2018 Australian Open preview

New year, same contenders: 2018 Australian Open men’s preview

As has been the case at most majors for the last decade, the number of men who can realistically win the 2018 Australian Open is much smaller than the number of women who can do so. Here are some interesting first-round matches to watch in Melbourne.

(14) Novak Djokovic vs. Donald Young – With Andy Murray finally deciding to undergo hip surgery and on the shelf until who knows when, it sure is nice to have a 12-time major winner like Djokovic in Australia, who is apparently healthy enough to answer the bell.

Donald Young was once a child prodigy. At 28, the left-handed American will likely never live up to the massive expectations once placed on him. Even so, he has turned himself into a serviceable pro who is always ranked in the 40-80 range.

2018 Australian Open preview

Photo from ausopen.com

Djokovic could have drawn much simpler opponents for his first official match since Wimbledon. He is still quick to point out that he is not fully healthy, but the Serb at 85 percent is better than most guys at 100 percent.

(12) Juan Martín del Potro vs. Frances Tiafoe – The big Argentine is playing his best ball since winning the U.S. Open in 2009 and will return to the top 10 on Monday. He is even hitting a non-sliced backhand for the first time since multiple wrist surgeries cost him almost two years.

Tiafoe is arguably the most promising American male prospect in tennis. He made a name for himself by pushing Roger Federer to five sets at the U.S. Open last year. In just his seventh Grand Slam main draw, this is probably above his current weight class, but this should still be a fun watch.

(19) Tomáš Berdych vs. Alex De Minaur – Three weeks ago, this matchup would not have caught anyone’s eye, but de Minaur made a semifinal in Brisbane followed by a final in Sydney playing as a home country Wild Card. The 19-year-old beat some good players in the process too, including former Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic. He will take on another Wimbledon runner-up here.

While still a very good player, Berdych is on the down side of his career. De Minaur’s speed and somewhat unorthodox style will make the veteran work hard at the very least.

Predictions

Doing predictions for the men’s Grand Slams requires much less analysis than the women at the moment. The tennis media gets a lot of heat for focusing on the “Big Four” too much. However, the fact is Djokovic, Murray, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal all missed large portions of 2017. Yet, they all managed to win at least one event. Federer and Nadal split the four majors.

For that reason, there is no indication that this Grand Slam will be any different, even with Murray missing altogether and Djokovic and Nadal still recovering from knee and elbow injuries. Whatever combination of those guys shows up at a Grand Slam are the favorites until someone proves they aren’t.

However, there are a few players that have a shot at upsetting the norm. Here is a look at that small group.

The young guns – If none of the younger players could lift a Grand Slam trophy last year, it is tough to believe they will do it this year. Despite that, No. 5 Dominic Thiem, No. 4 Alexander Zverev and No. 17 Nick Kyrgios have all had flashes of brilliance in the recent past, but have just two trips to major semifinals between them.

Kyrgios is particularly maddening. You will be hard-pressed to find anyone with more natural talent. Yet, he is still more known for his off-court antics and on-court tantrums than his game. The Aussie won in Brisbane to start the year, but it is so hard to trust him. Tennis is dying for more personalities. If Kyrgios ever “gets it,” he can help with that.

2018 Australian Open preview

Photo from theguardian.com

Thiem and Zverev stand in Djokovic’s way before a semifinal with Federer. However, they have a grand total of two wins against Djokovic between them.

Juan Martin del Potro – Injuries are the only thing that has kept del Potro from creating a “Big Five” over the years. His forehand may be one of the greatest shots ever. He has beaten Federer and Nadal at the business end of majors as well as Djokovic twice at the Olympics. As noted above, his opener is intriguing. It is his possible quarterfinal matchup with Federer that might be the defending champion’s toughest hurdle.

Grigor Dimitrov – The third seeded Bulgarian is a few years older than the young guns, and he was able to take advantage of last year’s high profile injuries. He won the Masters event in Cincinnati and the year-end championships in London. While he is still looking for his first Grand Slam title, he seems to be a little further along in terms of week in week out consistency than the youngsters.

Semifinal predictions: Federer d. Djokovic. Dimitrov d. Nadal

Championship match: Federer d. Dimitrov to defend his title

The Australian Open begins Sunday night at 7 p.m. ET across the ESPN family of networks and Tennis Channel. I will tweet out my complete picks for both singles draws before play starts. You can follow me on Twitter below and check out my ladies preview here!

 

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2018 Australian Open preview

Opportunity down under: 2018 Australian Open ladies preview

The 2018 tennis season is under way, and the Australian Open draws are out. With Serena Williams not defending her title after childbirth, the ladies’ draw is even more wide open than usual. Here are some first-round matches to watch at the opening major of the year.

(7) Jelena Ostapenko vs. Francesca Schiavone – Two French Open champions will square off in the opening round. The Latvian seventh seed did well to back up her breakthrough in Paris last year and finished ranked inside the top ten. She is winless so far on the young season, but is capable of hitting her way through everyone if she can find even a little bit of decent form.

The 2010 French Open champion postponed her retirement plans after last season. The veteran Italian’s variety and Ostapenko’s raw power should create an entertaining match.

(11) Kristina Mladenovic vs. Ana Bogdan – These two players are pretty anonymous to everyone except super dedicated fans of the sport, but the backstory here is impossible to ignore. The 11th seeded Mladenovic is on a 14-match losing streak. You read that right. Mladenovic has not won a singles match since last August and is shooting up the record books in the worst way possible.

2018 Australian Open preview

Photo from zambio.com

Fortunately for her, she did major damage in the early part of last year. Thus, her ranking is still high enough for her to get decent draws for now. Getting a first-round matchup with someone ranked outside the top 100 is good news for Mladenovic, but she lost to a player ranked outside the top 300 just last week, so anything is possible.

No one likes to admit it, but everyone is going to watch a train wreck. Thus, every Mladenovic match is appointment viewing until the losing streak ends.

Sam Stosur vs. Monica Puig – For the first time in a long time, Sam Stosur is not the highest-ranked Australian woman at her home Grand Slam. The former U.S. Open champion has always struggled here, but perhaps the pressure has lessened a bit this year.

The reigning Olympic gold medalist from Puerto Rico is also struggling at the moment. No matter what happens in this one, a very talented player is going to get a big win.

(5) Venus Williams vs. Belinda Bencic – Spare a thought for Belinda Bencic. Last year, the former top 10 player was coming back from injury and drew Serena Williams in the first round at this event. This year, she is coming back from injury and draws Venus Williams.

Bencic is playing very well at the moment after a slew of titles at smaller professional events. Her ranking is back in the top 80 after falling as low as 400. However, dealing with Venus at a Grand Slam is a whole different level.

The American looked sluggish in her season debut in Sydney last week, but most of what we have seen from the 37-year-old in the last year has been astonishingly good. Bencic has the talent to beat anyone, but Venus has always managed to overpower her. If Williams comes out flat as she sometimes does, her time in Australia will be much shorter than she would like.

Top half predictions

World No. 1 and top seed Simona Halep heads up the draw. She bagged singles and doubles trophies in China to start the year. However, the Romanian has never played well here. In fact, she has crashed out in the first round the last two years. Halep has yet to figure out how to play her best tennis at the majors.

Additionally, she has been handed a tricky draw that could see her face former Grand Slam finalist Eugenie Bouchard and two-time Wimbledon winner No. 27 Petra Kvitova in the first week. Kvitova has struggled since returning from a stabbing injury last spring, but she tends to pull her act together at big events. Moreover, she can overpower Halep on a good day. Australian 18th seed Ashleigh Barty could also be dangerous if she handles the home crowd well.

The really interesting part of this half is the names that are clustered together. Reigning Wimbledon champion No. 3 Garbiñe Muguruza, No. 21 Angelique Kerber, No. 14 Anastasija Sevastova and unseeded five-time major winner Maria Sharapova are all in the same group of 16. That means that only one of these four title contenders can reach the quarterfinals.

Muguruza has failed to finish a tournament this year because of injuries. Sharapova has been hit or miss since returning to the tour, but underestimate her at your own risk. Kerber has had a nice resurgence to start the year by tearing through the field in Sydney, and Sevastova is a late bloomer who can hit shots that don’t even have names.

Prior to the draw, one of these names would have been a safe bet to make a deep run. Now, it is reasonable to speculate that whoever emerges from the scrum above may not have much left in the tank for the rest of the field.

That logic opens the door for some other seeds like No. 6 Karolína Plíšková, No. 8 Caroline Garcia, No. 9 Johanna Konta, No. 17 Madison Keys and maybe even No. 20 Barbora Strýcová. Strýcová has always struggled to keep her emotions in check, and the others dealing with injury concerns were just not playing well. Much like Kvitova, Garcia seems to get hot without any rhyme or reason. In a wide-open draw that only features two previous Australian Open champions, a player like that is most dangerous.

Semifinal prediction: Garcia d. Kvitova

Bottom half predictions 

This half of the draw is much cleaner. It is best to view it with three in form players at the center. No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki led the tour in finals last year and has already reached one this year. No. 4 Elina Svitolina won the season opener in Brisbane. Lastly, No. 12 Julia Görges is on a 14-match winning streak.

2018 Australian Open preview

Photo from metro.co.uk

None of these three players has ever won a Grand Slam, but they are the only ones in this half that appear capable of winning this one. Wozniacki has been so close so many times, but she will never have a better chance at major glory. She is playing well and hitting the ball harder than she ever has.

This is one of the first times we are heading into a major with people talking about Svitolina and Görges as real contenders, so they may not react well once things get started.

There are a few other players who cannot be totally discounted in this part of the draw. 31st seeded Russian lefty Ekaterina Makarova always plays well in Australia. It would also be foolish to overlook fiery Aussie 23rd seed Daria Gavrilova. The same goes for the winner of the Williams-Bencic first-rounder. Finally, keep an eye on a pair of Americans. No. 10 CoCo Vandeweghe and unseeded Alison Riske.

Semifinal prediction: Wozniacki d. Svitolina

Championship match: Wozniacki d. Garcia

The Australian Open begins Sunday night at 7 p.m. ET across the ESPN family of networks and Tennis Channel. I will tweet out my complete picks for both singles draws before play starts. You can follow me on Twitter below!

 

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2017 WTA Awards

2017 WTA awards

The eight best female tennis players of 2017 are in Singapore preparing to battle for the season-ending WTA Finals starting this weekend. Earlier this week, the yearly awards were handed out. I have my own award winners picked out and have added a few categories of my own in order to better summarize everything we saw in 2017.

Player of the year: Garbiñe Muguruza 

In a year where Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka all once again missed huge chunks of time, the top ranking changed hands eight times and may still change one more time.

Thus, a case can be made for many players to win this award. It went to Muguruza as it should have.

Unlike most of the other contenders, Muguruza won at least three matches at every major this year, including winning Wimbledon. She also added another trophy in Cincinnati.

Had Venus Williams won more matches in non-major events, or won one of the two major finals she contested, it would have been hard to deny her. All the other contenders had at least one rough patch this year.

Breakthrough player of the year: Jeļena Ostapenko

2017 WTA Awards

Photo by mirror.co.uk

The small but mighty Latvian took home the “Most Improved Player” award from the WTA. That terminology has always bothered me. To me, breakthrough signifies the more permanent arrival of a player to the big time. Ostapenko’s first career title was a major.

She lifted the trophy at the French Open despite being unseeded. She backed that up with a run to the last eight of Wimbledon and a solid stretch in Asia this fall. The former Wimbledon junior champ had been a youngster to watch for the last few years. This year, she lived up to that hype and then some.

Most disappointing player of the year: Angelique Kerber

The next two categories are my own. Kerber is a counterpuncher in a sport dominated by big hitters. She overachieved by winning two majors and finishing atop the rankings last year.

Thus, taking a step back in 2017 was predictable. However, not winning a single tournament and finishing the year barely ranked inside the top 20 is pretty dramatic. Moreover, Kerber is not even the top ranked German as the year comes to a close. She simply never looked comfortable on the court this year. She had no answers for the power players this year despite staying reasonably healthy. It will be a long road back for Kerber in 2018.

Match of the year: Maria Sharapova vs. Simona Halep (US Open)  

2017 WTA Awards

Photo by tennis.com

Even now several weeks removed, it is still hard to believe that this was a first-round match. With a five-time major winner like Sharapova playing as a wild card, something like this was possible.

Even so, to have two players who have had so many big matches against each other face off so early was surreal. It felt like a semifinal or final, mostly because of the quality of the match.

Sharapova’s offense and Halep’s defense made for nearly three hours of beauty. The Russian prevailed over the then World No. 2 in three sets for a landmark victory on her comeback from a drug suspension. Halep got her first career victory over Sharapova in Beijing a few weeks later, but this night belonged to Sharapova. Check out some snippets from the emotional night below from the US Open YouTube channel.

Comeback player of the year: Sloane Stephens

What happened to the 24-year-old American this year is just not supposed to happen. Stephens returned at Wimbledon after almost a year away because of a foot injury.

2017 WTA Awards

Photo by tmz.com

She was ranked outside the top 100. However, back to back semifinals in Canada and Cincinnati brought the former World No. 11 back into the top 100. Still, she was viewed as little more than a dangerous floater at the US Open. Despite that, she caused a string of upsets to take the title, including Venus Williams in the semis.

To go from working as a broadcaster in March to holding your first Grand Slam trophy in September is truly remarkable.

 

 

 

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Maria Sharapova

Chaos in China: High Stakes for Sharapova, Federer, and Nadal

If you like established stars making waves, the fall tennis season is generally not for you. However, 2017 continues to break that trend. While most of the American east coast is sound asleep, I will be waking up at 2:00 AM Sunday morning to watch three of the biggest names in the sport battle for some valuable late season real estate. By the time this is published, the matches will probably be over, but here are the possible impacts of each.

Sharapova hitting her way into form

Maria Sharapova’s return from a controversial doping suspension has had many stops and starts this year. Some of Sharapova’s tough road over the last year and a half has been self-inflicted, but she appears to have finally turned a corner.

The five time grand slam champion has followed up her round of 16 showing at the U.S. Open with the same result in Beijing. This week, she has blasted through cold and heavy conditions to reach her first final in more than two years.

The Tianjin Open is far from a major and the field reflects that. Even so, Sharapova has not dropped a set on her way to the final and is guaranteed to leave the event with some kind of trophy. Winning breeds winning. Seeing her name on a trophy should be a great confidence boost for Sharapova going forward.

Tianjin Open

Opposing Sharapova in the final will be Aryna Sabalenka. The Belarusian teenager was ranked outside the top 100 at the start of the week and is still a virtual unknown to many in and around the sport, myself included.

Facing Sharapova is obviously a tall order, but the former World No. 1 is still fairly early in her comeback. Every match is a test for Sharapova right now. Sabalenka has more of a chance than she normally would.

Both finalists in Tianjin have accomplished a great deal this week. Sabalenka is in her first career tour level final. Sharapova will be gunning for her 36th career title.

The 30-year-old Russian has been in the tennis news cycle quite a bit over the past handful of days. First, her results in China will get her ranking up to at least 66th in the world. With the season winding down, that ranking is plenty good enough to get Sharapova into January’s Australian Open without a wildcard. Everyone involved in the sport will be glad to see the seemingly never-ending Sharapova wildcard debate be a thing of the past.

Secondly, it was announced that Sharapova will play a tournament in her birth country for the first time in a decade next week. She has accepted a wildcard into the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. This is a major get for a tournament that does not have a top 10 player in the field.

If you read between the lines, this news is particularly ominous for Sharapova’s peers. At the start of her comeback, Sharapova’s body would rarely allow her to play back-to-back matches, forget about back-to-back weeks.

A decent result in Moscow could see Sharapova end the year ranked well inside the top 50. On a more basic level, she is now apparently healthy enough to finish the season playing tournaments for three consecutive weeks in two different countries.

We all know what Sharapova is capable of. She may not be among the top eight ranked players in the world who will contest the season ending WTA Finals in Singapore later this month, but those eight women are no doubt taking notice of her late-season surge.

Federer/Nadal volume 38 in Shanghai

If you are not convinced to wake up at 2 AM ET to watch the ladies do battle in Tianjin, sleep in until 4:30 AM ET. Then, get up to watch legends, rivals, and friends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal duke it out for the 38th time in their magnificent careers.

This time the final of the Shanghai Masters will serve as the backdrop. Like the Tianjin final, there is much more at stake than just ranking points and a trophy. It even goes deeper than another chapter in their legendary rivalry.

In a year where the vast majority of their stiffest competition have all fallen victim to serious injuries, the two men who have been at the top the longest have stayed healthy. Go figure.

In any sport, availability is the best ability. Staying healthy has allowed Federer and Nadal to dominate all year long and reclaim the top two ranking spots in the world. While Nadal has the inside track to ending the year atop the rankings, he has two common events with Federer remaining on his schedule. A Federer win in Shanghai would keep things interesting.

Federer Nadal

Photo: metro.co.uk

From the Nadal perspective, this match is massive from a mental standpoint, he holds an overall edge of 23-14 in the rivalry. However, the beloved Swiss man has won 4 in a row against Nadal for the first time ever. Uncertainty in the matchup may be starting to creep in for the lefty, He needs to dispel that notion. No matter what happens, the match in Shanghai is a huge tone setter for the rest of 2017 and beyond.

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Jelena Ostapenko

Late tennis season storylines

With all four majors now firmly in the rear view mirror, most of the world has stopped paying attention to tennis, but the season is 11 months long. There is still lots unfolding as both tours are tearing up Asia. Here is a look.

Ostapenko is here to stay:  The ladies tour has been wide open for most of the year. No one has taken more advantage of that than Jelena Ostapenko. Despite a few good results early in the year, no one expected the young Latvian to show up unseeded at the French Open and win it, but she did.

She followed that up with a run to the last eight at Wimbledon. Then, it looked like she was headed down the same path as many of her peers in recent years. The path of making a breakthrough and then falling off a cliff for about a year. Following Wimbledon, Ostapenko, won just two matches through the U.S. Open.

Following an early exit in New York, Ostapenko came to Asia early. She snagged her second career tournament victory in Seoul and knocked off new World No.1 and Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza the following week in Wuhan, China. She is also part of this week’s loaded field in Beijing.

Her game style is as simple as it gets. See ball, hit ball hard. Yes, she is one-dimensional. However, that one dimension is really good. Given her relatively small stature, it is amazing that she is able to generate such massive power. Watch her work in the video below from the WTA YouTube channel.

Ostapenko has put together one of the most consistent seasons on tour this year. No occasion seems too big for her. The 20-year-old will only get better. The sky is the limit.

Kerber showing signs of life: Following a first round exit as defending champion at the U.S. Open, Angelique Kerber went from World No. 1 and holder of two major titles to being ranked outside the top 10 and not holding a title of any kind in the span of a year.

Sports have a way of humbling their players. Kerber has been humbled, but seems to be playing a bit more relaxed in Asia. She avenged her U.S. Open loss to Naomi Osaka in Tokyo, where she reached the semis, as well as this week in Beijing.

This may not seem like much for a player of Kerber’s caliber, but the sturdy German was desperate for any kind of positive after a performance that was hard to watch in New York. Asia may have given her something to build on. Only time will tell.

Sharapova comeback continues: One of the biggest stories of 2017 is at a critical juncture. Maria Sharapova is playing in Beijing this week, the first of two Chinese events on her schedule. The Russian is still ranked outside the top 100 with the rankings cutoff for January’s Australian Open fast approaching.

Sharapova needs to win as many matches as possible over the next two weeks. If she can’t get her ranking into double digits by year’s end, Sharapova may need a wildcard to play in the first major of next year. With the five time major winner returning from a doping suspension, there has been a lot of drama and debate about giving her free passes into the biggest events in the sport again. Some tournaments have done it, others have denied her.

Sharapova is a lot of things, stupid is not one of them. She is no doubt aware of the situation and does not want to leave her participation in Australia up to someone else. She saved match point to defeat her U.S. Open vanquisher Anastasija Sevastova and is awaiting her second round opponent in Beijing.

Maria Sharapova

Photo: tennisnow.com

 

Roger and Rafa back in action: With Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, and Kei Nishikori all dealing with injuries that forced premature ends to their seasons, 2017 has been about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. The last part of the season will be no different.

After playing a series of team exhibitions that saw the pair play some doubles together, they are ready to get back to competitive play. Coming off another U.S. Open title, Nadal is in the draw in Beijing. He will be joined by Federer and several others next week in Shanghai.

Roger Federer

Photo: Belfast Times

It will be fun to see just how competitive these two get between now and the end of November. They know they are the star attractions everywhere they go. Also, one must wonder if an outsider can create opportunity for themselves like South Africa’s Kevin Anderson did in New York.

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Sloane Stwphens

2017 U.S. Open Grades: The women

 

The women’s singles event at the 2017 U.S. Open has come to an end. America has a new Grand Slam champion. Here are grades for the key players at the year’s final major.

Madison Keys– With four American women reaching the semifinals of a Grand Slam for the first time since 1985, it is only fair that the first part of this article is devoted to them.

Despite a disastrous outing in the final, Keys got healthy and got it together in New York. Like her compatriots and fellow semifinalists, she grinded through some tough matches. Everything about her game is big and powerful. This translates very well to the era in which she plays. There is not a shot she cannot hit and hit hard. It often takes players like that longer to develop, but you can see the light bulb coming on for Keys. She has arrived. As long as she stays healthy, this was her first of many Grand Slam finals. Grade: A

Madison Keys

Photo: sbnation.com

Sloane Stephens– I am far less convinced that Sloane Stephens has more majors in her future. Her serve is average and she plays defense better than offense. That does not usually equate to multiple major wins.

Despite all that, these two weeks belonged to her. A little over a month ago, Stephens began her comeback from a foot injury that saw the former World No. 11 miss almost a year and drop out of the top 900 in the rankings. After reaching consecutive semifinals in Canada and Cincinnati, Stephens certainly had the “dangerous floater” label leading into the U.S. Open, but even the most optimistic of optimists could not have foreseen this.

Stephens found the right mix of offense and defense and caught a few breaks with the draw. That was all she needed. It truly was the perfect storm. Stephens really struggled to back up her first major breakthrough when she beat Serena Williams to reach the semis of the 2013 Australian Open. Thus, it remains to be seen how she will back up catching lightning in a bottle in New York. However, that is another discussion for another time. Grade: A+

Venus Williams– She came up just short against Stephens in the semis, but she reached the second week of all four majors for the first time since 2003, is back in the top five, and became an aunt this week. Life is pretty good for the 37 year old at the moment. Grade: A

CoCo Vandeweghe– For the second time this year, the 25 year old native New Yorker found herself in the semis of a major. Unlike in Australia, she never really played her best here. In a way, that almost makes it more impressive. I am more than a little skeptical as to whether or not she can ever harness her wildly powerful game well enough to actually win a major.  The occasion of a semifinal in New York ate her alive, but a run to the last four is certainly nothing to scoff at. Grade: A-

Maria Sharapova– Under normal circumstances, a fourth round showing for a player of Sharapova’s caliber would be disastrous. However, these circumstances were anything but normal.

The 30-year-old Russian scraped through to the second week in her first Grand Slam tournament in almost 2 years due to a drug suspension and injuries. Her opening round victory over World No. 2 Simona Halep was the best women’s match of the tournament in terms of both quality and drama.

For obvious reasons, there will always be debate surrounding Sharapova. Even so, she proved she is still very worthy of competing on the big stage, got her ranking back inside the top 100, and is apparently healthy enough to play a few tournaments in Asia this fall. Grade: B+

Caroline Wozniacki– Not only did the Dane flop out in the second round of what is usually her best major, but she did it to an opponent she had never lost to. Then, she picked the press conference after her loss to put event organizers on blast for putting Sharapova on the main court while the former World No. 1 was on a smaller court. Whatever court you are on, you have to take care of business, Wozniacki didn’t. Sour grapes. Grade: D-

Caroline Wozniacki

Photo: tennislife.com

Petra Kvitova– The big hitting lefty had a difficult summer. She won a title in just her second event back from stab wounds suffered in a home invasion. Since that win right before Wimbledon, she had not won back to back matches.

Something clicked in New York though. The Czech matched her best U.S. Open result by reaching the quarterfinals. This was highlighted by a breathtaking display of power that took out tournament favorite Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round. For someone that still does not have complete sensation in the hand that she plays with, her run was absolutely remarkable and heartwarming.  Grade: A

Angelique Kerber– Seeing the defending champion get blasted off the court by Naomi Osaka in the first round was almost tough to watch. The player who won two majors and finished last year at World No. 1 has not picked up a single tournament victory this year, her ranking will now tumble outside the top ten. It cannot get much worse for her… Can it? Grade: F

Simona Halep– Was Sharapova a ridiculously tough first round draw? Of course. However, if she cannot beat a rusty Sharapova who was clearly not 100%, it is very difficult to see her fortunes changing against big hitters in big matches anytime soon. Grade: D+  

Karolína Plíšková– The tour leader in aces never looked comfortable in her first major as top seed and World No. 1. However, the way she grinded through some tough matches to reach the quarterfinals was impressive and a sign of maturity. She needs more of a “B Game” to go to when her power is not working. That is not an easy thing to acquire. Still, Plíšková made a good account of herself here and did a nice job trying to back up last year’s surprise run to the final. Grade: C+

Garbiñe Muguruza– Despite losing in the round of 16, the Wimbledon champion will debut at World No.1 on Monday. Her U.S. Open followed the model her career always has, when no one expects her to do well at a big event, she tends to make a deep run. When playing with the weight of expectation, she tends to lose relatively early.  Muguruza certainly has the skills to win any tournament she enters, but the mental game needs some work if she wants to be a threat on a more consistent basis. Grade: C

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U.S. Open Tennis

2017 U.S. Open: A closer look at the Sharapova revival

“Behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses this girl has a lot of grit, and she’s not going anywhere.” Has there ever been a better quote from athlete that sums up their own approach to competing? I doubt it.

Maria Sharapova spoke these words after defeating World No. 2 Simona Halep in her first Grand Slam match in almost two years Monday night. Given that a drug suspension caused the Russian’s lengthy absence, this story has an element of darkness that is different from previous U.S. Open runs such as the legendary Jimmy Connors reaching the semis in 1991 as a 39-year-old wildcard or the farewell runs of Andre Agassi in 2005 and 2006.

However, like Connors and Agassi, Sharapova has taken over this U.S. Open. Like any other sport, tennis has a loyal and devoted fan base. Even so, it struggles to crossover into mainstream media. Sharapova’s New York rebirth has done that. Her first round victory in a blockbuster matchup made both CNN and The Today Show the following morning. The U.S. Open drew a record crowd for opening match on Monday.

All of this reinforces the fact that the U.S. Open made the right call by giving the 2006 champion a wildcard. You can talk all you want about the morals and ethics of giving a player with a drug suspension a free pass into the main draw. However, tennis tournaments are a business. The numbers and crowds say Sharapova is fantastic for business.

There are so many elements that have added to the intrigue of this story. First, is Sharapova herself. Since returning from suspension in April, her body has not cooperated with her at all. She suffered a small tear in her hip in just her third tournament back and was out until late August. She returned the tour in Stanford where she withdrew with an arm injury after just one match and did not play again until Monday night’s thrilling opener.

Maria Sharapova

Photo: businessinsider.com

Even if you are one of those people that tuned in in hopes of seeing Sharapova fail, her reaction after her first victory had to soften you a little bit. The five time Grand Slam champion fell to her knees in tears. This came from someone who is notorious for the lack of emotion she shows on the court. You could tell that she was not sure if she was ever going to have a moment like that again. Thus, seeing how much just one victory back on the big stage meant to her was powerful to say the least.

That brings us to the New York crowds. At minimum, a mixed reaction would have been understandable. Human beings are funny things though. They have greeted Sharapova with nothing but long standing ovations and autograph lines on the practice court. If anything, Sharapova is more popular now than before she was suspended.

For what it is worth, Sharapova took responsibility for failing the drug test from the very beginning and was exonerated of any intentional wrongdoing by the court that reduced her suspension. I can only speculate that this combined with Sharapova’s obvious desire and gratitude to be back on the big stage again has won a lot of people over.

Caroline Wozniacki

Photo: lastwordontennis.com

Sharapova’s fellow competitors have not been nearly as forgiving. With a few exceptions, they continue to be her most vocal critics. This is been going on since April. At this event specifically, Caroline Wozniacki took issue with Sharapova being placed on the 23000 seat Arthur Ashe Stadium while the Danish former World No. 1 was shuffled to an outside court thanks to a backloaded schedule caused by rain delays. Wozniacki lost her match. Rising American player CoCo Vandeweghe became the latest to join the chorus of players that believe Sharapova should not be playing at all.

Back to Sharapova herself. Is she rusty? Yes. Is she 100% healthy? It does not look like it. Yet, with all the drama surrounding her, she continues to roll up her sleeves and simply compete like the quote in the opening paragraph would suggest. That has allowed her to join Vandeweghe and 14 other players in the second week of the U.S. Open. Several of her critics have already taken flights home. She may never directly state it publicly, but that has to be pretty vindicating for Sharapova.

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US Open Tennis

Familiarity and opportunity: 2017 U.S. Open men’s preview

Defending champion Stan Wawrinka is out with a season ending knee injury, Novak Djokovic’s elbow has him eyeing 2018 and Andy Murray pulled out Saturday with a bad hip. Thus, the Roger Federer/Rafael Nadal domination of 2017 appears poised to continue at the U.S. Open. Before we get there, here are a few openers worth watching.

(15) Tomáš Berdych vs. Ryan Harrison- Harrison has had a really nice year highlighted by winning his first title and reaching career-high ranking. The once highly touted American has also become notorious for tough first-round draws at majors over the years. This is tough, but winnable. Berdych is on the downside of a really solid career. The former top ten mainstay still has his good days, but is now scrapping to stay in the top 20.

Taylor Fritz vs. Marcos Baghdatis- Baghdatis was a surprise finalist at the Australian Open way back in 2006. He has always been quite the showman and is still capable of producing some very good tennis every now and then.

His much younger American opponent has shown flashes of brilliance in his young career, but has struggled to stay healthy. The 13 year age gap alone will make this fun.

(17) Sam Querrey vs. Gilles Simon- A tough draw for the seeded American who is coming off his first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon. Even after a small post Wimbledon lull, he has the weaponry to do well here.

Simon is a former top ten player. In an era dominated by pace, he gives his opponents absolutely none. He is always a tricky and uncomfortable matchup for anyone,

Predictions:

Top Half: It feels like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have played at every big event for every big title for the better part of the last 15 years. The one major exception is this event. The two legendary rivals have never faced off in any round in Flushing Meadows.

Federer Nadal

Photo: tennisnow.com

They cannot meet in the final this year, but the semis. That is really the big storyline for the entire event. Quite frankly, everyone involved in the sport will be at least a little disappointed if it does not happen.

This half does feature two players who are very capable of upsetting everyone’s projection. 14th seed Nick Kyrgios and 24th seed Juan Martin del Potro both could cause problems for Federer in the fourth round and quarterfinals respectively.

Kyrgios appears to be turning the corner after blowing Rafael Nadal off the court on his run to the finals of Cincinnati. There is not a shot that the temperamental Aussie can’t hit and hit well. He even invents shots sometimes with mixed results, if his head is screwed on straight, he can beat anyone.

Minus the head case gene, del Potro is very similar to Kyrgios. Injuries have prevented the Argentine from recapturing Grand Slam glory like he did here in 2009, but his forehand is still one of the best shots in the sport. It allows him the ability to catch lightning in a bottle on any given day.

At the end of the day though, beating the best three out of five sets at a Grand Slam is a different ballgame than the regular tour events. Federer and Nadal are who they are for a reason. After all these years, they are still head and shoulders above 99.9% of their peers.

Semifinal prediction: Federer d. Nadal     

 

Bottom Half: No Federer, no Nadal, no Djokovic, no Murray, and no Wawrinka. There is a massive opportunity here for someone to reach a Grand Slam final.

If there is a favorite to step up, it is German fourth seed Alexander Zverev. It is a matter of when, not if for the 20 year old. He announced his arrival by winning two Masters Series titles this year, including Canada over Roger Federer just a few weeks ago.

Alexander Zverev

Photo; firstpost.com

Again, this part of the draw is really anyone’s for the taking after Murray’s late withdraw.  Many of the seeds in this half are dealing with injuries of their own including former champion Marin Čilić.

Many will try and make a case for American veterans John Isner and Sam Querrey. However, they each have a bad habit of getting into long matches early in the Grand Slams. This is not a recipe for making a deep run.

That leaves one of the most respected players around. 35 year old David Ferrer has made a career out of grinding matches out and wearing opponents down. The former top ten fixture appeared to be done after dropping out of the top 30 early in the year.

However, the Spaniard enjoyed a nice little rebirth over the summer. This included picking up a small title in Sweden and a run the semis in Cincinnati. He is playing as well as anyone in this half. Also, he has to be aware that this might be his last real shot to go deep into the second week of a major.

David Ferrer

photo: livetennisguide.com

Semifinal prediction: Zverev d. Ferrer

Championship: Federer d. Zverev

            The U.S. Open begins Monday at 11 AM ET on Tennis Channel with ESPN taking over coverage two hours later. I will tweet out my full brackets for each singles draw before the start of play. You can follow me on Twitter below.

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Angelique Kerber

Endless Intrigue: 2017 U.S. Open Women’s Preview

The U.S. Open draws are out. An astonishing eight women could leave New York as World No.1. Throw in the return of Maria Sharapova, to Grand Slam play after nearly two years and this is one of the most intriguing events in recent memory. Here are some opening round matches to watch.

(2) Simona Halep vs. Maria Sharapova- Holy smokes folks. Everyone in tennis had to hit the floor when they saw this first round pairing. The Romanian second seed has had a very good year and Sharapova’s much publicized comeback has yet to really get out of the blocks.

On that alone, this should be fairly routine for Halep, but dig deeper. All six of their previous meetings have gone the embattled Russian’s way, including a classic in the 2014 French Open final. Sharapova has always managed to eventually overpower Halep.

Simona Halep

photo: onetennis.com

There are many questions about Sharapova right now. However, her mental toughness is never in doubt. She has had loads of adversity over the years, some of it self-inflicted. She easily could have called it a career during her recent doping suspension, but she keeps coming back.

These moments are what get Sharapova out of bed in the morning. Even though this is just an opening rounder, winning matches like this are what has made her a five-time Grand Slam champion. The same cannot be said of Halep who has had plenty of heartbreak this year. She blew a huge lead in the French Open final and has failed to take over the top ranking despite having three separate opportunities.

Something tells me Sharapova will find a way if she can stay close early, but it is a coin flip. Whoever wins this one has a very manageable path to the final weekend of the tournament. Regardless, the world cannot wait to watch this one.

(31) Magdaléna Rybáriková vs. Camila Giorgi- The Slovakian used her surprise run to the semifinals of Wimbledon to snag a seed here. Her streaky Italian opponent is on a good stretch this summer. Giorgi has also developed a reputation for knocking off seeded players over the years. Her power will be an interesting test for the finesse of Rybáriková.

(21) Ana Konjuh vs. Ashleigh Barty- Konjuh made a name for herself by reaching the last eight at this event last year. She is one of a precious few teenagers inside the world’s top 100.

Barty possesses a funky but good all-around game, she is not afraid to come into the net and is very capable of pulling a minor upset here. 2017 has been a year of comeback for the Aussie who returned to the tour this year after taking a hiatus to pursue professional cricket. She scored her biggest win yet by beating Venus Williams in Cincinnati.

Roberta Vinci vs. Sloane Stephens- The veteran Italian is still plugging away during her final year on tour after her Cinderella run to the finals at this event two years ago. She will have to deal with playing an American on home soil.

Stephens is really starting to build momentum again after missing nearly a year with a foot injury. She reached consecutive semifinals in Canada and Cincinnati this summer. Her forehand will be the biggest shot on the court, but Vinci’s slices are capable of irritating any opponent.

Predictions:

Top Half: World No. 1 and top seed Karolína Plíšková leads off the draw. The big serving Czech has been playing just okay this summer. Fortunately for her, she landed in the weaker half of the draw.

Defending champion Angelique Kerber, French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, tenth seed Agnieszka Radwańska, and two time Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova have all struggled to win matches this summer.

The biggest threats to Plíšková in this half are (4) Elina Svitolina and (15) Madison Keys. Keys hits the ball harder than many of the men. However, the most promising prospect in all of American tennis has yet to figure out how to win matches when she’s not playing her absolute best. Her time will come at a Grand Slam, but not here. Her form probably hit its peak a little too early when she won the title in Stanford and played a couple really tough matches in Cincinnati.

Unseeded American teenager CiCi Bellis may not be a legitimate threat to reach the semis, but this youngster is already well-known inside tennis circles and has a draw that could allow her to reach the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time

Svitolina is a very complete player. Nothing in her game stands out, but she does everything well. She leads the tour tournament victories this year, including her biggest title yet a few weeks ago in Canada. The only thing missing is a deep run at a Grand Slam. She has done a lot of winning this year and it feels like she is primed for it.

Elina Svitolina

Photo: eurosport.com

Semifinal prediction: Svitolina d. Plíšková

Bottom Half: The winner of Sharapova/Halep is almost certain to make a deep run. They too are surrounded by struggling seeds and not as many dangerous floaters.

Wimbledon and Cincinnati champion Garbiñe Muguruza is a popular pick to win the title.  For me though, six weeks of brilliance is not enough to erase a career of erratic play. Danish human backboard Caroline Wozniacki is surprisingly under the radar. The veteran came in to this event last year ranked outside the top 70 and reached the semifinals.

This year, she comes in leading the tour match wins, despite losing all six finals she has played. Always the bridesmaid never the bride could be Wonzniacki’s career slogan. If she is ever going to breakthrough at a major, it is now or never. Both of her Grand Slam finals came at this venue and she has had a handful of other deep runs. She has so much more experience than many of the other top contenders. It has to pay off at some point.

It would be foolish to completely discount ninth seed Venus Williams. 18th  seed Caroline Garcia is a young player who has been living off the unlimited potential label for a while. She is well-positioned to put it all together here.

Semifinal prediction: Wozniacki d. Sharapova

Championship: Wozniacki d. Svitolina

Caroline Wozniacki

Photo: nydailynews.com

The U.S. Open begins Monday at 11 AM ET on Tennis Channel with ESPN taking over coverage two hours later. I will tweet out my full brackets for each singles draw before the start of play. You can follow me on Twitter below.

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Garbine Muguruza

2017 Western and Southern Open Recap

Sunday evening marked the end of what is always this Cincinnatian’s favorite week of the year. The Western and Southern Open once again served as the final major preparation for the world’s best tennis players before they head to New York for the U.S. Open. Here is a look back at the week that was in Cincy.

Withdraws pile up:

This has been such a huge story line at so many prestigious events over the last handful of years. The withdrawal list for Cincinnati reads like a Hall of Fame ballot. Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori are all focusing on the 2018 season for various reasons.

Given that, the last minute withdrawals of Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer, Victoria Azarenka and Andy Murray among others were a tough blow for the tournament. Hopefully, some of these big names will be ready to go for the big show in New York in less than a week. As for Cincy, the show must go on, and it did.

Fresh faces emerge:

Withdraws create opportunity. Rafael Nadal was the only one of the “Big Four” to answer the bell in Cincinnati. He was upset by enigmatic Aussie Nick Kyrgios in the quarterfinals. This event marked the end of 42 consecutive Masters Series events where none of the “Big Four” reached at least the semifinals.

Kyrgios and Grigor Dimitrov faced off in a final that featured two players who had not yet lived up to their immense potential on a consistent basis. Dimitrov prevailed in two relatively tight sets. The Bulgarian was once given the nickname “Baby Fed,” a nod to his playing style that mimics that of the greatest player who ever lived. He struggled with handling the hype and expectations for a while. Something clicked for him this year. He reached the semifinals in Australia and won his biggest title yet this past week in Cincinnati.

Much like his opponent in the final, it was never a question of talent with Kyrgios either, it was the mental game. The 22-year-old has been served with a handful of fines and suspensions over the years for poor on court behavior including lack of best effort last year at the Shanghai Masters.

Despite those issues, he still managed to pick up big wins and become a solid top 30 player. Anyone who can do what he did to Nadal this week is capable of so much more than being a solid top 30 player.

Neither Kyrgios nor Dimitrov have any real weakness in their game. They possess every shot and can hit winners from anywhere on the court. The questions are all between the ears.  Hopefully this week showed them what they are capable of. This has the potential to be the next great rivalry in tennis.

grigor dimitrov

Photo: eurosport.com

Muguruza solidifies herself:

After winning her first major at the 2016 French Open, Garbiñe Muguruza really struggled to back up that result. The big hitting Spaniard did not reach a singles final of any kind until her surprise win at Wimbledon this year.

She clearly learned something from her first post major victory slump. She reached at least the quarterfinals of all three hardcourt events she played this summer. This culminated in Cincinnati when she absolutely obliterated World No. 2 Simona Halep in Sunday’s final, dropping just a single game.

The women’s game has been too unpredictable for the last two years to call anyone a clear favorite heading into a Grand Slam. However, in Cincinnati, Muguruza certainly proved that she is on the big stage to stay this time around. She also put herself on the short list of contenders to raise the U.S. Open trophy on September 9th.

Looking Ahead:

While going to the Cincinnati event every year is a blast for me, focus now shifts the U.S. Open draws that will be made Friday. Assuming he is healthy, Federer will be tough to beat. There is serious question as to whether Murray will play at all. So, conditions may be right for a young gun to step up again.

Maria Sharapova

Photo: twitter.com

For the women, the draw will be centered around one question. Where will controversial wildcard Maria Sharapova land? While it is difficult to see the 2006 champion making a deep run, she and her peers know what she is capable of. No one wants to play her.

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