The “Notebook”: US Open 2016 (I)

It’s been a while since I wrote about tennis and the last Major of the season represented a perfect opportunity to end that drought. The first 8 days of both singles’ main draws are already in the books – with the quarter finals looming – and it seemed appropriate to compile a few remarks on the major storylines of the competition so far.

This post is a miscellany on a few topics, from players that have impressed or gone home early, pre-tournament expectations that have delivered or went off the rails, overarching trends that are breaking out or have fizzled, or just simple rants on specific individuals. It isn’t exactly rich in tactical/technical considerations as the time to watch the multitude of games is limited, but maybe we can tackle that a bit soon enough

On a second part I expect to dissert on what transpires in New York on the closing days of the fortnight, delving into the top players that have cruised through the competition without too much trouble until now and some of the lesser known names still alive entering the final stretch (Ana Konjuh, Karolina Pliskova or Lucas Pouille, for example).

(I expect to sharpen the concept behind this “Notebook” on future occasions – and not necessarily just tennis tournaments -and present a more concerted effort that doesn’t resemble a patchwork)

The American Men: Present and Future

For a country that’s been looking for a torch-bearer in the men’s side since Andy Roddick retired, the US Open has proved enlightening about the United States’ ATP prospects in the near future. And it began shortly after the first balls were popped for the main draw, with a doubleheader between up-and-coming aces and the more established names. Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, both 18 years old, duelled John Isner and Jack Sock, respectively,  to tight five-set encounters that fired up the crowd and were a few bounces away from knocking out their compatriots, further amplifying the expectations of future stardom for the two prodigies.

Isner, the main American of the last couple of seasons, has seen his status threatened by Sock and Steve Johnson, and didn’t help his case with a four-set defeat to British youngster Kyle Edmund. Meanwhile, Jack Sock went on to impressively make quick work of former Champion Marin Cilic in three sets before falling to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The 23-year-old with a remarkable ability to spin his forehand was the last American man playing and he left without breaking a curse that has plagued the home boys recently: Since Andy Roddick in 2011, no American has been able to reach the quarter-finals.

Jack Sock (right) authored one of the upsets of the US Open when he defeated former Champion Marin Cilic in three sets

Jack Sock (right) authored one of the upsets of the US Open when he defeated former Champion Marin Cilic in three short sets

As for Johnson, he was unceremoniously dumped out by Juan Martin Del Potro in the second round, just a few days after publicly calling out the decision to award the Argentinian a wild card that was destined for a young native.

The player that had to navigate the qualifying because of that decision? 20-year-old Jared Donaldson, one of the major surprises of the first week by stringing five consecutive wins in Flushing Meadows, including a first round upset of Belgium’s David Goffin in the first round and a straight sets triumph over Serbia’s Viktor Troicki later on. When he succumbed to the invigorated Ivo Karlovic on Saturday night, Donaldson had already gone further than any other American wild card receiver, with his serve and return game deserving accolades. It’s expected he shouldn’t need an invitation the next time around.

Reaching the same stage as Donaldson was fellow qualifier Ryan Harrison, the former phenomenon who dispatched fifth-seed Milos Raonic on the second round in a match marked by the Canadian’s vicious cramps.

Germany: The female powerhouse that sputtered

Lost amongst the emergence of Angelique Kerber as the most consistent challenger to Serena’s dominance is the gradual erosion of the rest of Germany’s star quartet: the group that waltzed together into the top 20 in 2011/12 and created expectations of a Fed Cup dynasty that never materialized.

The careers of Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki have followed different paths over the last seasons

The careers of Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki have followed different paths over the last few years

In those years, Julia Goerges (15th, 3/2012), Sabine Lisicki (12th, 10/2012) and Andrea Petkovic (9th, 10/2011) posted career-highs in the WTA rankings, but if Kerber has finished in the top 10 in every season since, the rest has stumbled as their careers advance. Injuries partly justify the decline but it’s still disappointing that those three have combined for a single Grand Slam final appearance (Lisicki, Wimbledon 2013) and two semi-finals (Lisicki, Wimbledon 2011; Petkovic, Roland Garros, 2014).

At the US Open, Petkovic was brushed aside by Belinda Bencic in the second round, tying her season-best at Slams, while Goerges got dumped out by Venus Williams on the same stage. Meanwhile, Lisicki, currently ranked 84th, was pummelled by Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva in the inaugural round and is in danger of dropping out of the top 100 soon. All are still in their 20’s, but time is running out as other names emerge, from 22-year-old’s  Annika Beck and Anna-Lena Friedsam to the slightly-more experienced Laura Siegmund, already ranked 27th in World after reaching the top 100 for the first time in 2015.

As for those Fed Cup results, the Germans only once went to the final, in 2014, where they were beaten by their tiny neighbours Czech Republic, who have collected four of the last five titles…

The Great Dane is giving signs of life

Since being upstaged from the top of the World Rankings after the 2012 Australian Open, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki has endured a steady decline that was only briefly halted in 2014, when she reached the final of the US Open. As her off-court commitments have become more prominent, she’s become an afterthought in the biggest tournaments, with that 2014 campaign in NY as her single appearance in the last eight of a GS since early 2012. Despite hovering around the top 10 for a long time, sometimes one gets the sense that Wozniacki stays relevant because she’s Serena’s BFF and a pretty face to put in front of a camera.

However, just 26 years old and under the glittering Big Apple lights, maybe things are changing just as her career seemed to be approaching a fork in the road. Ranked an aberrant No.74 entering the last Major of the year, Wozniacki’s classic counterpunching style just wasn’t proving as effective as in the dawn of her career, since opponents have adapted and can either blow the ball past her and match the stamina and consistency that function as the staple of her game.

Pundits said she needed to step forward, use her athleticism to drive the ball and put her rivals under pressure, and in this tournament she has followed suit. More aggression functioned against the 9th-seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in round two and helped dispatch Monica Niculescu (a player that forces opponents to set the pace), contributing to an important boost of confidence.

The resolution of the past is back on Caroline Wozniacki's face

The resolution of the past is back on Caroline Wozniacki’s face

With her coolness restored, came a vintage Wozniacki performance to outlast the favourite Madison Keys. Tactically savvy to force the opponent out of the comfort zone by deftly varying her shots and serve placement, unfazed through the swift barrages of winners, and composed as her rival entered a tailspin due to the Dane’s vaunted defensive skills and ability to prolong the rallies. In one week, the former World No.1 beat more top-10 players (2) at a Major than during her entire stint at the top of the game (1). Maybe a renaissance has started on a place that Wozniacki clearly loves.

The intricate succession of Serena Williams 

The grasp of Serena Williams on American tennis has been so absolute for so long that seeing another female player (outside of Venus) step out of her shadow has taken more time than it should on a country like the USA. The US Open is the tournament where candidates showcase their credentials and every year new names are added to the ballot. However, few go on to break into the top echelon of the game, displaying year round consistency and a firm growing curve. Until last year, Sloane Stephens (who pulled out injured in NY) looked well on his way to that level, but it was eventually Madison Key’s door to knock wide open.

Keys’ 2015 highlights – SF in Australia and QF at Wimbledon – may flash brighter on her résumé but the regularity achieved during this season points to an evolution that is hitting all the right notes, with good performances spread across different tiers of tournaments and surfaces. At the US Open, Keys was pushed to the brink twice in the tournament and came out roaring like a Champion – not unlike the Queen of the WTA Tour – leading many to believe the story would go on unblemished. Aged 21, bursting with lethal groundstrokes and a powerful serve adorned with a striking mechanic that resembles many of the finest male players, Madison Keys was a superstar in the making that would lead the American aspirations as soon as she fine-tunes his amazing qualities.

Madison Keys' inate firepower is one of the reasons she's been tabbed as the future of USA's tennis

Madison Keys’ inate firepower is one of the reasons she’s been tabbed as the future of USA’s tennis

Not so fast…as Caroline Wozniacki so eloquently illustrated on their fourth-round encounter, with Keys’ game neutralized by a rival willing to deny her intents of pocketing points in a hurry with her overpowering acceleration. She learned a valuable lesson and we quickly remembered  it too: the American’s game, as most heavy-hitters (Petra Kvitova is a good comparison), is beautiful to watch in the peaks, but excruciating in the valleys, with blasts sailing meters wide (or long) and harried executions dyeing at the bottom of the net. The learning curve is still steep to threaten the Queen.

For the rest of the American roster on the women’s side, the US Open wasn’t a banner event either. 29th seed Coco Vandeweghe, a big-serving player quietly on the verge of her 25th anniversary, followed up a really strong grass season with a first round defeat to 18-year-old Japanese sensation Naomi Osaka. The once-promising Christina McHale couldn’t resist the 2015 finalist Roberta Vinci in the second round, while the top 50-ranked Madison Brengle and Shelby Rogers, a surprising quarter-finalist in Roland Garros, were upset by younger compatriots. Brengle retired before 16-year-old Kayla Day, the US Under-18 National Champion, could complete the job, but Rogers was outplayed by 17-year-old Catherine Bellis, who burst onto the scene in similar conditions in 2014.

The Brits are finally coming

Andy Murray arrived in New York as the odds-on favourite to take a Grand Slam title for the first time in his career, but Great Britain’s media has had more to rejoice than just the spoils very much left in play by Novak Djokovic’s sudden drop from the pedestal. A few years ago, the Scot’s footsteps in major events were supposed to be followed by two promising young girls in Heather Watson and Laura Robson, but those two have failed to deliver, leaving the 2016 US Open on the first round without much fanfare. On their place have step up three names that created a buzz for British Tennis in the first week.

The 25-year-old Johanna Konta – who came out of nowhere to reach the fourth round one year ago – justified the hype that has surrounded her rise following the semi-final run in Melbourne by dismantling Belinda Bencic in the third round, even if she then lost a winnable match against Anastasija Sevastova.

The youngster Kyle Edmund is Great Britain's best male prospect since Andy Murray

The youngster Kyle Edmund is Great Britain’s best male prospect since Andy Murray

On the men’s side, Kyle Edmund and Dan Evans are still riding the impulse of the Davis Cup victory last fall, joining Murray to become the first British trio to reach the third round of the US Open in 48 years. The 26-year-old Evans, an offensive talent with a knack for net play, shocked the highly-touted Alex Zverev in the second round before producing a thriller against Stan Wawrinka in the third, even wasting a couple of match points in the fourth set before succumbing in the decider. As for Edmund, a former junior star, his lightning-quick forehand and heavy style were too much for the crafty Richard Gasquet in the first round and for John Isner later on, with Novak Djokovic putting a stop to his progress on the last 16.

Setbacks, declines and darkhorses

To end, a few lines on some renowned players dropping out early on the women’s event plus a brush stroke on everyone’s preferred dark horses on the men’s side.

Ana Ivanovic, who’s yet to string three consecutive triumphs in 2016, kept her mediocre season going with a straight sets defeat to Denisa Allertova in the first round. The slow eclipse continues for the former World No.1, whose Semi-Final run in Roland Garros last year, the first on a Major in seven years, is looking more like a thing of the past by the day.

Eugenie Bouchard’s bumpy ride over the last two years caught another rut in New York with a disappointing first round loss to Katerina Siniakova, World No. 72. The Canadian hasn’t been able to amass any type of momentum that favours an approach to the level displayed in 2014, her breakout season, and the net point loss from this result will make her ranking spill outside of the top 50 again.

The World No. 3, Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, suffered a startling exit at the hands of Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova in the second round, prolonging her listless form since a maiden Grand Slam triumph in the clay of Paris. After quick exits at Wimbledon and the Olympics, the 23-year-old looked apathetic against Sevastova, losing her serve seven times in two sets and lacking the spirit to take full advantage of her opponent’s shakiness on the verge of a famous triumph.

Garbiñe Muguruza has been left looking for answers regularly over the last few weeks

Garbiñe Muguruza has been left looking for answers regularly over the last few weeks

The newly crowned Olympic Champion, Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig, crashed out at the first hurdle in NY but I’m certain few were wholly stunned by it. The 23-year-old has never reached the quarter-finals of a Major, and all the partying following her improbable achievement was far from an ideal preparation for a debut under an entirely different limelight. Undoubtedly a letdown for failing to capitalize on the newfound recognition, but Puig gets a pass for a few more weeks. After all, becoming a national hero overnight certainly takes some time to assimilate.

On the flip side, most of the men’s narratives have hovered around the positive vibes emanating from the top-notch level of play exhibited by some beloved crowd-pleasers. Above all else is, obviously, Juan Martin Del Potro, who has carved through the draw with his hammer of a forehand. Building on the upset of Stan Wawrinka in Wimbledon and the fairytale campaign at Rio de Janeiro, the gangly Argentine is yet to relinquish a set in four matches, dispatching on the way the American highest seeded player, Steve Johnson, and the ever-unrelenting David Ferrer.

Also yet to cede a set is French Showman Gael Monfils, whose spectacular style has been toned down slightly to provision for an uptick in effectiveness. With his rare athleticism visibly intact, the 29-year-old may now be approaching that sweet spot we’ve all been waiting for years, a scary proposition for everyone standing on the other half of the court.

With Nadal eliminated, Federer watching on television from the other side of the Atlantic and Stan Wawrinka prone to some dangerous bouts of inconsistency, Del Potro and Monfils headline the list of candidates to hinder the Djokovic-Murray rematch.

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