We are a week away from the last major of the year, the U.S. Open, which opens on Monday, August 31st in New York City. This tournament is different from other majors for many reasons: more talkative people in the stands, matches that can go late into the night, and in the men’s draw variation among recent champions. This year, specifically, the tournament could be special for several reasons, including one that is uniquely Serena Williams.
2015 (and heck, most of the last 15 years) has been the “Year of Serena”. I will call her by her first name because she has earned the right, like a Brazilian soccer legend, to be known by only her first name. If someone says to you, “Serena played well last night,” and you have to ask who Serena is than the fault is yours. She has won all three Grand Slam events this year, the Australian, the French and Wimbledon. Her record in 2015 is 48-2. If she wins the U.S. Open she will become the first female to hold all four Grand Slams in a calendar year since Steffi Graf accomplished that in 1988. Also, Serena’s next major championship will tie her with Graf at second on the all time list with 22 titles (Margaret Court has 24). Tennis players used to reach their peak by their early 30s at the latest, but Serena is now 33 (she will be 34 at the end of September) and appears to be nowhere near slowing. If she continues to want to win tournaments, there is no reason to think anyone will defeat her. She is so dominant in her sport that her success might be taken for granted among casual sports fans. In the week leading up to the U.S. Open, Serena should be heavily discussed on national sports shows, but will she? If she does not win the U.S. Open it would be a momentous upset. She may be the number one reason for casual fans to tune in to watch tennis over the next few weeks. She is worth seeing play so sports fans should do themselves a favor and watch her.
Other women players who have a chance to win if Serena falters are 2nd ranked Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and 3rd ranked Maria Sharapova. Even though Halep lost to Serena in Cincinnati on Sunday, she did take the first set. She may have more confidence because of that performance. Azarenka has a power game that translates well to hard surfaces but she would need to remain focused for the entire match against Serena. Sharapova, Serena’s most consistent “rival,” has not beaten Serena in years (seriously, since 2004) and has a career record of 2-18 against her. Sharapova is an excellent player, but it is difficult to imagine her having much confidence when she competes against Serena.
On the men’s side, No.1 ranked player and top seed Novak Djokovic is also a compelling watch. He moves around the court extremely well, and his return on an opponent’s serve is probably the best in today’s tennis. Also, at least three times every match he will hit a shot no mortal should be able to make. Djokovic has won two of three majors this season, losing only in the final of the French. He has been a participant in 20 of the last 21 semifinals of majors. He is the most consistent men’s player today but has lost his last two tournaments, both in tournament finals. He lost to Andy Murray in the Rogers Cup in Montreal two Sundays ago and to Roger Federer in the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati this past Sunday. Djokovic’s serve has been less than stellar lately, especially against Federer when Djokovic lost one game when he double-faulted twice in a row. Still, Djokovic should be considered the favorite to win the U.S. Open as he possesses the skill on his best days to beat any other player on their best days.
Federer may be the crowd favorite as one could argue he is the greatest men’s player in history, is exceptionally humble and genteel, but at his “advanced” age of 34 is running short on time to accumulate many more major titles. He is the all-time leader among men for Grand Slam titles with 17. Currently, Rafael Nadal has 14 major titles, and appeared to be a threat to catch Federer, but Nadal’s play has been poor this season and has not come close to winning a major. Another major win for Federer might cement his claim as the undisputed greatest player ever, and make it even more difficult for Nadal or anyone else, for that matter, to match his record total. Federer has also been able to improve his serve as he has gotten older and strikes the ball harder than at any other point in his career, so his ability to adjust is impressive. Against Djokovic in Cincinnati, Federer did not face a break point on his serve. Federer had struggled against Djokovic until recently, but after defeating him on Sunday, Federer should have renewed confidence that he can defeat anyone. A well-placed, fast serve on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows might not only help make Federer the crowd choice but in some eyes, the overall favorite.
However, the last seven years the U.S. Open has produced six different champions so someone assuring any certain player will win is folly. A big serve and strong forehand can carry a player that gets momentum all the way to the title, which is what happened last year when Marin Cilic won the major. Still, and so that others can mock me once the tournament is completed, here are my predictions:
Women’s Final: Serena Williams over Victoria Azarenka
Men’s Final: Roger Federer over Novak Djokovic