As play starts later today at the US Open questions abound. As we watch Djokovic struggle through his slump, Nadal miss yet another Grand Slam with an injury, and Andy Murray turn the “Big Four” back into the “Big Three” perhaps the biggest question is: will we see a new first-time Slam winner at this year’s US Open? Certainly the conditions are ripe for a so-called “dark horse” to step clear of the pack and sneak a title but is it a real possibility? In today’s article we will take a look at the most likely ‘outsiders’ and rate their chances.
We will open with the man who stands probably the best chance of running deep and perhaps stealing the title. Dimitrov is, at a glance perhaps not the most obvious choice. After all ahead of him in the rankings we have Ferrer, the big serving Raonic, and the current Australian Open champion Wawrinka. For all that Tactical Tennis thinks Dimitrov leads the pack. The Bulgarian has matured greatly in the last year, and more than his semi-final run at Wimbledon it was the clinical way he dismissed Andy Murray on the grass that most impressed. Dimitrov’s game is well suited to the hard courts at Flushing Meadow, and despite his early loss to Janowicz in Cincinnati Dimitrov should be feeling confident after a strong showing in Toronto. His fitness and well rounded game holds up well in best of five.
What does he need to do to be successful? Ironically play within himself. What was so impressive about his win over Murray at Wimbledon was the way he margined the Brit out in a way that was highly sustainable. Dimitrov didn’t play lights out tennis – it was hardly the match of his life. Instead he applied consistent pressure without truly stretching himself – something he has the shot variety and adaptable game to be able to do. Dimitrov’s draw is quite a good one – his first true test should be against Gasquet in the round of 16, and although a quarter-final matchup against the hot hand of Federer is less than desirable it’s better to face him there than in the semi-finals or finals.
Wawrinka’s summer hasn’t exactly been a stellar one. The Swiss has been solid yet not spectacular – generally playing to the level of his old ranking rather than his current spot in the top 4. In the aftermatch of Wawrinka’s maiden slam at the Australian Open hopes were high Stan the Man would ride his one-handed cannon of a backhand to a sustained run of success. His performances since have hardly been a disaster, but he has managed just a lone tournament win since January, on clay in Monte Carlos.
Even though the conditions at the US Open don’t play to Stan’s strengths, he still has an opportunity to make a dent. His draw is good, with his only early challenge coming at the hands of a probably sub-par Nishikori in the third round. Otherwise with Raonic as the other ‘big seed’ in his quarter Stan should have a smooth run to the semis. Truth be told however I’m lukewarm on Wawrinka’s chances and would consider a quarter-final appearance a win for him at this tournament.
This will be brief, because the skinny on Ferrer never changes. Lacking the weapons to win the whole thing, Ferrer will probably outlast his opponents through to the quarter-finals where he will be vulnerable to the firepower of Berdych (against whom he is 2-2 on hard courts, but 0-2 in best of 5 matches at slams or Davis Cup). Ferrer’s work ethic deserves a reward, but it won’t come at this US Open (or ever at a Slam for that matter).
To many Raonic has the best chance of being the next first-time slam winner. Certainly his summer has been encouraging – a semi-final appearance at Wimbledon followed by a title at Washington and good runs in Cincinnati and Toronto are a promising lead-in to Flushing Meadows. Raonic’s serve is among the most potent in the history of the sport, and his forehand is a big weapon. Furthermore he is on a high, having climbed his way up to a career high #6 in the rankings.
For all of that, Raonic isn’t quite ready yet. For all that Raonic has improved his movement and shot selection dramatically in the last two years, he still struggles when play breaks normal patterns. Witnesses to his semi-final loss to Federer in Cincinnati could see how much he struggled with the low slice, and just generally to handle balls that were outside his wheelhouse. Raonic has a great draw, and it’l be a surprise to see him drop before the quarter-finals. Indeed he should match up nicely with Wawrinka and Djokovic both should he make it that far. It’s hard to envision him taking down either Federer or Dimitrov should it come to a final however.
Why Tsonga won’t win at Flushing Meadow is summed up by his back-to back performances in his last two tournaments. After storming his way to Masters 1000 title in Toronto, Tsonga dropped out in his opening match to Youzhny in Cincinnati. Tsonga has the talent – his serve, groundstrokes and general athleticism are of quality enough to put together a title run. However his shot selection and general focus are lacking. He can certainly do some damage at this tournament – the conditions and general environment are great for the natural showman. However it is difficult to see him getting past even a sub-par Murray over five sets at a Slam. As for him sustaining the required level for two weeks and seven matches? Forget it.
Berdych is in many ways an older, more experienced Raonic. His serve isn’t as strong, but the rest of his game is slightly more well-rounded. For all of his weapons, Berdych is mentally suspect and has failed to win three matches in a row since Roland Garros. He prefers the calmer playing environment and the bustle of Flushing Meadows doesn’t suit him well. In 11 tries he has made it past the 4th round only once – a semi-final showing in 2012. Berdych should be good through his early rounds, but will face a tough test in Feliciano Lopez and probably won’t emerge from his quarter.
For all that the stars have aligned, it is difficult to see any of the possible outsiders stepping up and taking this tournament. Federer looked confident in his lead-in tournaments, and while Djokovic’s form leaves much to be desired he is still incredibly difficult to beat over best of five. We’ll see some strong showings from those listed above, and some upsets will occur. But the expectation is that either Federer or Djokovic will lift the trophy two weeks from now, even if they did not play each other in the final.