I have examined the mens and womens draws, and this column will be my projection of how the tournament will unfold. I envision a stirring fortnight, and a fitting ending to a year at the majors that has been first rate across the board. Three different men and a trio of women have claimed the premier crowns, with Li Na the victor at the Australian Open, Maria Sharapova the champion at Roland Garros, and Petra Kvitova the worthy winner on the lawns of the All England Club at Wimbledon. Among the men, Stan Wawrinka got on the board at a Grand Slam event for the first time in his career, taking the Australian Open title. Up stepped Nadal to secure a ninth championship at Roland Garros. Along came Novak Djokovic to topple Roger Federer in a gripping five set Wimbledon final.
It is entirely possible that both the men and women will produce different champions again on the hard courts in New York. Clearly, Serena Williams is primed to win her third U.S. Open in a row and her sixth overall. If she manages to achieve that extraordinary feat, Serena would be tied with the estimable Chrissie Evert and Martina Navratilova at 18 Grand Slam singles titles. She has not been beyond the round of 16 at any of the three majors this year, but surely the 32-year-old American will not allow that to happen again. Meanwhile, Roger Federer will be unbending in his pursuit of an 18th Grand Slam singles championship, and his first U.S. Open title since 2008. These two icons will strikingly make their presence known over the fortnight. They will be exceedingly difficult to beat.
Williams is my pick to win the womens title, but I believe Djokovic will be victorious for the second time at the Open. Lets examine the draws, and I will offer my predictions.
Djokovic could have some interesting tests. In the third round, he could meet Yen-Hsun Lu. Four years ago, Lu stopped Andy Roddick on his way to the Wimbledon quarterfinals. He is a player not be taken lightly. If Lu is not Djokovics third round opponent, the tall American Sam Querrey probably will be. Either way, Djokovic wins in straight sets to reach the round of 16. At that stage, he faces the winner of a match between No. 13 seed John Isner and No. 22 Philipp Kohlschreiber. Kohlschreiber has knocked Isner out of the last two U.S. Opens in hard fought contests.
Isner just injured his ankle in Winston Salem, N.C. That was harmful to his preparation for the Open. I believe Kohlschreiber will take on Djokovic in the fourth round, with Djokovic carving out a straight set triumph. If Isner makes it through to a collision with Djokovic, Djokovic will be a four set winner.
That will put the Serbian into the quarterfinals. No. 8 seed Andy Murray will confront No. 9 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a round of 16 duel for the right to face Djokovic. Murray lost to Tsonga in the quarterfinals of Toronto despite leading 3-0 in the final set, and the Frenchman went on to win the biggest title of his career with a final round victory over Federer. But this time Murray wears down his burly adversary, coming from behind to win in four sets over Tsonga.
Now Murray and Djokovic are pitted against each other in what ought to be a dandy. Djokovic holds a 12-8 lead over Murray in their career series, but Murray has won some crucial skirmishes with his stylistic counterpart. He halted Djokovic in the semifinals of the Olympic Games in 2012 before defeating Federer for the gold medal. He upended the Serbian in a five set 2012 U.S. Open final. In 2013, Murray bested Djokovic in the Wimbledon final.
That, of course, was a different Murray in many ways. He was playing the finest tennis of his career in 2012 and 2013 when he recorded those victories. Now he is fighting furiously to recover his knack for winning the most important matches. This U.S. Open quarterfinal is an opportunity he relishes. Murray throws everything he has in his arsenal at Djokovic, mixing up his speeds and spins, giving away nothing from the baseline, neutralizing Djokovics outstanding return of serve with some potent serving.
Murray takes the first set, and is up a break in the second. Djokovic raises his level of intensity decidedly, strikes back boldly to win the second set, captures the third, but loses the fourth in a compelling tie-breakseven points to five. Murray is down 5-3 in that sequence, but wins four clutch points in a row. On they go to a fifth set. There is little to choose between these two unwavering competitors. Neither man breaks serve, so they settle it all in a suspenseful fifth set tie-break. Murray builds a commanding 4-1 lead, but Djokovic is undismayed, releasing a backhand down the line winner, making a forehand crosscourt winner on the dead run, and defending stupendously to coax an error from Murray. It is 4-4. Murray is rattled, and double faults. Djokovic takes the next two points with laser-like precision to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4). He is in the semifinals after competing unswervingly for four hours and 43 minutes.
Djokovic plays Milos Raonic in the penultimate round. The No. 5 seed repeats his Wimbledon victory over Kei Nishikori in the round of 16, and then upends No. 3 seed Wawrinka in a four set quarterfinal. Raonic serves magnificently early on against Djokovic in their semifinal, and wins the first set 6-3 on one break. But Djokovic finds his range on the return of serve, and prolongs the baseline rallies, breaking down Raonics backhand in the process. Raonic continues serving prodigiously, but Djokovic is simply too good the rest of the way. The Serbian prevails 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, 7-5 to reach the final for the fifth year in a row.
On the opposite half of the draw, the No. 2 seed Federer marches through the first four rounds largely untroubled. He does drop a set to Ivo Karlovic in the third round, but the Swiss has too much versatility for the big server from Croatia, and Federer downs the No. 25 seed, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-2. In the quarterfinals under the lights, Federer meets No. 7 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the tournaments most entertaining and highly anticipated match. Dimitrov respects Federer immensely, but he is not in awe. The 23-year-old Bulgarianso impressive this year in reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and the semifinals at Wimbledoncomes out blazing off the ground and mixes up his serve beautifully. With Federer serving at 5-6 in the opening set, Dimitrov finds a golden patch of tennis, breaks serve with a dazzling running forehand winner, and takes the set with that flourish.
Federer, though, is unflappable. He settles into his customary rhythm on serve and makes some timely returns to break Dimitrov at 4-4 in the second set. Soon it is one set all. Dimitrov, however, battles on ferociously. At 5-6 in the third, he breaks Federer for the second time with a spectacular topspin lob winner. Dimitrov takes a two sets to one lead. Once more, Federer tends diligently to his knitting. He raises his level considerably in the fourth set, and breaks Dimitrov early with an inside-out forehand winner. The crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium erupts. A fifth set decides it all.
Dimitrov rediscovers his edge from the baseline, and moves ahead 3-1 in the final set, out-dueling Federer in some absorbing crosscourt backhand exchanges. He has a game point on his serve for 4-1, but Federer makes a backhand volley winner down the line on the full stretch off a dipping passing shot. The Swiss breaks back. Both men hold until 4-4, when Federer breaks again with a backhand down the line winner. The Swiss serves out this gem of a match, winning 5-7, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in three hours and 53 minutes. Federer moves on to the semifinals.
He faces No. 4 seed David Ferrer. Ferrer has beaten No. 14 seed Marin Cilic in a five set, fourth round contest before subduing No. 11 seed Ernests Gulbis in a four set quarterfinal. The Spaniard gives it his all as always, but he has never beaten Federer in 16 previous career clashes, including the recent final of Cincinnati. Federer takes the first two sets comfortably, drops the third, but recovers easily to close out a comfortable 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 victory to reach his ninth final of 2014, and his second straight title round match at a major.
This is Round 36 of the celebrated Federer-Djokovic head to head heavyweight series. Federer leads 18-17. Twelve of those meetings have taken place at the majors, and they are locked at 6-6 heading into this critical showdown. For five years in a row—2007-2011Federer and Djokovic met on the hard courts at the U.S. Open, with Federer winning the first three (in the 2007 final and 2008-2009 semifinals) before Djokovic struck back audaciously to take the last two (in the 2010 and 2011 semifinals). In the first of those memorable confrontations, Djokovic was down 4-5, 15-40 on his serve in the fifth set but he released daring forehand swing volley and forehand ground stroke winners to save the two match points. Djokovic was the victor in that 2010 battle 5-7, 6-1, 5-7, 6-2, 7-5. The next year, Federer served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth, and was up 40-15, double match point on his own serve.
Djokovic guessed correctly that Federer would serve wide to the forehand in the deuce court, and the Serbian connected with a scintillating, scorching, crowd inspiring crosscourt return winner. On the second match point, Djokovic managed to get Federers body serve back into play, and Federer erred off the forehand. Djokovic captured that match 6-7 (4), 4-6, 6-3, 6-2, 7-5 and then defeated Nadal in four sets for his only Open crown.
Now Djokovic and Federer are set to meet in a second major final in a row, with so much riding on the outcome for both competitors. Djokovic can cement his status as the best player in the world if he can secure an eighth Grand Slam singles championship. Federer last won a major in 2012 at Wimbledon, and he wants to become the second oldest player ever to win the mens U.S. Open championship; Ken Rosewall succeeded at 35 in 1970. At 33, Federer is revitalized, and unafraid of confronting Djokovic. He understands that a triumph in this final over the Serbian could lead the Swiss to his first year-end No. 1 ranking since 2009. In turn, Djokovic realizes the crowd will be almost whole-heartedly for the Swiss, but even in this daunting atmosphere the Serbian still likes his chances. These are two proud men with one overriding goal in common: to win the last major of 2014.
The first set is quite similar to the start at Wimbledon. Both men hold serve staunchly to set up a tie-break. At Wimbledon, Federer saved a set point to win the opening set in a breaker, but this time Djokovic comes through. With Federer serving at 5-6 in that sequence, the Swiss sends his first delivery out wide to the backhand in the ad court. Djokovic reads it well, and drills a two-handed return up the line for a clean winner. First set to Djokovic.
Federer knows he was only two points away from winning that set. Undiscouraged, he breaks Djokovic at 3-3 in the second set, working his way in behind some stellar backhand sliced approach shots, punching his volleys elegantly into wide open spaces, feeding off the energy of an audience that is cheering his every move. Before long, it is one set all.
The third set is hard fought on both sides of the net. Each man is serving well. As was the case at Wimbledon, Djokovic catches Federer off guard frequently by serving wide to the forehand. Federer is exploiting his wide serve in the deuce court to open up the explosive first serve down the T for aces. His wide serve in the ad court is almost letter perfect, but the one down the T is nearly as impressive. The third set goes into another tie-break, and this time Federer comes out on top. He gets a quick mini-break and does not miss a first serve in the sequence. Federer wins it seven points to three. He leads two sets to one.
Djokovic is an unhappy warrior. He felt that he had been the better man for most of that third set but he did not elevate his game in the tie-break, while Federer irrefutably did. Early in the fourth, Federer looks to press his advantage, but Djokovic is unyielding. Federer wants a service break badly, but Djokovic is not budging. With Federer serving at 4-4 in the fourth, Djokovic suddenly finds an opening. Federer double faults to trail 30-40, and then Djokovic takes control of the next rally after making an excellent second serve return. On the 16th stroke of a spirited rally, Djokovic drives a two-hander deep crosscourt, inducing a netted slice backhand from Federer. Djokovic holds at love with two aces in the tenth game to seal the fourth set in style.
It is two sets all. Federer and Djokovic have been on court for three-and-a-half hours. The Serbian is fresher than the Swiss, and also has momentum on his side, but Federer is fueled by a crowd thirsting for him to win. Serving at 2-2 in the fifth, break point down, Federer is coaxed into a running forehand down the line error. Djokovic has the break in the fifth, and he makes the most of it. Novak Djokovic is unrelenting down the stretch, pounding away rhythmically off the ground, overcoming a gallant Roger Federer 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-7 (3), 6-4, 6-2 in four hours and seventeen minutes of arresting tennis. After Federer had led 2-1 on serve in the fifth set, Djokovic swept five consecutive games for the triumph.
Lets move on to the women. Williams meets Samantha Stosur in the round of 16. Stosur, of course, crushed Williams in the 2011 U.S. Open final. In Cincinnati this summer, she lost to Serena in a pair of tie-breaks only one week after falling badly against Williams in Canada. This U.S. Open duel is hard fought again, and Stosur is confounding Williams at times with her heavy kick second serve and good variety on the first delivery. But Williams is up to the task, ready for the challenge, and able to meet the moment with clarity of mind and purpose. She wins 7-5, 6-4 to reach the quarterfinals.
Waiting for her there is No. 8 seed Ana Ivanovic, who defeated Williams at the Australian Open this year. Ivanovicwho lost twice to Serena this summeris back among the top ten in the world now, and is an even better player than she was when she won the French Open in 2008 and rose to No. 1 in the world. Ivanovics second serve returns against Williams are outstanding. No one is more aggressive on the return against Serena. Ivanovic takes the first set 6-4 with superb returns and better depth in rallies. Serena is behind 1-3 in the second. Danger looms for the American. But Serena responds in the nick of time. Her serve improves markedly. Her ground game gets better. Her mind is thoroughly on her business. Ivanovic is overwhelmed by the aggression of her opponent. Williams rallies to win 3-6, 6-4, 6-4 in a quarterfinal worthy of a final.
In the semifinals, Williams confronts Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, the No. 3 seed. Kvitova never advanced beyond the round of 16 in her six previous U.S. Open appearances, but she topples the dangerous Madison Keys in three sets and then holds on in a blockbuster to stop 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 (6), avenging a loss to the Russian at the French Open this year. Kvitova stops Dominika Cibulkova in the quarterfinals. She is firing from all cylinders against Serena in the early stages of their semifinal. She is blasting winners off both flanks, finding great success serving wide to the Williams backhand in the ad courts, and largely controlling the tempo against a somewhat flustered Serena.
Kvitova takes the first set 6-4. They go to a second set tie-break, and Kvitova has a match point on her own serve at 6-5. She tries to surprise Williams by directing her first serve down the T, but Williams anticipates that move. Her return is deep. She controls the rally, and wins the point with a backhand crosscourt drilled at an acute angle crosscourt for an outright winner. Kvitova is shaken. Her second serve lands short. Williams rifles a winning return down the line. Now Williams serves an ace down the T. It is one set all.
Kvitova regroups briefly to build a 3-1 lead in the third set, but Williams strings together five remarkable games in a row. She hardly makes a mistake in that span. Her serve is unstoppable. Kvitova never knows what hits her. Williams is victorious 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3. She is in the final.
On the bottom half of the draw, Sharapova takes on No. 10 seed Caroline Wozniacki in the round of 16. Wozniacki is too good at the outset, winning more than her share of the longer rallies, making Sharapova go for too much, playing the kind of percentage tennis that took her to the top of the womens game in 2010 and 2011. She wins the first set 6-4. At 5-3 in the second, Wozniacki serves for the match, and she moves to match point at 40-30. But her second serve lacks bite and depth. Sharapova laces a forehand return winner. The 2006 Open champion wins that set 7-5 and never looks back. Victory comes to Sharapova 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Venus Williams, meanwhile, upsets No. 2 seed Simona Halep in three stirring sets and sets up a quarterfinal appointment with Sharapova. The 34-year-old American won the U.S. Open in 2000 and 2001, and remains formidable. Her first serve is devastatingly potent in the first set and Sharapova is confounded. Set to Williams, 7-5.
Sharapova rallies gamely to win the second set 6-3. With Williams serving at 3-4 in the third, Sharapova unleashes a series of crackling return winners. Sharapova defeats Venus Williams 5-7, 6-3, 6-3. In the semifinals, No. 4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska plays Sharapova for the right to meet Serena Williams for the title. Radwanskas ball control and capacity to absorb pace make her the better player for a while after Sharapova has prevailed 6-2 in the opening set. Radwanska wins the second set 6-1, and bolts to 4-0 in the third. Having dropped ten of the last eleven games, Sharapova should be distraught, but that is not the case.
Step by step, purposefully but explosively, leaving no stone unturned, Sharapova secures no fewer than six games in a row. She is victorious 6-2, 1-6, 6-4. And so it is the French Open champion Maria Sharapova up against two-time defending US Open champion Serena Williams in the final. Sharapova has lost to Williams fifteen times in a row. She has not beaten the American since the end of 2004. And yet, Sharapova takes some calculated risks in the opening set. She goes for more than usual on her second serve. She tries for arduous but not impossible winners when the odds seem stacked against her. She opens up the court beautifully off both sides and finishes off points commandingly.
Sharapova stuns Williams 6-3 in the opening set. Williams battles back dynamically to win the second set 6-1, and rolls to 4-1 in the third. Sharapova holds on at love, breaks Serena, and draws level at 4-4 with a cluster of winning shots. She has raised the stakes. How does Williams respond? She holds at love with four unreturnable first serves, including a morale boosting ace on the first point. Now Sharapova is serving to stay in the final, and hoping to find another burst of energy, inspiration and brilliance to carry her to the title. But it is not to be. Williams cracks a forehand return winner down the line, comes forward to put away a forehand volley for 0-30, and drills another return into the clear for 0-40. Sharapova fights her way back to 30-40, and seems to have control of the next rally.
But Williams shifts swiftly and ably from defense to offense, and steps forward for an inside out forehand behind Sharapova. It is a clean winner. Williams wins 3-6, 6-1, 6-4. She has her 18th major in singles. She has her sixth U.S. Open crown. She has won her countrys championship for the third time in a row.
So there you have it. I believe Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams will be the 2014 U.S. Open champions. These next two weeks will put the entire year into perspective for both the men and women, and that is a good thing for the players, the fans and the game.
<Steve Flink has been reporting on tennis since 1974. He has been a columnist for tennischannel.com since 2007. You can purchase Steve’s latest book “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” here.
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