Thursday, August 27, 2009

U.S. Open--a look at the competition

It seems like almost every year, the television commentators tell us that the field for a major is "wide open." The term has been used so much, it almost has no meaning. However, this year, the U.S. Open field really is wide open--not because there is no dominant player on the tour, but because the top players all have such obvious vulnerabilities.

Here is a look at the players who could win in Flushing Meadows, as well as some other players:


Dinara Safina: The world number 1 does well--very well--in majors until she gets to the end, or near-end, of the line. Then her nerves take over. It doesn't help that every week, there is a media conversation about her unworthiness to be number 1. Safina has everything else it takes to win the U.S. Open, but without the mental toughness, she cannot win it. Nevertheless, she is a top contender, and this could be the time she figures it out.

Serena Williams: Williams has two modes when she plays in majors--struggling at the start, then mowing down the competition--and "going crazy" (her words). In the latter mode, she collapses without warning; in the former, she simply cannot be beaten. The longer she plays, the better she gets, and she is very much a top contender to win this year.

Jelena Jankovic: How delightful to once again be able to list Jankovic as a contender to win the year's last major. She had a bad year, characterized by a ridiculous training regimen that rendered her unable to do all the things she does best, and by her mother's serious illness. But she has overcome both of those problems, and has also emerged with a consistently better serve. Once again, everyone's favorite drama queen has a good chance to deliver her greatest drama ever.

Svetlana Kuznetsova: She won the Open in 2004, then struggled with what appeared to be the psychological part of her tennis. Kuznetsova, an athlete of extreme talent, runs hot and cold, but she ran very hot this spring when she won the French Open. Kuzzy likes the hard courts, and there is every reason to look at her as a contender in New York.

Elena Dementieva: Dementieva, who just won the Rogers Cup title, has often been called the best player on the tour without a major title. She has come close, but has had to settle with finalist status. Dementieva is a very unpredictable player. Just when you think she cannot win, she pulls off a tennis miracle. And just when you think she cannot lose, she collapses. She has everything it takes to win the U.S. Open; the question is whether she can put it all together at the same time.

Kim Clijsters: After some thought, I decided that--yes--Clijsters is indeed a contender. Why not? Sure, she has recently lost to both Safina and Jankovic, but she is still Kim Clijsters, and--unlike Safina and Jankovic--she has won the U.S. Open. Since the field really is wide open, I'm putting Clijsters on the list of contenders.


Venus Williams: Williams has won the U.S. Open twice. Twice she didn't play because of injuries, and of the eight times she lost, six of the losses were to the eventual winner. The luck of the draw simply has not been good for her. She could always surprise me and win this year, but unless she is playing at Wimbledon, there are now players who know how to beat her, and anything less than an easy draw could do her in.

Maria Sharapova: Sharapova's 2006 U.S. Open victory was stunning in every way. From the first ball she struck, she looked like a champion. Even her clothes were especially stunning. And in the final, she made the mighty Justine Henin look ordinary. That was then. If Sharapova can regain her fitness and her serve, she will win the U.S. Open again. But this is not the year.

Flavia Pennetta: The champion in Los Angeles and the first Italian to reach the top 10, Pennetta is tenacious and clever, and she packs more power than some might think. She is also a load of fun to watch. Pennetta reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals last year, and she is having an excellent season in 2009. Generally considered to be a level down from being a "real" contender, she is nevertheless a true danger on hard courts, with her big hitting, sound thinking and easy moving.

Victoria Azarenka: Earlier in the season, I thought I'd be listing Azarenka as a major contender to win in New York. But she no longer appears as formidable, or as ready to do something really big. Still, she has the ability to go far in the draw, and she could surprise all of us.


Samantha Stosur: The term "blessing in disguise" comes to mind when I think about Stosur's unfortunate illness two years ago. When she returned to the tour, it took her a while to get her bearings, even in doubles, but what has emerged is a new Sam Stosur--one who appears ready to meet her considerable potential. With her serve and forehand, and her volleying skills, Stosur is at home on almost any court. And now that she has increased confidence, we are more likely to see her stick around a while in a tournament.

Vera Zvonareva: Poor Zvonareva. Just when she was playing the best tennis of her life, she sustained a really painful ankle injury in Charleston. Now she's back, but she is going to have to work hard to return to her pre-Charleston level. All the same, Zvonareva is a very good athlete with a blistering backhand, and she is well worth watching.

Alisa Kleybanova: Her run in Toronto gave a lot of people an opportunity to see the hard-hitting Kleybanova's considerable tennis skills. She has a big serve, and a lot more. Kleybanova is also fiercely competitive, and therefore, a player you should see if you can.

Sabine Lisicki: Speaking of big serving, practically no one has a bigger--or more varied--serve than Lisicki. She also has a huge forehand, and the best drop shot since Patty Schnyder came on the scene. But Lisicki has had an up-and-down season because of injury and illness. She spent some time off the tour because of injury, then became ill and spent some time in the hospital. Upon her return, she began to double-fault a lot. She reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, but became a victim of anxiety and insufficient fitness, and lost the match. Then she had to retire in the middle of the Los Angeles tournament because of an injured shoulder. She withdrew from Cincinnati and Toronto, and is currently in rehab. The outlook is good, but the spirited German has had almost no match time on hard courts this season, and we cannot expect to see her at her best in New York. But she is still worth watching.

Caroline Wozniacki: Wozniacki is a fiery and talented player who routinely gets to the quarterfinals and semifinals of tournaments, and sometimes wins them. But she has not been able to make the kind of dent in the tour that would make her an elite player. The U.S. Open gives her an opportunity to go to a new level.

Zheng Jie: A good rule of thumb these days is to watch Zheng at every tournament. When she is playing at her best, she is capable of upsetting some big players.

Marion Bartoli: The Stanford champion is very unpredictable. Prone to injury and retirement, she is also prone to flashes of amazing tennis, and is a world-class returner of serve.

Sorana Cirstea: Cirstea is now ranked number 25 in the world, and there isn't much to stop her from climbing higher in the rankings. The versatile Romanian seems to make herself fit in wherever she goes, and she is capable of hanging around a while at the U.S. Open.

Agnieszka Radwasnka: Unfortunately, Radwanska's second serve--unless she can figure out how to never employ it--is such a deficit in her otherwise lovely game, it takes her out of competition at the highest levels. I would think she would be working on developing a real second serve day and night, but what do I know? Still, Radwanska's keen anticipation and laser-like groundstrokes make her a player worth watching.

Other players to watch are Sybille Bammer, Elena Vesnina, Gisela Dulko, and Melanie Oudin. And Katarina Srebotnik is finally back, after a long time off the courts.

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