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The U.S. Open As a Portal To the Future: 6 Questions Going Into 2012

Novak Djokovic (photo courtesy of www.sportsnewscoverage.com)

A deluge of rain, a blaze of sledge hammer ground strokes exchanged over two epic mens matches with legacy implications, and another miraculous Serena Williams career comeback (only to be mired by her poor sportsmanship) as she razed through an otherwise star-starved draw to the Women’s Finals were the big stories of this year’s 2011 U.S. Open.

The U.S. Open has opened the door to much speculation as to fates of the ATP tour’s top players. Here are six key questions to entertain going into 2012.

1. Has Roger Federer’s legacy taken a hit after the 2011 U.S. Open?

About a year ago, Federer was touted as being the best tennis player of all time. Now, however, there seems to be a visible dent in Federer’s armor, and it’s not necessarily his advanced age (30) compared to his two nemeses, Rafael Nadal (25) and Novak Djokovic (24). It’s Federer’s psychological makeup. Federer proved once again that he is indisputably the best all-court tennis player in the world when he won the first two sets of the U.S. Open semifinals against the seemingly invicible Novak Djokovic last Saturday. Federer went on, however, to lose the next two sets, in part because Djokovic went on an indominable 16/20 first serve clip to start the 4th set, but more so because Federer was clearly rattled by Djokovic’s uncanny rally: by the end of the match, Federer had amassed 59 unforced errors to Djokovic’s 35.

Federer’s grand slam victories (16) is a record that even if surpassed will place him as one of the top five tennis players in history.  For a while, however, it seemed as if he may lay claim to the throne of “best ever.” Now, issues concerning Federer’s candidacy will be more carefully examined. The bulk of Federer’s Grand Slam wins came before Nadal and Djokovic emerged as elite players, and age considerations notwithstanding, if Federer doesn’t win one or two more grand slams against either player during the remainder of his career, there will be a compelling argument that you can’t label Federer as “the best ever” if he couldn’t beat two other players who are marching into men’s tennis legacy in their own rite.

2.  How many Grand Slams does Nadal win in his career?  Does he have a shot at “Best Ever”?

Quite simply put, it depends on how well Nadal adjusts against his Serbian Alpha clone, Novak Djokovic. Right now, it’s clear that Djokovic has Nadal’s number. Nadal’s success is predicated on a relentless counter-punch game where his strength and athleticism transforms defensive returns into violent offensive swats. So, for instance, while some players, like Andy Murray, can reach deep cross court shots to keep a point alive, Nadal doesn’t only reach them, he sledgehammers them back into winners. The problem for Nadal against Djokovic is that Djokovic does the same thing, but he covers the court with less exertion, and has a monstrous forehand that can really force Nadal to retreat to more honest defensive play.

Nadal is such a fine athletic specimen, that even if he doesn’t adjust his game to rattle Djokovic, he will still be able to grind out a few brutal five set contests against the currently #1 ranked player in the world over the next three years of his prime. Count on Nadal to win probably three more career grand slams and to join the Federer / Sampras sphere of all-time greatest. On the other hand, if Nadal does make the proper adjustments, or Djokovic gets injured, he may amass  17 or 18 Slams and create a solitary top tier in tennis legacy.

3. So, if Nadal and Federer’s legacy seem so dependent on Djokovic’s play, shouldn’t Djokovic be the front runner for “Best Ever”?

Way too soon to tell, and even if that weren’t the case, highly unlikely. Djokovic now has three grand slams under his name, all earned in 2011 amid a sparkling 64-2 record. Several tennis pundits are stating that Djokovic just completed the greatest year ever in men’s tennis, particularly given the competition he has consistently defeated. Still, even if Djokovic were to attain ten or more career grand slams, he would still have to consistently perform at the same level he did in 2011 and defeat Nadal on numerous occassions in Grand Slam events. Meanwhile, with the way the men’s tour has been churning talent over the last decade, it’s likely that in a couple of years, another phenom will come along to challenge Djokovic as well. Djokovic’s may have the best defensive-based game ever in tennis, even better than Nadal, but if a young, elite all-court player comes onto the scene, he’ll have the arsenal to beat Djokovic a reasonable percentage of the time.

Count on Djokovic to win another five or so Grand Slams, and land a highly coveted position on the royal court alongside Agassi and Borg. Best Ever? Hardly likely. Federer and Nadal are way too far ahead in the running.

4. Forget about Legacy for a moment. Will Andy Murray ever win a single Grand Slam?

Is there an official title for best non-grand slam winner ever? Would anybody want that title? I’d venture to say that in any other era of tennis, even alongside Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in their primes, it would be extremely likely that Andy Murray would win at least one grand slam. Murray’s first service return and strong counter punch game that switches into an offensive net game enough to keep things unpredictable would be sufficient to rattle Sampras or Agassi on an off day. In this era, however, I’d give Murray a 50/50 shot.

So what does this say about Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic? Well, they’re still essentially carbon-based life forms like Sampras and Agassi, but even more deceptively bionic on the tennis court. For all of Murray’s strengths, the ATP Men’s current top three dwarfs Murray physically. Also, each is by far more psychologically composed than Murray, who too often uses rage as a fuel to rile himself up against his superior competition. The problem is rage burns too quickly – it’s been good for single set comebacks, but too often the next set it has lead Murray into a whole bunch of scowling at his tennis racket, umpires, or the sky.  In order for Murray to reach that next level – even if its just for a single Grand Slam final – he’s going to have to learn to harness a different emotion on the court.

5. Any viable candidates for a “First Lady of Tennis”?

At first glimpse, I’m tempted to say Serena Williams. Even given Williams’ inexcusably violent outbursts against umpires at the Open in 2010 and 2011, her on-court dominance alone has the presence to put woman’s tennis on the center stage. At the 2011 U.S. Open, the 13 time Grand Slam winner who had recovered from a year long battle with life threatening blood clots, failed to lose a set going into the Women’s finals. As a reward for her dominance, Williams was slated to play her semi-final round against #1 ranked Carolyn Wozniaki at the Prime Time slot Saturday evening starting at 10:30pm. About 18 hours later, Williams was back on the court to play the U.S. Open finals against relatively uknown Australian Sam Stosur. Williams, who was nursing an exacerbated toe injury from the night before, lost in straight sets. Such a disappointing story is just not First Lady material.

The problem for Williams is that similar stories have appeared way too often in a fine yet desultory career. Williams – who is easily the most physically magnificent if not most talented woman’s player in tennis history – has been absent from at least one grand slam even since 2002. She’s also underwent long lapses of mediocre performances at the Slam Events – during a four-year stretch between 2004-2007, Williams only won a single Grand Slam event. Sometimes, these dry spells were due to poor fortune – numerous injuries have deterred her career. Other times, Williams’ “losing streak” was explained by her decision to live a well balanced (gasp!) life. During her prime, Williams pursued other business interests such as ventures into the fashion industry.  In any event, First Lady status requires a more consistent presence on the tour.

Anyone else up to the task?  Doesn’t look that way. We would love for Carolyn Wozniaki – a lithe and lovely media presence with a wonderful blend of modesty and intelligence – to take the helm. The problem is, however, that much of her personality translates into her game – she’s balletic on the court, throughly defending her baseline until her opponent errs, but has little of that ferocious offensive game that separates a consistent champion from the fray. Wozniaki’s style works against a high percentage of a rather unremarkable woman’s field, but it won’t be effective toward winning seven matches in a row at a Grand Slam. Someone will play Wozniaki at a very high level, avoid making mistakes, and eventually overwhelm her with a more aggressive offensive onslaught. Or, Serena Williams will make another comeback and crush Wozniaki in straight sets.  Bottom line: if Wozniaki finds a way to break out of her shell and develop an all-court game, it would be a ray of sunlight on woman’s tennis. But, from the looks of it, that’s a very big “if.”

6.  Is there anything the U.S. Open can do to improve its product?

Pay more respect to fans and players alike. For one thing, the Open needs to render a mandate against scheduling a semi-final and final less than 24 hours apart. It’s disrespectful to the two finalists who deserve at least a day of rest before competing for the title.  Scheduling the matches so close apart also effects the quality of the Finals; if Serena Williams had an extra day to rest her toe, does anyone really think she would have lost to Stosur in straight sets?

As it stands, the U.S. Open routinely expands matches into Monday due to its refusal to build a retractable roof over at least one stadium to protect against routine late August monsoons. One solution to avoid scheduling issues would be to actually build the roof. The other would be for the Open to fully accept a flexible schedule, and not try to patch things up by squeezing weekend match-ups in so tightly. Since fans already have to deal with the fact that this year’s Men’s Final started at Monday at 4pm, there is no reason why the U.S. open shouldn’t make a further concession to the woman’s bracket and push their match back to Monday morning as well.

About Argun M. Ulgen

When I was young, my dad and I used to watch a lot of MSG midnight replays of Knicks basketball after he came home from work. One night at 1am we grilled steaks and watched the Knicks somehow hold onto a 4th quarter lead. Sometime later, I started to fall in love with reading all sorts of literature, including sports books.The dawning of this romance came soon after my deep relationships with HBO reruns of its fine series programming, not to mention the Encore channel's more than generous replays of Scarface, came to a close. I write, but only when I don't feel like being idle. Feel free to AIM me at YoProtein (that's "Yo, Protein!") with comments or suggestions about my work. I more than welcome feedback.

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