This is the third of Ricky's five-part U.S. Open preview series, running through Sunday.
Part 1: Top 25 contenders, part 1
Part 2: Top 25 contenders, part 2
Part 3: Draw analysis
Part 4: Weekly “Approach Shots”
Part 5: Full tournament predictions
Well, what’s new? Another tournament; another potential semifinal between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Just like in every other Grand Slam this season, Djokovic and Federer are on the same side of the draw while Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray are on a collision course in the other half.
None of the four, though, will be looking ahead to the final weekend of the U.S. Open. Federer and Murray, especially, could face difficult tests en route to the last four at Flushing Meadows.
Really the only thing that can get in Djokovic’s way is Djokovic, himself—or, more specifically, his questionable shoulder. His draw, therefore, is nowhere as critical as his own health. As for the draw…the Serb is in a relatively talented section. He will cruise into round three, but at that point it could get tough. Nikolay Davydenko can still be a threat on any given day and a serious shotmaker—either Richard Gasquet or Alexandr Dolgopolov—looms in round four.
While Djokovic did not get the toughest 5-8 seed in his section of the bracket (he has Gael Monfils), he could be in line for a tricky quarterfinal against Tomas Berdych. In fact, Berdych is arguably more dangerous than anyone outside of the Big 4. Case in point: the Czech was taking it to Djokovic in Cincinnati before a shoulder problem of his own forced him to retire after the first set. Berydch, though, has an unenviable road (Janko Tipsarevic in the third round and Monfils in the fourth) before he could meet the world No. 1.
Best first-round matchup — (7) Gael Monfils vs. Grigor Dimitrov
Two of the more entertaining players in the game will be going head-to-head for the first time in their careers. Monfils and Dimitrov are both ridiculous athletes, so some of the points in this one will be absolutely electric. It would not be a complete surprise to see the Frenchman get the win without too much trouble; he has the experience to outlast and outfox Dimitrov in longer rallies. Monfils is also in stellar form right now (final in Washington, quarterfinals in Montreal and Cincinnati).
But don’t sleep on Dimitrov. The 20-year-old Bulgarian has emerged this season and he is up to a career-high ranking of No. 52 in the world. Dimitrov is already no stranger to the big stage, as he lost to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a fourth-set tiebreaker at Wimbledon—one of the tournament’s most memorable matches.
Best potential second-round matchup – (13)Richard Gasquet vs. Fernando Gonzalez
Best potential third-round matchup – (9) Tomas Berdych vs. (20) Janko Tipsarevic
What to watch for — Shoulder trouble, or lack thereof. Even if the Gasquet-Dolgopolov winner has a good day in round four, Djokovic should roll into the quarterfinals as long as he is 100 percent. The case should be the same for Berdych in the other half of this section. Not even Monfils can beat him if the Czech is on top of his game and in perfect health. If the shoulders have healed, count on seeing the Djokovic-Berdych showdown that we were supposed to see in Cincinnati.
Federer fans wanted no part of Fish or Tsonga in their man’s quarter of the draw, and—wouldn’t you know it—Federer ended up with both. Of course, the news really isn’t so bad for the third-ranked Swiss. Fish and Tsonga are on the other side of this section, so Federer can only meet one of them and that won’t come until the quarterfinals.
As for Federer’s early-round path, it is far from daunting. He will fly into the third round before likely giving a free lesson to one of the tour’s brightest young stars—either Bernard Tomic or Ryan Harrison. Potential fourth-round opponents for Federer include Viktor Troicki and a relatively in-form Radek Stepanek. Even at his best, neither man is a threat to Federer.
Best first-round matchup — (27) Marin Cilic vs. Ryan Harrison
Harrison upset a big-serving Croat (Ivan Ljubicic) in last year’s first round and he has another chance to do the same once again in Flushing Meadows. Not only is the 19-year-old American exploding onto the ATP scene right now, but he is also unafraid of the limelight. Harrison played Robin Soderling tough at the French Open, crushed Ivan Dodig at Wimbledon before extending David Ferrer in five sets, and in the second round of the 2010 U.S. Open he lost to Segiy Stakhovsky in a fifth-set tiebreaker.
Cilic is a clear favorite in this one, but it’s hard to imagine him being able to turn this into a blowout. The world No. 27 simply is not playing well enough heading into the season’s final Grand Slam. Cilic ousted Juan Martin Del Potro in Montreal before falling to Djokovic, but he got destroyed by Tsonga in the Cincinnati first round.
Best potential second-round matchup – (29) Michael Llodra vs. Kevin Anderson
Best potential third-round matchup – (11) Jo-Wilfried Tsonga vs. (19) Fernando Verdasco
What to watch for — This is ultimately a three-man section of the draw, with no clear favorite among Federer, Fish, and Tsonga. Whoever looks better in the early stages of the tournament will be a solid pick to reach the semifinals. Will Federer recover from his Cincinnati loss to Berdych and play like he did against Djokovic at the French Open? Has Fish played too much tennis, to the extent that his foot problem is serious? Which Tsonga will show up—the one who is 2-0 against Federer this summer or the one who got hammered by Alex Bogomolov in Cincy?
Murray’s draw is similar to that of Federer—his quarter is loaded, but it’s loaded on the other side. In fact, Soderling’s eighth of the bracket is hands down the most difficult of the entire tournament. Seeds include Soderling, Gilles Simon, Del Potro, and Isner. Soderling could go up against on-fire American Alex Bogomolov in round two, Isner will open with familiar foe Marcos Baghdatis, and Del Potro is on a collision course with Simon for a blockbuster third-round showdown.
Murray, on the other hand, should have things in cruise control en route to the quarterfinals. The fourth-ranked Scot’s toughest test prior to the last eight will likely come against Kitzbuhel champion and current Winston-Salem quarterfinalist Robin Haase. The seeds near Murray are nothing to write home about; Stanislas Wawrinka is slumping, Feliciano Lopez has cooled off since beating Fish in Davis Cup action, and Juan Ignacio Chela is a non-factor on hard courts.
Best first-round matchup — (28) John Isner vs. Marcos Baghdatis
Isner and Baghdatis will be squaring off for the second time in a few days and for the third time in four weeks. Having defeated Baghdatis in Montreal and on Thursday in Winston-Salem, Isner now leads their head-to-head series 3-0. The 6’9’’ American will be favored again next week not only because of their past history against each other, but he is also in better form, is a bigger threat on U.S. hard courts, and has a better track record at the U.S. Open.
Still, Baghdatis remains one of the most dangerous unseeded players in the field. The Cypriot may not be playing great, but he won two matches in Winston-Salem and he took Isner to three sets in the quarterfinals. Baghdatis also seemed to figure out how to take the big man’s serve early and return it with interest. As a result, this could be more of a thriller than U.S. tennis fans want to endure.
Best potential second-round matchup – (6) Robin Soderling vs. Alex Bogomolov
Best potential third-round matchup – (12) Gilles Simon vs. (18) Juan Martin Del Potro
What to watch for — What will Soderling and Del Potro bring to the table? Soderling missed the entire U.S. Open Series with a wrist injury and has not played since winning the Bastad title. Del Potro started this season strong following a wrist problem of his own, but during the summer he lost in straight sets to Ernests Gulbis in Los Angeles, to Cilic in Montreal, and to Federer in Cincinnati. If these two huge hitters don’t get their acts together, the Soderling vs. Del Potro fourth-round matchup could become Isner vs. Simon…. That would also likely result in an easier quarterfinal for Murray.
Nadal needed some good news in the worst way. He can’t beat Djokovic, he lost to Dodig in his Montreal opener, he burned two fingers on his right hand two weeks ago, and he got manhandled by Fish in Cincinnati. Just in time, the good news has come: Nadal is in by far the easiest section of the U.S. Open draw.
Just how soft is this quarter? Well, let’s just say that a slumping Andy Roddick is probably favored to earn a quarterfinal spot alongside Nadal. David Ferrer is the other top eight seed, but he suffered a minor wrist fracture earlier this summer and is still trying to shake off the rust. The rest of the seeds near Nadal (Ivan Ljubicic, Jurgen Melzer, Mikhail Youzhny, Nicolas Almagro, and Florian Mayer) pose no significant threat right now.
Best first-round matchup — (16) Mikhail Youzhny vs. Ernests Gulbis
Gulbis has not won a single Grand Slam match since…wait for it…Wimbledon in 2009! For those counting, that’s a span of seven consecutive first-round exits. This, however, presents a decent opportunity for Gulbis. The 22-year-old Latvian is emerging from a slump with a title in Los Angeles and a third-round showing in Montreal.
Youzhny, meanwhile, looks very beatable at the moment. The Russian is just 20-18 for the season and he is coming off consecutive first-round losses in Montreal and Cincinnati to Michael Llodra, both in third-set tiebreakers. Gulbis leads their head-to-head series 2-1 and they have a split a pair of hard-court encounters. Expect a competitive five-setter.
Best potential second-round matchup – (5) David Ferrer vs. James Blake
Best potential third-round matchup – (2) Rafael Nadal vs. David Nalbandian
What to watch for — A mass exodus of seeds. Youzhny is not the only seeded player in early danger in this part of the draw. Ferrer could go down to Blake, Mayer is always ripe for an upset, Almagro opens against Julien Benneteau, Melzer is majorly out of form, and Ljubicic will likely run into Nalbandian in the second round. Don’t look now, but the door is open for Roddick to make a serious run in New York when you least expect it. A Nadal-Roddick quarterfinal is possible, if not altogether probable.
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