Wrapping up the Grand Slam stories this year is our pundit's take on what to expect and who to watch at the US Open that starts on Aug 28
(published in the Edge Malaysia, Options lifestyle section)
This month, the tennis world shifts its attention from the grass courts of Wimbledon to the hard courts of America. The US Open, the fourth and final Grand Slam tennis event of the year starts on Aug 28 through to Sept 10 and is held at the US Tennis Association (USTA) Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York (named for the American tennis legend and former world No.1).
Gone are the Wimbledon’s hushed grounds. Instead, say hello to the loud noisy cheers (and sometimes jeers) of raucous New Yorkers. The contrasts continue as we move from strawberries and cream to hot dogs and fries, from All-white attire to anything-goes! Everything appears to be louder and brighter in America, and it certainly makes for an electrifying and entertaining atmosphere for both tennis players and fans alike.
Its also bigger too. The Arthur Ashe Stadium, the main court at the US Open, is the largest tennis stadium in the world with a seating capacity of over 23,000. Spectators with the most affordable seats in the upper levels are advised to bring along their binoculars. The stadium was named after American tennis legend Arthur Ashe, who won three Grand Slams including the 1968 US Open, and was the first black player selected to the US David Cup team and the only black man to win the singles title at Wimbledon, beating another American tennis great, Jimmy Connors, in 1975.
And even if you’re not that into tennis, you can still be entertained by the festivities. The Arthur Ashe Kids Day, to be held on Aug 26 provides child-friendly interactive and entertaining tennis-related activities, including music performances by popular stars. This year, the Arthur Ashe Stadium, which opened in 1997, is celebrating its 20th anniversary and country music superstar Shania Twain will headline the opening night ceremony.
One of the things that make the US Open unique among the Grand Slam tournaments is that it is the only one that makes use of tie-breaks in the final set. If a game goes to the fifth set for men (third set for women), and that set reaches 6-6, the players will play a tie-break, whereas the other Grand Slams require the players to keep playing until one has taken a two-game lead (recall the longest grand slam match at Wimbledon where American John Isner and Nicolas Mahut of France kept playing for 11 hours over 3 days until Isner won 70-68 in the fifth set).
The US Open has also been the scene of some incredible moments in tennis history, like in 1991 when five-time US Open winner Connors unexpectedly reached the semi-finals at the age of 39 and not forgetting German tennis legend Steffi Graf, who in 1988, won the US Open and completed the “Golden Slam” – winning all 4 Grand Slam events and Olympics gold medal in the same calendar year (a feat most believe will not ever be repeated).
And what about minting new Grand Slam champions at the US Open? From the 2005 French Open to the recent 2017 Wimbledon, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka have between them claimed all but two Grand Slam singles titles. That’s 48 out of a possible 50 titles! The two Grand Slams they didn’t win were both at the US Open, with Juan Martin Del Potro taking the 2009 championship, and Marin Cilic claiming the 2014 title. Even Murray won his maiden Grand Slam title at the 2012 US Open.
Special things tend to happen at the US Open and we look forward to seeing what the final Slam of the year has in store for tennis fans worldwide. The defending men’s champion is Swiss star Stan Wawrinka who beat Novak Djokovic in the 2016 final. Unfortunately, Wawrinka has decided to sit out the rest of the 2017 season due to a knee injury. He follows in the footsteps of last year’s finalist Djokovic who will also miss the rest of the year to recover from an elbow injury.
The defending women’s champion is Angelique Kerber, who became the first German to win the US Open since Graf in 1996. Kerber beat newly crowned world No. 1 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic in last year’s final.
The total prize money for the US Open will be $50.4 million, with a record $3.7 million going to the men’s and women’s champions. The runners-up will each get $1.825 million.
The story of the season continues to belong to 2 men many consider as among the greatest to have ever played the game of tennis. It has been an incredible comeback year for renaissance men Federer and Nadal, who both took several months off last year to recover from injuries. Together, they have now won the first three Grand Slam events of 2017. Nobody saw this coming. Federer, who recently turned 36 years old, has won the Australian Open and his eight Wimbledon crown (the most in Wimbledon history in the men’s Open Era), and now holds the record for most Grand Slam wins among men at 19 titles. Nadal, who won the French Open for a record 10 times, stands at No. 2 in the all-time list with 15 Grand Slam titles.
With Wawrinka and Djokovic out for the rest of the year and injuries affecting Murray and Cilic, Federer and Nadal stand a very good chance of grabbing the final Slam of the year with the brilliant form they have been displaying so far. Federer has won the US Open five times, a record he shares with tennis legends Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors in the Open Era. Federer surely must be eyeing another US Open win to reach the magical number of 20 Grand Slam titles. Nadal (now back to world No. 1), has a chance to win his third US Open title and close the Grand Slam title gap with Federer. In any case, the resurgent Federer and Nadal continue to delight their fans and have proven to the world (and to themselves) that they are still at the top of their games and are not quite ready to relinquish their grip on Grand Slam titles.
Other notable players to look out for in the US Open: Canadian Milos Raonic (No.10), who has never progressed past the fourth round of the US Open, remains a threat with his big serve and powerful groundstrokes. Czech Tomas Berdych (No. 14), played well to reach this year’s Wimbledon semi-final, but lost in three tight sets to Federer. Berdych, still chasing his maiden Major title, would have to string several strong performances to go deep in the tournament. Juan Martin Del Potro from Argentina (No. 31), a fan favourite, had a dream run to the US Open title in 2009, beating Nadal in straight sets in the semi-final and Federer in the Final. Del Potro, slowing making his way up the rankings after wrist injuries almost cut short his tennis career, says that he is just happy to be back playing competitive tennis.
Croatian Marin Cilic (No. 6), finalist at Wimbledon this year, had to skip a US Open tune-up event at Montreal citing an adductor injury, and may miss the US Open. Cilic beat Japan’s Kei Nishikori (No. 9) to become the US Open champion in 2014. In the semi-final, Cilic beat Federer convincingly in straight sets in what Federer had described as “lights-out tennis”. Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov (No. 11), Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No. 12), Australian Nick Kyrgios (No. 24), Italian Fabio Fognini (no. 25), and big-serving South African Kevin Anderson (No. 32) have been in good form of late and would be interesting to watch.
Flying the flag for the US are several players in the world’s top 20: Jack Sock (No.17), John Isner (No. 19) and Sam Querrey (No. 20). Hard hitting Querrey has been in impressive form, most recently beating Murray to reach the semi-finals of Wimbledon. Last year he beat Djokovic at Wimbledon to reach the quarter-finals.
Sock, a strong baseliner, has been making deep runs in Masters events, beating several top-ranked players Raonic, Nishikori and Dimitrov, but has not advanced past the fourth round at Major events. However, Sock is an established doubles player, having won the 2014 Wimbledon doubles title and the 2011 US Open mixed doubles.
Isner’s best showing in the Major events is reaching the US Open quarter-finals in 2011. With his 6ft 10in frame and big serve, he always presents a challenge to players and would surely want to do well on home soil.
The two brightest spots for NextGen players this year has been Austrian Dominic Thiem and German Alexander Zverev, ranked world No. 8 and 7 respectively. They continue to advance through the rankings with their youthful energy (Thiem is 23 years old, Zverev is 20) and skilful shot making. Watch for Thiem’s powerful one-handed backhand and kick serve. Zverev, along with Thiem, has been hailed as the next big thing in tennis. Zverev has shown his seriousness to reach the top by adding former world No.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero from Spain to his coaching team and they are off to a winning start, with Zverev taking the 2017 Washington Open, a US Open hardcourt tune-up event, for his fourth ATP title of the year. 6ft 6in Zverev, has a strong serve and backs it up with powerful groundstrokes off both sides. Both Thiem and Zverev are now top-10 players and many observers feel that their maiden Grand Slam title is coming real soon.
An emerging talent to look out for is Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov, who recently beat Del Potro and then Nadal to reach the quarter-finals of the Coupe Rogers event in Montreal. With the wins, 18-year old Shapovalov became the youngest quarter-finalist at an ATP Masters 1000 event. His heavy lefty serve and powerful forehand are his key weapons along with a smooth one-handed backhand.
On the women’s side, the field is very strong especially in the top 20. My picks to watch out for in this year’s US Open: New world No. 1 Pliskova, has one of the best serves on tour. On her way to the US Open finals last year, she beat the Williams sisters but fell short at the end, losing to Kerber. She would be motivated to do one better this year with her new ranking. Romanian Simona Halep (No. 2) has been steadily improving her game and attitude since bringing on top coach Darren Cahill into her team. A finalist at this year’s French Open, she is slowly but surely progressing her way to her maiden Grand Slam title soon. Kerber (No. 3) had a stellar 2016. She won the Australian and US Opens, an Olympic Silver medal, reached the Wimbledon finals and ended the year as No. 1. Perhaps the high expectations that followed weighed down on Kerber slightly, and she has had patchy results in 2017 so far. Things started to look better for Kerber in this year’s Wimbledon, reaching the fourth round but ran into in-form eventual winner Garbine Muguruza. Muguruza (No. 6), a two-time Grand Slam winner, lately has seemed to strengthen her game and mindset and this has translated into her winning form. She won this year’s Wimbledon with a steely resolve, belief and determination with each passing match.
Ukrainian Elina Svitolina (No. 4) has nine WTA titles and has beaten all the players ranked above her currently. She grinds her opponents with a strong baseline game and is hard to beat on her day. Caroline Wozniacki (No. 5), is having a good season so far, having risen to her current ranking from No.74 about a year ago. Known for her counter-punching game, Wozniacki, a former world No.1 and two-time runner-up at the US Open, would need to bring out her best to go one further this year. British player Johanna Konta (No. 7) is a picture of persistence and determination with a stunning rise up the rankings from No. 150 in 2014 to her current top-10 ranking. She reached the Wimbledon semi-finals this year, becoming the first British woman to do so since tennis great Virginia Wade in 1977. Konta is an exciting player to watch, with her strong serves and attacking baseline shots.
Hoping to win in their home turf are American players Venus Williams (No. 9), Madison Keys (No. 17) and Coco Vandeweghe (No. 21). Venus is having a great year at age 37, reaching the finals of two Grand Slam events (Australian Open and Wimbledon). A two-time US Open winner, Venus continues to display the age-defying skills of Federer on the women’s tour. Keys and Vandeweghe, with their heavy groundstrokes and good court movement should see them do well at their home tournament.
Nineteen year-old Ana Konjuh from Croatia (No. 22) is the only teenager in the women’s top 30. An up-and-coming player, she reached the quarter-finals of last year’s US Open. Other players to note are 2017 French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko (No. 12), French player Kristina Mladenovic (No. 13) and fan favourite Petra Kvitova (No. 14) who recovered from a knife injury to her playing hand earlier in the year but is now happily back on the courts and returning to her winning form. This year’s US Open looks set to play witness to more magical tennis moments where all-time records could be set once again and perhaps a new first-time Grand Slam winner will be crowned!