U.S. Open Preview: A Weird Time In Tennis

Federer is a seven-seed. Sharapova was almost Sugarpova. A cable dispute could black out much of the tournament in the host city. Just another year at tennis' strangest Grand Slam.

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Serena Williams of the United States returns a shot during her victory in the Rogers Cup women's final against Sorana Cirstea of Romania at Rexall Centre at York University in Toronto, Ontario, August 11, 2013.

The U.S. Open is weird. Most of its marquee matches conclude well after the sun has set. The raucous crowds can be heard during the middle of practically every point. Rain interrupts play with a frequency that would make Wimbledon blush. And the men’s final is held on a Monday afternoon when all but the most die-hard of fans would otherwise be occupied. Yet more often than not, these oddities come together to make the final Grand Slam of the tennis calendar the season’s most exciting event.

This year, the tournament is even stranger. Seventeen-time Grand Slam (and five-time U.S. Open) champion Roger Federer is seeded 7th in the men’s draw, his lowest in a decade. Former U.S. Open champ Maria Sharapova briefly considered changing her name to Maria Sugarpova for the event—to promote her candy line—then decided against it, before withdrawing from the tournament altogether due to a shoulder injury. Most residents of the host city won’t be able to watch many of the tournament’s best matches due to a dispute between network broadcaster CBS and cable provider Time Warner. Oh, and there’s no obvious favorite for either the men’s or women’s draw.

On the women’s side, the conversation has to begin with Serena Williams. The 31-year-old American won last year’s U.S. Open and has lost just once since her fourth-round exit at Wimbledon earlier this summer. The 2013 campaign has been an odd one for Williams. She appeared well on her way to capturing a sixth Australian Open title, but was tripped up in the quarterfinals by fellow American Sloane Stephens. The loss kicked off months-long speculation over the pair’s complicated relationship (or, more accurately, lack of relationship). All the while, Williams kept winning, earning title after title on her way to the French Open. Historically speaking, the French had been Williams’ weakest Grand Slam. She had won just one title at Roland Garros way back in 2002 and hadn’t advanced beyond the quarterfinals since 2003. Her relative lack of prior success seemed to matter little this year though as she stormed through the draw to her first Grand Slam title of the season.

But Williams had difficulty keeping off-court distractions at bay. An interview with Rolling Stone that was published in mid-June sparked a pair of controversies—the first surrounding Williams’ unpopular comments about the Steubenville rape victim and the second involving her criticism of a fellow WTA player’s personal life. While the former initially attracted more attention, it was the latter that carried through till players arrived in England for the  Wimbledon Championships, where the five-time champion was the unequivocal favorite. It was widely speculated that Sharapova was the player whom Williams had taken a shot at in Rolling Stone, and she held little back with her retort, saying, “If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids.” Just 9 days later, Williams was knocked out of Wimbledon.

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Now Williams has a chance to bounce back from her early exit and cap what, by all accounts, is the best full season of her accomplished career. She’s already captured 8 titles, won 60 matches for the first time in her career and has lost just four times (Australian, Wimbledon and twice to No. 2 Victoria Azarenka). Her sixth U.S. Open title would be a fitting capper to the year—and Williams won’t have to deal with defening Wimbledon champ Marion Bartoli, who retired earlier this month. Azarenka, on the other hand, could be a problem.

The 26-year-old Belarusian entered 2013 with a thoroughly unimpressive 1-11 lifetime record against Williams, but this year has dramatically changed the narrative. Azarenka has defeated Williams in two of their three meetings and, most crucially, each of those wins came on hard courts (not entirely unlike the ones on which the U.S. Open will be played). Azarenka is one of the few players on tour with power that can at least come close to matching Williams’. Should the two meet in the finals this year, Azarenka’s lighter 2013 schedule might work in her favor. Like Williams, she’s lost only four matches this year, but has played in only 40—two dozen fewer than Williams’ 64.

Since 2005, seven different women have won Grand Slam titles on hard courts: Kim Clijsters, Jusin Henin, Amelie Mauresmo (all retired), Sharapova (withdrawn due to injury), Samantha Stosur (best Grand Slam result in 2013: third-round losses at Roland Garros and the All-England Club), and Williams and Azarenka. Given the unpredictability of women’s tennis in the last few years, it’s impossible to say who will come away with this year’s U.S. Open crown, but Williams and Azarenka are, with little question, the most likely candidates.

The big story on the men’s side of the draw heading into the tournament is Federer’s seeding. More important than the number itself, however, is what it means for the cream of the crop in men’s tennis: It’s time that the Big Four once again became the Big Three—except this time, it’s Federer who’s on the outside looking in. By all accounts, we’ve been headed in this direction for quite some time. Federer earned himself a brief respite when he unexpectedly won his seventh Wimbledon championship last year, but his last Grand Slam title prior to that was at the Australian Open in 2010. On top of that, the Swiss legend has won just one ATP title in 2013, besting a 28-man field in a Wimbledon tune-up.

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Even so, Federer’s fall from the upper echelon is of little comfort to the three men left in tennis’ top tier—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray—all of whom are well aware that any path to a title will likely go through at least one of the other two. Which of the three has the best chance in Flushing, however, is a more complicated question.

Common logic would hold that Murray, despite holding the lowest seed of the three at No. 3, is the tournament favorite. He’s the defending champion and is coming off a historic title win at Wimbledon last month. But since that triumphant victory at the All-England Club, Murray has struggled. He was bounced in the Round of 16 in his first tournament back and didn’t fair much better in his next hard court tune-up, falling to No. 6 Thomas Berdych in the quarterfinals. While those results aren’t especially encouraging, it’s worth noting that he didn’t fair any better during those same U.S. Open tune-ups last year, and still managed to come away with his first Grand Slam title. Add to that the fact that he is sure to be riding a wave of confidence from his Wimbledon title, and there’s little to suggest Murray will give Djokovic all he can handle if the two meet in the semifinals. (Fun fact: Murray and Djokovic have squared off in three of the last four Grand Slam events, and each time the winner has gone on to win the tournament.)

Despite Murray’s momentum, there’s no denying that Djokovic—the top-ranked player in the world—remains a force. The splendid Serb hasn’t won a tournament since April, but when his game is firing like it was when he and Murray met in Melbourne back in January, he’s nearly unstoppable. His showings during the August tune-ups were solid, if unremarkable for a player of his caliber. Djokovic fell to Nadal in the semifinals of the Masters Series Canada and was upset by John Isner in the quarterfinals of the Masters Series event in Cincinnati.

That, of course, leaves Nadal. The 27-year-old Spaniard suffered a shocking first round defeat at Wimbledon, but that can be at least partly explained by the wear and tear placed on his body over the course of seven matches at Roland Garros earlier that month. Nadal is usually heralded for his unparalleled success on clay courts, but he’s been no less dominant on hard surfaces of late. He won both of the August tune-ups, regaining his No. 2 ranking in the process, and has not lost a hard court match since March 2012, when Federer bested him in the finals at Indian Wells. And to put his rather incredible season in perspective, he has nine titles against just three losses in 2013.

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What this all means when the year’s final Grand Slam begins on Monday is anyone’s guess. After all, a different man has won the U.S. Open in each of the last five years—the other Grand Slam events have been  prone to dominance by one player (most notably Nadal at the French and Djokovic at the Aussie). But the outcome of the U.S. Open will undoubtedly have an impact on how each contender’s 2013 campaign is viewed. For Nadal and Williams, championship wins would avenge their Wimbledon upsets and cap arguably the best seasons of their careers. For Azarenka and Murray, U.S. Open titles would solidify their breakout seasons and make them favorites for the next year’s Aussie Open. And for Djokovic, his seventh Grand Slam championship would remind everyone why he’s the best tennis player in the world. Let the weirdness begin.