After the clay and grass of Europe, tennis will this week turns its attention to hardcourts across the Atlantic for a five-week run-up to the year’s final Grand Slam event in New York, the US Open.
The US summer hardcourt season often represents a fresh start for many top players keen to atone for disappointing showings in Paris or London. But on the men’s side, the current status quo seems unlikely to change.
Since winning Wimbledon, Andy Murray has established himself as the world’s premier player. This may not be reflected in the rankings; the Scot sits at No.2 behind Serb Novak Djokovic. Yet he’s the reigning Wimbledon and US Open champion and current holder of the prestigious Olympic and Miami titles. And by reaching the Australian Open final in January and Wimbledon final in 2012, he has progressed to the final in his past four Grand Slam appearances.
No other player can say that.
Murray loves the quick US hardcourts, which provide the sure footing needed to unleash his devastating court speed and reward his increasingly-attacking, all-court game. And he can now swing truly free – gone is the crushing pressure of playing before parochial fans in Great Britain, and with his Wimbledon title, he’s avoided the dreaded “One Slam Wonder” moniker.
Perhaps only one man is properly positioned to stop the rise of the Scot, and that’s Djokovic.
The world No.1 was smarting from his sub-par performance in the Wimbledon decider, and having also fallen at the final hurdle in New York last year, he’ll be extra-motivated to return to the winners’ circle. Plus, North American hardcourts have always suited his aggressive, athletic game – last year he won in Canada and reached the final in Cincinnati, and has played in three US Open finals, winning in 2011.
Having battled one another in the finals at three of the past four majors, Murray and Djokovic are dominating the game. They’ve separated themselves from illustrious Big Four rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who each head for North America somewhat compromised.
For Federer, it’s form. Whether the result of less match play or that he’s soon to turn 32, rust is now apparent in his game. It contributed to his earliest Grand Slam exit in more than 10 years at Wimbledon – he fell to 116th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round – and also his error-strewn quarterfinal exit in New York last year despite an impeccable build-up.
With Nadal, it’s health. The Spaniard returned to the tour with a vengeance and captured the French Open, but was shot by Wimbledon, his infamous knees reportedly to blame for a shock first-round loss to world No.135 Steve Darcis. If he found the lawns hard to navigate, unforgiving North American cement will be no easier; this segment of the tennis calendar is traditionally his least-productive.
Perhaps looming as a more dangerous challenger to Murray and Djokovic is Juan Martin del Potro. He was a US Open champion in 2009 before a wrist injury derailed his career in 2010, but now playing regularly again, he’s been steadily reclaiming his form of old. At Wimbledon he reached the semifinals at a major for the first time since that stunning run at Flushing, and back on his favoured US hardcourts, expect del Potro to make a strong push for a second major title.
Serena to re-group
Also one to watch will be Serena Williams, who despite her earlier-than-expected exit Wimbledon, will be the undisputed women’s favourite.
No-one seems more motivated by their losses than Williams, and the world No.1 must have been particularly irked by her loss to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round at SW19, a match in which she led 3-0 in the final set. Devastating on all surfaces but arguably most on hardcourts, the defending US Open champion plays her best on the big stage and there is none bigger than the mighty Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the crowd adore her.
Although Maria Sharapova is ranked second, it’s world No.3 Azarenka who has to be considered Serena’s principle rival for the US Open crown.
Sharapova has passed the fourth round at the Open just once since 2006, while Azarenka has shown a liking for the bright lights of New York City, coming within mere points of topping Williams in last year’s dramatic US Open finale. Health depending – she suffered a nasty knee injury at Wimbledon – there’s no reason Azarenka can’t thrive on cement once again.
The women’s tour is scattered with several others capable of a blistering fortnight. There’s 2011 US Open champ Sam Stosur, former French Open and Wimbledon winners Li Na and Petra Kvitova, reigning Wimbledon titleholder Marion Bartoli, and the crafty Agnieszka Radwanska, ranked fourth and a regular presence deep at the majors.
Though Williams may be the one to beat, these women, and many more, could help orchestrate an absorbing and fitting climax to the Grand Slam season.