There was one thing certain going into Cincinnati – the final major tune-up event before the US Open – that Novak Djokovic was the overwhelming favourite for the men’s singles title. Only a brave or foolish man would think otherwise – such has been the Serb’s dominance in 2011.
But by the end of the week in Cincinnati, there was a glimmer of hope for the other 127 men who will be vying for the year’s final Grand Slam title in New York. Djokovic marched into yet another final in Cincinnati where the physical and mental exhaustion of his success finally caught up with him and the Serb was visibly slowed down by a shoulder injury and fatigue.
Down 4-6, 0-3 to Andy Murray, Djokovic decided to retire from the final – only his second loss in 62 matches this year in what is currently the best season in men’s tennis since 1984. Djokovic’s camp insists he will be fit and ready in time for the Open which kicks off on August 29, but the early rounds in New York will be a crucial test for him.
The Grand Slams are best-of-five set battles and if Djokovic is pushed to the wire in the early rounds, it might leave him vulnerable when he comes up against some of the bigger names in the second week. Still, Djokovic has to be the odds-on favourite to win his third Slam title of the year at Flushing Meadows.
The two players vying for the crown of Greatest Player of All Time (but ironically, both are currently playing second fiddle to another player in 2011) – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are having problems of their own; which means they not be in the best position to capitalize when the Serb lets up.
Nadal, who has taken up a somewhat permanent residence in Federer’s psyche, now finds his own psyche habitated by Djokovic. After losing to the Serb in five finals this year, Nadal has admitted that he will need to work hard during the off-season and change things if he has to catch up with the Serb in 2012.
The Spaniard, who is the defending champion, is not playing with the same mental toughness he is famous for – letting go off a winning position to little known Croatian Ivan Dodig in the second round in Montreal and then compounded his difficulties by burning two fingers on his right hand in a restaurant.
Playing with heavy taping in Cincinnati, the injury left the Spaniard in pain when he tossed the ball to serve or hit his two-handed backhand. The result was a first loss to American Mardy Fish in the quarter-finals, leaving the Spaniard’s preparations woefully short of match fitness on hardcourts.
On the other hand, Federer is fit, even if he is a step slower having crossed the age of 30 in early August, but is unable to find a way to take down younger bigger hitters. The Swiss suffered early losses to Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Thomas Berdych in Montreal and Cincinnati respectively, and at present there seem to be one too many players who seem capable of blasting the ball past Federer.
Still, with 16 Slams in his bag, Federer remains as Jon Wertheim rightly put it, a contender at each Slam, a favourite at none. All this suddenly brings Andy Murray back into the conversation of US Open contenders. The Brit suffered an early loss in Montreal but rebounded nicely to win the Cincinnati Masters, taking down an in-form Mardy Fish in the semis before triumphing over Djokovic in the final.
Murray seems to be in good physical form and has not played much since Wimbledon which should make him battle-ready in New York. Murray loves playing on the hardcourts and has been to the finals here once before. And with the spotlight likely to be hogged by the triumvirate of Novak-Rafa-Roger, this might be the best chance for Murray to get the Grand Slam monkey off his back – which is why I am picking him to be the 2011 US Open champion.
It’s hard to see anyone outside the top 4 with a realistic chance of winning the year’s final Grand Slam but stranger things have happened. The home fans will have a new favourite to cheer for in 29 year old Mardy Fish.
Fish has broken out of the shadow of buddy Andy Roddick this year and established himself as the top American men’s player by a wide margin. On the back of his most successful summer hardcourt campaign (winner in Atlanta, finalist in LA to Ernests Gulbis, finalist in Montreal to Djokovic and semi-finalist to Murray in Cincinnati), Fish has risen to 7th in the world rankings while an injury-plagued Roddick is currently at no.
21. Fish and Roddick have both re-invented their playing styles in recent years. But while Roddick’s game seems restricted by his desire to patiently wait for his opponent to make an error, Fish has enhanced his attacking game with the ability to engage in long baseline rallies and pull the trigger at the right time – something that Roddick has been unable to successfully do.
It would also be interesting to see just how Fish soaks in his new status as top dog in American tennis. Will it push him to make his first career Grand Slam semi-final or pull him down to another disappointing early loss in a major? Robin Soderling has been injured and has hardly played on the summer hardcourt season which makes him a target for an early upset.
David Ferrer, Tsonga, Berdych, Gael Monfils and Juan Martin Del Potro will likely be around in the second week but they will need for the draw to open up if they hope to be playing on the final Sunday. Some of the young guns to keep an eye out for include two American teenagers, 19 year old Ryan Harrison and 18 year old Jack Sock, Bulgarian talent Grigor Dimitrov, temperamental Latvian Ernests Gulbis (winner in LA over Fish), quirky Ukranian Alexandr Dolgopolov, and Wimbledon quarter-finalist Bernard Tomic.
Some veterans hoping to make a final deep run at a major include popular American James Blake, Czech serve-n-volleyer Radek Stepanek, and former top 3 players Nikolay Davydenko and David Nalbandian. The US Open is often considered by fans and the players as the most exciting Grand Slam event and 2011 looks to be no different.
Will Novak extend his domination over the field? Will Rafa rebound and inch closer to Federer’s Slam tally? Will Roger break the longest dry spell since his first Slam win? Or will Murray breakthrough for his maiden Slam title? The answers will be served up on the Arthur Ashe Stadium starting Monday August 29th.