On the Eve of Hard Courts

The hard court season is upon us, with Washington D.C. beginning this week, followed by two consecutive ATP 1000s in Montreal and Cincinnati, and a final tune-up at Winston-Salem before we’re dropped at the doorstep of the United States Open.  Anticipation without a doubt builds for this final major of 2015.  We know the stakes for the world #1:  it’s showtime. Other than his own shortcomings (which we’ve seen him more or less dismiss just as he, this midsummer tennis machine, recently man-handled the Maestro on the lawns and stands confidently ready to expand his dominance), I can not find a suitable 2015 USO challenger for Nole.  Can you?

Let’s start in the top 10.  We should understand that nothing has been decided on 2015 HC yet, really.  A player could emerge a month from now, perhaps sans foreshadow during these next three to four weeks of HC tournament play.  We can prognosticate and pray and worship the game’s ghosts and future stars, but the play on the court will decide everyone’s fate.

Roger will continue his ambassadorship, thankfully, continue to grace us with his beautiful game.  Unless Novak succumbs to a lingering legacy of USO (and major finals) mediocrity, Roger will not be the one to overcome Novak at this point.  I saw Roger play spectacularly at Indian Wells HC in March, playfully humble the big hitting Raonic in the SF, who had destroyed Nadal in the QF, only to be controlled and beaten pretty handily by Novak in the finals.  We know where this H2H goes.

Murray, though he concerns me more than Roger for the sake of Novak, should NOT pose a threat to the ascendant Serb. I know he has given Novak trouble in the past, especially at the USO, but I don’t want to hear of this possibility.  Murray is NOT in Djokovic’s class.  However, this is most likely the final in September.  Indeed, I am not dismissing Murray.  He is going to be fit and confident for NYC.  As he should be (just a reminder, Djoker!).

I think he’s all that stands between Novak and #10.

By the way, if there is a sense that this has become a pro-Djokovic venue, I admittedly like to see certain eras defined by their leaders.  This creates tremendous historical narrative and establishes an essential rigor for the field – if you want to win the USO, for instance, you have to beat a player (or two) who dominates the game currently, dictates the events. Seeing some random wild card (ala Richard Krajicek Wimbledon 1996) come out of nowhere to win a major does provide a lot of intrigue (and can happen so get ready for it), but I am a fan of greatness, of the best defining their legacies while they can.

Wawrinka, Nishikori, Berdych, Ferrer, Cilic, Nadal and Raonic complete the top ten.

We know what Stan is capable of and the kind of confidence he has.  He reached USO 4R in 2012, SF in 2013 and QF in 2014.  He’ll get himself deep into the draw and if he finds that form we know and love, look out.  Although there was some concern about a shoulder injury that caused him to withdraw from last week’s Swiss Open, he seems to be ready for some HC play following a solid week of work with Magnus.

I will say that Cilic has to be considered dangerous for obvious reasons.  He did reach the QF of Wimbledon last month where he lost to Novak 4, 4 and 4.  But new tournament, new surface and defending champion.  We’ll see if Ivanisevic has the #8 in the world in defending championship form.  In the end, I like Novak vs. Cilic seven days a week.

The rest of that bunch doesn’t seem to raise much alarm, especially the now #9 Nadal who barely got by Fognini today in Hamburg.  Let me say that this match, this final vs. Fabio Fognini, pretty much encapsulates all that is Nadal tennis.  On the one hand, he’s a mental giant.  He could be down 0-5, 0-40 and will play that next point as if it’s in a fifth set tie-breaker.  He never quits (I’m talking when he’s in peak or partial form).  This part of his game is what encourages people like Agassi to say he’s the best ever.  I’ve heard Pete say the same thing.  I think many are in awe of his fight, his focus during pivotal points, games, etc.  His aggression is very athletic, if you will, intimidating.  If Roger had this kind of fight in him, God help us.

Fognini plays Nadal very tough; I believe he’s beaten him 2 or 3 times this year.  He lost the first set today 5-7.  Pretty even tennis, both players with multiple breaks, great baseline play, a good old fashioned clay fight.  We move to the second set.  Fog is serving up 4-3, 30-0, then 40-15.  A great rally at 40-30, but Rafa prevails and evens the set at 4-4. Couldn’t close the deal.  40-15!  Then he proceeds to break Nadal. He is now serving 5-4 for the set, to even the match. He moves to 40-15, two set points. What is Nadal thinking at this point?  How many players get ready for the third set? He’s down 15-40, 4-5.  He comes back and wins the game.  He wins the next two and the championship 7-5 7-5.  So, on one hand you have his mental strength, this ability to stay in the moment.  That’s pretty remarkable stuff.

On the other hand, you have these players who FAIL to capitalize, who somehow can not reach down and pull-out a critical point or two, consolidate a break, who DON’T FAIL to run into the net (Novak)!  Aaaagh.  Despite not buying into the GOAT arguments (at all) of Nadal, he is ruthlessly tough, and today was a great example of that.  Poor Fognini. Novak, Del Potro, Stan and few fighters like Fognini have proven to be able to rise-up and beat the Spaniard. I have seen so many examples of this amazing juxtaposition of sport backbone with Nadal: uncanny mental fortitude vs. sheer fragility.

I don’t see much of a charge coming from the field outside of a Stan, Cilic or Murray or even Tsonga finding incredible form and Djokovic fading in the pressure-packed heat of September in NYC.  Nadal does not appear near such fitness to mount a charge and a Nishikori or Berdych simply do not make the radar, imho.

Tomorrow or Tuesday I will explore some of the younger players we can hope to see establish themselves this summer and beyond.  What does it mean to be a legitimate threat in a major?  Who can we take seriously?  Is Dimitrov getting serious, finally, with Lendl?  What about the 26 year-old Del Potro and the direction he’s taking?  Are he and Cilic one and the same?

Are we in the final chapter (Djokovic) of this golden age and need to prepare ourselves for a run of more typical parody in professional tennis?

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