are more memorable than others. Many leave us sorely let down by the turn of events. Each and every year has an identity of its own. But 2008 will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most captivating years ever in the sport. In the four Grand Slam events for the men and the women, seven different champions emerged at the majors. A “Changing of the Guard” took place in men’s tennis, and in the women’s game no one really stepped up to fill the sizeable void left by the retirement of Justine Henin in May. And yet, the Williams sisters each collected another “Big Four” singles crown, Maria Sharapova garnered her third career major, and Ana Ivanovic got on the board with her first triumph at a Grand Slam tournament.
Let’s return to the men’s 2008 campaign, which was riveting from beginning to end. It all commenced in Melbourne with Novak Djokovic securing his first Grand Slam title, upending two-time defending champion Roger Federer in the semifinals and then ousting the brilliant and charismatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the final. I believed then that Djokovic could well be on his way to the penthouse of tennis. He only confirmed my feeling by capturing Indian Wells in March and the Italian Open in May. There was a growing feeling among the cognoscenti that the Serbian was moving to another level as a player, and he seemed comfortable with his rising status in the game.
And yet, from the middle of spring deep into the summer, the redoubtable Rafael Nadal was not to be denied. Nadal recorded his first tournament victory of 2008 in Monte Carlo on the red clay where he is virtually unstoppable. He went on to win Barcelona and Hamburg and then was immaculate at Roland Garros, capturing his fourth French Open in a row without the loss of a single set in the fortnight. In the final, he demolished a subdued and seemingly helpless Federer 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 as the Swiss suffered his most one-sided defeat ever at a major event.
At Wimbledon, Nadal and Federer played probably the greatest tennis match of all time. It was surely the best contest since the epic Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe 1980 final at the All England Club, when McEnroe saved no fewer than seven match points in a stirring fourth set comeback, only to lose a hard fought fifth by the tightest of margins to the implacable Swede. Borg won that one 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (16-18), 8-6. They were then the two best players in the world, and both players raised their reputations immeasurably with their shining performances that afternoon.
Nadal and Federer--- the two best players of 2008--- put on such a sublime display that their confrontation was observed by casual sports fans as well as tennis diehards, by those who had seldom watched tennis before to insiders who found themselves gasping at the improbability of it all. Let’s recollect what happened. Nadal took the first two sets 6-4, 6-4, but they were not easy. He had to save break points at 5-4 in both sets, but the left-handed Spaniard handled those demanding moments with customary discipline and focus.
In the third set, the players were forced off court by a rain delay with Nadal serving at 4-5. Federer had held on gamely from 0-40 at 3-3 to escape what would almost certainly have been a straight set loss. When the players returned, they moved inevitably into a tie-break, and Federer was magnificent in that sequence. He served exquisitely and thoroughly deserved to win that set. The fourth set went with serve all the way to another tie-break, and Nadal had the match well within his grasp as he served at 5-2. Had he held onto both of his service points from that juncture, he would have sealed the verdict and taken the match in four sets.
Nadal, of course, double faulted off the net chord at 5-2. Then he failed to take control of the next point, and Federer—back to 4-5-- was reborn. Even so, Nadal twice advanced to match point in that tie-break. Federer produced a service winner to save the first one. On the second match point, Nadal sliced his serve wide to the backhand in the advantage court, and Federer’s return was short. Nadal should have ripped his approach crosscourt, and Federer would have been hard pressed to make the passing shot. Instead, the Spaniard guided his forehand with good depth but not enough pace, and Federer majestically drove a backhand pass down the line for a clean winner.
Federer had almost miraculously survived to set up a fifth set. At 2-2 in that final set, there was another rain delay. Somehow, when the players resumed the battle, they played a superb set. Nadal had the unenviable task of serving from behind across the entire final set. At 3-4, he saved a break point; at 4-5, he held on from 30-30 when he was two points away from defeat. And then, at 7-7, Nadal broke Federer. As he served out the match, the sky was growing darker by the moment. There was no time to spare. If Nadal had not held on at 8-7, the match would have been halted and the players would have needed to pick up play the following day.
Nadal made it to match point for the third time at 8-7, 40-30 but Federer unleashed an astonishing backhand return winner crosscourt off a first rate, wide serve. Nadal responded with a service winner to the Federer forehand. And then, at 9:16 in the evening, on his fourth match point, after four hours and 48 minutes of gripping and high quality tennis, Nadal finished it off as Federer netted a forehand crosscourt. Nadal had won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7.
And so Nadal became the first man since Borg in 1980 to win the French Open and Wimbledon back to back. Over the summer, Nadal took the Olympic Games in Beijing, eclipsing Djokovic in a terrific semifinal, defeating Fernando Gonzalez in the final. Since Monte Carlo, he had won eight of the ten tournaments he had played, and he seemed ready at last to stamp his authority on the U.S. Open. But he was essentially a spent force.
In the semifinals of the U.S. Open, Nadal lost for the first time in six career head-to-head clashes with the rapidly advancing Andy Murray. In the other semifinal, Federer struck down Djokovic in a rematch of the 2007 final. Federer had a day off after his win over Djokovic. Murray had to contend with Nadal over two days as rain intruded. In any case, Federer was primed for the occasion and admirably collected his fifth U.S. Open in a row with a straight set victory over Murray, setting a modern record. Not since Bill Tilden (1920-25) had a man ruled at the American Championships five (or more) years in a row.
Interestingly, that was the only time Federer beat Murray in four 2008 meetings. In the autumn on the indoor circuit, Murray took a pair of compelling contests from Federer, winning in Paris and Shanghai, prevailing 7-5 in the final set on both occasions. Djokovic, meanwhile, reemerged in Shanghai. He had not won a tournament since the Italian Open, but came through indoors to capture the season-ending event by defeating Nikolay Davydenko in the final. Nadal, nursing a knee injury, did not play.
But seldom has the struggle for supremacy been so intriguing at the top of the men’s game. Nadal took the No. 1 ranking away from Federer in August, and--- much more importantly--- closed the year as the top-ranked player in tennis, denying the Swiss stylist a fifth consecutive year at No. 1. Federer narrowly edged past Djokovic for No. 2, and Murray surged to No. 4 in the world. All four men will clearly approach 2009 with vigor and self conviction.
And what of the women? Sharapova was outstanding at the Australian Open, winning the tournament without the loss of a set, erasing Henin, Jelena Jankovic, and Ivanovic in the last three rounds. I thought then that she would have an excellent year, but her shoulder acted up again and by Wimbledon--- where she lost early--- it was apparent that she was not serving with her usual velocity. She missed almost the entire second half of 2008 with that injury. Henin announced her retirement in May, which was a big blow to the women’s game.
Ivanovic--- so impressive in reaching the final of the Australian Open--- went one better in Paris. Her French Open triumph was thoroughly deserved. In the semifinals, she faced her countrywoman Jankovic in a stirring test of skills and wills. Jankovic was agonizingly close to winning, serving with a 4-3 lead in the final set. Ivanovic blasted her way courageously out of that corner and won three games in a row for a place in the final. She was much better on the big points than Dinara Safina in the championship match, and came away victorious in straight sets.
At Wimbledon, Serena and Venus Williams made it to the final, their first “Big Four” title round match in five years. I was convinced Serena would win. She had beaten Venus twice before in the finals of Wimbledon. She had stopped her older sister in three other major finals at the French Open and U.S. Opens in 2002 and the Australian Open in 2003. I believed Serena was the better big match player. But I may have underestimated Venus’s propensity for finding the upper level of her game at Wimbledon.
Venus battled back from 2-4 down in the opening set for a 7-5, 6-4 win. Not only was this the fifth time that Venus had won on the lawns at the All England Club, but it was also her third triumph there in the last four years. She has elevated herself to a place among the elite as one of the best grass court players in the history of the game.
That Venus-Serena collision was first class. But their quarterfinal at the U.S. Open was the match of the year in the women’s game, and the best match the two icons have ever played against each other. Under the lights in New York, Serena somehow overcame Venus 7-6(6), 7-6(7). In the first set, Serena saved two set points, and in the second she saved eight! Venus was playing the better brand of aggressive baseline tennis through most of this encounter, but Serena was superior on defense. The willpower of Serena Williams was almost tangible.
Serena did not waste that triumph. In the semifinals, she easily dismissed Safina in straight sets, and in the final she defeated the tenacious Jankovic 6-4, 7-5. Williams saved four set points in the second set on her way back from 3-5, 0-40, and ran out the match with four consecutive games for her third U.S. Open championship, and her ninth major. She has never looked more exhilarated after a big win.
And yet, Serena did not finish the year at No. 1 in the world as she had hoped she would. That honor belonged to Jankovic, who was incredibly consistent all across the year. Her Grand Slam results were good, including semifinal showings in Melbourne and Paris and her first major final round appearance in New York. She worked hard for her achievement, and finished the year strong with three straight tournament wins near the end of the season indoors. But it was a shame none of the major champions did enough elsewhere to secure the year-end No. 1 ranking. I am a big believer that to stand authentically at the top of the tennis mountain and preside at No. 1, you must win at least one Grand Slam tournament.
It was that kind of year for the women. Ivanovic fell into a terrible slump after Roland Garros. Henin was gone. Sharapova was hurt. Serena was inconsistent and at times indifferent. Jankovic was indisputably the best player week in and week out. But it was not a good thing for the women’s game that she was No. 1 without the necessary credentials. The hope here is that she will maintain her consistency in 2009 and also take a major along the way. Under those circumstances, I would applaud loudly if she concluded the season as the top-ranked woman in the world.
The U.S. Open ended a week ago, and I am still trying to digest it all, to put it in perspective in my mind, to write about it with some clarity and vision. To be sure, this was the biggest win in many ways of Roger Federer’s career. He had not won a major in all of 2008, and this was his last chance. He had won only 2 of the 14 events he had played across the season, and those triumphs were in relatively minor events at Estoril on the clay and Halle on the grass. He had not even won a Masters Series event over the course of this year.
On the other hand, Federer had been a consistent force as usual at the majors. He reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in January, and was runner-up to Rafael Nadal at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. At Wimbledon, he struck back boldly and brilliantly from two sets to love down and a 3-3,0-40 predicament in the third set to force the contest into a thrilling fifth set. Federer was two points away from completing an astounding comeback with Nadal serving at 4-5 in the final set. That match could have turned his year around in a hurry, and it would have been a bruising defeat for Nadal, who had lost an agonizing five set, Centre Court showdown with Federer in the 2007 final.
But once Federer lost that battle on the edge of darkness in arguably the greatest match ever played, he went into a severe tailspin. Across the summer, Gilles Simon upset Federer in his opening round assignment at Toronto. Then Ivo Karlovic ousted Federer in a final set tie-break at Cincinnati after the Swiss maestro won only one match there. And finally, James Blake beat Federer in the quarterfinals of the Olympics in Beijing.
That string of defeats clearly made Federer apprehensive as he approached the Open. In all four of his previous winning campaigns--- from 2004-2007--- he had won at least one hard court tournament over the summer leading up to the big event in New York. And in all of those years he had been the sport’s dominant figure. This time around, circumstances were very different. He had no significant tournament wins to his credit during the year, and his No. 1 world ranking had been taken away over the summer by the redoubtable Nadal. For that wide range of reasons, I believed Federer would not capture a fifth consecutive Open championship.
In the third round of the Open, Federer was stretched to five arduous sets by Igor Andreev, the No. 23 seed from Russia who has one of the bigger forehands in the game and a potent first serve to boot. Andreev won the first set and took Federer into a tie-break in the second. Federer served with a 6-3 lead in that tie-break but lost the next two points on his serve. Andreev was back on serve at 5-6, but his forehand passing shot bounded off the net cord and landed wide. Set to Federer, who eventually came through in a nerve-wracking fifth set.
That was the turning point of the tournament. In the semifinals, Federer stopped No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic in four sets and he halted Andy Murray--- the No. 6 seed--- in a straight set, final round contest. Federer clearly rose to this occasion and played his finest tennis of the season in the last two rounds against quality opposition. He thus garnered another historical achievement of the highest order, becoming the first male or female to win two different Grand Slam events five years in a row. He now has 13 majors and stands only one behind the all-time men’s leader Pete Sampras.
For Nadal, the U.S. Open was a disappointing stretch. He had won eight of his previous ten tournaments--- including Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and the Olympics--- as he headed to New York for the last Grand Slam event of 2008, and Nadal was unmistakably exhausted. He had given so much of himself along the way that he simply could not rouse himself one more time. His intensity was sharply diminished throughout the event. Although he made it to his first semifinal at Flushing Meadows, he was never quite himself. Murray--- who had already upended the surging Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarters--- defeated Nadal for the first time in six career meetings. In that four set duel, Murray played some of the best tennis of his life to prevail.
And so Federer was fortunate not to be facing a man who owned a 12-6 career head-to-head edge over him. Moreover, Nadal is 4-0 against Federer in 2008. Plainly, Federer would have liked his chances better on the hard courts at the Open, and the argument can be made that Nadal remains most vulnerable on faster hard courts. But he did not have what he needed to get to the title round, and Federer cannot be blamed for that. Federer has only a remote chance to overtake Nadal for the year-end No. 1 ranking, but his U.S. Open triumph will undoubtedly carry him into 2009 with a much greater sense of inner conviction and stability.
As for the women, Serena Williams was as worthy a winner as she has ever been. She had lost the Wimbledon final to her sister Venus after fully expecting to claim that crown. She had played top notch tennis over the first half of 2008 on the faster surfaces. And this time around in New York, she threw her entire heart and soul into coming away with a third U.S. Open and ninth career Grand Slam tournament crown. As has often been the case in her past championship runs at majors, Serena was a masterful player in clutch situations.
In her quarterfinal confrontation against Venus Williams under the lights, she saved two set points and then in the second Serena saved eight more to record a dramatic 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7) victory. Venus often had the upper hand in this match. Her ground game was more consistently potent, and she dictated more than her share of fiercely contested backcourt exchanges. But Serena won for three primary reasons: her forehand is a more solid stroke, her second serve is superior, and she plays better defense than Venus across the board.
Serena—fueled by that win--- cast aside an error prone Dinara Safina in a straight set semifinal, and then played another hard fought contest against No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic in the final. Jankovic was always under duress in the first set before Serena closed it out 6-4. But in the second set, the Serbian exploited her extraordinary ball control and her incomparable defensive skills to build a significant lead. Serena found herself serving at 3-5, 0-40, triple set point down---but the 26-year-old American was outstanding in a tight corner once more. She did not miss a first serve on any of the three set points, and took control of the points emphatically, never giving Jankovic much of an opening.
Williams held on for 4-5 and reached 0-40 with Jankovic serving in the tenth game. Jankovic--- ever the opportunist--- fought her way back and had a set point. Had she held there, had she made Serena play a third set, had she rewarded herself for all her hard effort--- Jankovic might well have gone on to post a three set victory. But she double faulted long, and Williams broke back for 5-5. The last two games contained some of the highest quality tennis of the match, but Serena was too tough when it counted, completing a run of four straight games for a 6-4, 7-5 win. That triumph took Serena back to No. 1 in the world, a status she last held in August of 2003. That is where she belongs, and the hope here is that she will work exceedingly hard to stay up there and keep collecting big prizes in the years ahead.
Federer and Williams have done it again. Can anyone seriously say they did not deserve their high honors?
After a long and debilitating summer for all of the leading players, after an absorbing season across the board, after so many compelling developments in the world of tennis over the course of this year, the last Grand Slam championship of 2008 is upon us. I am convinced this U.S. Open will be a particularly captivating fortnight, and the reasons for that are numerous. This will be the last chance for Roger Federer to win a major in 2008. Rafael Nadal can make a big impression for the first time in New York, where he has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals on the fast hard courts. Novak Djokovic could move one step beyond his spirited run to the final a year ago and thus capture his second Grand Slam event of the year.
Among the women, the windows of possibility are wide open. Defending champion Justine Henin has retired. 2006 victor Maria Sharapova is unable to compete as a nagging shoulder injury keeps her out of the tournament. Despite meeting in the Wimbledon final, Venus and Serena Williams have been struggling as of late, battling injuries and not faring well across the summer. So forecasting the women’s event is an arduous task.
In the final analysis, I believe Nadal is going to claim his third Grand Slam championship of a sparkling year, and his first in the United States. Among the women, I look for Dinara Safina--- the sister of 2000 U.S. Open champion Marat Safin--- to walk away with the top honor.
Let’s look closely at the men’s and women’s draws.
Nadal opens up against a qualifier. Perhaps his first serious test could be in the round of 16 against either No. 14 seed Ivo Karlovic or No. 22 seed Tomas Berdych. Karlovic owns one of the most explosive serves in tennis. The 6’10” Croatian gave Nadal quite a skirmish at Queen’s Club on the grass in June, pushing the Spaniard into a final set tie-break before bowing. Berdych has an impressive history against Nadal and has beaten the world No. 1 three times on hard courts. But Berdych has been an uneven performer in 2008 and his temperament and match playing acumen remain problem areas. Karlovic would be tough to break on the hard courts. But Nadal will prevail against either Berdych or Karlovic in three or possibly four sets to reach the quarterfinals.
In the last eight, Nadal will probably come up against James Blake in what would certainly be an eagerly anticipated battle under the lights. In 2005, Blake upended Nadal decisively in four sets at the Open. In fact, the big hitting American won his first three clashes against the left-handed Spaniard. But Nadal struck back forcefully to beat Blake in hard fought battles earlier this year at Indian Wells and Miami. Both were best of three set showdowns. Blake took a set each time. But Nadal gradually gained the upper hand with the physicality of his game, and found a way to get to Blake’s weaker backhand wing. That will happen again at the Open in a pulsating encounter. Nadal wins in four tough sets.
Who will come through to meet Nadal in the semifinals? That is not an easy question to answer. David Ferrer could get through to that round. The No. 4 seed ousted Nadal in the round of 16 a year ago at night, and went on to reach the semifinals before losing to Djokovic. But Ferrer has not played well since the clay court season. I don’t think Ferrer will go beyond the round of 16 this year. In that round, he would meet the winner of an expected match between No. 16 seed Gilles Simon and No. 17 Juan Martin Del Potro. Del Potro is having a spectacular summer. He has won four tournaments in a row, including two in a row on hard courts. The 6’6", 19-year-old from Argentina will--- in my view--- beat Simon and then stop Ferrer.
That would put Del Potro in the quarterfinals. Waiting for him there will be No. 6 seed Andy Murray. I see Murray setting up a stirring quarterfinal collision with Del Potro. That could well be one of the finest matches of the tournament between the resourceful and cagey Murray and the surging Del Potro. It has the makings of a tight, suspenseful five set match. In the end, I think Murray will prevail after trailing two sets to one. Murray would then take on Nadal in the semifinals.
Murray has never beaten Nadal, but many of their matches have been ferociously contested. At Toronto in their most recent showdown, Nadal won 7-6, 6-3 but it was much tougher than the score indicates. Murray realizes he needs to take bold risks against his determined adversary. He will go for broke off his forehand, which is Murray’s make or break stroke. He will flatten out his two-handed backhand crosscourt, and try to hurt Nadal with that play. But, in the end, Nadal will have too much staying power, and he will get in a very aggressive mode, thus thwarting Murray by moving inside the baseline to dictate points whenever possible with his superb inside-out forehand.
It will be a great contest, but Nadal will come through with a four set triumph to reach the final. On the opposite half of the draw, Roger Federer, in search of a fifth straight title, has a clear and largely unthreatening path toward a semifinal appointment with Djokovic. Federer could meet his Italian Open conqueror Radek Stepanek in the third round, and he could well drop a set in that contest. In the round of 16, Federer figures to confront No. 13 seed Fernando Verdasco, the left-hander from Spain who has moved to a new level this year.
Verdasco will test Federer, blasting away with his huge left-handed forehand. I envision that match going four sets, but Federer’s aggressive, percentage play and clutch serving will give the Swiss maestro a four set victory. Nikolay Davydenko, who has lost to Federer in the semifinals of the last two U.S. Opens, is seeded fifth, and is expected to reach the penultimate round once more. But Davydenko has not been playing anything like a top five player for the past three months. I can’t see how he will get to the semifinals this time around.
Although Frenchman Richard Gasquet is a wildly unpredictable player and a competitor who seldom does justice to his flowing talent, I believe he will nevertheless have one of his better majors in New York. Gasquet, the No. 12 seed, assuming he accounts for Tommy Haas in the opening round, will topple Davydenko in the round of 16.
That would give Gasquet a chance to meet Federer in the quarterfinals. He once ousted the Swiss in 2005 on clay but has never beaten him since. Gasquet will make this one a gripping clash and will release his share of magnificent one-handed, topspin backhand winners. He will go on some inspired streaks of shot making against his adversary, but Federer will weather the storm. Federer will find himself in a scrape, but he will get through it in five sets for a place in the semifinals.
Djokovic, meanwhile, will have a difficult test in the third round against the rapidly ascending Marin Cilic, the No. 30 seed. Djokovic will use his superior backcourt versatility to win in four sets. In the round of 16, Djokovic could meet either Carlos Moya, Safin or No. 15 seed Tommy Robredo. If Safin is the man who makes it through, Djokovic will be primed to make amends for his straight set loss to Safin at Wimbledon. On the hard courts, Djokovic would have the upper hand against Safin, winning in four sets. If he met Moya or Robredo, Djokovic would be victorious in straight sets.
Who will take on Djokovic in the quarters? Possibly Andy Roddick will be his opponent, but then again it could be No. 11 seed Fernando Gonzalez. Roddick has his work cut out for him if he wants to capture a second U.S. Open, and therefore take his first major since he came through at Flushing Meadows in 2003. In the second round, the 26-year-old American might well play Ernests Gulbis of Latvia. Gulbis was a French Open quarterfinalist, and he took a set off Nadal in a hard fought second round match at Wimbledon.
Gulbis could well have an edge over Roddick in the baseline rallies, keeping the American at bay with his variety and capacity for inventiveness. Roddick, though, will win this match because of his ability to release big first serves when he needs them most. Roddick will win a pair of sets in tie-breaks, and take the match in four sets. Roddick and Gonzalez might have a blockbuster in the round of 16. Roddick will be hard pressed to contain Gonzalez off the forehand, and the Chilean will wallop his share of dazzling winners off that side. But somehow Roddick will win that match in five tumultuous sets.
His hopes would then be high if he confronts Djokovic in the quarterfinals, but a grim-faced, determined, purposeful Djokovic will avenge a loss to Roddick earlier this year by prevailing in straight sets. And with that win, Djokovic will earn the right to meet Federer in a rematch of the 2007 Open final. On that occasion, Djokovic served with a 6-5, 40-0 opening set lead. He squandered five set points in that game, lost the set in a tie-break, and then let two more set points slip from his grasp in the second set. Federer--- cool and confident--- came through to win his 12th major event in straight sets over the Serbian.
As he heads into this U.S. Open, Federer does not seem to have much conviction at all. He has won only 2 of 14 tournaments in 2008. And after rallying gamely from two sets down to come within two points of a five set triumph over Nadal in the final of Wimbledon, Federer has not played commandingly. He lost his opening round match in Canada to Simon despite leading 3-1 with a break point for 4-1 in the final set. He lost for the first time to Ivo Karlovic in Cincinnati. And then Blake beat him for the first time in nine career meetings in the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games.
So how would Federer approach a semifinal assignment against Djokovic at the Open? It will be fascinating to find out. After Djokovic opened the 2008 season by knocking out the defending champion Federer in straight sets on his way to securing the title, they have met only once. In Monte Carlo, Djokovic was down a set and a break when he walked off the court, complaining of dizziness. So a U.S. Open skirmish between the No. 2 and No. 3 ranked players in the world will be very revealing. For Federer to prevail, he would need to lift his first serve percentage up awfully high, somewhere around 73%. For Djokovic to emerge victorious, he would need to out-duel Federer in crosscourt backhand exchanges, and exploit his inside-out forehand at every opportunity.
The outcome of this semifinal contest could come down to a few key points. I could see either one of them winning, but will pick Djokovic in five sets. It could be the match of the tournament.
Having come off such a taxing encounter without a day of rest, Djokovic will return the next day and acquit himself well against Nadal. It will be one of their typically high quality battles, much like the semifinal they staged at the Olympic Games which Nadal won 6-4, 1-6, 6-4. In the Open final, Nadal will win the opening set, Djokovic will retaliate by taking the second, and the third set will be critical. Nadal will take that set in a tie-break, and the come through 6-4 in the fourth set.
The top half of the draw is where the most intriguing developments will take place. No. 4 seed Serena Williams is seemingly on a collision course for a quarterfinal against her sister Venus, the No. 7 seed. Venus could be in for a difficult time in the round of 16 against No. 9 seed Agnieszka Radwanska. Radwanska toppled defending champion Sharapova at the 2007 Open, and has progressed ever since. She has a reasonably good chance to beat Venus. If Venus does not serve exceptionally well and earn her share of free points, if her explosive yet often vulnerable forehand does not hold up, she could well lose this match. But I pick her to topple Radwanska in three sets.
Serena, too, will have her work cut out for her before she can even think about a potential clash with Venus. In the round of 16, she could confront No. 20 seed Nicole Vaidisova or the perspicacious Agnes Szavay of Hungary, the No. 13 seed. Serena will not defeat either of those players with ease, but she will find a way to win.
Serena fully expected to beat Venus in the Wimbledon final. She led 4-2 in the first set but was beaten convincingly in straight sets as Venus handled the capricious Wimbledon winds better than she did. This time around, they will go three sets before Serena turns the tables on Venus, winning and thus advancing to the semifinals. Top seeded Ana Ivanovic, the French Open champion and Australian Open finalist, should make it to an expected quarterfinal meeting with No. 6 seed Safina.
Ivanovic is a big occasion player who loves the premier stages, but Safina will use her superior defensive skills to win in straight sets. And so Safina would then meet Serena in an enticing semifinal. Serena will dictate sporadically with her assertive, attacking style. She will come forward more, look for openings to hit winners, try to find ways to shorten points with timely bursts of power. But Safina will stand up to the barrage capably, and come from behind to beat the two-time former Open champion in three high quality sets.
Meanwhile, No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic will be looking to reach her first “Big Four” final, and she is much better off being on the bottom half of the draw. Jankovic will be tested comprehensively by No. 14 seed Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round. Jankovic will need to reach back with her considerable resources to beat a gifted player, but she will do just that. Jankovic will come through in three sets. She will play No. 8 seed Vera Zvonareva in the quarters, and that could be another tough match. Jankovic will win that one in two close sets to reach the semifinals.
In the semifinals, Jankovic will find herself standing across the net from Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva, the 2004 U.S. Open finalist. They will test each other to the hilt from the baseline in one bruising rally after another. Dementieva will often control those exchanges with her slightly greater weight of shot and superior depth. But Jankovic will recover from a set down to win in three sets. That will enable her to play a major final at last, and she will be determined to make the most of it.
Safina, however, will be primed for the contest. She will win the U.S. Open Championship with a three set triumph over the No. 2 seed. Safina has been the best woman player since the clay court season commenced in April, so it will be a fitting conclusion to the Grand Slam season for the Russian to claim her first major title.
It has been almost three weeks since Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer battled so gallantly and unwaveringly in the final of Wimbledon. They played a match that must rank right up there with the best of all time. At the end of 1999, I wrote a book entitled, “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century”. My top five men’s matches were as follows: 1) Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon final; 2)Don Budge-Baron Gottfried von Cramm Davis Cup 1937; 3) Ken Rosewall-Rod Laver, WCT Finals, Dallas, 1972; 4) Pancho Gonzalez-Charlie Pasarell, Wimbledon, 1969; 5) Henri Cochet-Bill Tilden, Wimbledon, 1927.
Assessing the best matches ever nearly ten years later, I would place Nadal-Federer in a virtual tie with the epic Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon title round match. The Borg-McEnroe skirmish turned into a masterpiece between a baseliner who adapted his game admirably for the grass, and a singularly gifted serve-and-volleyer who exhibited supreme touch on the volley. That match took a while to warm up into something larger. McEnroe swarmed all over Borg at the outset and took the first set 6-1. Borg fought back sedulously to win the second 7-5, and then took the third relatively comfortably at 6-3.
When Borg served for the match at 5-4 in the fourth set, he led 40-15, double match point. Somehow, McEnroe escaped and broke back. They moved on to a tie-break, and McEnroe saved five more match points in that unimaginable sequence. Borg saved six set points. The tennis was the best by far that the match produced. McEnroe took that tie-break 18-16 to force a fifth set. Borg conceded later how much despondency he felt as he served in the opening game of that final set. He went down 0-30, but with typical composure and resilience, Borg served his way out of it.
From that juncture on, Borg put on the serving display of his career, winning 28 of 29 points on his delivery across the fifth set. But McEnroe’s fighting spirit kept him in the contest. The great left-hander held from 0-40 in the second game of the fifth set. He held on again from 0-40 at 3-4. But with his back to the wall once more at 6-7, Borg would not allow the American to escape. With a vintage two-handed backhand pass crosscourt, Borg prevailed 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7, 8-6.
That match will be cherished for the almost magical tie-break. And there was some very high quality stuff played the rest of the way, particularly in the third and fifth sets. But Nadal and Federer waged five sets that always hung in the balance. On paper, the first two sets make it seem as if Nadal was in comfortable control. He took both sets 6-4. But neither was easy by any means. Nadal had to fend off a break point at 5-4 in the first set as he served it out. And he had to battle from 1-4 down in the second, winning five games in a row for a two set to love lead.
Those were two extraordinary sets, but the standard of play would only be elevated over the last three sets. Federer was down 0-40 at 3-3 in the third set. Had he been broken there, the match might well have ended in a straight set verdict for the Spaniard. But the Swiss maestro coolly worked his way out of that corner. The players had to leave the court for a rain delay with Nadal ready to serve at 4-5. When they returned, they played a tie-break to settle that set, and Federer was irresistibly good, serving four aces, not giving up a single point on his delivery. Federer took that playoff seven points to five.
In the fourth set, Nadal regained the initiative in many ways and held on throughout the set with greater ease than Federer. In six service games, Nadal conceded only six points. And then he seemingly had the match well within his reach. He was serving with a 5-2 lead, poised to capture the championship he values above all others. But at 5-2, he double faulted off the net cord. He followed with a tentative point, as Federer forced him into an errant backhand. Nadal should have--- at the very least--- reached triple match point after serving those two points. Instead, an opportunistic and determined Federer was back in the tie-break.
Federer served his way to a 6-5 lead, reaching set point on Nadal’s serve. But the Spaniard took two points in a row to reach match point for the first time. Federer sent out a brilliant wide serve to Nadal’s forehand in the advantage court, and the No. 2 seed barely made contact with the ball. It was 7-7. Nadal then raced swiftly to his left for an astonishing forehand passing shot winner down the line. He was at match point for the second time, this one on his own serve.
He sliced his first serve out wide to the Federer backhand, and the Swiss chipped a return short near the service line. Nadal was too cautious, rolling his forehand approach crosscourt and closing in, figuring the pressure was on his adversary to come up with a brilliant backhand passing shot. Federer did just that, lacing his backhand down the line for a clean winner. It was 8-8. Federer had saved two match points. Two points later, he wrapped up the set, and was back to two sets all.
At 2-2 in the fifth set and Federer serving at deuce, a second rain delay occurred. I wondered later how Nadal must have felt as he walked back to the locker room. Surely, he must have been asking himself how the match could still be going on, and wondering why it was not over. It must have been awfully hard for him, while Federer was clearly growing more optimistic. They returned and proceeded to play some astounding tennis under the circumstances. The light was fading rapidly. The pressure was intense on both sides of the net. One of these two great men was going to record a singularly exhilarating victory, but the other was on his way to a heartbreaking setback.
At 3-4 in the fifth set, Nadal was break point down on his serve. Had he lost that point, Federer would have been serving for the match. But Nadal crowded Federer with a stinging first serve into the body on the forehand side. Federer’s return was relatively weak, and Nadal crunched an inside-out forehand that Federer could only scrape back. Nadal moved in quickly to put away a bounce smash. He held on for 4-4. At 4-5, Nadal served at 30-30, two points away from defeat. He got his first serve in, came in on Federer’s backhand, and forced the five-time defending champion to slice a lob long off the backhand.
It was soon 5-5, and Federer found himself 15-40 down . He released an ace on the first break point, attacked on the second to force a mishit pass from Nadal, and held on for 6-5. At 6-6, Federer was in the danger zone again, behind 0-30. He cracked an ace down the T, and eventually held on for 7-6.
That meant that Nadal was serving to save the match for the third time in the 14th game. He did not blink. He did not flinch. He refused to surrender. At 6-7,40-30, Nadal tried to put away a smash. He struck the overhead with all his might, but Federer displayed extraordinary touch, slicing a lob off the backhand down the line, lofting the ball into the corner. Nadal had to chase it down, driving his forehand deep to the Federer backhand. Federer tried to steer his shot to Nadal’s backhand, but the Spaniard ran around it and whipped a forehand inside out for a winner. He was euphoric. It was 7-7.
Once more, Federer drifted into a burdensome position. Serving at 7-7,15-40, he came up with yet another clutch play. He delivered his 25th and final ace of the contest to save that break point, then forced Nadal into a backhand passing shot mistake. Federer then saved a third break point with a brilliant service winner. But, down break point for the fourth time in this critical game, Federer drove a forehand approach down the middle but long. At long last, for the first time since late in the second set, Nadal had broken Federer.
Serving for the match with the sky dramatically dark, Nadal went to match point for the third time, only to have Federer pull off yet another spectacular play under pressure. Nadal hit a good wide slice serve to the backhand, the same serve that had worked so well throughout the battle. But Federer got over the top of the ball quickly and surely, driving his backhand crosscourt and almost out of reach. Nadal had no chance. At deuce, Nadal caught Federer off guard with an excellent first serve deep and wide to the forehand. Federer missed, and not narrowly.
It was 9:16 in the evening. Nadal was at match point for the fourth time. Federer got a midcourt ball on his forehand and tried to drive it crosscourt. His shot landed in the net. The record breaking four hour, 48 minute men’s final was over. Nadal had won 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7. For the first time since Borg had done it in 1980, a man had won the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.
Remarkably, Nadal had lost his serve only once in five long sets. He had fought off 12 of 13 break points Federer had against him. He had tenaciously stood his ground after Federer had willfully worked his way back into the match. Nadal had prevented Federer from becoming the first modern man to win at the All England Club six years in a row. And he had achieved his win in a match which historians will always hold in the highest regard.
Borg and McEnroe provided a better contrast in styles, with McEnroe attacking at every opportunity and pitting his superior skill at the net against Borg’s outstanding baseline skills, with Borg making certain to get in behind his first serve skillfully, forcing McEnroe into countless errors on backhand returns and passing shots. That was a match I thought I would never see surpassed. Now I am not so sure.
I have to say,though, that I don’t hesitate to put Nadal-Federer above Budge-Von Cramm, Laver-Rosewall and Pasarell-Gonzalez. Laver and Rosewall were all time great players who had waged one of the longest rivalries on record first in the wilderness of professional tennis and then on into the “Open Era”. But they were past their primes when they met in Dallas--- especially Laver. Budge, believed by authorities in his day to be the greatest player of that era, always recalled his duel with Von Cramm as his greatest. Budge came from two sets down and 1-4 in the fifth set to win. But it was not a Challenge Round Davis Cup contest and Von Cramm was not Fred Perry or Jack Kramer. And Gonzalez’s win over Pasarell (22-24,1-6, 16-14,6-3,11-9) was a first round match. It was a phenomenal victory for the 41-year-old former world champion, but Pasarell was not an all time great.
Here at Wimbledon in 2008 were the two best players in the world, at the peak of their powers, meeting for the third consecutive year in the final of the world’s premier tennis tournament. Furthermore, Nadal had toppled Federer in the 2006-2008 French Open finals. So the situation was unprecedented. These two men were meeting for the sixth time in a three year stretch in a major final. And all through the afternoon, through the rain delays, through the shifts in momentum, across the long hours, they pushed themselves to their absolute limits. The outcome was in doubt until Federer’s last forehand found the net.
I still have not completely made up my mind whether or not Nadal-Federer 2008 tops Borg-McEnroe 1980. But I do know this: I don’t expect to see a better tennis match in my lifetime.
I have a feeling this Wimbledon is going to be the best we have had in a very long time. Among the men, there are three chief candidates who could walk away with the top honor, and a fourth who has a serious chance to take the title. Clearly, the “Big Three” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are all primed for the occasion. Nadal has won five of his last six tournaments, sweeping through the field on the clay at Roland Garros and then stepping out onto the grass at Queen’s Club to win the tournament in London. He must like his chances.
But Federer has won 59 matches in a row on grass, and is in pursuit of a modern record of six championships in a row at the All England Club. He is a deeply prideful man who will want to reassert his supremacy after losing straight set matches to Djokovic in the semifinals of the Australian and to Nadal in Paris.
Djokovic now approaches every tournament he enters believing he can and probably should win it. He has been a semifinalist or better in every major since Roland Garros in 2007. And the fourth man who must be mentioned as a potential champion is Andy Roddick, the runner-up to Federer in 2003 and 2004. Roddick has beaten Federer, Nadal and Djokovic this season, and he is always a big threat on the lawns.
Let’s look at the draw. Federer will open against Dominik Hrbaty, a 30-year-old who is currently ranked No. 272 in the world. He is past his prime. Hrbaty has a 2-0 record against Federer (including a win over the Swiss in 2004 at Cincinnati), but this time around he will not worry Federer that much and the Swiss will prevail in straight sets. Federer should face the streaky yet dangerous Robin Soderling, the big hitting Swede, in the second round, and might well lose a set in that contest. But Soderling will not have the consistency on serve or off the ground to threaten Federer too long. The world No. 1 could well take on Gael Monfils in the third round, Monfils pushed Federer hard in a four set contest at Roland Garros in the semifinals, but his court positioning will be a problem if they meet on the grass. Federer in straight sets.
In the round of 16, Federer figures to play either Lleyton Hewitt or Fernando Gonzalez. He will handle either of them in three or possibly four sets, and that would take him into a quarterfinal with either Tomas Berdych or David Ferrer. Berdych would pose a larger threat, but Federer would be more than ready by then to handle the assignment. He will inevitably march into the semifinals in a confident frame of mind.
Waiting for him there will be Djokovic, who has been talking big coming into the tournament. Djokovic could meet Marat Safin in the second round but this year has been distressing for the two-time former Grand Slam tournament champion. Djokovic would win that battle in four sets. In the round of 16, he should confront the vastly improved Stanislas Wawrinka, the No. 13 seed. They met in the final of the Italian Open on clay, with Djokovic battling from behind to win in three sets. Djokovic could have some problems with Wawrinka again, but he would prevail in four sets.
In the quarterfinals, a number of men could take on Djokovic. The game’s most daunting server, Ivo Karlovic, should play 2006 Wimbledon semifinalist Marcos Baghdatis. I give that one to Karlovic in five sets. Meanwhile, No. 7 seed David Nalbandian should play the left-handed serve-and-volleyer Feliciano Lopez in the third round. Nalbandian--- always enigmatic--- would probably get through that one in four difficult sets, and would then meet Karlovic in the round of 16. Probably against my better judgment, I will pick Nalbandian to stop Karlovic in four sets, which would give him the right to face Djokovic in the quarters. When they met in the semifinals at Queen’s, Djokovic granted Nalbandian one game in two sets. This time, it would be more competitive but Djokovic would still be victorious in straight sets.
That would give us the semifinal everyone wants to see: Djokovic vs. Federer. They have met only once since Djokovic upset Federer in the semifinals of the Australian Open--that was on the clay in Monte Carlo. After losing the first set and trailing by a service break in the second, Djokovic retired, claiming dizziness as his reason for quitting. This time, the two great players would stage a fantastic match. I would not expect many service breaks as two of the best in the business protect their deliveries stubbornly. I would look for at least two tie-breaks and possibly more. In the end, Federer’s capacity to come forward and volley with finality will make the slim difference in the outcome. Djokovic will counter with some stupendous backhand passing shots, and some impressive attacking as his own. But Federer will win 6-7, 7-5, 7-6, 5-7, 6-4 in a five set contest of the highest order.
Nadal may have a few anxious moments in the early rounds, but he will be ready. Ernest Gulbis, so admirable in reaching the French Open quarterfinals, could take on Nadal in the second round, but Nadal would get through that one in three or possibly four sets. In the round of 16, the No. 16 seed Radek Stepanek could well meet Nadal. His attacking tactics will keep the Spaniard off balance sporadically, but Nadal would advance in four sets for a place in the quarterfinals. I have a hard time guessing who will face Nadal in that round.
The No. 8 seed Richard Gasquet has a first round duel with the big serving Mardy Fish in the first round. That one has upset written all over it. Fish is comfortable and confident on the grass. He will have to shake off the effects of some sparkling backhand passing shots from the flamboyant Frenchman, but I see Fish winning that match in four sets, and moving on to a fourth round meeting with No. 12 seed Andy Murray. That would be a beauty, with Murray mixing things up off the ground and returning skillfully. Murray beats Fish in five sets, but can’t cope with the physicality of Nadal. He will make it reasonably close, but Nadal comes through in four.
I expect Roddick to be the man Nadal confronts in the semifinals. Roddick should square off against Davis Cup teammate James Blake in the round of 16. Roddick will serve to well on that court and defeat Blake in four sets. In the quarters, the seedings tell us the American will play No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko. But Davydenko has been less than stellar as of late. My guess is that Roddick will play either Paul-Henri Mathieu or Ivan Ljubicic in the quarters. Either way, Roddick moves through with a four set win.
Roddick was not at his best when he played a top of the line and commanding Nadal in the semifinals at Queen’s, and Nadal took that one 7-5, 6-4. I envision Roddick playing to a higher level at Wimbledon, and making more of a go of it. But, in the end, Nadal’s left-handed slice serve in the advantage court and his persistent returning and passing will give Roddick fits. Nadal in four sets.
So the stage would be set for a third consecutive Nadal-Federer final. Two years ago, Federer was too good, winning 6-0, 7-6, 6-7, 6-3. Nadal served for the second set and had a 3-1 lead in the second set tie-break but did not exploit those crucial openings. Federer was just too good on the grass. Last year, Federer stopped Nadal 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2 in a classic showdown. Nadal lost his opening service game of the match and was not broken again until the middle of the fifth set. Federer saved himself with two clutch tie-break performances, and then held on gamely from 15-40 at 1-1 and 2-2 in the fifth set. Had Nadal converted in either of those critical situations, he probably would have been the champion. Federer served remarkably well down the stretch.
This year, Nadal will believe more fully in himself. He is playing at a considerably higher level. Federer will compete with quiet fury and will do everything in his power to retain his crown. But I think Nadal’s 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 triumph over Federer in the French Open final will have carry over implications. That was on clay and this one will be on grass, but Nadal will still be terribly difficult for Federer to contain. Nadal will become the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to rule at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in the same year, winning 7-6(4),7-5, 4-6, 6-4 in first rate final.
And what of the women? Top seeded Ana Ivanovic, fresh from winning her first major at the French Open, will be eager to establish her authority on the grass as well. Ivanovic should advance with relative ease through the top quarter of the draw. She is due to meet Anna Chakvetadze--- the No. 8 seed--- in the quarters, but might end up facing No. 12 seed Patty Schnyder. I see Ivanovic moving on comfortably into the semifinals, but that will be the end of her journey. Serena Williams--- the two-time former Wimbledon champion--- has an excellent draw. I believe Serena--- the No. 6 seed-- will have a stern test with No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova in the last eight, but will win 7-5,7-6(4).
Then Williams would play Ivanovic in the semifinals. Off the ground, Ivanovic will hold her own with Serena in some fiercely contested rallies. But Serena’s serve will pull her through in three sets for a place in the final.
On the bottom half of the draw, look for No. 2 seed Jelena Jankovic to have a quarterfinal clash with No. 7 seed Venus Williams, the defending champion. They never fail to provide us with a fascinating contrast in styles, and Venus would come at Jankovic full force. Jankovic will answer by displaying her superb ball control and strategic acumen. It will go down to the wire, much like their U.S. Open quarterfinal last year. Venus won that one in a final set tie-break. This time around, Jankovic will come through in a similarly close contest.
Maria Sharapova and Elena Dementieva could well be on a collision course, likely to run into each other in the quarterfinals. The No. 3 seed Sharapova--- who started the year in such style by winning the Australian Open--- will be eager to capture a second Wimbledon title and happy to be back on the grass. Sharapova will defeat Dementieva in straight sets, setting up a semifinal appointment with Jankovic. Jankovic will give that match her all, but Sharapova will serve her off the court in the end and win in straight sets.
So that would give us a Sharapova-Serena Williams final. I have little doubt about the outcome of that match. Serena will return more persuasively. She will exploit her superior mobility. She will serve better than Sharapova, which is no mean feat. Serena Williams will a ninth Grand Slam tournament title, overcoming Sharapova 6-4, 7-5 in a well played final.
That is how I see it. Rafael Nadal takes the men’s crown. Serena Williams is the women’s champion. And all of us witness a tournament we will not soon forget.
I have had a week to digest the final of Roland Garros, and still it boggles my mind. Rafael Nadal’s 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 triumph over Roger Federer was stupendous in many ways. He made 11 unforced errors in those three nearly impeccable sets. In 11 Federer service games, Nadal broke his adversary 8 times. In two of the three games Federer managed to hold serve, the world No. 1 had to recover from match point down. And yet, Federer did not serve badly by any means; he made good on 68% of his first deliveries.
The bottom line is that Federer suffered the single most decisive loss of his entire career at the Grand Slam events. In 173 matches over a span of 10 years, Federer had never had anyone beat him that soundly. Moreover, he had not lost a 6-0 set since 1999. The remarkable thing was that Federer was such a discouraged figure in the end. After dropping those first two sets--- and making a concerted effort to get back into the second set as he recovered from 2-0 down to reach 3-3---- it was apparent from the early stages of the third set that the 26-year-old Swiss was almost devoid of hope. Since 2003--- when he won his first major at Wimbledon--- I have never seen Federer in such a state of despondency.
He did not give up and he stayed on the job as best he could, but his mannerisms told the whole story. He knew Nadal was not going to take his foot off the accelerator and he seemed almost fatalistic about the outcome. Nadal was simply playing clay court tennis of the highest order, and his level of play was decidedly higher than anything he had produced in his three previous winning campaigns at Roland Garros. I do not make that assessment lightly. Nadal did, after all, perform exceedingly well at Roland Garros from 2005-2007. But never in that stretch did he set the tempo from the baseline with such unrelenting aggression.
Nadal became the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to rule at Roland Garros without losing a set across the fortnight. That is no mean feat. Not only did he dismantle Federer in the final round, but he had to beat Novak Djokovic in the semifinals. Djokovic had raised his clay court game to a much higher level this year than in the past, winning the Italian Open, playing a superb match against Nadal in the semifinals of Hamburg. But he was taken apart at Roland Garros by his Spanish adversary 6-4, 6-2, 7-6 (3) as the clay court master dictated for large stretches of the contest.
Djokovic somehow worked his way back into the third set from 3-0 and two service breaks down. He began going for the lines fearlessly and his return of serve was hit consistently with extraordinary depth. Nadal led 5-3 and served for the match at 5-4 in the third, but Djokovic steadfastly went after that set, and nearly found a way to take it. With Nadal serving at 5-6, Djokovic had a set point that Nadal wiped away with a sharply angled forehand winner crosscourt. In the tie-break, playing with the wind at his back, Nadal collected the first six points and held on from there to finish it off.
All credit must go to Nadal for knocking out Djokovic and Federer back to back without conceding a set. He has now secured four titles in a row at the French Open, a feat previously realized only by Borg. Nadal is only 22. He should have five more good opportunities to win the three titles he would need to break Borg’s men’s record of six championships. I like his chances.
As for the women in Paris, Ana Ivanovic--- the No. 2 seed--- was a worthy champion. She did a nice job in the final of fending off Dinara Safina. Safina had upended No. 1 seed Maria Sharapova, No. 7 Elena Dementieva and No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova. She was on quite a run. Against both Sharapova and Dementieva, Safina had rallied gamely from a set and 5-2 down to win in three set skirmishes. She recovered from match point down in both contests, and then handled 2006 finalist Kuznetsova in straight sets. But Ivanovic was too good on defense against Safina. When they went toe to toe and both women were hitting the ball big off both sides, Safina almost held her own. But she was not as flexible as Ivanovic, and in the end that made all the difference.
Ivanovic--- who won a stirring three set contest from her Serbian countrywoman Jelena Jankovic in the penultimate round--- can be proud of that effort. After leading by a set and 3-1, Ivanovic fell behind 3-1 in the final set, and lost her serve to trail 4-3 as well. But she came through deservedly for a 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory that was probably more gratifying in its way than the win in the final. I have a feeling Ivanovic will win her share of big prizes in the years ahead. She has a great match playing temperament, a top of the line ground game, a match playing maturity that is impressive, and an immense will to win. This woman is surely going places, and she is only 20.
I believe Rafael Nadal is going to win his fourth French Open in a row at Roland Garros this year. The indefatigable Spaniard has never lost a match at the world’s premier event. He has won three of the four clay court events he played on his way to Paris, including Masters Series crowns in Monte Carlo and Hamburg. He beat Roger Federer in the finals of both Monte Carlo and Hamburg, and held back Novak Djokovic in the penultimate round at Hamburg. He is primed to take this title again. Among the women, the surprise retirement of Justine Henin makes this tournament difficult to forecast. But I believe that 2002 champion Serena Williams will win this event again on the slow red clay.
Let’s look at the draws. The key question was always this: would Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic end up on Nadal’s or Federer’s half of the draw? The answer was good news for the world’s top ranked player. Djokovic is in the same half with Nadal, so they figure to meet for the second year in a row in the semifinal round. Federer has an essentially kind draw. He opens against Sam Querrey, the big server from California. On the Centre Court of Wimbledon or in Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open, Querrey could give Federer some problems on a given day. But I don’t see him being able to stay with Federer in the rallies at Roland Garros, and he won’t do enough damage with his serve. Federer will win in straight sets.
Federer might have to deal with Mario Ancic in the third round. Ancic, of course, is the last man to beat Federer at Wimbledon. He stopped Federer in 2002 on the grass. But if they meet on the clay, Federer has a distinct advantage and would prevail in four sets. Juan Monaco or Ivo Karlovic are potential fourth round opponents for Federer. Monaco would be the tougher of the two and could make him work harder. Karlovic would push the world No. 1 into a tie-break or two. But, either way, Federer would advance in straight sets.
In the quarters, Federer might come up against his Davis Cup teammate Stanislas Wawrinka, but three other loom in that section: 2007 Australian Open finalist Fernando Gonzalez, Igor Andreev, and No. 8 seed Richard Gasquet. I can’t see Gasquet getting that far. He has played abysmally as of late. Perhaps the French crowd could spur him on, but he would need to win four matches to earn the right to meet Federer. That is unlikely. Federer will probably play Gonzalez in the quarters, and that would be a legitimate clay court test. But Federer would get through it in four sets, setting up a semifinal meeting with Nikolay Davydenko (the No. 4 seed), Radek Stepanek (who just beat the Swiss maestro in Rome), or David Ferrer (the No. 5 seed from Spain).
If he takes on Davydenko, Federer wins in four sets. If he is up against Ferrer, Federer advances in straight sets. And if he has a chance to avenge his loss to Stepanek, he will do so in four sets. So I see Federer making the final without being stretched to his limits.
On the bottom half, Nadal should comfortably make his way through the first three rounds. His fourth round opponent should be either Mikhail Youzhny or countryman Fernando Verdasco. He could drop a set to either man, but no more. In the quarterfinals, the seedings tell us Nadal should take on No. 6 seed David Nalbandian. If that were the case, Nadal could have a relatively tough match on his hands against a man who beat him twice decisively last fall indoors. But I don’t see Nalbandian living up to expectations. I see Spaniard Nicolas Almagro--- the No. 19 seed--- defeating No. 10 Andy Murray in the third round and blazing along to a last eight meeting with Nadal. He would keep Nadal out there for quite a while, and really push him hard. But Nadal would prevail in four sets.
Then we would have the mouth-watering prospect of Nadal versus Djokovic in the semifinals. In my view, Djokovic will move comfortably through his section of the draw. The left-handed Denis Gremelmayr will be his first round opponent. Gremelmayr played well in Estoril (taking a set off Federer in the semifinals) and in Barcelona, where he also reached the penultimate round. But Djokovic has the solid foundation from the baseline to handle the German. He might play former champion Carlos Moya in the round of 16 and could take on either James Blake or Janko Tipsarevic in the quarters. If he faces Blake, Djokovic could be tested and might lose a set, but ultimately he would prevail.
The last Nadal-Djokovic clash was stupendously played by both men in Hamburg. Nadal won 7-5, 2-6, 6-2 but Djokovic led 3-0,15-40 in the opening set, which was the key to the outcome. If he can replicate that level this time around in Paris, it would be a riveting match. In the final analysis, though, I see Nadal coming through in four sets. He has the clear edge in a best of five set match. It was challenging enough for Djokovic to stay with Nadal for three hours on a best of three set skirmish in Hamburg; in a best of five showdown at Roland Garros, Djokovic would probably have to blitz the Spaniard in straight sets. I think that will beyond his capabilities.
So then Nadal would confront Federer for the fourth year in a row at Roland Garros. In 2005, Nadal toppled Federer in a four set semifinal. In 2006 and 2007, he stopped Federer in four set finals. And now he has defeated the Swiss in eight of nine career clay court head-to-head battles. This time around, I envision Nadal winning yet another four set clash over his rival. Nadal is the best clay court player in the world. There were stretches in both Monte Carlo and Hamburg when Federer briefly controlled the tempo of those contests and held the upper hand by shortening the exchanges from the back of the court, and charging forward to end points commandingly at the net.
In Monte Carlo, Federer lost 7-5, 7-5, but was serving for a 5-3 first set lead and was ahead 4-0 in the second. In Hamburg, Federer was serving at 5-1 with a set point before Nadal won seven games in a row. Then Federer led 5-2 in the second set. Nadal rallied to 5-5 and had Federer down 0-40 in the eleventh game before Federer admirably served his way out of a daunting corner. Federer managed to win that set in a tie-break, but Nadal was clearly the better player in the third set, winning 7-5, 6-7 (3), 6-3. Federer said later that he felt fine physically throughout that contest, but he looked ragged at times in the final set from the baseline.
In any event, it is awfully difficult for Federer to dictate for long stretches against the indomitable Nadal. Nadal eventually starts dominating with his astonishing forehand, pounding away at Federer’s backhand, opening up opportunities to use his inside-out forehand as the finishing shot. When Nadal is controlling play in that fashion, Federer is decidedly at bay. So I am looking for another Nadal four set win in the final this year, with Federer winning the second set.
Maria Sharapova is the top seeded woman. She could have a mighty struggle on her hands in the round of 16 against Dinara Safina. Safina recently won Berlin, defeating Henin and Serena Williams in that event. She upended Sharapova in the round of 16 at Roland Garros in 2006. Sharapova will need to be at her best to avoid another loss to her countrywoman. I believe she will scrape through in three sets. In the quarters, Sharapova would conceivably take on Elena Dementieva. Dementieva has a win over Sharapova this year. She would be confident about her chances on the clay. But, in the crunch, I like Sharapova’s chances. Sharapova wins in three sets.
In the semifinals, Sharapova could meet Svetlana Kuznetsova, the No. 4 seed and the runner-up to Henin at Roland Garros two years ago. That would be a fascinating battle of wills and skills. Kuznetsova would not be daunted by the prospect of playing Sharapova in a major semifinal. If this was a final, I would go with Sharapova. But since it is a semifinal, and because I expect Sharapova to be drained by this stage after some tough tests along the way, I pick Kuznetsova to reach the final.
On the opposite half, No. 5 seed Serena Williams and No. 2 Ana Ivanovic figure to meet in a stirring quarterfinal. All in all, Serena has enjoyed a terrific season in 2008. Clay may well be her least favorite surface--- as is the case with Sharapova--- but Serena has a big psychological edge over Ivanovic, who has not played well as of late. Serena will win in straight sets to reach the penultimate round.
Meanwhile, No. 8 seed Venus Williams, who has never won the French Open, could well meet Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals. This is one of the most appealing match-ups in the women’s game. They have played their share of top notch contests against each other. At the U.S. Open last year, Venus won a stirring encounter in a third set tie-break over Jankovic in the quarterfinals. At Roland Garros a year ago, Jankovic beat Venus in a three set, third round appointment. This year, Jankovic should have the edge on the clay again. I believe she will prevail in another three set showdown.
At the Australian Open this year, a sub-par Serena was ushered out of the tournament by a composed and purposeful Jankovic. Serena retaliated with a victory over Jankovic in the final of Miami. Serena became strangely apprehensive in that contest after building a 6-1, 5-3 lead, limping home in three sets. She nearly beat herself that day by imploding with nerves. At Roland Garros, I expect her to be calmer and just as resolute. Serena should hold off Jankovic in a well played, three set encounter.
That would put Serena Williams up against Svetlana Kuznetsova in the championship match. Kuznetsova is fully capable of beating Williams at certain times in certain places. But this will not be the time or the place for the Russian to succeed. Kuznetsova did win the U.S. Open in 2004, but has lost two major finals since. She is not a very good big occasion player. Serena has won eight of ten major finals. Only Venus Williams (at the 2001 U.S. Open), and Sharapova (at the 2004 Wimbledon), have beaten Serena in major finals. She will come out firing from the outset of this final. Kuznetsova will try to fend her off, but to no avail. In the end, Serena Williams wins her ninth Grand Slam championship with a straight set triumph.
And yet, there was more work to be done. She beat both Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic--- the two great Serbians--- back to back for the crown, winning both matches in straight sets. In the final, Sharapova wasted a 4-2 lead on a stifling day in the sunshine. She then served at 4-5, 0-30, two points away from dropping that first set. Sharapova remained entirely composed, took that set on a run of three straight games, and came through 7-5, 6-3. Now the only major to elude her is the French Open. The jury is still out on whether or not Sharapova will win that clay court event some day. Clay is her weakest surface, although she was a surprise semifinalist at Roland Garros last year. But whether or not she does eventually get the job done in Paris, Sharapova will undoubtedly win at least two more majors in her career, and maybe more. I expect her to wage a credible campaign to unseat Henin at No. 1 in the world this year, although she will probably fall short of that goal. Henin is so reliable and so utterly professional that it is hard to imagine her not having another banner year in 2008. But Sharapova will win another big prize this year--- at least as I see it. She will have a good chance to prevail either at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.A year ago, Sharapova was troubled by a serious shoulder injury. She was beaten 6-1, 6-2 by Serena Williams in the Australian Open final of 2007, and it was apparent that she could not serve at full strength. The problem resurfaced at different stages last year. But now she seems to have put that problem behind her. I have no doubt that this will be the best year yet for Maria Sharapova.
The 2008 Australian Open was a great tournament from beginning to end. There were some gripping clashes from the outset. The tennis was first class as the players produced high level stuff all through the fortnight on the new Plexicushion courts. All in all, we could hardly have asked for more from the first major of the new season.
Let’s look at what happened and break it down.
I felt all along that this Australian Open would set the tone for Roger Federer in 2008. Had he won the tournament for the fourth time in five years--- as was his clear goal--- he would have been well positioned to celebrate another fantastic year. In 2004, he used his first Australian Open triumph as a springboard to a stellar campaign, and went on to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open later in that season. In 2006, he secured another Australian Open crown and was in every Grand Slam tournament final, collecting three more major singles titles for the year. And in 2007, he glided through the Australian Open without the loss of a set, posting Wimbledon and U.S. Open victories again later in the year, reaching every major final again.
In each of those three cases--- 2004, 2006, and 2007--- Federer set himself up beautifully by coming through the field “Down Under” at the Australian Open. He took the pressure off for the rest of those years by getting on the Grand Slam board the first chance he had. In 2005, he lost an epic encounter with Marat Safin in five tumultuous sets, then was beaten in the semifinals of the French Open by Rafael Nadal, but recouped admirably to capture the Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles. And yet, by his recent standards, that was not the best of years; Federer, after all, had to settle for a mere two Grand Slam championships!
Be that as it may, what is the significance of his semifinal defeat against Novak Djokovic this year in Melbourne? It may be too early to read the tea leaves on this one, but I will try to put the loss in perspective. Federer had the misfortune to get a stomach virus the week before the tournament, which hindered his preparation. It was not the ideal way to go into a major. But the fact remains that he swept through his first two matches in straight sets before surviving 10-8 in the fifth set against Janko Tipsarevic. After that, he defeated Tomas Berdych and James Blake in straight sets. So the evidence suggested that Federer--- all things considered---was in pretty good shape, and had put his health woes behind him.
He had reached ten consecutive Grand Slam tournament finals, and thus a big string was broken when he was beaten by Djokovic. The guess here is that he will have his work cut out for him to win two majors this year, and might even have to settle for one. Why is that the case? He will be hard pressed to win for the first time at Roland Garros. To be sure, Federer has had a remarkable record at the French Open. The only player to beat him on the red clay at Roland Garros across the last three years is Nadal, who toppled the world No. 1 in the 2005 semifinals, and the 2006 and 2007 finals.
That is a clear demonstration that Federer is a serious threat to win the French Open. And yet, the odds remain against him at that venue on that surface. I would clearly not count him out, but the guess here--- at least for now--- is that he will not secure the crown this year. If that happens, he would then head into Wimbledon looking for his first major of the year. He has won five titles in a row at the All England Club, and would be the clear favorite again this season. He probably will do it again on the grass, but sooner or later a streak of that magnitude has to end. Then, win or lose, he will move on to the U.S. Open in search of a fifth singles title in a row.
Depending on what happens between now and then, he will be the man to beat again in New York, but perhaps only a slight favorite. Last year he became the first man in the “Open Era” to prevail at the U.S. Open four years in a row. So that is another astonishing streak that could be broken this year. My long range guess is that Federer will win either Wimbledon or the U.S. Open again this year, but not both. And if he indeed does not break through in Paris, that would leave him with only one major title for 2008. I reserve the right to change my mind later this year when I have more evidence with which to weigh how Federer is playing. We still need to see how successfully he rebounds from his setback in Australia. But, having said that, I will say for now that I see him only winning one “Big Four” title in 2008.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC AND HIS TRIUMPH
With a little bit of luck, Novak Djokovic would have won his first major without the loss of a set. The 20-year-old Serbian moved through to the final without dropping a set in six matches before losing the first set of the final to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He then regrouped impressively and took that match in four sets to enter the land of the elite as a Grand Slam tournament champion. That took fortitude against an inspired adversary who was vociferously supported by the crowd.
But the defining moment for Djokovic was his 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (5) triumph over Federer. They had not met since the U.S. Open final last September, when Federer recorded a straight set win despite being in some difficult situations. Federer won that match in straight sets but only after rescuing himself on numerous occasions. In the opening set, Djokovic was serving at 6-5, 40-0, triple set point. He had five set points in that critical game, but his anxiety was his undoing. Federer kept slicing backhand returns into the wind and making Djokovic generate his own pace. Djokovic cracked, losing his serve, dropping that set in a tie-break.
In the second set, Djokovic led 4-1 and later had two set points with Federer serving at 4-5, but did not convert again. Federer coolly worked his way out of another bind, took the set in another tie-break and came through in the third like a champion. He deserved to win because he played the big points the way they should be played, giving nothing away, daring Djokovic to find a way to beat him.But the feeling here is that both men knew a serious rivalry was brewing. In their previous meeting, Djokovic had ousted Federer in a final set tie-break in the final of Montreal. That was his first win over the world No. 1, and he did it in style.
So a lot was at stake in Melbourne. Djokovic was determined to prove that he could beat Federer on a big occasion after his agonizing loss in New York. He was overwhelmed by the occasion at the U.S. Open. He did not fear Federer as much as he was unnerved by the thought of closing in on a career changing moment. He faltered in New York but in Melbourne he was more mature and able to summon his composure when it mattered. Against Federer, Djokovic turned the tables with some clutch play of his own. In the opening set of his semifinal against the world champion, Djokovic was serving at 3-5, 0-30, second serve. One false move there and the set would have been gone in a hurry. In turn, Federer would have been off and running and perhaps impossible to stop.
So how did Djokovic respond? He swung an excellent slice second serve wide to the Federer forehand, and the Swiss maestro could not handle it. Djokovic then threw in two aces and held on. In an astounding turn of events, he closed out the first set on a brilliant run of four straight games, and swept nine of ten games to open up a 5-1 second set lead. Federer found some of his range again to take two games in a row before Djokovic pocketed the second set. In the third, both men obstinately held serve all the way until the tie-break, but Djokovic had to demonstrate some mettle to get there. At 5-6, he saved two set points on his serve. An unstoppable first serve to the backhand saved the first, and an excellent serve setting up a forehand winner enabled Djokovic to wipe out the second one. In the tie-break, Djokovic rallied from 3-1 down. When he reached match point with Federer serving at 5-6, Djokovic was fully stretched out on his two-hander by a terrific wide serve, but he somehow managed to get it back with very good depth. He then out-rallied Federer from the baseline to seal the verdict 7-5, 6-3, 7-6 (5).
That was a superb piece of business for Djokovic. To be sure, Federer had endured a tough fortnight after being stricken with a stomach virus the week before the event. He had come perilously close to losing in the third round to Tipsarevic, serving to save the match four times, handling the pressure with typical poise. But then Federer had not lost another set on his way to the penultimate round. He seemed have his bearings. He did not play his best tennis against Djokovic, but the Serbian had a lot to do with Federer being off his game. He served awfully well the last two sets. His first serve is now one of the best in the sport. And his returning against Federer was remarkably good. Moreover, his combination of offense and defense from the back of the court is an incredible asset. He beat Federer soundly when they went backhand to backhand, and he held his own off the forehand. Very few men can battle Federer so convincingly from the back court.
In the final, Djokovic was preoccupied with some problems his family was having in the stands, and he did not take control from the baseline in the opening set. Tsonga, meanwhile, was picking up where he had left off against Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. Nadal never quite knew what had hit him in that match. Tsonga—dictating points freely, mixing up his serve skillfully, displaying touch on the drop volley that was nothing short of stupendous---obliterated Nadal 6-2, 6-3, 6-2 in a breathtaking demonstration of his talent--- was making a big move at this tournament.
He had come into the event at No. 38 in the world, but had knocked out No. 9 seed Andy Murray, No. 8 Richard Gasquet, and No. 14 Mikhail Youzhny before routing Nadal, who had not lost a set himself on his way to the semifinals. Tsonga is a rapidly emerging star, an athlete of the highest order, a player who is just beginning to tap into his talent. He was a dangerous opponent for Djokovic, who was coming off such a big win and could not afford to let his guard down. But Djokovic settled down admirably in the second set and gradually took control of the match with the depth, accuracy and penetration of his shots. Tsonga was worn down badly by the middle of the third set. Tsonga found another gear in the fourth and Djokovic grew unsettled by nerves and a slight strain in his hamstring, but the Serbian pulled through in four sets.
I believe Djokovic will be the chief challenger to Federer for the No. 1 world ranking in the year ahead. Nadal will definitely remain in the mix, and I expect him to celebrate another great clay court season. But Djokovic, a semifinalist at both the French Open and Wimbledon last year, is better equipped to deal with Federer from the beginning of the season until the end on all surfaces. It will be fascinating to watch it all play out in 2008. There is an excellent chance that the four majors will be divided three ways this year. And Djokovic will surely make a strong bid to prevent the mighty Federer from finishing No. 1 in the world for the fifth consecutive year.
MARIA SHARAPOVA’S SHINING HOUR
Along with many other close followers of the game, I fully expected Justine Henin to win her second Australian Open, and an eighth Grand Slam championship in the process. She had lost only four times in 2007, and did not lose a match after her semifinal defeat at Wimbledon against Marion Bartoli. But Henin was beaten comprehensively in the quarters by a top of the line Maria Sharapova, who went on to win the tournament without losing a set in seven matches.
I saw Sharapova win her first major at Wimbledon in 2004. At 17, seeded 13th, barely aware of what she was doing, Sharapova cast aside two-time defending champion Serena Williams in the final of that event. Two years later, she took apart Henin methodically in a straight set U.S. Open final. And now she has taken her third major title. But she has never played better than she did in Melbourne.
In the second round, she faced former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, who had already captured three tournaments since her return to singles last September. In a scintillating performance, Sharapova crushed Davenport in straight sets. In the quarterfinals, Sharapova took on Henin. Henin did not play badly. She kept searching for ways to hurt Sharapova, tried to take the ball early and dictate, looked for openings whenever she could find them.
But Sharapova played the match of her life. Her serve was devastatingly potent and accurate. She was broken only once. And her mobility--- never a strong suit in the past--- was eye-catching. In the past, Henin had almost always managed to expose that weakness, moving Maria around the court like a chess player, making Sharapova play too many running forehands for her own good. But this time around, Sharapova was incredibly quick off the mark. Her court coverage was outstanding. Her ball striking was only enhanced by her mobility. Sharapova was hitting winners on the dead run with regularity and comfort. In the end, she crushed Henin 6-4, 6-0 like a consummate professional. She was relentlessly aggressive from the baseline, and her forehand held up admirably. It was the kind of match Sharapova must have dreamed of playing.
And yet, there was more work to be done. She beat both Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic--- the two great Serbians--- back to back for the crown, winning both matches in straight sets. In the final, Sharapova wasted a 4-2 lead on a stifling day in the sunshine. She then served at 4-5, 0-30, two points away from dropping that first set. Sharapova remained entirely composed, took that set on a run of three straight games, and came through 7-5, 6-3. Now the only major to elude her is the French Open. The jury is still out on whether or not Sharapova will win that clay court event some day. Clay is her weakest surface, although she was a surprise semifinalist at Roland Garros last year.
But whether or not she does eventually get the job done in Paris, Sharapova will undoubtedly win at least two more majors in her career, and maybe more. I expect her to wage a credible campaign to unseat Henin at No. 1 in the world this year, although she will probably fall short of that goal. Henin is so reliable and so utterly professional that it is hard to imagine her not having another banner year in 2008. But Sharapova will win another big prize this year--- at least as I see it. She will have a good chance to prevail either at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open.A year ago, Sharapova was troubled by a serious shoulder injury. She was beaten 6-1, 6-2 by Serena Williams in the Australian Open final of 2007, and it was apparent that she could not serve at full strength. The problem resurfaced at different stages last year. But now she seems to have put that problem behind her. I have no doubt that this will be the best year yet for Maria Sharapova.
And so the first major of the year is already upon us, and both the men’s and women’s draws look very intriguing to me. Let’s start with the men. Roger Federer is recovering from a stomach virus which hurt his preparation last week, but his draw looks relatively kind. He opens his campaign for a fourth crown in five years at Melbourne with a first round test against Diego Hartfield of Argentina. He should quickly adjust to the new Plexicushion surface, which might be a little slower than he would like. In any event, Federer should get through that one in straight sets. In the second round, he figures to meet either the amazing 35-year-old Fabrice Santoro or the big serving American John Isner, who took a set off Federer last year at the U.S. Open. Federer might drop a set against either player, but no more than that.
I believe the first serious skirmish for Federer could be a potential fourth round meeting against No. 13 seed Tomas Berdych, the big hitter who toppled Federer at the 2004 Olympic Games but has not beaten him since. He gave Federer a rough time in a Davis Cup match a few weeks after the 2007 U.S. Open, taking a set and threatening to push the world No. 1 into a fifth set. He will make Federer work hard if they meet in Melbourne, but Federer would prevail in four tough sets. If Berdych does not make it that far, No. 25 seed Juan Monaco could be the man Federer meets in the fourth round. He too, would not let Federer have an easy time of it, but Federer would prevail in three prolonged sets. In the quarters, Federer could take on either James Blake, Ivan Ljubicic or Fernando Gonzalez. If he plays Blake, Federer will get the job done in straight sets; if he confronts Ljubicic, Federer would prevail in four; if he takes on Gonzalez, the task could be more arduous.
Gonzalez finally beat Federer for the first time in November in a round robin match at Shanghai. That was an important breakthrough for the 2007 Australian Open finalist. When he met Federer in that championship match last January, Gonzalez served for the first set and reached 5-4, 40-15, double set point. He did not close out that crucial game and went down in straight sets. Gonzalez has the single most explosive forehand in the game, and he would be much more dangerous against Federer in a quarterfinal than in a big final. I believe Federer would win that one in four very tight sets.
That would bring the 12 time Grand Slam champion into the penultimate round. In that semifinal, he would probably play either No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic in a repeat of the U.S. Open final, or David Nalbandian, who beat Federer two times in a row last autumn in the final of Madrid and the round of 16 indoors at Paris. Unfortunately, Nalbandian had a problem with his back this past week and was forced to pull out of an exhibition event. If he recovers sufficiently from the injury, Nalbandian would conceivably play Juan Carlos Ferrero in the third round and would then have to play No. 5 seed David Ferrer in a potentially bruising fourth round encounter.
Ferrer was a vastly improved player in 2007. Nalbandian played some of the best tennis of his life to win both Madrid and Paris back to back. Nalbandian-Ferrer has the makings of a five set skirmish, but I would lean toward a five set win for Nalbandian if he is physically sound. Djokovic has his work cut out for him if he wants to earn a quarterfinal appointment with Nalbandian or Ferrer. The No. 3 seed will most likely meet Dmitry Tursunov in the third round, and then would have a round of 16 assignment against either No. 19 seed Lleyton Hewitt or No. 15 Marcos Baghdatis. The guess here is that Hewitt will narrowly move past Baghdatis in five sets, but he will not be able to hold back Djokovic, who will prevail in four sets.
So then we would have the enticing prospect of a Nalbandian-Hewitt round of 16 contest. I would look for Nalbandian to win that match in straight sets, setting up a quarterfinal with Djokovic. That could be the match of the tournament. The baseline exchanges would be fiercely contested, with Nalbandian boasting the superior two-hander and Djokovic holding the edge off the forehand. Djokovic has a better serve. In the end, I like Djokovic in five pendulum swinging sets.
Clearly, Federer will be eager to make a statement against the formidable Djokovic. The world No. 1 lost to Djokovic in a final set tie-break last summer in the final of Montreal before coming through in a straight set U.S. Open final. Djokovic had five set points in the first set of that championship match, and two more set points in the second set, failing to convert on any of them. That was largely a case of nerves for Djokovic, who should be more relaxed in a semifinal setting at Melbourne. But he did not finish 2007 on a strong note. Will he be ready to handle Federer in the first major of the New Year? I have my doubts, but he will make his presence known. Federer will come through by scores of 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.
If Nalbandian manages to get to the semifinals rather than Djokovic, I see a similarly hard fought contest developing because Nalbandian can hold his own with Federer from the baseline. Federer has a vastly superior forehand but Nalbandian’s two-handed backhand is more solid than Federer’s single handed backhand. Nalbandian would give Federer a serious scare but would eventually bow 6-3,4-6,7-5,2-6, 6-4. On to the final would go Federer.
On the opposite half of the draw, Rafael Nadal has a pretty good draw. He may need to deal with countryman Carlos Moya (the No. 16 seed) in the fourth round. Moya kept Nadal on court for nearly four hours in India before losing in a final set tie-break, leaving Nadal terribly compromised physically. Nadal then took only one game from Mikhail Youzhny in the final. In any case, Moya could well bow out before even getting to Nadal for a potential round of 16 skirmish. If Moya does make it that far, Nadal would take care of business this time around in four comfortable sets. That would push Nadal into the quarterfinals, where he would almost inevitably play No. 6 seed Andy Roddick. They met only once last year, with Nadal thrashing Roddick in straight sets on hard courts in the semifinals at Indian Wells.
The last time they had played before that was in the 2004 Davis Cup final, when Nadal came through over Roddick in four sets. Unless the courts are playing faster than expected in Melbourne, the conditions will be in Nadal’s favor. Roddick would need to serve stupendously to stay with Nadal. Even if he does, I still like Nadal’s chances. The Spaniard advances in four sets by grinding Roddick down from the back of the court and peppering Roddick’s backhand all day long. The seedings suggest that he would meet No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko in the semifinals, but I don’t see the Russian getting that far. I think there is a good chance that Stanislas Wawrinka (the No. 26 seed) will beat Davydenko in the third round. Then I believe Wawrinka would lose to Youzhny in the round of 16. At the top of that bottom half of the draw, No. 9 seed Andy Murray should end up clashing with No. 8 Richard Gasquet in the round of 16. That could be a beauty, but in the end Murray is my pick to prevail in four sets. Murray would then topple Youzhny in another four set confrontation.
So that would set up a semifinal between Murray and Nadal. A year ago, they fought valiantly against each other through five compelling sets before Nadal came through to win. He was then exhausted and injured when he went down to Gonzalez in the quarterfinals. I believe that Murray will give Nadal another serious run for his money in the semifinals of Melbourne and could conceivably win that match. But, in the end, I see Nadal once more getting the win in five sets.
That would give us the best possible final between the two best players in the world. On the Plexicushion, Nadal’s backcourt game could give Federer serious problems, but he needs to be fresh and fit for such a clash. I am not confident that will be the case. I believe it is much more likely that Nadal will be depleted in some ways and not as energetic as he needs to be. In both Madrid and Paris last fall he was obliterated by Nalbandian after surviving strenuous battles the day before. He could be similarly vulnerable coming into a potential Australian Open final with Federer.
Nadal would be helped, however, by having at least a day off before stepping into the arena with the world No. 1. The conditions in Australia should be a boost for the Spaniard, who would make Federer play a ton of high backhands throughout the contest. Time and again, Nadal will roll that vicious topspin forehand crosscourt up and keep making Federer hit the backhand from uncomfortable positions. Federer always seems reluctant to attack as often as he should when he plays Nadal, and much of the match would be fought out from the back of the court, another plus for Nadal.
In the end, Federer’s serve will be the key, as it was in his five set Wimbledon final round win over Nadal. He will squirm his way out of innumerable break points and eventually overcome Nadal. I see Federer winning his 13th major 4-6,7-6(5),3-6, 7-5, 6-3 in a gripping five set collision.
Now let’s take a close look at the women’s draw. The most exhilarating moment of the first week will undoubtedly be a second round appointment between No, 5 seed Maria Sharapova and the resurgent Lindsay Davenport. Davenport has lost only one match since her comeback last fall. She deserved to be seeded but the tournament will benefit enormously from the fact that she is not. Davenport, who has lost four of five previous meetings with Sharapova but once beat the Russian 6-0,6-0 at Indian Wells, will be primed for this contest. Sharapova—as I see it--- will be nervous and unsettled. Both women will serve big and set up second shot winners repeatedly. But Davenport’s return is better than Sharapova’s and her ground game is marginally superior. She wins in three sets, 7-5,4-6,6-4. The 31-year-old American will reach the quarterfinals and play her heart out against top seeded Justine Henin.
Henin will be hard pressed to contain Davenport in some hotly contested baseline exchanges, but the Belgian will come through in two tight sets. In the semifinals, Henin will confront the winner of a compelling quarterfinal encounter between defending champion Serena Williams and world No. 3 Jelena Jankovic. Serena will have to overcome No. 12 seed Nicole Vaidisova in the round of 16, but Serena will win that contest in straight sets. In the Williams-Jankovic quarterfinal, it will go down to the wire as Jankovic does her best to prolong the rallies, making Serena work inordinately hard. But Serena is sturdier under pressure. She pulls out the big first serve at all of the crucial moments, and wins 6-4,4-6,7-5.
In 2007, Serena Williams and Justine Henin met in the last three majors, clashing each time in the quarterfinals. Henin was too good on each occasion. She will be again this time around. It will be a high quality contest, and Serena will not give up her crown without a spirited fight. But Henin will be tougher on the big points, will be more consistent and durable in the rallies, and will make too many good returns when she gets a look at second serves. Henin wins over Williams 7-6(6),4-6, 6-3 for a place in the final.
On the opposite half of the draw, Venus Williams may be pushed hard in a potential three set collision against No. 31 seed Sania Mirza of India, but Venus will get through that one 4-6,6-4,6-2. Similarly, Venus will be hard pressed to beat No. 24 seed Li Na but once more Williams will win. She prevails 7-5,3-6,6-4 to reach the quarters. In that round, her string runs out. No. 4 seed Ana Ivanovic, now on the verge of being ready to win her first major, will pester Venus time and again with a barrage of balls directed at the Williams forehand. Ivanovic defeats Williams 2-6, 7-5,6-3 to reach the semifinals. She will face No. 6 seed Anna Chakvetadze in the semifinals.
Chakvetadze will topple No. 22 seed Lucia Safarova in the round of 16 after Safarova removes No. 9 seed Daniela Hantuchova. No. 2 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova will defeat Agnes Szavay in the round of 16 and then will meet Chakvetadze in the quarterfinals. Chakvetadze was way too apprehensive when she lost to Kuznetsova in the semifinals of the 2007 US Open but that will not be true on this occasion. She will give the No. 2 seed many problems from the baseline, but Kuznetsova is more versatile and her heavy forehand will be a big reason why she wins 2-6,6-4,7-5 to reach the final. But her tournament will conclude on a disappointing note. Henin will be primed for the big occasion, and deeply determined to win her second Australian Open crown after missing the event last year when she was going through a divorce.
Henin will have her thinking cap on and will pick apart the Russian methodically. Justine Henin will win her 8th major title, casting aside Kuznetsova 6-4,6-3 with a typically composed and professional effort. Kuznetsova pushed Henin to her limits in the recent Sydney final but still fell short and lost in three sets. But the Russian lost to Henin in a straight set final at the U.S. Open last year, and also was beaten by the Belgian in straight sets in the French Open final of 2006. Henin has not lost a match since Wimbledon last year, and she will keep her streak going right through Melbourne, collecting an eighth Grand Slam championship in the process.
All of us who have a deep affection and enduring appreciation of all that tennis has to offer are worried. Ever since the story broke in August about Nikolay Davydenko being investigated for an alleged match fixing episode in Poland, it has become increasingly apparent that the game needs to treat the potentially explosive problem of gambling and players deliberately throwing matches as seriously as possible. The purity of competition is something we have long taken for granted. If fans start doubting the authenticity of matches, if they are discouraged from coming out to the arena because they think some of the players might not be giving an honest effort, if they lose faith in the integrity of the sport, tennis would find itself in considerable trouble.
Don’t misinterpret what I am saying. We are not yet in a dire situation. But this is no small matter. Andy Murray spoke out this week on the issue, telling the BBC, “ It’s difficult to prove if someone has tanked a match or not tried because they can try their best until the last couple of games of each set and then make some mistakes, a couple of double faults, and that’s it. It’s pretty disappointing for all of the players, but everyone knows it goes on.”
Neither Murray nor any other player has claimed that they know of specific cases when players have been approached by associates of on-line gambling sites and accepted large sums of money in exchange for losing matches on purpose. In fact, a number of players have come forth and spoken up about offers they have turned down. That is encouraging. And Davydenko has maintained his innocence, claiming he legitimately retired at 1-2 down in the final set of his match against Martin Vassallo Arguello with an injury. The British online gambling company Betfair received in the range of $7 million dollars in bets on that match, ten times more than they expected. That is what touched off the whole controversy. The matter remains under investigation, and it is hoped that Davydenko is telling the truth.
What I find uplifting is the willingness of some prominent individuals to speak out forcefully about what should be done to penalize any player who is found guilty of breaking the rules and deliberately losing matches in exchange for substantial payoffs. Pam Shriver, for one, is not holding back. Shriver told reporter Sandra McKee of the Baltimore Sun, “It’s not like drugs, where people say they didn’t know they were taking something illegal. How do you accidentally let someone buy your result? There is absolutely no excuse. You get caught, you should be suspended for life.”
Andy Roddick told McKee that he, too, believes in the same kind of tough treatment for those who accept bribes. As Roddick said, “At the end of the day it is up to each individual to play the right way, with integrity. If you catch someone, kick ‘em out for good.” I agree with them that the penalties must be unmistakably harsh. In some cases, a three to five year suspension might be sufficient. But, either way, players must realize that there is no tolerance for this. Fortunately, the ATP, WTA, ITF and the Grand Slam committee are all working closely together to keep illegal gambling and match fixing out of tennis and not allow this issue to spin rapidly out of control.
It will be up to the players to do the rest. They must police the sport, and make certain that all of the players fully understand that bribes are fundamentally unacceptable. This is a serious problem, but the right steps are being taken to combat it and I remain optimistic that the sport will triumph over those trying to destroy it.