Thursday, September 12, 2013

Reflections on the 2013 US Open

The two favourites going into the last grand slam of the year both won, and along with some other interesting stories, they feature in my reflections on the 2013 US Open.

Rafael Nadal's desire to win is unparalleled in the open era

Despite missing eight months on tour due to injury after Wimbledon last year, Rafael Nadal has come back to have one of the most dominant seasons in the history of men's tennis. That he is undefeated on hard courts, the very surface many felt was responsible for his injury problems is a testament to his continuous desire to keep improving in addition to facing and overcoming challenges. Nadal approached the American hard court season with a new aggressive approach, playing closer to the baseline, and executing flawless volleys at net to finish off points.

Remarkably Nadal's serve was only broken for the first time in the semifinal against Richard Gasquet, as opponents simply couldn't cope with returning wide backhands on the rise. The only player who has had success returning his serve has been Novak Djokovic, and it is his victory over the world number one that is the most impressive aspect of Nadal's resurgence. It was only in 2011-12 that Djokovic beat Nadal in three different grand slam finals. Many including this observer believed that Djokovic had figured out a way to beat Nadal at least on surfaces other than clay. However that is to discount Nadal's very nature, as the Spaniard has come back to beat Djokovic three times this year, adding two hard court victories to his epic semifinal win at Roland Garros earlier in the year. It is a fact that best highlights Nadal's unbelievable will to win, and sets an incredible bar not only for the game of tennis, but sport as a whole.

Serena head and shoulders above the rest

Previewing Serena Williams' matches during the US Open was a thankless task, as finding weaknesses in her game compared to her opponents was akin to finding needles in a haystack. There wasn't a single opponent over whom she didn't have the clear edge. One would struggle to find three consecutive 6-0 sets across the quarterfinals and semifinals of a grand slam, but that is exactly what Serena dished out - first in a humiliating double bagel against Carla Suarez Navarro, followed by a 6-0 6-3 thrashing of Li Na in the semifinals.

Serena did show she was capable of being human, as nerves got the better of her when she was close to winning the championship in the second set of the final against Victoria Azarenka. Azarenka started hitting winners with nothing to lose, and for about 45 minutes Serena had no answers. The true mark of a champion is in dealing with adversity, and Serena varied her tactics beautifully in the deciding set, hitting balls in the middle and asking Azarenka to take the initiative, something the Belorussian couldn't do, ultimately succumbing easily to the overwhelming superiority of Serena.

Serena now has 17 grand slams, and many rightly consider her to be the greatest women's tennis player of all time. Experts believe that Steffi Graf's record of 22 grand slams is well within her reach, but the possibility that excites me the most, is that if Serena maintains her level and focus, there is a real opportunity for her to win the calendar grand slam in 2014, a feat that isn't entirely beyond her considering how far ahead of the competition she is.

Djokovic and Murray need to do some soul searching

The US Open must surely serve as a harsh reality check for Messrs Djokovic and Murray. After featuring in three of the last four grand slam finals, people started to claim that matches between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray had become the preeminent rivalry in the men's game. That Rafael Nadal could miss so much tennis and win more grand slams than them in a year is surely a galling thought for the duo.

Djokovic in particular needs to rediscover his mojo from his Annus mirabilis in 2011, when he spectacularly even out-Nadalled Nadal, winning epic matches from losing positions, beating Federer, Nadal and Murray consistently on his way to three grand slams. Some of that ruthlessness has been missing this year, and most worryingly for Djokovic his serve has deserted him completely during crucial moments in big matches. He lost the aforementioned classic semi to Nadal at Roland Garros after being a break up in the fifth set, threw away 4-1 and 4-2 leads in the second and third sets respectively in the Wimbledon final against Murray, and topped it off missing a slew of break points in the crucial third set in the US Open final, before donating the set and consequently the match with some horrendous errors on his own serve. Djokovic claimed in the aftermath of the final that he is going to improve his game next year, but first and foremost the Serb has to regain his ruthlessness and then reaffirm authority with his serve.

Many in the British press have claimed that it was only natural for Murray to go through a trough after the magical year he has had, especially in light of overcoming the burden of becoming the first British man to Wimbledon in 77 years. However, if Murray truly wants to establish himself as a contender to Nadal and Djokovic, the Scotsman can't afford to have another grand slam like he did at Flushing Meadows this year. It was clear as early as the second round that the Murray we were seeing in New York was a throwback to the days when the slightest difficulty faced resulted in the situation getting the better of his game, and it was no surprise that his lack of focus resulted in his elimination at the hands of Stanislas Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. Boris Becker has suggested that Murray should now set new goals, and in addition to having a crack at number one, he should also think about how to get the better of Nadal, as the two haven't squared off in a competitive match since 2011.

Azarenka wasn't completely convincing

After a tense three-set final at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, many expected a repeat final between Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams at the US Open, which was duly delivered. However, Azarenka clearly wasn't playing at her best level in New York, and its probably fair to say she peaked with that tense victory over Serena. In fact Azarenka's win in Cincinnati  probably made Serena more determined and focused in her bid to win her fifth US Open.

Like Djokovic, Azarenka looked shaky on her serve throughout the tournament and that she didn't lose to Ana Ivanovic in the round of 16 was down to the Serbian having even more of a nightmare on her own serve. Rather than brandishing winners with her powerful baseline strokes, Azarenka relied on grit and tenacity to make it through to the final, and when she finally managed to hit a hot streak of winners to take the second set in the championship showdown, she followed it up with a raft of unforced errors in the decider.

Azarenka has two Australian Open crowns and two runners-up finishes at the US Open in the last two years. These are achievements any tennis player would be proud to have, but one has to conclude that Azarenka is far from the finished article. While she is clearly a superior all-round player to many of the pretenders on the WTA tour, there isn't yet a defined element of her game that stands out in comparison to the best of the rest, let alone Serena. If Azarenka is serious about winning more grand slams, there are a few tweaks to her game that she would do well to incorporate, including a defter touch at net, and better positioning moving forward to complement her excellent sideways movement.

The Federer conundrum

It's been a long time since Roger Federer lost in the second round and fourth round of consecutive grand slams, but unfortunately for the legions of admirers of the Swiss Maestro, that is exactly what happened this year. While his loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky at Wimbledon was a case of the Ukrainian putting in a once-in-a-career performance, his defeat against Tommy Robredo at the US Open highlighted some of Federer's worst traits. Sixteen break points were squandered and easy points were lost to ridiculous errors. That Robredo then went on to lose 6-0 6-2 6-2 to Nadal rubbed more salt into the wounds of tennis fans around the world.

That the effects of age and physicality are having an impact on the legend are obvious to see. However, I believe Chris Evert's dissection of Federer's mental strength and desire is more telling. Even when Federer was winning grand slams for fun, he wasn't always at his best in the crucial moments, a fact bared out by the continuous failure to defeat Nadal in finals at Roland Garros despite almost always having more break points, with the thrashing handed out by his rival in 2008 being the notable exception. Evert mentioned that in sport, age quells desire quicker than physical strength, and I couldn't agree more. As Federer enters the twilight of his career, his biggest weakness is now becoming glaringly apparent and being exposed by players who really have no right defeating him.

The best of the rest

Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet were the two surprise semifinalists, both delighting fans with their supreme single-handed backhand winners. Wawrinka has looked on the cusp these past few years, and with improved fitness and greater confidence he finally reached a grand slam semi after displays of fantastic attacking tennis against Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray, and he even had Djokovic on the ropes for long periods of their pulsating semifinal. After years of underachievement, Gasquet finally matched his Gallic flair with the resistance of de Gaulle to make it to his first grand slam semi since Wimbledon 2007. Let's hope it doesn't turn out to be a one-off, because Gasquet is one of the few remaining artists on tour, and if he can now kick on, his mercurial shot making can only enrich the later stages of the grand slams.

Juan Martin Del Potro was a big disappointment, especially in light of his fantastic run to the semis at Wimbledon. The Argentine appeared sluggish in his semifinal loss to John Isner in Cincinnati, and he failed to rouse himself against Lleyton Hewitt in New York. It's a mystery as to why Del Potro was so sluggish, and troubles with his wrist flared up again during his second round exit. Del Potro will be 25 next year, and on top form he remains the best bet for a player outside the top three to win a grand slam. However he needs to put his injury worries behind him, and he simply has to step up a level or two in the motivational stakes. David Ferrer did what David Ferrer does best, a solid fighting run to the quarterfinals, and Tomas Berdych looked great until he expectedly unravelled against a tactically astute opponent.

The case for the pretenders in the women's game remains just as weak if not weaker. Wimbledon winner Marion Bartoli either didn't have the desire to build on her maiden grand slam triumph or was terrified about being found out as a fluke champion. Meanwhile Wimbledon runner-up Sabine Lisicki has demonstrated over the years that she is only capable of playing well on grass. Ekaterina Makarova delighted fans with her touch, and a duo of Italian veterans in Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta provided the feel-good stories with their runs to the quarterfinals and semifinals respectively. However, it is a sad state of affairs in the women's game when a case could be made for teenager Sloane Stephens being one of the best players during the US Open despite losing to Serena in the round of 16. The harsh reality is that Serena's greatness is compensating for the vast amount of mediocrity that is prevalent through most of the WTA tour.
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