This is the second of Ricky's five-part U.S. Open preview series, running through Sunday.
Part 1: Draw preview
Part 2: Draw analysis
Part 3: Top 25 contenders
Part 4: Weekly "Approach Shots"
Part 5: Full tournament predictions
The question on everyone’s mind heading into Thursday afternoon’s U.S. Open draw ceremony was whether or not Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would be in the same half.
Question answered: they aren’t.
Nadal, seeded third, is on Andy Murray’s side, while Novak Djokovic is in Federer’s half. That, of course, is the big news, but now let’s sort out the remainder of the bracket.
In my French Open draw analysis, I mentioned that Federer’s quarter was “the weakest quarter of a Grand Slam draw I have ever seen. Ever.” Well, I think Federer’s section at this year’s U.S. Open has surpassed even his French Open draw in terms of ease.
The seven seeds in addition to Federer are Nikolay Davydenko, Robin Soderling, Tommy Robredo, James Blake, Sam Querrey, Paul-Henri Mathieu, and Lleyton Hewitt. Davydenko is the weakest of the top eight seeds, Soderling (elbow) and Hewitt (knee) have been injured, Blake and Robredo are in the midst of massive slumps, and Mathieu simply isn’t dangerous. The only formidable potential opponents for Federer are Davydenko and Querrey (who won the U.S. Open Series), but the top-ranked Swiss could not meet either one until the quarterfinals.
Best First-Round Matchup — (26) Paul-Henri Mathieu vs. Mikhail Youzhny. A former Top 10 player, Youzhny plummeted in the rankings throughout 2008 and currently registers at 59th in the world. However, he has actually been playing pretty well this spring and summer, so Mathieu won’t overlook him. The Frenchman, meanwhile, has been solid but unspectacular in 2009 and he made it to the Hamburg final earlier this summer. Youzhny and Mathieu have played each other twice already this season and both encounters were entertaining; Youzhny prevailed in three sets in Munich and Mathieu got revenge in two tiebreakers on the clay courts of Stuttgart. If nothing else, the shotmaking in this one will be worth the price of admission.
Aside from Mathieu and Youzhny, there are few—if any—first-round matchups to write home about, although that is subject to change when the qualifiers get placed in the draw. In other words, Federer excluded, this section of the draw has no redeeming qualities.
What to Watch For — Whether or not any of the potential challengers put on displays during the first week of the tournament that would suggest they have any chance against Federer. If Hewitt and Soderling are 100 percent, they have the capability of at least giving the world No. 1 a test. Querrey and Davydenko both have the talent to be problematic for Federer, but they will have to be at the very top of their games.
All signs point to a rematch of last year’s memorable quarterfinal between Djokovic and Andy Roddick. In 2008, of course, their showdown was more memorable for what transpired off the court rather than what took place on the court, although the match itself was actually quite good. With both men playing well (Roddick consistently, Djokovic at least in Cincinnati), another Djokovic-Roddick encounter could feature top-notch tennis, and there is no reason to think the matchup won’t happen. Fernando Verdasco and Tommy Haas are dangerous, but both have cooled off following torrid stretches of tennis earlier in the year. Nobody wants to play John Isner, but is the big man really ready to take out Roddick in a Grand Slam? Other than Djokovic, Roddick, and a very few threats, this quarter does not have a ton to offer.
Best First-Round Matchup — There are a number of intriguing first-round clashes in this section, but the best could be Simone Bolelli vs. (15) Radek Stepanek. Boelli’s talent is undeniable, but he has not put it all together this year and is ranked just 67th in the world. Stepanek, however, has been dealing with a knee injury during this hard-court summer season and if he is just a step slow, an upset is very possible.
Other opening-round showdowns to watch are (23) Philipp Kohlschreiber vs. Andreas Seppi, (10) Verdasco vs. Benjamin Becker, and (28) Victor Hanescu vs. Isner. Even Djokovic could have a tough match on his hands with Ivan Ljubicic, but the fourth-seeded Serb recently handled Ljubicic in Cincinnati and should be able to do the same in New York.
What to Watch For — The progress of Verdasco and Haas through the early stages of the draw. Outside of Verdasco and Haas, I don’t see anyone who could derail a potential Djokovic-Roddick quarterfinal. Should Verdasco and Haas meet in the third round, the winner would most likely run into Roddick in round four. If the winner is looking good and playing with confidence (that already applies to Haas), there is a chance Djokovic-Roddick could be denied.
Djokovic should be relatively untroubled on his way to the quarters. Potentially standing in his way in the fourth round is Philipp Kohlschreiber, who ousted Djokovic in shocking fashion at the French Open. The world No. 4 would almost certainly get revenge this time around, and you can bet it would be sweet.
He would never admit it, but Nadal surely wanted to accomplish two things with the announcement of the draw: avoid Federer in his half and stay clear of Del Potro and Roddick in his quarter. Mission accomplished. But that’s just about all Nadal—or anyone else in this quarter—accomplished. His section, and the entire bottom half of the draw, is brutal. Other seeds in the Spaniard’s bracket include Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Fernando Gonzalez, Gael Monfils, Tomas Berdych, and David Ferrer. Before any of those difficult prospects come into play for Nadal, he has to face Richard Gasquet in the first round. Granted Gasquet is far from 100 percent as he returns from suspension, but it’s not exactly the easiest of opening matchups. If Nadal falters (and that’s a big “if” even in his current state), a host of worthy contenders will battle it out for a semifinal spot.
Best First-Round Matchup — There are two matchups between countrymen that will certainly grab the attention of any tennis fan; one should actually be a great match, the other is just kind of funny. The one that could turn out to be a barnburner is (13) Monfils vs. Jeremy Chardy. Monfils has been one of the best players on tour this season when healthy, while Chardy is enjoying by far his best year ever as a professional.
The other matchup of note is an all-Chilean showdown between Nicolas Massu and (11) Gonzalez. These two veterans are long-time friends and doubles partners, and they even teamed up to win Olympic gold in doubles back in 2004 (Massu also won gold in singles, while Gonzalez took home bronze in Athens). Both must have forced a chuckle when this draw came out!
What to Watch For — Obviously, anything and everything that pertains to Nadal. How are his knees? How is his movement? How is he dealing with the fast hard courts that always give him trouble? Are the big hitters like Berdych and Gonzalez playing well enough to blow him off the court? The good news for Nadal is that he should have plenty of time to answer these questions. With all due respect to Gasquet, he is going to be little more than a pushover in round one, and the rest of Nadal’s draw is friendly until the second week (either Monfils or Ferrer in the fourth round).
This is—without question—the most difficult of the four quarters. Murray and Del Potro, two of the hottest players in tennis this season, are on another collision course for the quarterfinals, where they met at last year’s U.S. Open. Standing in their way, however, are imposing seeded players such as Gilles Simon (who battled Del Potro in a third-round, five-set thriller one summer ago), Marin Cilic, Stanislas Wawrinka, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Ivo Karlovic. Even the unseeded threats in this quarter are more dangerous than in any other section of the draw. They include Juan Monaco (vs. Del Potro in round one), Jurgen Mezler, Marat Safin (vs. Mezler in round one), Chris Guccione, Fabrice Santoro, Philipp Petzschner, Feliciano Lopez, and Ernests Gulbis (vs. Murray in round one).
Best First-Round Matchup — A handful of entertaining opening-round showdowns are on the menu in this quarter of the draw; perhaps none, however, will turn out to be better than (24) Ferrero vs. Santoro. The two veterans have met seven times in their careers; not a ton considering they boast a combined age of 65 and have been on the pro tour for a combined 33 years! Ironically, they have already met twice in early stages of Grand Slams this season, including a first-round clash at the Australian Open, which Santoro won in four sets. Ferrero, however, got revenge in the second round of Wimbledon, also in four sets. The Spaniard is the favorite on paper and is in outstanding form, but Santoro has enjoyed some memorable performances in New York and who knows what he has up his sleeve for a swansong?
Like Santoro, Safin is also making what is presumably his final appearance at the U.S. Open. The 2000 champion begins one last campaign in Flushing Meadows against a tough opponent in Melzer. Other matchups to keep an eye on are Murray vs. Gulbis, Del Potro vs. Monaco, Wawrinka vs. Nicolas Lapentti, and Lopez vs. Taylor Dent.
What to Watch For — Contrasts in style. This section has it all: old guys, young guns, human backboards, ball-bashers, etc. The result should be enthralling matches every step of the way, from Day 1 all the way through the quarterfinals. Opponents will try to blast Murray off the court right from the start; Gulbis in the opener, possibly Karlovic in round three, and perhaps Cilic in the fourth round. On the other hand, underdogs will attempt to make Del Potro beat himself by keeping ball after ball in play; Monaco will try that strategy in their opener, and Simon will do the same if they get to square off again in a fourth-round showdown. Will huge hitters like Del Potro, Safin, Cilic, Karlovic, Guccione, and Gulbis power their way to success, or will guile and strategy pay off for the likes of Murray, Ferrero, Monaco, and Simon?
Draws often come out relatively balanced, but this is not one of them. Starting with the top quarter and working your way down, it goes from borderline miserable (Federer’s quarter), to weak (Djokovic’s quarter), to difficult (Nadal’s quarter), to brutal (Murray’s quarter).
Gripe all you want, but this is the best time of the year to be a tennis fan, and there is always reason to look on the bright side at the U.S. Open. Consider some of those reasons:
If you’re a Federer fan, you’re happy he got one of the easiest draws ever.
If you’re a Nadal fan, you’re happy he avoided Federer, Roddick, and Del Potro.
If you’re a Djokovic fan, you’re happy that he could get another shot at Roddick (after several recent losses), and thus a chance to prove he is still part of a “Big 4.”
If you’re a Roddick fan, you’re happy he landed in Djokovic’s quarter rather than, say, Federer’s or Murray’s.
If you’re a Del Potro fan, you’re happy he could get another crack at Murray.
And if you’re a Murray fan, well, you can at least be happy that he ended the streak of Federer and Nadal being seeded 1 and 2 at slams. Sure, the draw did not reward him for it, but it’s an accomplishment in itself.
And with that, it’s time (almost) for the speculation to end and the games to begin!
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