<Steve's Weblog>

Steve's Weblog

An incurable tennis addict, Steve Flink has been following the game since 1965, the year he first went to Wimbledon and the U.S. Championships. Flink is a Senior Correspondent for Tennis Week Magazine, a publication he joined in 1992. From 1972-82, he put his photographic memory to use as a statistician for CBS, NBC and ABC. He has been a consultant and writer for the International Tennis Hall of Fame since 1994 and is a member of their Nominating Committee. Steve is the author of The Greatest Tennis Matches of the 20th Century. Flink's recall of match history is unsurpassed.

Friday, June 17, 2011


If Rafael Nadal is going to capture his third Wimbledon singles championship over the next two weeks, he is going to need to reach back with all of his resources to get an exceedingly difficult job done. In the third round, Nadal figures to take on the dangerous Milos Raonic, the 6’5” Canadian with one of the game’s most daunting serves. Raonic is seeded 31st after a remarkable first half of 2011, and he will test Nadal with the ferocity of that delivery and an overpowering ground game as well. Raonic will turn this contest into something of real value for the spectators, but Nadal will eventually pick him apart in four tough sets to make it to the fourth round.

Waiting for him then will be the 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro, and the Spaniard will need to be in excellent form to prevail. Del Potro is not quite back to the level he reached when he toppled Roger Federer in a five set final at Flushing Meadows two years ago, but he is swiftly moving back to that lofty level. Del Potro will hold his own with Nadal from the baseline, and Nadal will need to keep pounding his forehand with extraordinary depth to prevent the Argentine from stepping in to blast winners off his two-handed backhand. Moreover, Nadal must be careful not to allow Del Potro to dictate off his explosive forehand, which is one of the game’s most formidable weapons. The way I see it, this match has five sets written all over it. In the end, Nadal’s mental toughness and unrelenting intensity will pull him though 6-4 in the final set.

The hard work will not be over. In the quarters, Nadal will meet either No. 6 seed, or more likely No. 10 seed Mardy Fish of the U.S. Fish has never done himself justice on the grass at Wimbledon. It is a surface that suits his attacking game to the hilt, although the courts are slower now than they used to be. Fish will take the opening set from Nadal with his best attacking play, and some searing backhand returns. But Nadal will gather himself, start swinging his slice serve wider and wider in the Ad court, and begin finding the range with his returns. Nadal will take this one in four sets.

His opponent in the semifinals will be none other than Andy Murray. This will be a rematch of a 2010 semifinal, which Nadal won in straight sets. Murray will have his share of tough battles en route to an appointment with Nadal. He will face No. 27 seed Marin Cilic in the third round, and that will result in a four set win for the No. 4 seed. In the round of 16, he will take on either Richard Gasquet or Stanislas Wawrinka. The guess here is that Gasquet will be Murray’s opponent in that round. Three years ago, he served for a straight set win over Murray before losing in five crackling sets. Gasquet is playing great tennis these days, and he will push Murray in some sparkling rallies from the outset of the contest. In the end, Murray will overcome Gasquet with a mixture of aggression off the ground and some timely defense. Murray’s first serve will make the difference as he wins in four sets. He will then repeat his Queen’s Club win over Andy Roddick, toppling the American in a straight set quarterfinal.

In the Nadal-Murray semifinal, the level of play will be astounding at times. Murray will not hold back from the baseline and will look to conclude points early with flattened out forehands and two-handed backhands. He will serve clusters of aces. But Nadal will be ready for the barrage that will inevitably be thrown at him. On the big points, Nadal will have the edge, and he will prevail from a set down, winning in four sets.

On the opposite half of the draw, there will be less drama. No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic has an uncluttered path into the quarterfinals, when he will meet No. 5 seed Robin Soderling. After a first round scare with Philipp Petzschner, Soderling will get into a good rhythm and storm into the last eight. But Djokovic will methodically dispose of the Swede in straight sets. Roger Federer’s draw is largely favorable, but he could and should meet John Isner in the fourth round. Ironically, Isner will play Nicolas Mahut in the opening round as they reprise their first round duel of 2010 that Isner won 70-68 in the fifth set over eleven hours and five minutes. But Isner will win more comfortably this time. Against Federer, Isner will push the six time champion hard, but he doesn’t have the returns to worry the Swiss over the long run. Federer prevails in four sets to reach the quarterfinals. The seedings indicate that Federer should take on No. 7 seed David Ferrer, but I believe he will confront No. 12 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga instead. Tsonga played very well at Queen’s Club and has a terrific grass court game. A first rate athlete with a top of the line first serve, good feel on the volley, and a gigantic forehand, Tsonga will put Federer in a bind, moving ahead by a set and a break. But Federer will salvage the second set in a close tie-break, and he will break down Tsonga’s backhand to win in four sets.

And so it will be Djokovic against Federer for the fourth consecutive time in a Grand Slam tournament semifinal. Djokovic won the first two of those meetings at the 2010 U.S. Open (saving two match points in a five set triumph) and then Federer upended the Serbian in four sets at Roland Garros a few weeks ago, ending Djokovic’s 43 match winning streak in the process. This time around, both men will be primed for a blockbuster of an appointment. Djokovic will be the surer of the two men from the baseline, which was not the case in Paris. He will be much more solid this time off the forehand, and will use his two-handed backhand down the line more frequently than he did in Paris.

Federer will be finding the corners with regularity on his serve, and stepping around convincingly to make his trademark inside-out forehand. Every set will be close and hard fought. Neither man will be giving away much ground. The match will be played at a high level. Djokovic will take the first set in a tie-break, but Federer will rally to win the second, 7-5. Djokovic will get an early break in the third and win that set 6-4, but Federer once more will bounce back to take the fourth in another tie-break. Early in the fifth, Federer will lead 2-0, but Djokovic will then raise his level considerably, especially off his returns. Djokovic will move past Federer in a dandy, 7-6(4), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-3.

That will put Djokovic and Nadal into their fifth head to head meeting in a final this year. Djokovic won the previous four times, and he will put himself in a position to be the victor again in this Centre Court showdown. The Serbian will dictate almost entirely in the early stages, and he will win the first set. The second set will be fought out fiercely before Nadal turns the corner to win it, 7-5. Nadal will then play his best tennis of the match in the third, taking his forehand down the line more often to keep Djokovic off balance and on the run, serving with greater pace and precision. Nadal will win the third set 6-3. But Djokovic will roar back in the fourth, and sweep through it 6-1 with some spectacular ball striking and strategic serving. His wide slice serve in the deuce court will give Nadal constant problems. And yet, in the fifth set, with everything on the line, it will be Nadal who steps it up and raises the bar. He will take more chances on his returns, go for his backhand crosscourt with more pace, and start moving around to unleash his fearsome inside-out forehand. Djokovic will not be able to stop the onslaught. Nadal will remain unbeaten at Wimbledon since 2007, coming through 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 1-6, 6-4.

As for the women, the quarters are projected to play out this way: No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki against No. 5 Maria Sharapova; No. 3 Li Na versus No. 7 Serena Williams; No. 4 Victoria Azarenka against No. 6 Francesca Schiavone; and No. 2 seed and 2010 finalist Vera Zvonareva facing No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova. Wozniacki, however, will struggle as always to beat Julia Georges (the No. 16 seed) in the round of 16. She will get through that match in three sets, but Sharapova will cut her down in straight sets. Serena Williams will have a rough battle on her hands in the round of 16 against Marion Bartoli, but Serena will win in three sets. But the French Open champion will not be intimidated by facing a Serena who is still not back in peak form after being gone from the game for nearly a year. The French Open champion will upend Serena win three sets.

And so it will be Li Na against Sharapova in a repeat of a recent French Open semifinal, which Li won in straight sets. This time around, Sharapova will be much happier in the grass, and she will be victorious in straight sets. On the bottom half of the draw, Venus Williams will defeat both Jelena Jankovic (the No. 15 seed), and No. 2 seed Zvonareva, but she will lose to the left-handed Kvitova. In the semifinals, Kvitova will surprise Azarenka, winning in three sets. But Kvitova will not be able to hold back the 2004 Wimbledon champion. Sharapova will stay away from Kvitova’s forehand as often as possible, and her first serve potency and accuracy will carry her to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 triumph. For the second time, Maria Sharapova will be the Wimbledon singles champion. She will garner her first Grand Slam singles title since the Australian Open of 2008, and secure her fourth major overall.

Nadal and Sharapova will be the Wimbledon singles champions of 2011. That is the way I see it.

Friday, May 20, 2011

2011 French Open Preview

I can’t wait for the French Open to get started on Sunday. The annual clay court festival at Roland Garros should be particularly compelling this time around. It would have been inconceivable even a few weeks ago to suggest that anyone other than Rafael Nadal could approach this tournament as the favorite, but Novak Djokovic’s stupendous 2011 campaign has altered the landscape of the sport. He has won seven tournaments in a row this season and 37 consecutive matches. His overall winning streak since last November is 39 straight matches. Across 2011, he has beaten Nadal four times, Federer thrice, and Andy Murray twice. Moreover, after losing his first nine career clay court clashes with the redoubtable Nadal, Djokovic has upended the Spaniard in two important finals on the dirt at Madrid and Rome.

On that form, he deserves the honor of being considered the man to beat in Paris. The results are undeniable, and he has been unstoppable. And yet, as much as I respect the way Djokovic has played and competed all year long, as deeply as I admire what he is doing, as often as I have sat back and marveled at how he has conducted himself, I am picking Nadal to win his sixth French Open in seven years. The way I see it, Nadal still has the edge over everyone—including the astonishing Djokovic—in a best of five set competition. In the end, the longer format can work in his favor if he fully exploits his physicality, which I expect him to do.

Let’s look at the draw. Nadal has an intriguing opening round assignment against the 6’9” American John Isner. Isner is one of the biggest serves in the sport and on fast courts his attacking style can make him a daunting opponent for anyone, including Nadal. But on the clay, he can’t stay with Nadal. Isner will still be tough to break but he doesn’t have the consistency off the ground to stay with the Spaniard in Nadal’s service games. There could be a close set or two, but Nadal will get the victory in straight sets. The top seed could then meet Nikolay Davydenko in the third round and countryman Fernando Verdasco in the round of 16, but he will sweep through that section of the draw.

The first serious test for Nadal could come in the quarterfinals against Sweden’s Robin Soderling. Soderling is the only man ever to beat Nadal at Roland Garros. He produced a monumental upset over the Spaniard in 2009 in the round of 16 and lost the final that year to Roger Federer. Last year, he ousted Federer in the quarters and made it to the final again, losing to Nadal in straight sets. Soderling is a remarkable player on any surface, a big server with an explosive forehand, and a man very much at home on clay. And yet, the view here is that he played almost beyond his means the last two years in Paris. His win over Federer last year was his only success against the Swiss in 17 career meetings; his victory over Nadal in 2010 was one of only two wins in seven appointments he has made with the Spaniard. This time around, Nadal will topple Soderling in a hard fought yet straight set contest.

On Nadal will go to the semifinals, where he will meet none other than No. 4 seed Andy Murray. Murray has never been beyond the quarters at Roland Garros, but he is playing his best ever brand of clay court tennis. He got to the semifinals in Monte Carlo and took a set off Nadal. In Rome, Murray served for the match against Djokovic and was within two points of a big victory before the Serbian struck back boldly to win in a final set tie-break. At Roland Garros, Murray may meet the imposing Milos Raonic in the third round, but the conditions on clay favor Murray against the big man from Canada. Murray could later meet Alexandr Dolgopolov or Jurgen Melzer, but I like his chances against anyone in his section. Murray will play his heart out against Nadal, and his admirable combination of timely offense with superb defensive skills will turn his contest with Nadal into a relatively long struggle. Murray will take the second set and push hard in the third before Nadal’s clay court mastery will take over. Nadal wins 6-4, 5-7, 7-5, 6-3 to reach the final.
On the opposite half of the draw, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic appear to be on a collision course. Federer has a tricky first round duel against the left-handed Feliciano Lopez, one of the few men in tennis capable of attacking on clay and serving-and-volleying with the regularity he exhibits on faster surfaces. Lopez played Federer in Madrid and led 5-2 in the final set tie-break, only to bungle an easy bounce smash wide that would have given him four match points. He should have won that match, but the fact remains he has never beaten Federer. Federer will be ready for the left-handed Spaniard this time, and will prevail in straight sets.

Federer will take on No. 7 seed David Ferrer in the quarters. Ferrer has the clay court skills to give Federer a very tough time, but he has never beaten the Swiss in eleven attempts over the course of their careers. He will take a set but Federer will move on to the semifinals in four.

Waiting for him there will be Djokovic. Djokovic will meet 2009 U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro in the third round. Del Potro has been making rapid advances back toward the top of his game this season after missing most of 2010 when he had wrist surgery. He is confident now, striking the ball big and boldly off both sides, playing top of the line tennis. He is going to make Djokovic work hard, but Djokovic will prevail in four sets. In the fourth round, Djokovic could meet the gifted Richard Gasquet of France. The No. 13 seed will inevitably put together a brilliant sequence of shots for one set and worry Djokovic with his outstanding one-handed, topspin backhand. But Djokovic will wear him down and pull away comfortably to win in four sets. In the quarters, Djokovic will dissect No. 6 seed Tomas Berdych.

The Djokovic-Federer semifinal will be hotly contested and well played. Federer will take calculated risks, step inside the court whenever possible for inside-out forehand winners, and he will gamble with the backhand down the line. He will unsettle Djokovic for a while, but the Serbian will not be swayed for long. He will keep pummeling away with his two-handed backhand crosscourt and break down Federer’s weaker side. Moreover, Djokovic will do his share of dictating off his vastly improved forehand side, and he will move his first serve around skillfully. Djokovic will defeat Federer 6-4, 4-6, 6-4, 6-2, displaying growing self assurance over the last two sets.

And so it will be “Round Five” of the Djokovic-Nadal 2011 head-to-head series in the final of the world’s premier clay court championship, and this could turn into an epic. Nadal knows he has to make his move in the early stages and not allow Djokovic the luxury of a big lead. He will fight furiously in the first two sets to stay with Djokovic, and it will not be easy. Djokovic will win the first set in a tie-break, but Nadal will find a way to impose himself by pounding his forehand crosscourt with his inimitable topspin, high to the two-hander of his adversary. Nadal will win the second set 7-5, and then sustain his momentum to take the third 6-4 as his forehand causes Djokovic some significant problems.

But Djokovic will not surrender. He will battle back from 2-4 down in the fourth set and capture five of the next six games to force a fifth set. The players will be exhausted yet exhilarated as they move through the fifth and final set. Djokovic will draw first blood and open up a 3-1 lead, but Nadal will make one last surge. He will raise his intensity and in the end his willpower will be the difference. Nadal retains his title, garnering a tenth Grand Slam championship by overcoming Djokovic 6-7 (5), 7-5, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4. It will be one of the finest battles in all of 2011.

The top seeded woman is, of course Caroline Wozniacki. She opens against 40-year-old Kimiko Date-Krumm of Japan. Krumm was a semifinalist at Roland Garros in 1995 when she was only 24. She is a resourceful match player, but Wozniacki will record a tough straight set victory over the Japanese player. Wozniacki should meet 2010 finalist Sam Stosur in the quarterfinals, and the Australian is at her best on clay. Nevertheless, I envision Wozniacki prevailing in three sets for a place in the semifinals.

She could face No. 3 seed Vera Zvonareva in the penultimate round. Zvonareva has been entirely dependable at the last three majors, reaching the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open a year ago, and the semifinals of the Australian Open this season. She is expected to meet defending champion Francesca Schiavone in the quarters. Zvonareva should survive in three sets, but Wozniacki will defeat the Russian in three sets with her solid play from the baseline, and some help from a jittery Zvonareva.

On the opposite half of the draw, the seedings indicate that Victoria Azarenka should take on Li Na in one quarterfinal while standouts Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters clash in the other. I like Azarenka to topple Li, while Clijsters will narrowly escape defeat and beat Sharapova 7-5 in the final set. Clijsters will then win another close three set clash with Azarenka to set up a final round meeting with Wozniacki. The Belgian will be in pursuit of a third Grand Slam championships in a row while the Danish baseliner and world No. 1 will be looking for her first major crown.

Their final will be a worthy showdown for the world’s premier clay court title. Clijsters will use her superior foot speed and strategic acumen to win the first set 7-5, but Wozniacki will add weight and depth to her shots in the second set and take it 6-3. The final set will be a blockbuster. Wozniacki will serve for the match at 5-2 but Clijsters will then collect five games in a row for a 7-5, 3-6, 7-5 triumph. At long last, after losing the 2001 Roland Garros final to Jennifer Capriati 1-6, 6-4, 12-10 and then falling in straight sets against Justine Henin in the 2003 final, Kim Clijsters will put her name deservedly on the trophy at Roland Garros.

Friday, January 14, 2011


Now that the draw has been released for the first major of 2011, I am ready to make my predictions. The view here is that Rafael Nadal is going to win his second Australian Open title, his fourth major in a row, and his tenth career Grand Slam championship. He is on a great run at the premier events, and is primed to make yet another championship run. I believe Kim Clijsters is going to win the women’s event. She has captured the past two U.S. Opens, and has won three majors in New York overall. She has been the best woman hard court player in the world over the last year-and-a-half, and she will rise to this occasion with another sterling performance.

Let’s look at the men’s draw first. Nadal has a very favorable draw — at least the way I see it. He opens against the Brazilian Marcos Daniel, and could meet No. 31 seed and countryman Feliciano Lopez in the third round. His round of 16 contest figures to be against either John Isner (the No. 20 seed), or No. 15 seed Marin Cilic. Isner faces a potentially dangerous second round appointment in Radek Stepanek, and Cilic has gone steadily downhill since making the semifinals in Melbourne a year ago. Nadal should navigate his way through that section of the draw without too much difficulty.

In the quarterfinals, the Spaniard could play the Russian Mikhail Youzhny (Nadal handled Youzhny in straight sets in the semifinals of the 2010 U.S. Open), but David Nalbandian (who faces a stern test with Lleyton Hewitt in the opening round) could meet No. 7 seed David Ferrer in the third round and then earn the right to take on Youzhny — with the winner to play Nadal. That is a tough trio of players.

Nalbandian always presents problems for Nadal, Ferrer can make his compatriot work hard, and Youzhny is gifted. But Nadal will only confront one of them in the quarters, and will not concede more than a set...On he goes to the semifinals.
Waiting for him there will be either No. 4 seed Robin Soderling or No. 5 Andy Murray, the 2010 Australian Open finalist. That could be a blockbuster of a quarterfinal, a potential five set skirmish with major momentum shifts. Soderling’s ground game is explosive and he has a terrific first serve, while Murray will retaliate with his magnificent defense. Moreover, the British player will impose himself whenever he can by taking the initiative and nailing his backhand down the line. If Murray gets at least 60% of his first serves in, I believe he will prevail. The pick here: Murray in five sets.

A year ago, Murray was up two sets to love and a break in the third against Nadal in the quarters when the Spaniard retired with a knee injury. Murray also beat Nadal in a four set semifinal at the 2008 U.S. Open, but Nadal has twice upended Murray at Wimbledon, including a straight set semifinal win in the 2010 semifinals. Murray will take a very aggressive posture in this match, taking the ball early, stationing himself in front of the baseline to seize control of rallies, serving big on the first delivery and taking some chances on his second serve. But he will not find a solution to Nadal’s vastly improved first serve and will not be able to break the Spaniard more than twice. Nadal will be aggressive as well, and will send Murray scurrying all over the court by taking utter control off his forehand side. The wear and tear will be too much for Murray, who will bow in four sets.

On the other half of the draw, four time champion Roger Federer will be no mood to let go of his crown. Federer is the hottest player in the world at the moment. He closed 2010 by winning three of his last five tournaments, including the season-ending Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. He opened his 2011 campaign with an impressive tournament victory in Doha. He is confident, deeply driven, and as purposeful as ever. He believes he is going to win this tournament. Federer will largely coast through the early rounds. He meets Lukas Lacko in the first round, might face Gilles Simon in the second round, and could well play Albert Montanes in the third round. Montanes upset Federer on clay in 2010.

But the way Federer is playing at the moment, he will charge through that section of the draw. He will then confront either Mardy Fish or Sam Querrey, who should meet in the third round. Federer will be tested by either American, and could lose a set. But that is as arduous as his fight will get. In the quarters, Federer is due to play No. 8 seed Andy Roddick, but the view here is that he will instead find himself up against the rapidly improving Gael Monfils, the No. 12 seed. Monfils must first deal with Stanislas Wawrinka in the third round, but I believe he will win that match in four sets, and then topple Roddick in five sets to earn a chance to play Federer.

Monfils upset Federer indoors at Paris last fall, saving five match points. It was his first win ever over the Swiss Maestro, and he will be bolstered by that triumph as he gets another opportunity to test himself against the world No. 2 in Melbourne. Monfils is learning at last to display sensible shot making and point construction rather than showboating so much. He will test Federer severely, winning the first set, dropping the next two, recouping with panache to take the fourth. But he will be weary in the fifth and Federer will pounce. Federer wins 6-2 in the final set for a place in the semifinals.

Meanwhile, No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open victor, will survive a hard fought, third round skirmish with countryman Viktor Troicki but will move on comfortably from there to face Tomas Berdych in the quarters. The No. 6 seed Berdych will be striking the ball commandingly from the baseline, but Djokovic will be too resourceful and he is the better athlete. Djokovic will take down Berdych in four sets, and set up a semifinal appointment with Federer. Since Djokovic upended Federer in the semifinals of the U.S.Open (saving two match points in the process) he has lost three in a row to his formidable rival. Djokovic did stop Federer at the 2008 Australian Open in the penultimate round on his way to taking his only major title.

Djokovic will make a go of it this time, but it will not be enough. Federer will be largely impenetrable, and his serve will be the big difference. Federer will keep Djokovic at bay on his returns and discourage the Serbian with his consistency. Federer will advance in four sets.

And so it will be Nadal and Federer meeting for the eighth time in a Grand Slam tournament final. Nadal owns a 5-2 edge in the series, winning three times in the finals of the French Open (2006-2008), losing two out of three Wimbledon finals (2006-2008), and winning a scintillating five set encounter in the final of the 20009 Australian Open. This battle in Melbourne will be much like that one. Both men will fully believe in their chances, but Nadal will move out in front, taking the opening set with one service break, not losing his own delivery. Federer will then shift into a higher gear, find his range off the forehand, and start attacking Nadal’s second serve with some regularity.

Federer will take the second and third sets. The fourth will go to a critical tie-break, with Federer within striking distance of the title. He will be up 5-3 in that tie-break, but Nadal will strike back boldly with a string of devastatingly potent forehand winners, taking four points in a row to even the match at two sets all. The fifth set will go on serve until 5-5, when Nadal will get the crucial break with some sparkling second serve returns. Serving for the match at 6-5, Nadal will trail 0-30 but will release two aces, and then recover to hold for the match. Nadal wins 6-4, 4-6, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-5. It will go down among the great Nadal-Federer skirmishes.

Among the women, top seeded Caroline Wozniacki will play 2010 finalist Justine Henin in the quarters. Henin will defeat No. 23 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round and will oust French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the round of 16. Wozniacki and Henin will stage a spirited encounter, with Henin seeking to break the rhythm of her industrious baseline opponent. In the end, however, Wozniacki will prevail 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 to reach the penultimate round. Venus Williams, seeded No. 4, should play No. 14 seed Maria Sharapova in the round of 16. Sharapova will be the more reliable player from the baseline, and will serve well when it counts, winning 7-5, 7-6 (4). Sharapova will then face No. 8 seed Victoria Azarenka for a place in the semifinals. Azarenka will be too much for Sharapova from the back of the court and her returns will be too sharp. Azarenka will advance in straight sets, and will come up against Wozniacki.

Wozniacki will start slowly and Azarenka will be ripping winners from all parts of the court, sweeping through the first set 6-2. Azarenka will move swiftly to a 3-1, 0-40 lead in the second set, but Wozniacki will hold on gamely there and never look back. Wozniacki wins this one 2-6, 6-4, 6-3. She is in the final. On the bottom half of the draw, Clijsters will open with a meeting against the slumping Dinara Safina, the former world No. 1 who has lost her way so badly. Clijsters will assert herself early, and her ground stroke consistency and superior footwork will carry her to a straight set win. Clijsters will play No. 13 seed Nadia Petrova in the round of 16, and will avenge her loss to the Russian at the 2010 Australian Open with a convincing straight set victory.

In the quarters, Clijsters will stop No. 7 seed Jelena Jankovic 7-5, 6-3, moving into the semifinals. In the semifinals, Clijsters will play an emotional match against No. 5 seed Sam Stosur. The Australian crowd will be highly charged and fully behind their best woman player. Stosur will storm out of the gates confidently. She will attack early and often and win the first set 6-3 from a startled Clijsters. But Clijsters will restore order in the end, and win 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. In the final, she will be hard pressed as Wozniacki will get a ton of balls back. Clijsters will be looking to exploit Wozniacki’s more vulnerable forehand side, but that will not be easy.

Nonetheless, Wozniacki will take a hard fought first set 7-5, rallying from 2-4 down. Clijsters will come back to take the second set 6-4, but will trail 1-4 in the third. Wozniacki will be serving in the sixth game of the third and final set, up two breaks, seemingly headed for her first major tournament victory. But Clijsters will strike back boldly. Upping the ante, going for calculated winners, taking the ball early and controlling points off her forehand side, the sprightly Belgian will win five games in a row for a 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 triumph, and a second straight Grand Slam championship.

Nadal and Clijsters were popular winners at the 2010 U.S. Open, and they will be greeted effusively by the fans in Melbourne as they start the new season in style.

Friday, June 18, 2010


The way I see it, only four men and five women can be regarded as serious threats to win the world’s premier title this time around. In the end, among the men, the four prime candidates are Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick. The five women whom I separate from the pack are Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Sam Stosur, although the latter is a long shot.

Let’s look at the draws. Federer may face some dangers from the fourth round on, but he should be relatively happy with his draw. Nadal’s path could be much more arduous. When Wimbledon announced they were upgrading Federer to No. 1 over Nadal in the seedings, it did not seem all that significant. But, as it turns out, the demotion of Nadal to No. 2 matters. Federer should move swiftly through the early rounds. The first seed he should meet is No. 30 Tommy Robredo. He could have a battle on his hands in the round of 16, when the Swiss would conceivably confront either the left-hander Feliciano Lopez (the No. 22 seed), or the Austrian southpaw Jurgen Melzer, a semifinalist at Roland Garros. On the grass, Lopez, who just made it to the semifinals at Queen’s Club with a win over Nadal, should have the edge. I see him facing Federer in the round of 16, and the Spaniard will win the first set. But Federer will come roaring back to gain the triumph in four sets for a place in the quarterfinals.

In that round, Federer will meet Tomas Berdych (the No. 12 seed), countryman Stanislas Wawrinka (No. 20) or No. 7 seed Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko does not seem to be sharp enough yet to advance that far. His long layoff with a wrist injury set him back considerably. I see Federer taking on Berdych. Berdych has some confidence after winning his last meeting against Federer in Miami, when he saved a match point against his old rival, toppling the 16 time Grand Slam tournament champion for the first time since 2004. Berdych has the explosive game and the returns to worry Federer to a degree, but will he serve well enough to get the job done? I doubt it. Federer will find his range and, after losing the second set, pull away for a comfortable four set victory.

That win propels Federer into the semifinals. A cluster of men will be fighting ferociously for a place in the penultimate round. Novak Djokovic, a semifinalist at Wimbledon in 2007 but largely a disappointing performer on the grass, is seeded third, and should be the favorite to come through that section of the draw. I don’t believe he will. Djokovic might need to work inordinately hard against 2002 Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt in the round of 16. Hewitt just ended a 15 match losing streak against Federer in the final of Halle on grass, and that win could give him a substantial boost. He is seeded 15th. The Hewitt-Djokovic match could be a beauty, with both men fighting it out hard from the backcourt. But Djokovic, despite continued problems with his serving rhythm, will get by Hewitt in a five set showdown.

Andy Roddick, meanwhile, will have his own daunting challenge to overcome in the round of 16. The No. 5 seed could take on No. 11 seed Marin Cilic after winning a demanding four set encounter with Philipp Kohlschreiber, who toppled the American at the 2008 Australian Open. Cilic will meet the American Mardy Fish--- one of the most dangerous floaters in the draw--- in the second round. I see Cilic prevailing in a five set contest there, and then moving on to a fourth round collision with Roddick. Cilic held back Roddick in five sets at the Australian Open back in January, and he will make a go of it again in Great Britain. But Roddick’s high first serve percentage and his grass court acumen will be the difference in this encounter. Roddick will be the winner in four tight sets. In the quarterfinals, Roddick and Djokovic will have a bruising confrontation. Roddick will be burned for a while by the scorching returns of Djokovic, who will also be the better man from the baseline. But, in the end, Roddick will elevate his game and attack at the right times. He will advance to the semifinals in five tumultuous sets.

And so Roddick and Federer will meet for the fifth time at the world’s premier championship. Not only did Federer stop Roddick in an epic last year--- overcoming the American 16-14 in the fifth set--- but he also beat the American in the 2004 and 2005 finals, plus the 2003 semifinals. Roddick is 2-19 in his career against Federer, and has had to settle for two isolated wins over his nemesis on hard courts, prevailing in the semifinals of Montreal in 2003 and again in Miami two years ago. But the fact remains that he has competed well almost every time he has played Federer over the last three years. They will have another blockbuster here in the semifinals. Roddick will drop the opening set in a tie-break as both men serve prodigiously, but the American will take the second set 6-4, and go on to win the third 7-5.

With his back to the wall, down a break in the fourth set, Federer will reassert himself, securing that set in another tie-break. But, at the start of the fifth set, Roddick will catch Federer off guard with one of his few great returns of the match off the backhand. He will have the early break, and he will not be halted. Roddick will come away with a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (3), 6-4 victory, and for the first time since 2002, Roger Federer will not be in the semifinals at the shrine of the sport.

On the other half, Nadal will be tested comprehensively. In the third round, he will do battle with Ernests Gulbis, the No. 27 seed from Latvia. Gulbis gave Nadal quite a scare in 2008 when they met at Wimbledon, losing in four sets. Their contest this time around will be similarly stressful for Nadal. Gulbis, after all, took a set off Nadal on the clay in Rome this season, and stayed with the Spaniard all the way to 4-4 in the final set before Nadal got the win. Gulbis is an enormously gifted player who can play on any surface, and Nadal will be hard pressed to break Gulbis more than a few times in this match. Gulbis will be overpowering and overwhelming at the outset, winning the first set. But Nadal will take the next two and then close out the match in a fourth set tie-break.

Yet Nadal’s struggles will not be over. He will play big John Isner in the round of 16. The 6’9” American played two impressive matches against Nadal earlier this year, taking a set off the Spaniard at Indian Wells, and acquitting himself well when they collided again on the clay in Madrid. Isner will not only be serving thunderbolts that seem to be coming down from the trees, but he will back his delivery up with some terrific low volleys off fine returns from Nadal. Isner will take command by winning the opening set in a tie-break, Nadal will capture the next two sets, and then Isner will regroup to win the fourth. The fifth set will be a tremendous tussle, but at 5-5 Nadal will break his daunting adversary and then serve out the match confidently. Nadal wins 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4, 5-7, 7-5.

In the quarterfinals, Nadal will find himself up against the man he just beat in the French Open final. Three years ago at Wimbledon, Soderling extended Nadal to 7-5 in the fifth set in the third round after losing the first two sets. Soderling is now a much more strategic and far superior server what he was was back then, and he will come at Nadal forcefully off the ground as well. But Nadal’s big point mastery will separate the two competitors. He will make some timely returns, refuse to lose his own serve more than once, and the Spaniard will be the victor over the Swede in four well played sets.

Waiting for Nadal in the semifinals will be Murray. Murray will have some anxious moments against Queen’s Club champion Sam Querrey in the fourth round. Querrey will build a two sets to one lead before Murray escapes with a five set triumph. In the quarters, the flamboyant Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga will face Murray. Tsonga, the No. 10 seed, will move past No. 19 seed Nicolas Almagro, and then will win a spectacular five set clash with No. 9 seed Fernando Verdasco. Tsonga, however, will be worn down from some long matches, and Murray will be ready to exploit his edge. Moreover, the British crowd will lift the spirits of their man, and Murray will defeat Tsonga in four sets.

Nadal and Murray will have a fascinating showdown. Murray will have the upper hand early, serving as well as he can, acing Nadal down the T in the deuce court on some crucial points, taking control from the baseline with his two-handed backhand down the line and his inside-out forehand. Nadal will be slightly caught off guard, and he will play one nervous service game to lose the set. But Nadal will change the tempo of the match in the middle of the second set, adding velocity, spin and depth to his forehand, pushing Murray back farther and farther behind the baseline. Nadal will keep swinging his first serve wide to Murray’s two-handed backhand in the Ad court, and he will take the second and third sets. But Murray will reemerge in the fourth, and build a 5-2 lead.

The frenzied fans will be eagerly anticipating a fifth set, but Nadal will not go along with that scenario. The Spaniard will sweep five games in a row in a blaze of glory to get to the final. The fans will be absolutely torn as they watch Nadal and Roddick play for the title. They have seen Roddick lose those three finals to Federer across the years, and they vividly recall his gallant effort last July in the final. A large segment of the crowd believes Roddick deserves to be the Wimbledon champion at last, and they think it would be a fitting and crowning moment in his career. And yet, an equally big part of the audience is sympathetic to Nadal, who toppled Federer in the majestic final of 2008 but could not defend his title a year ago as tendinitis in his knees prevented him from playing.

This final will be exhilarating. Roddick will keep Nadal at bay with his explosive serve, and the kind of aggression off the forehand that he must produce. Roddick will flatten out that forehand over and over again, making Nadal pay a substantial price for every short ball. But Nadal will sedulously hold on to his own serve, and he will make some excellent returns off Roddick’s second serve. Nadal will also control a good share of the rallies, sending Roddick scurrying all over the court in pursuit of the Spaniard’s magnificent inside-out and crosscourt forehands, rolling his two-handed deep down the line and sharp crosscourt to keep on top of the points.
Nadal will win the first set by breaking serve at 4-4, but Roddick will strike back to win the second 7-5. The third will go to a tie-break, and it will be the pivotal set. Roddick will be serving at 4-3 in that sequence, up a mini-break, ready to take control of the contest. But a brilliant return from Nadal as he is stretched out wide on the forehand startles Roddick, who then double faults on the next point. Nadal wins the tie-break, and there is no halting him from there. Nadal beats Roddick 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-3, winning Wimbledon for the second time, taking his eighth Grand Slam championship, reaffirming his status as the best player in the world.

Top seeded and defending champion Serena Williams figures to meet No. 16 seed Maria Sharapova in the round of 16 in a rematch of the 2004 final, which the Russian won in straight sets. Since then, however, Serena has owned Maria. After Sharapova beat Williams later in 2004, Serena has won their last four head to head clashes. Williams will be keyed up for this contest, and her returns will be far better than Sharapova’s. Williams will win 6-4, 6-3. Williams will upend Li Na in a three set quarterfinal. Na will defeat No. 19 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in the third round and then will topple No. 7 seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the round of 16. Meanwhile, Caroline Wozniacki--- the No. 3 seed--- will be upset in the fourth round by No. 14 Victoria Azarenka. Stosur will stop No. 10 seed Flavia Penetta in the fourth round, and will then defeat Azarenka 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-3 in the quarters after Azarenka squanders three match points when serving for the match at 6-5 in the second set.
Williams will be looking to avenge her French Open loss to Stosur, and she will do just that. The No. 6 seed Stosur will serve for the opening set at 5-4, but Serena will strike back boldly to win 7-6 (4), 6-4. That win will put Serena back into the final. On the other half of the draw, No. 17 seed Henin has her work cut out for her. She will need to deal with No. 12 seed Nadia Petrova of Russia in the third round, and then will face countrywoman Clijsters in the match everyone will want to see. Henin has lost two agonizingly close matches to Clijsters this year, falling in final set tie-breaks in both Brisbane and Miami. But Henin, honing her grass court game impressively, striving to win the only major she had not yet taken, attacking skillfully on the grass and volleying crisply, will turn the tables on the No. 8 seed Clijsters. This time around, Henin wins 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 in a high quality encounter.

After that emotional triumph, Henin will have much work left to do. In the quarterfinals, she will play Jelena Jankovic. Jankovic remains somewhat suspect on grass courts, but she will display improved form this year, making more aggressive returns, going for bigger shots during the rallies, getting better depth on her second serve. Jankovic will play her usual good match against Henin. Every time they step on a court for a match, it is inevitably close. But Henin will extend her record over Jankovic to 11-0 with a 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 victory over the No. 4 seed and former world No. 1, moving into the semifinals with that win.

No. 2 seed Venus Williams will have a stern test in the third round with the explosive Alisa Kleybanova of Russia. The No. 26 seed will push Venus to her limits in a big hitting encounter, making her share of second serve return winners. But the five time champion Venus will somehow carve out a 6-4, 6-7 (6), 7-5 triumph. Dinara Safina--- No. 1 in the world a year ago and the No. 20 seed now--- will stop Shahar Peer in the third round but she will lose to Venus emphatically in straight sets in the round of 16.

In the quarterfinals, Venus will stop Marion Bartoli of France in a repeat of the 2007 final. Bartoli will have beaten French Open champion Francesca Schiavone in the round of 16. And so the stage will be set for Venus Williams to meet Justine Henin, for the right to earn a final round appointment against Serena Williams. It will be a blockbuster duel featuring the dynamic power of Williams on serve and off the ground with the all court acumen of Henin. Henin won’t be able to get to the net as much as she would like during the rallies, but she will go in behind her second serve returns.

Venus will need to keep her first serve percentage in the range of 70%. And Henin will be feeling an enormous amount of pressure on her second serve as Venus fires away with excellent returns. Justine will need to gamble from time to time with bigger second deliveries, and she will serve her share of double faults. Williams will come out of the blocks in style and sweep through the opening set 6-3, but Henin will gradually get her bearings and find her game. She will strike back to win the second set 7-5, and then will rally again from 2-4 down in the final set for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory.

For the second time in 2010, it will be Serena Williams versus Justine Henin in the final of a major. The storyline will be similar. Williams will serve brilliantly in the opening set and will take it 6-4 on one break, but Henin will rescue herself from 1-3 in the second set to make it one set all. At 3-3 in the final set, Serena will be down 0-40 on her serve, but she will release a pair of aces and a daring forehand winner down the line to make it back to deuce. Serena will hold on, break Justine in the following game, and serve out the match commandingly. Williams beats Henin 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. She will be the Wimbledon champion for the fourth time. She will capture her 13th major title. She will be on top of the world.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

2010 French Open Preview

Looking ahead to the 2010 French Open which starts tomorrow, the view here is that Rafael Nadal and Justine Henin are both going to win their fifth titles on the Roland Garros clay in Paris. Nadal is an overwhelming favorite. And while Henin is the woman to beat she is not as prohibitive a favorite.

Let’s examine the draws, starting with the men. Defending champion Roger Federer should navigate his way through the first three rounds relatively easily. He could be tested significantly in the round of 16 by either his countryman Stanislas Wawrinka or the highly charged Frenchman Gael Monfils. Wawrinka has beaten Federer once, and that was on clay in Monte Carlo a year ago. Though he is a former Italian Open finalist and a formidable player on clay, Federer cast aside Wawrinka easily in their most recent meeting in Madrid. If he meets Wawrinka, Federer is a straight set victor; should he take on Monfils (who nearly pushed Federer into a fifth set in the 2008 Roland Garros semifinals) Federer comes through in four sets.

In the quarterfinals, Federer could meet 2009 finalist Robin Soderling, Albert Montanes of Spain (who recently surprised Federer in the semifinals of Estoril, Marin Cilic or Ernests Gulbis, the gifted Latvian. Gulbis beat Federer on clay in Rome this spring and pushed the world No. 1 to three sets in Madrid. The guess here is that Gulbis will earn another showdown with Federer, and it will be a beauty. Gulbis will give Federer cause for consternation throughout a riveting five set skirmish, which Federer ultimately takes 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5.

Andy Murray is seeded fourth and that would suggest he will play Federer in the semifinals. I don’t see that happening. Murray’s draw is not bad. He opens against the flamboyant Richard Gasquet of France, and will need to keep his composure if Gasquet starts sprinkling the court with his usual number of one-handed backhand winners. Gasquet is a great shot maker, but Murray will get through that match in four sets. Murray could take on the dangerous Marcos Baghdatis in the third round but he will use his defensive skills to overcome the Cypriot in another four set encounter.

Murray would potentially meet either Tomas Berdych or John Isner in the round of 16. I believe he will play Berdych, and Berdych is in many ways more comfortable on the clay. Berdych wins in five sets, and then combats the charismatic Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters. Tsonga gets the vociferous French crown fervently behind him, and is victorious in five tumultuous sets. So Tsonga sets up an appointment in the penultimate round with Federer. Tsonga will be fired up for this meeting and will feed off the energy of the crowd. He will make Federer work hard for a couple of sets, but Federer is too cagey and seasoned. He wins the match in four sets for a place in the final.

Nadal--- as long as his knees don’t act up--- is going to sweep into the quarterfinals, perhaps without the loss of a set. He could play Lleyton Hewitt in the third round and Ivan Ljubicic in the fourth round, but he will be dominant in those contests. In the quarters, Nadal figures to meet either 2009 semifinalist Fernando Gonzalez, countryman Nicolas Almagro, Philipp Kohlschreiber or Fernando Verdasco. Nadal crushed Verdasco in the Monte Carlo final recently, handled Kohlschreiber with ease when they last clashed, came from behind to beat Almagro convincingly in three sets at Madrid, and he won’t lose to “Gonzo” on clay.
On goes Nadal to the semifinals. Expected to meet him there is the No. 3 seed, the enigmatic Novak Djokovic. Djokovic was not the same stalwart clay court player this season that he was a year ago. The Serbian--- who reached the semifinals at Roland Garros in 2007 and 2008 before losing to Nadal--- might be well rested this year after skipping Madrid. He should advance to the quarterfinals comfortably enough, but in that round he would conceivably take on No. 9 seed David Ferrer. Ferrer had an excellent clay court campaign in 2010, and is playing perhaps the best tennis of his career. I see him toppling Djokovic in five sets.

But Nadal will not be daunted by yet another meeting with Ferrer. He stopped Ferrer in the semifinals of Monte Carlo and the final of Rome. Nadal will be hard pressed for a set or perhaps two, but he wins this battle of the Spaniards in four sets. And so we will have a matchup for the title between the defending champion Federer and the man who captured the crown the four previous years--- the redoubtable Nadal. Nadal is the only man in the past five years to beat Federer at Roland Garros. Not only did he topple the Swiss in the 2006, 2007 and 2008 championship matches, but he also halted Federer in the 2005 semifinals.

Federer will be inspired. He will approach this contest as if he has nothing to lose, and will take calculated risks all through an absorbing contest. As was the case in 2006 when he took the first set of the final from the Spaniard 6-1, Federer will catch Nadal slightly off guard at the outset. He will win a hard fought first set 7-5, but Nadal will not be daunted by that development. He will raise his game decidedly at the start of the second, take control of the match with his inimitable brand of consistency and aggression from the back of the court, and Nadal will come away with the crown, triumphing over Federer 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.

Let’s shift to the women. The match of the tournament may well be Henin against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. Henin is seeded No. 22, but she will use this event to put herself back in the top ten. Henin will stop Maria Sharapova in an intriguing third round match. Serena will have a tough round of 16 meeting with Marion Bartoli, the former Wimbledon finalist. But for the third time at Roland Garros, Williams will face Henin. In a 2003 semifinal, when Serena was the defending champion, Henin won in three sets and went on to take her first title. Four years later, Henin stopped Serena in a straight set quarterfinal. The way I look at it, Henin will avenge her loss to Serena at the start of this year in the Australian Open final with a 7-5, 7-6 (5) triumph. The tennis will surpass anything we will see from the women in the entire tournament.

Henin will still have some tough tests thereafter. In the semifinals, she will play Jelena Jankovic. Henin owns a 10-0 record over Jankovic, but Jankovic tests her comprehensively every time they play. This one will be no exception. Jankovic will keep probing and extending the rallies, inviting Henin to miss some difficult shots, forcing the Belgian to go for some winners from outside her comfort zone. Jankovic will win the first set and go up a break in the second, but Henin’s big match class will show in the end. Henin wins 4-6, 7-5,6-4.

In the final, Henin will play No. 2 seed Venus Williams. I am not a big admirer of Venus’s clay court game. She did reach the final in 2002 before losing to her sister, but her results across the years have been largely disappointing. Venus starts with a tricky first round match against the wily left-hander Patty Schnyder. That is a match Venus could well lose, but I see her surviving on grit and gumption 5-7, 7-6 (5), 7-5. In the round of 16, Venus should face Aravane Rezai of France. Rezai just ousted Venus in the finals of Madrid, and she will come close to toppling the American again. But experience and competitiveness will pull Venus through that battle, 7-5, 6-7 (5), 6-4.

In the quarterfinals, Venus will have another arduous test before dismantling the woman who may have the most solid ground strokes in the women’s game. Elena Dementieva--- the No. 5 seed--- will give Venus a scare, but Venus will respond with a 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory. The Italian Flavia Penetta will make it through to meet Williams in the semifinals, and will threaten to repeat her 2008 victory over the American at Roland Garros. But Venus will turn the tables this time around with a 7-6 (4), 7-5 victory.

In the final, Henin will masterfully pick apart her worn out rival. All of the tough matches along the way will strengthen Henin’s resolve. She will break down the Williams forehand. She will return too well on the clay. She will know what she wants and realize how to go about her business. Justine Henin will be the 2010 French Open champion, defeating Venus Williams convincingly. The Belgian wins 6-4, 6-3.

Friday, January 15, 2010

2010 Australian Open Preview

And so a new season is upon us, and the first major of the year will start soon in Melbourne. It shapes up as one of the most intriguing and unpredictable Grand Slam events in quite a long while. Let’s start with the men’s draw, which is fascinating in many ways. On the top half of the draw, top seeded Roger Federer has his work cut out for him.

Federer will struggle to keep his astonishing streak of consistency alive at the premier events. Federer has reached 22 semifinals in a row on the Grand Slam stages, but this might be his most challenging test at a “Big Four” event in ages. He opens against the tenacious Russian Igor Andreev, the Russian baseliner who pushed him to five arduous sets in the third round of the U.S. Open in 2008. He should win more easily against Andreev this time around. Andreev drifted from No. 19 in the world at the end of 2008 to No. 35 at the conclusion of 2009 and is not playing with the same confidence he had when he met Federer in New York in that memorable five set appointment. Federer will win in four sets, but a sterner examination could come for him in the round of 16 against either the No. 15 seed Gilles Simon or 2005 Australian Open finalist and two time Grand Slam tournament winner Lleyton Hewitt.

The Simon-Hewitt match could go either way, but I give Hewitt a slight edge, and look for him to take on Federer in the round of 16. At the U.S. Open in 2009, Hewitt took the first set from Federer and had chances thereafter, but he bowed out in four sets. Should they clash in Melbourne--- and I expect that they will--- the atmosphere will be highly charged, and Hewitt will throw his heart and soul into that contest. He will be near the top of his game, and will make Federer work inordinately hard from the back of the court. Hewitt won’t be afraid to go frequently to the Federer forehand, using his backhand down the line to make the Swiss stretch, keeping his shots deep and luring the world No. 1 into mistakes.

The guess here is that Hewitt will build a two sets to one lead, but Federer will fight back with quiet ferocity and will eventually prevail in five sets for a place in the quarterfinals. Waiting for him there will be either Nikolay Davydenko--- the No. 6 seed--- or 2009 Australian Open semifinalist Fernando Verdasco. On current form, I like Davydenko’s chances. His recent record has been nothing less than stellar. He won Shanghai and the Barclays ATP World Finals in London late in 2009, then opened 2010 with a triumph on the hard courts of Brisbane, toppling Federer and Rafael Nadal in the last two rounds of that event.

Clearly, Davydenko is the hottest player in the world, but can he make something substantial happen in a best of five set format over the course of two weeks at a Grand Slam event? He has now ousted Federer two times in a row after losing his first 12 career confrontations against his old rival. Surely, Federer will be out to reverse that pattern and will be more motivated for this quarterfinal contest.

But Davydenko has a new mindset now, and he will no longer be daunted by the 15 time Grand Slam tournament champion. They will split the first two sets as Davydenko exploits his outstanding footwork and his improved ball striking off the forehand side. He will beat Federer to the punch in the backhand to backhand rallies. His serve will hold up well enough. In a scintillating display, Davydenko will win a pair of tie-breaks to knock Federer out of the tournament in four sets. It will be his biggest win ever at a major tournament. That will take Davydenko into the semifinals.

His opponent will be Novak Djokovic, the No. 3 seed and 2008 champion. Djokovic will move confidently into the quarterfinals with a win over No. 16 seed Tommy Robredo, and then he will fight his way past No. 8 seed Robin Soderling in four well played sets. The greater ground stroke consistency of Djokovic and the Serbian’s superior return of serve will carry him into the semifinals with a four set triumph, and he will then meet Davydenko.

As was the case the last two times they played--- when they split indoor matches against each other--- this will be a bruising battle. Neither player will find a glaring weakness in the other player’s game. From time to time, Djokovic will get shaky off the forehand; periodically, Davydenko’s forehand will be off the mark. But they will keep probing and the points will be long and demanding. Davydenko will win the first set, Djokovic will take the next two, and the Russian will rally to win the fourth set. In the fifth, Djokovic will get one crucial break at 4-4 in the fifth set, and will serve out the match for a well deserved victory. That will put him into his second Australian Open final.

On the opposite half of the draw, the defending champion Nadal will be striving to play his best tennis since the spring of 2009. Nadal won the first set of the Brisbane final from Davydenko 6-0, and had two match points in a second set tie-break before losing in three pendulum swinging sets. In Melbourne, he will meet the big serving American John Isner in the third round. It will take Nadal a set to find his range on his returns, but he will gradually pick Isner apart with dipping shots at the big man’s feet and some trademark passing shots off both sides.

Nadal will stop Isner in four sets, and will then meet No. 13 seed Radek Stepanek for a place in the quarterfinals. Stepanek will have beaten Ivo Karlovic in a blockbuster first round, four set encounter, but he will not be able to stay with Nadal despite trying to apply pressure continuously. Nadal will defeat Stepanek in straight sets, and will then take on Andy Murray in the most eagerly awaited of all the quarterfinals.

Murray will be match tough after beating Jurgen Melzer and Gael Monfils in four set showdowns. The Nadal-Murray match will be a beauty. Murray will be more aggressive than normal, realizing that good defense is not going to cut it against Nadal. Murray will take chances off his forehand, and will take his two-hander up the line as often as possible. He will serve big and look to win some quick points against the six time major champion. For his part, Nadal will be unerring, and he will keep Murray honest by sending his first serve out wide to the forehand just often enough to keep the British player off balance. This will be a top of the line contest, and not that much will separate the two great players. In the end, however, Nadal will wear Murray down and his growing self conviction, better ball control and poise under pressure will be all that he needs to record a 7-6 (5), 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (3) victory. Nadal will be in the semifinals with that win.

His opponent will presumably be U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro. Del Potro will survive a strenuous round of 16 meeting with Marin Cilic, but he will win that in five sets. In the quarters, it will be Del Potro against none other than Andy Roddick, who will beat 2007 finalist Fernando Gonzalez in the round of 16. Roddick will play a whale of a match against Del Potro, but will come up narrowly short of victory. Del Potro scraped by Roddick twice last summer on hard courts, and he will win another very tight battle this time around in five sets.

And so Del Potro--- who crushed Nadal twice last summer in Canada and New York--- will look to stop the Spaniard again with his big hitting from the baseline and his markedly improved first serve. His explosive style will be too good at the outset as the Argentine will blow Nadal off the court in a 6-3 first set. Both players will sense the importance of the second set, which will be beautifully played across the board. Nadal will impose himself more and more off the forehand, forcing Del Potro deep and wide to his opponent’s backhand, keeping him trapped too far behind the baseline.

Nadal will capture the second set in a tie-break, and thereafter his physicality will be too much for Del Potro. Nadal will get into a vicious ground stroke rhythm, and his relentless consistency will grind down Del Potro 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4, 7-5. He will be back in the final, and he will take on Djokovic. That one will come down largely to stamina, willpower, big point prowess, and heart. Djokovic will be on top of the world and in command of his game as he wins the first set 6-4, and he will build a 4-2 second set lead by keeping the points relatively short and not allowing Nadal much room to breathe. Djokovic will be lethal on his second serve returns, and will keep Nadal on the run by taking the ball early off the forehand.

But, in the crunch, Nadal will come through. He will persist with his heavy topspin forehand crosscourt until Djokovic’s normally trustworthy two-handed backhand finally starts to crack. Nadal will get the second set 7-5, and will win the third by 6-3. He will be within one set of a second Australian Open crown in a row, but Djokovic will not surrender. He will rediscover his rhythm, getting better depth off the forehand, finding some acute angles off the backhand. Djokovic will pick up his first serve percentage and win the fourth set 6-4.

So it will all come down to a fifth set after more than four hours of play. Djokovic will demonstrate that he is admirably fit, maybe fitter than he has ever been before. But Nadal will be on a crusade to win no matter what it takes. He will be down a break at 1-3 in the fifth, but will collect five of the last six games to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 in five hours. Rafael Nadal will be back where he wants to be, winning his first tournament since May, gaining a seventh major title, playing his most inspired brand of tennis.

Among the women, Serena Williams will confront Sam Stosur in the round of 16, and the Australian fans will like the outset of that match. Stosur will be attacking skillfully, serving-and-volleying persistently, and keeping Serena at bay. Stosur will win that set 7-5, but Williams will not be thrown off stride and will gradually get her bearings and assert herself with controlled aggression from the baseline. She will win 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the quarterfinals. In the last eight, her opponent will be the rapidly rising Victoria Azarenka, the No. 7 seed who seemed on her way to a win over Serena before getting sick and losing in three sets to the American a year ago. Azarenka--- grunting loud, hitting the ball hard and flat, competing with unbridled intensity--- will make a real go of it in the opening set, but Williams will prevail in a tie-break and move on to a straight set victory by scores of 7-6 (6), 6-4. In the semifinals, I expect to see No. 4 seed Caroline Wozniacki play Williams.

Wozniacki will have potential meetings with Shahar Peer and Li Na to make it to the quarterfinals. In the last eight, she figures to play Venus Williams. Venus will come very close to winning, serving prodigiously for a set-and a-half to get within striking distance of a clear-cut victory, but Wozniacki will overtake Venus with her smoothly delivered ground strokes and her supreme accuracy. Wozniacki will stop Venus Williams in three sets, coming from behind for a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory. But against Serena Williams, the story will be different. Serena will cut her down systematically. She will be in one of her unmistakably big match moods, bearing down hard, keeping her error count down, serving well under pressure. Serena Williams will win the match 7-5, 6-4, and thus arrive safely for the final. In the championship match, she will face No. 15 seed Kim Clijsters or 2004 champion Justine Henin.

Henin has not played a major since the 2008 Australian Open, but the seven time major tournament victor will knock out No. 5 seed Elena Dementieva in a terrific second round match. Dementieva will be too solid for Henin for a set, but then the Belgian will start opening up the court with her sharply angled two-handed backhand, and she will attack her second serve returns with regularity. Henin will sweep past Dementieva in the last two sets, prevailing 4-6, 6-4, 6-1. She will later dismiss No. 18 seed Virginie Razzano in the fourth round, and will meet countrywoman Clijsters in a stirring quarterfinal.

In the final of Brisbane at the start of this season, Clijsters overcame Henin in a thrilling battle that came down to a final set tie-break. Henin had two match points in the tenth game of the final set after recovering from a set and 4-1 down. It was an amazing match, played at a remarkably high level all the way through, and it could have gone either way. In Melbourne, they will have another strikingly close contest, and this time Henin will be the winner. Clijsters will be sharper in the beginning and will win the first set 7-5, but Henin will steady herself, stop double faulting as often as she did on big points in Brisbane, and her superior backcourt variety will make a big difference as she finds a way to thwart Clijsters. Henin will come through 5-7, 6-4, 6-4, and she will be in the semifinals. Waiting for her there will be Maria Sharapova.

Sharapova--- the 2008 Australian Open champion--- is seeded 14th this year but she will be ready to go from the beginning. She will beat Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals (No. 2 seed Dinara Safina will bow out early) and will then take on Henin in the penultimate round. This will be one of their finest contests. Sharapova will serve with great accuracy and her location will be excellent. Henin will counter with her customary low and biting returns, and she will take control of the rallies. The power of Sharapova will be answered by the purposeful play of Henin, who will cover the court considerably better than her opponent. In the end, Henin will narrowly move past Sharapova, winning 4-6, 7-6 (3),6-4.

That will give us a dream final between Henin--- the former world No. 1 who has always been the ultimate professional--- and Serena Williams, the best big match player in the women’s game. Henin will be fortunate in the early stages as an overanxious Serena self destructs under an avalanche of unforced errors, making wild mistakes off both sides. But the steely resolve of Williams will kick in, and she will pick up the quality of her serving and reduce her mistakes significantly to take the second set 6-4. The third and final set will feature both women at their best. Serena will release a barrage of scorching forehand winners while Henin will color the court with her spectacular one-handed topspin backhand. The quality of the tennis will be awe inspiring for the fans.

Henin will take a 4-1 final set lead with two service breaks in hand, but Williams will storm back to reach 4-4. They will stay on serve until 8-8, when Henin will break Williams with a blazing backhand down the line winner on the run at full stretch. Henin will serve out the match and win 1-6, 6-4, 10-8 for her most dramatic victory ever in a final at a major. It will be the best major final among the women since 2005 at Wimbledon, when Venus Williams saved a match point and defeated Lindsay Davenport 4-6 7-6 (4) 9-7.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


After watching Roger Federer sweep past Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic back to back as he won the Masters 1000 tournament in Cincinnati, I was convinced he was playing his best tennis of the year, taking his game to a higher level than he had at the French Open and Wimbledon. That was his fourth victory in his last five tournaments, and there was no doubt in my mind that Federer believed he was right on course to step forward over the next fortnight and win a sixth United States Open in a row.

Now, he must be even more confident after seeing the draw for the Open. Federer could confront former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt in the third round, but he just cast the Australian aside with consummate ease in Cincinnati and has not lost to his Australian rival since 2003. Federer could meet Tommy Robredo or James Blake in the round of 16; Blake might get inspired for a set but that would be his limit, and Robredo would be hard pressed to push Federer at all.

In the quarterfinals, Federer is slated to meet another man he has owned throughout his career: Nikolay Davydenko. Davydenko does not think for an instant that he can beat Federer. Federer would thus cruise into the penultimate round of the tournament with little or no fuss at all. In the semifinals, he would conceivably meet the winner of the Andy Roddick-Novak Djokovic quarterfinal. More likely than not, Roddick will beat Djokovic. He has defeated the Serbian three times in a row, including a recent triumph in Montreal.

But let’s look at both scenarios. If Federer plays Roddick, he will take a 19-2 career record with him into that appointment, including their most recent showdown in the Wimbledon final. That record obscures the fact that Roddick has played Federer much tougher recently than was often the case in the past. The 27-year-old American was highly unlucky to lose the title match at Wimbledon after winning the first set and leading 6-2 in the second set tie-break. He battled gamely to the end before losing 16-14 in the fifth set. Earlier in the year, Roddick took sets off Federer in Miami and Madrid, and probably should have stopped Federer in the former skirmish.

If Roddick met Federer in the semifinals, the New York crowd would give him an unprecedented level of support. Roddick would undoubtedly be buoyed by having an audience so fervently on his side, and he is playing the finest tennis of his career. The 2003 US Open champion would give himself a chance to win against Federer. As is almost always the case when these two competitors clash, it would come down to at least two critical tie-breaks. Roddick will be tough to break, and Federer will protect his serve every bit or maybe even more sedulously.

In the end, Federer would win a blockbuster match from his old rival, coming away with a 6-7 (8), 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4 victory. As was essentially the case at Wimbledon, Roddick would play the match of his life, but still lose. And what if Federer plays Djokovic? That one would be more straightforward. Djokovic compromised far too much on his first serve when he lost 6-1, 7-5 to Federer in Cincinnati. He seemed afraid to allow Federer too many cracks at second serves, and proceeded to add too much spin to his first delivery. Federer feasted on that recipe, and he will do the same if they play in New York. Federer will beat Djokovic 6-4, 6-4, 3-6, 6-3.

On the other half of the draw, No. 2 seed Andy Murray has his work cut out for him. He could have a difficult time with Marin Cilic in the round of 16, but would win that contest in four sets. The real trouble starts in the quarterfinals. None of the top four seeds wanted any part of Juan Martin Del Potro in that round, but it is Murray who is stuck with the demanding assignment. Murray stopped Del Potro in a four set quarterfinal at the Open a year ago, but Del Potro has improved by leaps and bounds since then. Earlier this year, he beat Murray for the first time on clay in Madrid, and recently he lost narrowly to the British No. 1 in the final of Montreal. Murray barely got through that bruising battle, winning in the end largely on fitness.

My guess is that this quarterfinal would be played under the lights, which would probably benefit Del Potro. It would be a test of Murray’s subtle changes of pace and strategic acumen against Del Potro’s brute force. Del Potro has solidified his ground game impressively. His two-handed backhand was always a magnificent stroke while his forehand was fragile at times. Now the forehand is a much better stroke, and Del Potro has vastly improved his first and second serves. Murray will need to keep probing to find the slightest of weaknesses, because Del Potro will not give much away. This match has five sets written all over it. In the end, Murray will win by the skin of his teeth, as his mental toughness leads him to a 4-6, 7-5,7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-5 victory.

In the semifinals, I look for a Murray-Rafael Nadal confrontation. In the same round a year ago, Murray beat Nadal for the first time, ending a five match career losing streak against his opponent. This year, they have split two head to head matches. Nadal is appearing in only his third tournament since returning from a long absence with knee problems. Nadal will come into this semifinal after beating some big names along the way. In the opening round, he will beat Richard Gasquet, the brilliant shot maker from France who owns one of the game’s most remarkable one-handed backhands.

Nadal will take that match in straight sets, but he might have a rough battle on his hands in the round of 16 when he could play David Ferrer. Ferrer ousted an ailing Nadal in the round of 16 two years ago at the Open, and could push him hard again. But Nadal will turn the tables and win this time in four hard sets. In the quarterfinals, Nadal figures to face No. 7 seed Jo Wilfried Tsonga, the 2008 Australian Open finalist. Tsonga crushed Nadal in straight sets to make it to that final, but this time Nadal will pick him apart in four entertaining sets.

So Nadal will be in good form heading into his semifinal with Murray. But will that be good enough? Murray has the benefit of much more match play across the heart of 2009. Nadal still needs a few more tournaments to reach the upper level of his game. He needs a shade more confidence. These two great players will battle furiously through a long match, but Murray will have the slight edge in the end. He will prevail 7-6 (6), 4-6, 7-6 (5), 7-6 (7) in a four hour skirmish of the highest order.

And so it will be Murray against Federer for the second year in a row in the Open final. Murray will be more prepared this time, less in awe of his surroundings, better able to handle the experience of being in a major final. But Federer did himself a world of good when he beat Murray in Cincinnati. He will walk onto the court for this final fully believing he will win; Murray will be optimistic but not entirely convinced he can get the job done.

And yet, Murray will throw everything he has at Federer. He will return much better than he did in Cincinnati. He will serve clusters of aces and move his second serve around more skillfully than was the case the last time he played Federer. That will make it awkward for Federer to attack those second serve returns, and Murray will thus hold serve more easily. But Federer will keep rescuing himself on big break points with magnificent serving. He will frustrate his adversary with his bold and nerveless play under pressure. Murray will retaliate by catching Federer off guard with his outstanding backhand down the line, and he will more than hold his own from the back of the court.

It will be a superb final from both sides of the court, but Federer will win his 16th major in a hard fought encounter: 7-5, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (8). In the fourth set tie-break, Federer will save three set points to avert a fifth set.

As for the women, the view here is that Dinara Safina--- the top seed--- will find herself in an arduous quarterfinal against 2008 finalist Jelena Jankovic, the No. 5 seed. Safina did not play particularly good tennis over the summer after reaching the final of the French Open and the semifinals of Wimbledon. Jankovic has not had a good year until she won Cincinnati, but now her confidence is back. In that event, she beat Safina in the final. Jankovic will repeat that victory at the Open and move into the semifinals. She will meet Elena Dementieva in a repeat of the 2008 semifinals.

Dementieva will face a stern third round confrontation with Maria Sharapova, the 2006 Open victor. Dementieva just beat Sharapova on a windswept afternoon in the final of Toronto. That was a hard fought, straight set showdown. This time, the two Russians will fight furiously through three sets, across a long afternoon, through several shifts in momentum. Dementieva will survive, coming through 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 in a stirring battle. Sharapova will serve for the match at 5-3 in the third, but Dementieva will hang on and get out of that bind.

Dementieva will beat Svetlana Kuznetsova in the quarterfinals, reversing the result of the 2004 US Open championship match. She will have been through a lot by the time she meets Jankovic, but Dementieva will be better for it. When Jankovic beat Dementieva in the semifinals of Cincinnati, she needed to save four match points. This time around, Dementieva will gain the upper hand early, and she will force the issue with her flatter, more stinging ground strokes. Dementieva will defeat Jankovic 7-5, 7-6 (4) and reach the final with that victory.

On the opposite half of the draw, No. 2 seed Serena Williams will take on No. 28 Sybille Bammer in the third round. Bammer recently ousted a subdued and listless Serena in Cincinnati, but Serena will be out for revenge against the left-hander, and she will get it with a tough two set victory, toppling her rival for the first time in three career meetings. Serena will play No. 10 seed Flavia Penetta in the quarters. Penetta has enjoyed her best year as a professional, and recently beat Venus Williams. But Serena will overpower Penetta 7-5, 6-4 in a compelling collision. I look for 2000-2001 champion Venus Williams---- the No. 3 seed--- to play No. 8 Victoria Azarenka in a scintillating quarterfinal.

Venus will win the first set, lose the second, and then force a third set tie-break. That will be a spectacular sequence, but Azarenka--- the loudest current grunter in the women’s game--- will narrowly escape with a 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7) victory, saving a match point when Venus drives a forehand long to end a dramatic exchange from the baseline.

In the semifinals, Serena will have a similarly close and high quality contest with Azarenka. Serena will be peaking by now, getting her forehand under control, opening up the court with her two-handed backhand, exploiting her first serve over and over again. Serena Williams will defeat Azarenka 7-5, 7-6(4) to move into the final.

When Serena recently played Dementieva in Toronto, she lost a tight first set in a tie-break, and then essentially went away. She seemed resigned to defeat. Dementieva took full advantage of it. But this situation reminds me a lot of the start of the 2009 season. Dementieva upended Serena in Sydney but when they met again, Williams beat Dementieva in the semifinals of the Australian Open. In the final of the U.S. Open, Williams and Dementieva will have a match reminiscent of their semifinal at Wimbledon, when Williams rallied from match point down to win 6-7, 7-5, 8-6 in the match of the year thus far in the women’s game.

This time around, Williams will win by scores of 7-5, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (2) as the two players push each other to their outer limits. As is so often the case, Serena will achieve the victory as much with her willpower as her shot making. She will win her 12th major title. Dementieva will lose gallantly. The world of women’s tennis will celebrate a classic final in the last major championship of 2009.