US Open Five Questions Is the Tide about to Turn at the Top?

US Open

Photo courtesy of http://www.dnevnik.bg

The season’s final slam gets underway next week with an intriguing line up of injured and struggling top players and a string of younger players looking ready to breakthrough. The Tennis Review asks five questions concerning what might go down in New York City.

Roger Federer– Is it going to be a rival or the Swiss’ own body which defeats him?

Until his back played up in the Montreal final, Federer was the favorite for the US Open. With the Swiss playing well in his Montreal matches, expectations were that the reigning Australian Open and Wimbledon champion would do well in Montreal, win Cincinnati and go on to contest for the US Open title and a 20th slam trophy. But, after suffering a sore back against Sascha Zverev in the Montreal final, Federer withdrew from Cincinnati as a precautionary measure.

It’s a decision which could prove to be another of the many wise ones the Swiss has made the last year. The lack of match play should not affect Federer- he only played some exhibition matches at the Hopman Cup going into the Australian Open, and he played just two events going into Wimbledon- and the most important thing for Federer at this rejuvenated late stage of his career is taking care of his 36 year old body, and a sore back, which can come and go in a day or two for the average 20 something year old but is more likely to stick around someone of the Swiss’ advanced tennis years, can only have benefited from a rest rather than being put to the test yet again just days after the Swiss reached his sixth final of eight events competed in this season.

We won’t know how well Federer has recovered until he plays his first couple of US Open matches, but we can guess, if he is healthy, he will be well prepared for his better match-prepped rivals who played Cincy and Winston-Salem and we can also assume that Federer will be ready to carry over his 2017 slam winning form to the final Major of the season, bidding to win his first title in New York since 2008, his 20th career slam, and to win three slams in one season for the fourth time (2004, 2006, 2007).

Will Rafa Nadal live up to his top seed billing?

Ranked No.1, a Roland Garros trophy in hand, the Spaniard is on familiar ground – the question is what kind of territory will he explore this US Open?

The only new territory would be a first round loss- Nadal has won the title twice, been runner up twice, and lost in every round but his opener. Nadal has tasted every kind of bite the Big Apple has to offer, from the sweet taste of Champion status to more rotten ones- the top seed has even suffered his only slam loss from two sets to love up in New York.

While Nadal’s form has been off since winning La Decima at Roland Garros, losing to Muller (Wimbledon), Shapovalov (Montreal) and Kyrgios (Cincinnati), his struggling to maintain his results in the second half of the season is another common pattern in his career, a pattern only broken in two of the three years in which the Spaniard has finished No.1 (2010, 2013).

Even though Nadal may not have been recently looking sharp enough to take the US Open title, in an injury hit and slam-winning inexperienced draw, he may not have to be. The one thing Nadal does need is something he has in abundance- experience- and if he can fight through to the second week, there is every chance this season, like 2010 and 2013, could be one he signs off with both a US Open title and the world No.1 year end ranking.

US Open 2017

Photo courtesy of zimbio.com

Is Del Potro’s season about to take a delayed take off?

After a very welcome comeback in 2016, one which seemed to promise so much, 2017 has just not taken off for the Argentine with injuries, bad draws and a lack of match play conspiring to stall him.

There has been some progress this season- del Potro has climbed from 42 to 30 in the rankings and he will be seeded this US Open, and there have been some nice wins- Dimitrov and Nishikori in Rome, Berdych in Cincinnati- but the 2009 US Open champion does not have the momentum he had going into last season’s slam finale in which he made a tearful run to the quarters.

On a positive note, del Potro, a big match player with a top ten all time forehand and a US Open title on his resume, does not need too much momentum. What he does need though is his health and the fitness to run around his backhand when attacked and take control of points with his forehand.

If del Potro comes in at all sluggish, he will at least still have the indoor season to make an impact on the tour, but with that final swing of the tour in many fans eyes little more than a footnote to a long season, and with the world’s sports media and casual fans taking note of the tennis world right now in Flushing Meadows, a deep del Potro run on the New York stage would make the tournament stand out if, in a tournament absent of Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori and defending champion Stan Wawrinka, big names keep fading into the background.

#NextGenATP breakthrough?

In the last few months, Alexander Zverev has won the same number of ATP 1000 trophies as Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Juan Martin del Potro, and Marin Cilic combined, winning the trophies in Rome and Montreal, and defeating Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the championship matches.

Those results mean the  20 year old has broken through to the top of men’s tennis, but only to some degree – his best showing at a slam is his last sixteen appearance at this year’s Wimbledon, a few rounds too few for a man who has managed to achieve something beyond the skills of the likes of Nishikori and Raonic.

That next step for Zverev, slam wise, looks set to happen at the upcoming US Open. There is something of the Safin circa 2000 or del Potro 2009 (years in which both men won the US Open) to Zverev’s season. The 20 year old has won five titles in 2017 (del Potro won three in 2009 including the Citi Open, and reached the Montreal final; Safin won 7 in 2000 including Canada), an achievement which can be partly attributed to the world No. 6’s double-handed backhand, a match winning all surface shot which could end up, like Safin and del Potro’s, going down in the top ten of all time.

This US Open, unless the draw is as unkind as the Roland Garros one, delivering up as it did as dark a horse as Fernando Verdasco, Zverev will be favored to reach his seeded position in the last four and, once there, he would have a great chances versus a struggling Nadal or Federer, or the likely third and fourth seeds Murray and Cilic, and the way the German has been playing of late, this could be the time not just to make any old breakthrough, but to make the breakthrough.

Zverev is not the only Next Genner to get excited about in New York. Another member of that squad who could break through and win the title could be Nick Kyrgios who just made the final in Cincinnati.

Behind Zverev and Kyrgios are a host of other NextGenners who could go far in New York- Thanassi Kokkinakis just reached his first ATP final, in Las Cabos, Frances Tiafoe upset Sascha Zverev in Cincy, Karen Khachanov just hit a career high ranking of 29 this week, and Denis Shapovalov beat del Potro and Nadal back to back in Montreal.

Is the tide about to turn at the top?

It’s not only the Next Gen who are looking like they might breakthrough- Grigor Dimitrov just won his first ATP 1000 trophy, in Cincinnati. That elite level success has been a long time coming for the Bulgarian who had his first big breakthrough in 2014 when he reached the Wimbledon semis and broke into the top ten in August, hitting number eight, a ranking he is now, after his Cincy win, just one behind at number Nine.

That return to the top ten has been achieved on the back of the 26 year old’s hard court results at events such as Cincy, Beijing, Brisbane and the Australian Open as well as his Grass court ones, reaching the Queens semis and Wimbledon last 16.

Dimitrov’s aggressive style of play, creativity and flair means he plays his best tennis on faster outdoor and indoor hard and Grass court surfaces on which his skilled defensive game and use of slice also give him the edge over other attacking players, and with the Bulgarian finding his form at just the right time, he could repeat or exceed his best career finish at a slam, the semi-finals (Wimbledon ’14, Australian Open ’17).

Seeded seven, the popular 2008 US Open Boy’s Junior champion will also benefit from a kinder draw in the last 32 and 16 and, with so many other big names absent, the potential to be scheduled on bigger show courts such as Arthur Ashe or Louis Armstrong where he will get plenty of crowd support.

While hopes are high for a player like Zverev or Dimitrov to break through and win a slam, another big question is this – if one of the “next in line” were to breakthrough and win the US Open, would it be a false dawn like del Potro’s 2009 win or Marin Cilic’s 2014 victory or would it signal the start of the tide finally turning at the top of men’s tennis?

With all the big name absences and injured and struggling top players, there is space in the draw for the likes of Dimitrov, Zverev, Kyrgios and Raonic to move through, gain even more confidence, and open the floodgates for men’s tennis’ Next In Line.

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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