Bob Larson's US Open Preview
Men's Look Forward: The U. S. Open
Maybe it's the gambler's instinct: People want to predict who will win each Slam. Whatever it is, we don't have the slightest urge to make predictions and thereby cause ourselves to look stupid.
It's a lot more fun to list who might or might not do well at the Open, and list their strengths and weaknesses. We'll look at the top ten seeds, and certain players below that.
1. Lleyton Hewitt
Why he might win it: He won it last year. He's the top player in the world. He's also perhaps the best hardcourt player.
Why he might not: Even though he's #1, he's not nearly as strong, in terms of points, as past #1 players. And he hasn't looked particularly impressive this summer. There are guys here who can beat him -- on their best days.
2. Marat Safin
Why he might win it: He's done it before. He's healthy. He has the game.
Why he might not: He's Marat Safin.
3. Tommy Haas
Why he might win it: Great hardcourt game.
Why he might not: He's hurting. A lot. Best-of-five matches will only make it worse. And he doesn't have much experience in the late rounds of Slams.
4. Yevgeny Kafelnikov
Why he might win it: Has two Slams, and made the semis here last year. It's a good surface for his game.
Why he might not: He's having a miserable year. If he didn't win it when he was good, why should he win it now when he isn't good? Even if he's largely gotten over his problems (which seems unlikely), he'll have to concentrate for seven straight matches.
5. Tim Henman
Why he might win it: There is a mathematically computable chance that all his opponents from the quarterfinal on will be sick, or will break their legs, or will be hit by lightning.
Why he might not: The guy can't even make the Wimbledon final, and he's supposed to win the U. S. Open? Admittedly the field is wide open this year -- but the court is likely to be slow, and Henman isn't likely to exorcise his inner demons.
6. Andre Agassi
Why he might win it: Still the best hardcourt player around, except for Hewitt, and he has plenty of experience here. He'll have lots of crowd support, too.
Why he might not: Age, mostly. Agassi himself admits that he doesn't spring back as well as he used to. With days off along the way, Agassi might well have a shot at the final (though he's in Hewitt's half, which doesn't help). But he'll have to play back-to-back five setters on the final Saturday and Sunday.
7. Juan Carlos Ferrero
Why he might win it: Definitely has the game, especially if they have slowed the court down.
Why he might not: No Slam titles yet; didn't play his best in his one previous final. Has not performed well this summer.
8. Albert Costa
Why he might win it: He's shown that he can win Roland Garros.
Why he might not: The guy has a dozen titles, and every single one on clay. Even hardcourt finals have been rare for him.
9. Carlos Moya
Why he might win it: Has won a Slam, is healthy, and has had a great summer -- even beating Hewitt to win Cincinnati.
Why he might not: He's still primarily a clay-courter.
10. Sebastien Grosjean
Why he might win it: Quick, and has all the shots.
Why he might not: Hasn't played well this year. Has never been to a Slam final. Too many guys who can beat him.
11. Andy Roddick
Why he might win it: Has the serve and the forehand. Knows the surface. Popular with the crowd.
Why he might not: He probably isn't ready. Hasn't done very well in big events. Still too many holes in his game; he's almost certain to find someone who can exploit that.
13. Roger Federer
Why he might win it: Has the game.
Why he might not: No experience at this level. And he's in a horrid slump in which he miraculously finds ways to lose.
17. Pete Sampras
Why he might win it: He's Pete Sampras.
Why he might not: He's also a Pete Sampras who hasn't won a title in two years. He's been dreadful this year. Last year, he picked things up at the Open, but he has fallen much lower this year; it's hard to see how he can do it again. Like Agassi, he's getting old -- and the years have taken a bigger toll on him.
22. Marcelo Rios
Why he might win it: Can drive these big hitters crazy.
Why he might not: Couldn't win a Slam even in his best year, and he isn't at that level any more. Flaky. Tough draw.
25. James Blake
Why he might win it: Nice all-around game. Turning into a crowd favorite.
Why he might not: No big weapon. Little experience in the late rounds of big events. Low seeding. Tough draw. Did we say, No big weapon?
29. Thomas Enqvist
Why he might win it: He certainly has the power; this is a great surface for him.
Why he might not: He lost his only Slam final. Doesn't move well. Not in very good form this year.
The depth (confusion?) that makes this Open so hard to predict actually has its benefits, though. People say that seeding 32 kills all the interesting early round matches. We have to disagree; there is lots of good early stuff. Here are our picks for big early matches:
(22) Rios vs. Bjorkman. Two guys who win mostly with style. If Rios is all the way present, it's likely to be a blowout. Will the real Rios show up? And who is the real Rios, anyway?
Krajicek vs. (14) Novak. Richard Krajicek has been having himself a fine little comeback. Jiri Novak has been having a quietly solid year. Krajicek likes things fast, Novak slow. They play very different styles. It's going to be an old-style battle on a new-style court.
Olivier Rochus vs. Arazi. Two of the little guys. Arazi had a great year last year, and has been paying for it. Can he ever find himself again? If so, countryman Younes El Aynaoui (whom he plays in the second round) had better watch out. If not, Rochus will run down every ball he hits.
Magnus Norman vs. (8) Costa. Both know their way around clay. Norman has had the better hardcourt results, but he's also fallen much farther. Can he pull a grass-eating rodent out of his hat?
Todd Martin vs. (21) Gaudio. Talk about an argument for seeding by surfaces! The former finalist winds up unseeded in a match against a solid young player, but a solid young player who prefers clay. This is tough to call.
Ginepri vs. (6) Agassi. Agassi should win easily. But it's the past versus the future of American tennis.
Mantilla vs. (26) Chela. Mantilla didn't miss a seed by that much, and he's been performing spectacularly on summer hardcourts -- final at Indianapolis, win over Hewitt at Toronto, etc. Chela had a great run at Long Island, but he may be tired. Both like clay. This could be quite a match.
Portas vs. (17) Sampras. A pretty lucky opener for Pete -- Portas is a clay player in a slump. Sampras could hardly get a better draw. Particularly since Portas's big weapon is the drop shot, and Sampras wants to come in anyway. But if Portas times those drop shots right, he just might wear Sampras out. Sampras should win -- but at what cost?
(7) Ferrero vs. Arthurs. We've seen this before, and the outcome isn't likely to change. But it should be fun to watch for the difference in style.
Mathieu vs. (28) Gonzalez. Definitely the Young Talent Contest -- though Mathieu withdrew from Long Island, so he may not be in good shape.
Rosset vs. (10) Grosjean. Serve vs. Scramble.
Santoro vs. Ljubicic. The magic touch versus the big serve.
Philippoussis vs. (24) Schalken. Philippoussis has done big things here -- but Schalken has been the better hardcourt player lately.
Boutter vs. Kuerten. Boutter barely won their meeting in Australian against an injured Kuerten. If Kuerten were healthy, he'd have the edge on a reasonably slow surface. But this court is faster, and Kuerten still isn't right.
Kiefer vs. (2) Safin. Kiefer seems at last to be improving, a little. Safin is Safin. You know the rest.
Arazi vs. (20) El Aynaoui. Countrymen. Both love clay. Arazi is slipping, El Aynaoui trying to climb. Big versus little. There is a lot to like here.
W. Ferreira vs. M. Norman or (8) Costa. Given the players' surface preferences, this smells like an upset.
Chang vs. (13) Federer. This may not come off; either guy could be upset. That's how it's going for both of them. If they do get here, can Chang's patience break through Federer's fouled-up game?
(9) Moya vs. Gambill. Moya is the better mover, with the wider variety of shot. Gambill hits harder and is happier on hardcourts. Moya at his best beats Gambill at his best -- but the surface and the crowd might help equalize things.
Dent vs. (11) Roddick. Has there ever been a match where every single point, except double faults, went to the server? This could come close.
(15) Rusedski vs. Srichaphan. Srichaphan is coming on strong. Rusedski just won his best title in a long time. Rusedski is mostly a server; Srichaphan has a wider selection of tools, though none compares to the Rusedski serve.
(29) Enqvist vs. Kratochvil. Big power vs. a player with more variety. Kratochvil didn't miss a seed by much, and he too likes hardcourts.
Clement vs. (10) Grosjean. Two close friends, both slumping a little. Who snaps out of it?
Ljubicic or Santoro vs. (24) Schalken. Can Schalken handle two opponents with heavy artillery? Or, if he faces Santoro instead of Ljubicic, can he handle the change of pace?
Kuerten (or Boutter) vs. (2) Safin. This is a second round match?
Here we go again.
The race for #1 is over for the week. Nobody -- not even Marat Safin -- can catch Lleyton Hewitt. (As a matter of fact, the player who can come closest to Hewitt is not Safin but Tommy Haas.)
Hewitt comes into the U. S. Open with more than a 2000 point lead over #2 Safin and #3 Haas. Hewitt, as defending champion, has 1000 points to defend -- but Safin has semifinalist points on the line, and Haas fourth round points. In the most extreme case (Hewitt loses first round and Haas wins the whole thing), Hewitt still has a lead of many hundreds of points.
Below that, of course, everything is variable. #2 Safin has a lead over #3 Haas, but Haas has more safe points. But Haas is hurting. It's hard to tell who will end up ahead. And Tim Henman or Andre Agassi could overtake them with a win here.
#4 Yevgeny Kafelnikov, with semifinalist points to defend and almost no results this year, is only a few points ahead of Henman and Agassi, and looks doomed to fall. If he loses first round, he could fall all the way to #9 or so. If he's to stay in the Top Ten this year, he must turn things around now.
#5 Henman and #6 Agassi come in nearly tied, with Agassi having quarterfinalist points to defend and Henman third round points. If Henman can reach the same round as Agassi, he should come out on top -- and very possibly equal his career high of #4. If he wants to move above that, though, he'll have to reach at least the semifinal and probably the final. As for Agassi, he can't get above #4 unless he reaches at least the final.
Below that, everyone is fairly bunched up, with #34 seed Jarkko Nieminen only about 1000 points below the Top Ten. We may well see a new Top Ten player or two, with Andy Roddick the best candidate.
We're also nearly certain to see at least one new Top 20 player, because Pete Sampras will have to again reach the final if he wants to hold onto his Top 20 spot