Monday, August 31, 2015

Serena's Shot at History: Your US Open Primer

Serena Williams has a chance at history in New York, as she goes for her first Calendar-Year Grand Slam, her 7th US Open title, and an Open Era record-tying 22nd Major Championship.
By Andy Dougherty (@AndyDougherty10)

The final tennis major of the year has arrived, and all eyes are on Serena Williams as she looks to become the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win all four majors in a calendar year, and aims to equal Graf’s Open Era record of 22 career major titles.

Serena, who turns 34 in late September, is 48-2 with more than twice as many ranking points as anyone else in 2015. She has proven all year that if she is playing well, she will trounce any opponent in the field. Perhaps more impressively, she has fought harder than ever when playing poorly, as her 16-1 record in 3-set matches demonstrates.

As if she needed any help, 3rd-ranked Maria Sharapova pulled out of the tournament at the last minute due to a leg injury. She withdrew too late to be replaced by another seeded player, and Serena is now guaranteed not to face a top-5 player before the final. Her biggest challenge will be to block out the importance of her potential achievement and take the tournament one step at a time. If she does that, no one in the field can stop her.

The two players who have beaten Serena this year are Petra Kvitova and Belinda Bencic. Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, has never been past the 4th round of the US Open, or beaten Serena on a hard court.

Bencic is the only player to win a 3rd set against Serena this season. That win helped her claim the biggest title of her career earlier in August, when she beat 4 of the top 6 players in the world to win the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Her best result at a major was a quarterfinal showing at last year’s US Open, and she appears poised to contend for the title this time around. But, at age 18, she might not quite be ready to play the role of giant killer on the sport’s largest stage.

2nd seed Simona Halep and 20th seed Victoria Azarenka are the next most likely players to trouble Serena. Halep dominated Serena on a hard court at the end of 2014, and Azarenka has pushed Serena to the brink in a US Open final before. But Serena beat Halep in straight sets to win the Cincinnati title a week ago, and Azarenka has not returned to peak form since a foot injury derailed her 2014 season.

A handful of players realistically believe they can beat Serena, but none of them can do so on their own terms. All they can really do is give their best and hope something goes wrong with Serena.

Serena might steal all the headlines, but there is also a men’s tournament. Unlike the women’s tournament, the men’s is about as wide open as it was a year ago, when 14th seed Marin Cilic shocked the tennis world and won his first major title against 10th seed Kei Nishikori.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic has only won the title once in his career, and that win came in his historically dominant 2011 season. 5-time champion and 2nd-seeded Roger Federer is 34 and has not reached the final in New York since 2009.

No. 3 Andy Murray will enter the tournament with confidence after beating Djokovic in August for the first time in over 2 years, but he has struggled against Federer this summer, and they find themselves on the same side of the draw. Before looking ahead to a rematch with Federer, Murray will have to deal with the extremely talented and controversial Nick Kyrgios in the first round.

Later, a potential quarterfinal match against No. 5 Stan Wawrinka looms. Wawrinka, winner of two major titles in the last 2 years, can outhit anyone in the world. The other top players have better defensive skills, but his ruthless offensive game has developed over the past few years to make him a threat to win any tournament he enters.

Most people have written off No. 8 Rafael Nadal, but he won this title in 2013 and has not lost before the semifinals since 2007. Injuries kept him from defending his title last year, and he has had an extremely disappointing season, but a 14-time Grand Slam champion should never be counted out. Fans are still waiting for the first Federer-Nadal showdown at the US Open, and it would have to come in the finals this year.

That might be the only way to upstage Serena.

To be fair, Djokovic is having a dominant season and is almost as big of a betting favorite as Serena. He will likely face Nadal in the quarterfinals, and astoundingly few people would give Nadal a chance. But Djokovic has shown vulnerability in New York throughout his career, and he has lost matches to Murray and Federer in his last two tournaments.

A few years ago, women’s majors were full of surprise winners while a very small group dominated the men’s majors. When Serena and Cilic emerged victorious at last year’s US Open, the dynamic changed. The surprises are sure to keep coming for the men this year while Serena continues to simply overwhelm the rest of the women.

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