U.S. Open Picks

We're down to the final major of the season, and I find myself more excited for New York than I have been in recent years. In 2008, the players dragged themselves in for the season-ending Slam after the Beijing Olympics. This year, everyone arrives fresher, more eager, with an eye for making up lost opportunities. More than a handful of players come into the Big Apple with bright prospects, and perhaps more important, fresh legs. 
My predictions:

Men's Singles:
Winner:   Murray
Finalist:   Djokovic

The top of the men's game has rarely been as deep and consistent. Week in and week out, the top 6-8 players make deep runs in big tournaments. Whoever makes it to the second week here will have to play lights-out ball because there aren't likely to be too many surprises or upstarts in later rounds.

On the men's side, I'm going with Scotland's Andy Murray. He genuinely likes New York. He was a junior champion here and he calls it his favorite Slam (a poke perhaps at stuffy Wimbledon). He trains here and owns a place in Florida. He reached the NY final in '08, and throughout the season he has been the most consistent player on hard courts, with two big titles (Indian Wells and Montreal) and a ATP Tour-best 34-3 record. It won't be easy for him or anyone, but I think he has enough Grand Slam seasoning and confidence to muscle in on the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal duopoly (incredibly, they have won 17 of the last 18 majors). Two things could hold him back: His penchant for passivity in long matches; and a brutal draw.


Federer -- back at No. 1, secure in history with a record 15th Grand Slam, a father of new twin girls -- heads the top half of the men's draw. It's hard to argue with the silken Swiss reaching another final. He's the hottest player on tour with a 26-1 mark and four wins in his last five events. He's also the five-time defending champ. He brushed aside two of his main nemeses, Murray and Novak Djokovic in winning Cincinnati. During the three days I spent in Cincy reporting tomorrow's cover story on him for USA Today, he appeared as relaxed as I've seen him. As Mike Bryan told me, "He's on cloud nine." But I felt he was almost too relaxed, which is why I'm not picking him to reach the final.

Federer has a tough road even to the semis in the top quarter of the draw, with the likes of 2001 champ Lleyton Hewitt in the third round, James Blake in the fourth, and either French Open runner-up Robin Soderling or No. 8 Nikolay Davydenko in the last eight. Those opponents won't allow him to relax much, but 28-year-old has too many weapons -- not to mention the growing affection of local fans -- to fall before the final Saturday.

The other quarter in the top part of the draw features No. 4 Djokovic and No. 5 Andy Roddick. There are some other dangerous players around -- New Haven champ Fernando Verdasco, Tommy Haas, John Isner, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Igor Andreev -- but I expect Djokovic and Roddick to face off in the quarters. Roddick has owned Djokovic this season, going 3-0, all on hard courts. But this time I'm going with the Serb. Djokovic has been a bit of an enigma this year, reaching four Masters finals but repeatedly coming up short. What caused him to lose his way after a stellar start to 2008 that included an Australian Open title is unclear. Did he get too cocky? The racket switch to start 2009? The distraction of owning, running and playing in a tournament in his home country? Whatever the case, the super talented Serb is due for a big result, and despite the ill-will he generated with fans in New York last year, I'm picking the 22-year-old Serb to get past Roddick and Federer and reach his second U.S. Open final in three years.

The lower half is brimming with talent, too. The top quarter features No. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Thomas Berdych, Fernando Gonzalez, Gael Monfils, 2007 U.S. Open semifinalist David Ferrer and, of course, third-ranked Nadal. That's a lot of firepower. I believe Nadal when he says he arrives in New York in less than top form, though the 23-year-old Spaniard usually downplays his chances. He played well to beat Berdych in Cincy, but overall he hasn't looked as sharp in his movement or serving as he did when he won in Melbourne or prior to his two-month injury absence. A tricky first-round opponent in returning Richard Gasquet won't cause many problems (Gasquet is still too shellshocked from his doping suspension) and I expect Nadal to get better with each match, but I'm not feeling it for him this year. One of the big hitters will take him out, likely Tsonga or Gonzalez, in the fourth round.

Murray has a wicked path to the last eight, with streaky Ernests Gulbis in round one, the dreaded Ivo Karlovic in round three, big-hitting Marin Cilic in round four and then dangerous sixth seed Juan Martin Del Potro in the quarterfinals. Murray will use his speed, range, smarts and improved serve to beat them all back, and then he'll take out Tsonga in the semis to reach a second straight final in New York. If he hasn't run out of gas -- and I'm predicting he'll have just enough left in the tank -- this time he won't leave a bunch of balls sitting mid-court as in '08 and bring home Britain's first Grand Slam Championship in almost three quarters of a century.

Women's Singles:
Winner:   Serena
Finalist:   Safina

How can you pick against Serena Williams in the majors, considering her unwavering ability to turn it up on big stages, not to mention opponents -- Venus notwithstanding -- that wilt under the pressure of important venues? The 11-time major winner hasn't done much outside the Slams. Her only three tournament victories over the last 12 months are in New York, Melbourne and London. But if she gets to the second week and smells the trophy, few can stop Serena but Serena herself.

I've always felt that when the 27-year-old American gets smug, when it comes too easy, she loses focus. I believe that was her downfall after the 2002-03 "Serena Slam." She's not as sure a pick as last year when she came in licking her wounds from the Wimbledon defeat to her older sister, but I'm giving her the nod. However, it would not surprise me if one of the three Slam-less wonders on the top half of the draw -- No. 1 Dinara Safina, last year's finalist Jelena Jankovic, or perennial Slam contender Elena Dementieva -- winds up with the spoils.


In the top half, Safina has a tricky third round opponent in fellow Russian Alisa Kleybanova but otherwise has a pretty clear path to the quarterfinals. The bottom part of the first quarter should see an all-Serb matchup in the fourth round with struggling Ana Ivanovic and rebounding Jankovic (unless promising German Sabine Lisicki knocks off Ivanovic a round before). I've lost faith in the '08 French Open champ and former No.1 for the moment, and if they meet, Jankovic will prevail. The Safina-Jankovic should be a classic power vs. guile match-up, and though Jankovic beat Safina in the final at Cincinnati, this time the 23-year-old Muscovite will manage her game better and reach a fifth straight Slam semi.

In the other quarter of the top half, I like the recovering Maria Sharapova to make a run to the semifinals, though it won't be a cakewalk. She will have to get by No. 4 Dementieva in the third round, who is arguably the hottest player on tour  coming into New York following her victory in Toronto (over Sharapova in the final). I like New Haven winner Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark to advance to the quarters over French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova and face 2006 Open champ Sharapova, who will outhit her to reach the semis. The all-Russian semis promises plenty of grunting and baseline fireworks, but Safina is the more experienced Slam player at the moment. Sharapova is still a few months (and a more reliable serve away) from becoming a legit Slam contender, but she's making progress fast.

The lower half of the draw pits Serena and Venus for the semifinals, but my pick to reach the last four from the top quarter is mom Clijsters. With several top-20 wins under her belt, the athletic Belgian is already back in the mix and probably just a few tournaments away from looking like a top-5 player. Venus, 28, hasn't won a event on cement in the U.S. since '02 and lost two her last three matches to unheralded competition. She could step up and blow through people as she often has in majors, but she's too unpredicable. In this quarter, wild card Clijsters will out-hustle the hardworking No. 8 seed Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who has had a solid season (two Slam quarters) since winning Miami in April.

Serena's quarter has hardworking Sybille Bammer and resurgent Samantha Stosur; none can match the American's power on hard courts. No. 7 Vera Zvonareva has done little since coming back from injury, so I'm going with veteran Amelie Mauresmo of France to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal since '06 in New York against Serena. There, the Frenchwoman will be overwhelmed. Clijsters' defense will give Serena problems in the semis, but clutch serving and a few extra fist pumps will pull her through to a fifth New York final and second in a row.

Serena is her generation's big-match player. I expect Safina to finally play closer to her ability in her third major final, but Serena is her generation's big-match player. One way or another -- blowout or nailbiter -- she will bag a 12th Slam.

 

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  • 9/5/2009 6:03 PM carl mcsweeney wrote:
    Serena is definitely the favorite but I'll pick Safina just to be contrary. Although, I think Clijsters has a real shot too.

    On the mens' side, I'll go with Roger. He lost the Wimbledon final last year and the Australian this year due to nerves. I don't think he can be "too relaxed".

    I think it would be great if both winners were parents of small children. It would prove that having children is a wonderful thing as long as you have the money for a nanny and a couple of personal assistants.

    How about Roddick? OUCH! Oh well, congrats to Isner. He played a great match.

    Is it too late to pick Oudin over Maria? I thought she had a real shot going in. Does that count? Do I get bonus points for that
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