Monday, September 1, 2014

The State of the Men's Draw as of this Moment

The women at the US Open have provided us one of the most baffling tournaments in recent memory. While Serena Williams has rolled, the rest of the top seeds have been in a race to exit the tournament most quickly, dropping like flies over the course of a murderous week in Flushing. However the men have taken the opposite path and thus it is one of the most to form men's tournaments in quite some time.  Seven of the top eight seeds are still in play (with only David Ferrer eliminated, which considering his US Open history, should have surprised no one) and only one unseeded player (Dominic Thiem) has crashed the party. Yet even without a ton of major surprises or action so far, it is my guess that the energy is about to crank up with a wild "Sweet 16" full of some solid match ups and potential for great tennis.  A look at what is to come, starting momentarily:

(1) Novak Djokovic vs (22) Philipp Kohlschreiber

As I write this, Djokovic and Kohlschreiber are walking onto Armstrong to begin their warmups in front of a massive crowd, filled to such capacity that the line to enter is literally snaking around the entire USTA grounds. My guess is that most will be disappointed with the action on the court as the Djoker seems a solid bet to move on rather easily.  Novak has, with a couple of lapses of focus notwithstanding, rolled so far this fortnight and seems destined to have one more relatively easy match before a potential Murray-Wawrinka-Federer ride to the title. He was likely very pleased to avoid John Isner, who fell to his nemesis Kohlschreiber for the third straight year in the Round of 32. Philipp has shown us an uncanny ability to get to this point, breaking American hearts along the way, only to bow out gracefully to a better player at this point. Expect that trend to continue this afternoon.

Pick: Djokovic in three

(9) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs (8) Andy Murray

My gut tells me this has the potential to be the match of the tournament so far, as Tsonga and Murray take the court for the feature showdown on CBS on its final Labor Day coverage, ending its 30-plus year run. Murray has looked shaky this entire tournament, losing a set in every match and at times fighting cramps that seem to appear out of nowhere. He has not come close to showcasing his major winning form and most of the British journalists here in the media room have dismissed him as "rubbish" this year, which is not only my favorite descriptive word in the English language, but also an apt description of his recent play. Tsonga described the tennis locker room as "less afraid" of Murray this year because of his recent poor form, and a win would give him only his second quarterfinal here of his career.  This will be the match of the day and maybe the tournament thus far, ending Murray's difficult 2014 major run and elevating Tsonga to a powerful slug match in the quarters versus Djokovic

Pick:  Tsonga in five

(3) Stan Wawrinka vs (16) Tommy Robredo

Tommy Robredo is the Andy North of the ATP, doing better in majors than he has any right to expect and boring crowds by the thousands in the process. Watching Robredo knock out an infinitely more entertaining player (this year Nick Krygios) has become a yearly tradition for me and has led me to dub him, "Ruining Robredo" (I don't expect Nike to market that t-shirt, but if they do, consider this my Trademark application).  His run usually ends to a star thankful to get Robredo over his opponent, and Wawrinka will serve that role just fine this year. For Stan, he has won two tournaments this year, the Australian Open and the Masters event in Monaco and each had the unique benefit of giving him a walkover in the third round. Blaz Kavcic did the honors this year in the third round, which may be a good omen for Stan going forward. My guess is Robredo bores the Swiss gentleman into dropping one set and Wawrinka moves on to a much more entertaining opponent in the quarters.

Pick:  Wawrinka in Four

(10) Kei Nishikori vs (5) Milos Raonic

The Tournament committee slotted this match for the main event tonight which seems at first glance to be an odd choice, but will likely be justified by the competitiveness on the court. Raonic seems to be the sneaky favorite of a lot of the tennis media here to reach the finals versus Roger Federer.  Many see his near victory of Djokovic at Wimbledon as being avenged here in the Semifinals, as he then tries to play the role of spoiler in Roger's last stand next Monday.  But first he has to get past Nishikori, a player whose style can give Raonic fits, especially if his serve isn't at the highest level.  Kei is the type of player who slowly wins over a crowd and with the Labor Day night session expected to get slightly rowdy after a day of liquid refreshment, I could see a match where Milos is tested on and off the court. I pick Raonic to win but could easily see an upset, as Milos's fitness and composure are sure to be tested under the lights on Ashe.

Pick:  Raonic in an exciting Four

(6) Tomas Berdych vs Dominic Thiem

I don't go to a lot of music festivals (people are too sweaty and it is way too hot), but I know someone who promotes them and I was once told that in the music festival industry they have what are called "skip" bands. On the Main Stage of an event like Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza, you might occasionally see an act that makes you say, "I really don't think Toad the Wet Sprocket is still big enough to be on in between Pearl Jam and Kanye West."  But Toad the Wet Sprocket is there to allow people a break to maybe go and get out of the sun for a few minutes, rest and have a chance to thin the crowd before the big acts return.  Hence the "skip" band.  For the US Open Round of 16, this is the "skip" match.  Tomas Berdych is the most boring top level player outside of David Ferrer (and I am not convinced they are not the same person), while Dominic Thiem is here primarily because Ernests Gulbis was Ernests Gulbis in their match.  It won't be interesting, fun or able to hold your attention.  So take a break and wait for Kanye (or Monfils vs Dimitrov) to take the stage a bit later.

Pick:  Berdych in Four

(14) Marin Cilic vs (26) Giles Simon

This will be a classic example of exciting tennis that only the hardcore racket head will likely see. Neither Cilic or Simon are marketable names, but both play exciting games and both are looking at this as potentially their breakout moment. Both players have made a career of getting to this exact spot in a Grand Slam draw and then losing.  Between them, they have two career Grand Slam quarterfinals to their resume, cementing their reputations as top level tour professional journeymen.  Now their chance is finally here. Simon upset David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych stands as possibly the most beatable of the power 8 players remaining.  A potential Semifinal berth stands at the precipice for both mean and both know they will rarely see a better big tournament opportunity. I expect to see both swinging for the fences, with many wild swings of momentum and for those that venture to watch it (likely as the last match on Armstrong tomorrow for those who are able to preserve until the end of the day) a five set classic on the horizon.

Pick:  Cilic in Five

(7) Grigor Dimitrov vs (20) Gael Monfils

The US Open in New York, possibly more than any other tournament of the year, has a significant amount of "casual" tennis fans. These are the people who love the game, so long as Serena, Federer or Nadal are playing, and who tennis is more an annual social event, rather than a passion. Those people add to the spectacle of the US Open and are a big reason the crowds can be so intense on those special Ashe Stadium nights.  But for those that are one step above the casual, for whom the Top 20 in tennis is a regular follow and entertaining matches are always sought to be found, Dimitrov/Monfils is the Round of 16 treat. The dreamy superstar Dimitrov, who has women of all ages around the grounds salivating (I overheard one around my mother's age saying a few days ago, "I don't usually go for guys like him but there is just something about those eyes...") versus the most entertaining oddball in the game. Both have a charisma that draws in fans and rarely do either produce a clunker of a match. If the Tournament is smart, this will be the main event tomorrow night on Ashe...and if so, save me a front row to the hordes of teenage girls clamoring for the "One Direction" of tennis.

Pick:  Dimitrov in a very fun Four

(2) Roger Federer vs (17) Roberto Bautista Agut

As an unabashed Federer-ite, this match worries me slightly. It was around this time last year than Ruining Robredo, came and spoiled our chances for a Federer-Nadal Quarterfinal by boring the greatest to ever play into a four set loss. Now comes a similar player in Bautista-Agut, who has no business taking out Roger on a hard court, but who nevertheless could cause problems.  Last night Federer started slowly versus Marcel Granollers, dropping the first set and looking very pedestrian in the process.  Roger however then found his form, running off three straight sets in which he only dropped three games total.  A similar match could be in store here, in a battle that likely will be a setup for a huge quarterfinal against either Dimitrov or Monfils.  I expect Roger to drop a set as in Round Three, but nevertheless move on and keep the dream of a magical 18th major alive.

Pick:  Federer in Four

So there you go...Djokovic/Tsonga, Wawrinka/Raonic, Berdych/Cilic and Federer/Dimitrov.  A top heavy quarterfinal awaits, so long as the matches over the next two days don't screw it up.  Until then, utilize the "skip" match and enjoy the proceedings.