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Sports Then and Now

The 10 Most Compelling Players To Watch at the U.S. Open

Posted on August 29, 2009 by JA Allen
Kim Clijsters

Kim Clijsters

(10) Kim Clijsters

The Belgian blonde is making a comeback after a brief stint at stay-at-home motherhood.  Impatience is often the calling card for some young women when the drive to “settle down, get married and raise a family” supplants reason.

Let’s face it – women generally have fewer years than men to make their mark in athletics.  They peak younger and age faster than their male counterparts, on average.    This explains why on May 6, 2007, at age 23, after several bouts with injuries, Clijsters announced her official retirement from tennis.

She married and gave birth to her daughter on February 27, 2008.  Like Lindsay Davenport, before her, common sense returned.  Tennis, she realized, would not wait.  It was now or never.  Unlike Davenport, however, Clijsters comeback occurred when she was 25.  Davenport was 31.

In Cincinnati she made it all the way to the quarterfinals before losing to world number one ranked Dinara Safina.  At the Roger’s Cup, Clijsters met and upset rising star Victoria Azarenka in the second round.  She fell in the third round to Jelena Jankovic in three sets 6-1, 3-6, 5-7.

Clijsters has a wild card into the U.S. Open.  She is a former number one-ranked player in singles and doubles; but she was never a comfortable holder of that ranking – close but never quite secure on the top rung.  Clijsters constantly felt the pressure in competing with Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin, Maria Sharapova and the Williams sisters.

But right now Davenport and Henin are gone; Maria Sharapova is fighting her way back trying to adjust to an abbreviated service motion and the Williams sisters are committed only part-time to the tour.  Venus is edging toward thirty and Serena is peaking.  So why not?  Clijsters game may hit its stride and her experience may strike a blow and give those struggling youngsters a stable target…

(9) Sam Querrey

Currently ranked #23, Sam Querrey is an icon, a symbol of all the promise waiting to be fulfilled for American tennis.  Since the days of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, American tennis failed to live up to its expectations.

Sam Querrey

Sam Querrey

Andy Roddick has fought valiantly to make it to the top and he achieved that vaunted position for a short time at the end of 2003 and early 2004 before Roger Federer seized the top of the men’s game for his own and held it for over 4 years.

So we have singles players like James Blake, Mardy Fish, Robby Ginepri, Vince Spadea, and now Sam Querrey who periodically pique the curiosity and interest of American tennis fans and media.

This year’s entry into the press poll is Querrey who has had some real success leading into the U.S. Open.  In January he made it to the final of the Heineken Open in Auckland, New Zealand where he lost to Juan Martin del Potro in straight sets 6-4, 6-4.

He made it to the finals of the Campbell’s Hall of Fame Tennis Championships in Newport, Rhode Island where he lost to Rajeev Ram 6-7, 7-5, 6-3.  At Indianapolis Querrey again made it to the final losing to fellow American Robby Ginepri 6-2, 6-4.  Finally at the LA Tennis Open, Querrey won defeating Carsten Ball to win his first final of the year.

This summer Querrey has shown promise, real promise.  The question remains, will his light burn bright but briefly like other Americans, or will he take off and light our fire…

(8) Maria Sharapova

The long-legged Russian beauty and former world number one is zeroing in on the U.S. Open.  She wants another grand slam trophy to add to her current trio.   After suffering with a rotator cuff tear in 2008, Sharapova dropped out of tennis and underwent surgery to repair the damage.   At the end of 2008 she had been ranked world no. 9 and when she returned she was ranked 126.

Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova

Ten months later at a clay court tournament in Warsaw, Sharapova began her long climb back to the top of the women’s game.  Starting back on clay and trying to work on a new abbreviated service motion, Sharapova suffered from a lack consistency and stamina, although she did much better than many expected.

She lost in the quarterfinals in Warsaw and at the 2009 French Open astounded everyone by making it to the quarterfinals.  This rocketed her ranking to number 60.

At the AEGON Classic in Birmingham, a warm-up for Wimbledon, she lasted until the semifinals but faded early at Wimbledon, losing in the second round.

On the hard courts Sharapova made it to the quarterfinals at Stanford and in Los Angeles she made it to the semifinals.  Her ranking moved up to number 49.  But at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, Sharapova fought her way into the finals after defeating Nadia Petrova, Sybille Bammer, Vera Zvonareva, Agnieszka Radwanska and Alisa Kleybanova before facing Elena Dementieva in the finals.  She lost that final 6-4, 6-3.

Sharapova’s rank sits now at number 30 and she is seeded number 29 at the U.S. Open.  She won the U.S. Open in 2006 and she wants another title to seal her return to the top of the women’s game…

(7) Andy Roddick

Everyone wants to see what happens the next time Andy Roddick stares down the barrel targeting another grand slam showdown.  After losing the 2009 Wimbledon final to Roger Federer by blinking once – losing his serve for the first time in set 5, game number 38, Roddick set the tennis world ablaze considering the “what ifs” of the upcoming U.S. Open.  What if Roddick is in Federer’s quarter?

Andy Roddick

Andy Roddick

Well it turns out that Roddick is in Novak Djokovic’s quarter and can only face Federer in the semifinals – and not the finals this time.  Roddick has made it into the last eight in three of the last five U.S. Opens.  He was, in fact, the last American to win this title and that was back in 2003.

As far as Roddick is concerned, the defeat at Wimbledon was an endorsement that his game is going in the right direction.  Yes, it was tough to lose after being so close; but he played Federer tough and never lost his nerve or his serve until that final game.

Roddick once again will be the favorite son going into New York.  The New Yorkers will be behind him and he will be heavily featured in the night matches where the crowd gets up on its haunches and howls…

(6) Dinara Safina

Being ranked number one in the world isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.  Just ask Dinara Safina who finds herself constantly defending her ranking.  Safina became the number one ranked player in the world on April 20, 2009, and immediately began to feel the heat because she had never won a major.

Dinara Safina

Dinara Safina

She was the runner up this year in Melbourne at the Australian Open, losing decisively in the finals to Serena Williams.  In Paris at the French Open she seemed a shoe-in but lost to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the finals.  She was a semi-finalist at Wimbledon.  Safina did, however, win back to back clay court titles in Rome and Madrid.

But Serena Williams, currently ranked world number two has won both the Australian Open and Wimbledon and if she also wins the U.S. Open, it will be hard to swallow if she is not also accorded the number one ranking.  Safina has her ranking and her reputation on the line at this year’s U.S. Open.  She needs to win this one to make her stay at the top less controversial – the time is now…

(5) Novak Djokovic

In 2007 most tennis pundits felt Djokovic would supplant Roger Federer at the top of the men’s game in due time.  He had enjoyed a splendid summer on the hard courts.  He won the Roger’s Cup in Montreal by beating the top three ranked players in the world- number three Roddick, number two Rafael Nadal and number one ranked Roger Federer.

Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic

No one was surprised, therefore, when Djokovic made it all the way to the finals of the Open.  He lost to Roger Federer but not before holding seven set points in the first two sets.  In the end he lost in straight sets to Federer.

But in 2008 Djokovic captured his first grand slam victory down under at the Australian Open.  He defeated Federer in straight sets during the semifinals.  Most were certain that Djokovic would continue his rise by overtaking first Nadal as the current number two player and then Federer as world number one.

But it never happened.  Djokovic has receded into the background during discussions of the top four.  He has failed to consistently show the fire power that he displayed in winning his first major victory.  There are other players now nipping at his heels.  Unless Djokovic finds a way to make his mark at the U.S. Open this year, you have to wonder just how long he will manage to stay in the top four…

Elena Dementieva

Elena Dementieva

(4) Elena Dementieva

She’s the talk of the town of late – Dementieva – who built her game serve-less or rather with a serve that often deserted her during times of stress.  Additionally, she found it difficult to close out a match, very often involved in a third set before she secured another hard-won victory.

Dementieva is athletic with a fierce forehand that she hits flat and hard, moving quickly to the ball at times faster than her opponents realize.

Currently ranked number four, Dementieva’s star is on the rise after her fiercely fought contest against Serena Williams at 2009 Wimbledon in the longest women’s semifinal in the history of the open era.  After winning the Roger’s cup in Toronto, Dementieva heads into New York as the leader in the U.S Open Series.

More than anything else, however, there is a revitalized spirit in Elena Dementieva.  Her serve is vastly improved and it does not fail her as often as it once did.  She does not quit and as her opponents will testify, she is never out of a point.  Winning the U.S. Open is definitely within the realm of her possibilities in 2009…

(3) Andy Murray

The weight of expectation is almost as intense on Andy Murray, now both seeded and ranked number two, as it was at Wimbledon.  At Wimbledon, Murray carried the weight of a nation on his shoulders.  In New York, Murray must hoist the mighty weight of promise unfulfilled.

Andy Murray

Andy Murray

Even with his falling fortunes, Novak Djokovic has at least won a major.  Andy Murray has not.  He has reached one grand slam final last year in New York – where he lost in straight sets to Roger Federer, who owns the Big Apple.  With so much pressure to win, it becomes almost impossible to do so – just ask Dinara Safina who has failed in three grand slam attempts.

Murray must potentially slug his way past the killer serving of Ivo Karlovic in order to meet number nine seeded Gilles Simon of France.  Should he survive, waiting in the wings might be number 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro.  All of this, of course, on his way to a potential match up with number three seed Rafael Nadal.

Since this is the last major of the season, Andy Murray needs to bring it on home!

(2) Rafael Nadal

Not since July of 2005 has Rafael Nadal not been seeded one or two at a grand slam tournament.  This year in New York, Nadal is seeded three and is on the same side of the draw as Andy Murray.  He has a rough road ahead because he has no easy entrance into the draw.

Rafael Nadal

Rafael Nadal

Nadal starts off by facing Richard Gasquet whose suspension for cocaine use was overturned.  Gasquet who was ranked as high as number seven in the world is a tough opener for the Spaniard who is still recovering from tendonitis in both knees.  If he gets through the opener he might conceivably face Jo Wilfried Tsonga on his way to facing Murray in the semifinals.

For the next two weeks the tennis world will be riveted on the action anxious to see if Nadal can recapture his form and come all the way back in New York.  Will the U.S. Open be the beginning of the end for the mighty Nadal or will it truly provide a stepping stone back to his path to the top again?

Those who sell Nadal short or count him out too easily have not really studied the young man’s fortitude or ambition.  He got to the top with perseverance and dedication.  2009 has proven to be disappointing; but in reality it may prove to be just a brief setback for the Nadal camp…

(1) Roger Federer

After winning the French Open for the first time – ever – in 2009, Federer completed his own career grand slam making him one of six men to have accomplished this phenomenal feat.  Federer followed this up by recapturing the Wimbledon crown for the sixth time. He holds 15 grand slam titles in all, the most of any male player.

Roger Federer

Roger Federer

If he wins the U.S. Open in 2009, it will give Federer 6 consecutive championships, tying a record established by Bill Tilden back in the 1920s.   Every time he takes the court from this point forward, he sets another record.

It is this compelling storyline that keeps us all glued to the television or to the courts watching history being made each moment he is on court and each time he hits the ball across the net for a winner.

Will he win again?  The draw looks favorable with James Blake, Lleyton Hewitt or even the big hitting Swede, Robin Soderling.  Federer has winning records against them all.  His quarterfinal match would be against Nikolay Davydenko before meeting Djokovic in the semifinals.

Not many are betting against Roger Federer in this year’s U.S. Open…

JA Allen is a regular contributor to Sports Then and Now.

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