Pro tennis in North America approached its 2008 zenith with the making of the
U.S. Open main draw, August 21, in New York. One of the preceding
events leading into the Open was the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, held at a
pleasantly scaled facility here in residential Washington, D.C. This year the cast of
participating ATP pros was less lustrous than in most years, especially so in
doubles, because of the Olympics tennis being played in Beijing the same week,
August 11-17. But the crowds here were good, the weather mostly free of rain
or scorching temperatures, the matches as interesting as ever. The concurrent
action at the Olympics seemed to enliven the tennis talk around the grounds.
Meanwhile the tournament featured the emergence of two young and rising
players, both of whom established that they will be heard from in the future.
JUAN MARTIN DEL POTRO
Juan Martin del Potro, age 19, arrived in Washington fresh from consecutive
triumphs in his preceding three tournaments, including a straight-set win over
Andy Roddick in the final of Countrywide Classic in Los Angeles the preceding
week. The young Argentine player was now ranked in the world's top twenty--the
only teenager at that level. Here at Legg Mason, del Potro was seeded
second, so that a return meeting with Roddick in the tournament's final round seemed
Juan Martin del Potro at Legg Mason 2008.
Physically, Juan Martin seems perfectly made for tennis. At about 6-6 in
height, he has a slender, athletic build and walks with obvious flexibility in
body and limb. His game features power serving and power stroking, forehand and
backhand, which he gradually unveils in the early stages of matches, delivered
relatively effortlessly. After the first few games, he is usually bombarding
the corners with relentless, heavyweight deliveries carrying both pace and
strong topspin. Few opponents are able to sustain effective resistance to the
unceasing pressure. He is relatively uninterested in coming to net. An excellent
returner of serve, he usually returns from fairly deep behind baseline and uses
his reach to help handle an opponent's wide serves. In interviews he is
restrained but self-confident.
I watched at least part of all four del Potro victories enroute to the Legg
Mason final. Especially interesting was his Friday quarter-final meeting with
John Isner, last year's finalist here. From watching Isner earlier in the week,
I understood that John's serving ability remained excellent and also that he
had improved his back-court game, which now included a more polished rallying
ability to go with his potent forehand drive, usually dispatched inside-out to
At first both players had trouble handling the other's serve and both seemed
comfortable in long rallies. I was slightly surprised, as I had expected del
Potro to be superior in both areas. But as the South American began to unleash
his heaviest artillery, it became evident that Isner was in trouble. John's
errors gradually became more frequent as the weight of del Potro's shot
increased. Isner kept trying hard and overall fared better on the scoreboard than I
had predicted. Both sets were decided with a single service-break game, 64 64.
Del Potro's semi-final win over veteran Tommy Haas on Saturday, 62 61, was
more impressive. Both men began carefully, trying to avoid error in longish
rallies from back court. Haas showed the greater variety, working his opponent
from side to side and changing speeds and spins. The two divided the first four
games, giving little hint of the demolition that would soon begin.
The European would win only one more game thereafter, as del Potro's raised
stroking power took effect. Many of the points were interesting, featuring
Haas's tactical virtuosity against del Potro's steady forcefulness. But most of
them were won by the tall youth from Tamdil. Afterwards Haas explained to
reporters how difficult it was to execute his own shotmaking against this opponent's
pace, spin, court movement, and control. Haas predicted that del Potro would
soon reach the sport's top ten. Del Potro d. Haas, 62 61.
Also advancing through the week was unseeded Viktor Troicki, a relatively
unheralded competitor ranked just inside the first hundred, the third-ranking
player from Serbia behind Djokovic and Tipsarevic. Viktor at age 22 and height
6-3 was relatively new on the world scene, having turned pro only two years
Viktor Troicki at Legg Mason 2008.
In the quarter-finals on Friday, Viktor faced top-seeded Andy Roddick. The
gap in their rankings seemed to predict a comfortable win for Roddick, although
Argentine player Eduardo Schwank, unseeded, had given Andy serious trouble the
previous evening. Also, Viktor knew that he had matched up well in carrying
Andy to three sets in their only previous meeting, at Miami 08.
The match began with three consecutive aces by Roddick, untouched by Troicki.
Andy went on to capture the first set by winning 25 points (only one more
than the minimum) while Victor won only eight. Viktor could do almost nothing
right, reacting poorly to Andy's heavy blows, making one inept error after
another. By the start of the second set, many in the gallery, wanting Roiddick to
win but hopeful of seeing competitive tennis, began encouraging Troicki with
applause and calls of his name, "Let's go Viktor."
Roddick had told reporters that Troicki was known as a streaky player. The
comment seemed to overhang what happened in the next few minutes. After Andy
held serve to begin the second set, Viktor became a different player. He survived
a break point to hold the second game of the set, and then broke Andy's serve
in the third game after several deuces. I wrote in my notebook, "Troicki is
not missing now." The set then unraveled further for Roddick, who after serving
two aces to start game seven then lost the next four points and with them, a
second service-break and soon afterwards the second set.
After a rain interruption early in the third set it was Viktor who raised his
game, showing wonderfully smooth stroking and easy mobility in answer to
Andy's determined and relentless blows. Andy's downfall came in the seventh game
when he missed 8 of 12 first serves and also double-faulted twice. Viktor
closed out the match with two consecutive aces to begin the tenth game. Indeed, for
the full match he trailed Andy in total aces by just 11 to 13. Troicki d.
Roddick, 06 62 64.
In his next match, against Kunitsyn on Saturday, Viktor employed the same
pattern--extremely safe rallying broken by sudden attack. He again showed
excellent serving ability, including a 139-mph delivery that placed him for the moment
third among the tournament's big servers, behind only Fish and Roddick.
Troicki d. Kunitsyn, 64 62.
LEGG MASON FINAL: DEL POTRO d. TROICKI, 63 63
The first set followed an erratic pattern. Serving into a difficult Sun in
the third game, del Potro became the first to lose a serving game. But after
that, in an interval that included a delay for trainer's attention to Troicki's
back, the Serbian player lost his next three serving games. Meanwhile del
Potro gradually raised the level of his stroking power. Probably both Viktor's
discomfort and Juan Martin's heavier artillery contributed to del Potro's strong
Legg Mason 2008 Champion Juan Martin del Potro.
The second set brought an attractive clash of the favored styles of both
contestants. Juan Martin was now ripping away with full authority on almost every
shot, driving Viktor into the corners regularly. Troicki answered with his
customary fine defensive play, delivering relentless short-backswing forehands
and backhands just firm enough to keep his opponent at bay and with almost
absolute avoidance of error, meanwhile occasionally ripping an abrupt and accurate
attacking shot toward a sideline. A single break of Troicki's serve late in
the set settled matters, but Viktor had five break-point opportunities during
the set, winning none.
Afterwards, Troicki explained that his back problem had been nagging in
recent weeks and had gotten worse by playing on hard courts. Generally, he was
pleased at his performance in the tournament. Del Potro too was satisfied,
allthough he criticized his own level of play, especially his seven double-faults,
five of them in the second set. The teenager's winning streak now stood at 19
matches, with prospects for further extension the next week in New Haven. He
seemed more interested in the latter opportunity than in resting for the U.S.
Open just ahead, but one day later he withdrew from the New Haven event, citing
exhaustion. Troicki retired early in his second match at New Haven.
Clearly the future is bright for both del Potro and Troicki. By their recent
wins over Roddick, both proved their ability to make trouble for higher-ranked
players. (Troicki won his only meeting with Djokovic, at Umag in 2007.)
Neither is highly ranked in our U.S. Open prediction, discussed below. But be not
surprised if either makes a strong run in New York.
The fascination of the live play at Legg Mason kept me from watching as much
tennis from Beijing as I had planned. Surely like most Olympics viewers, I
cringed when watching the final-set meltdown of Serena Williams against the
eventual champion, Elena Dementieva, and was dazzled by the power doubles of Serena
and Venus in easily winning the doubles final against their Spanish
opponents. James Blake's hard-charging effort in the second set in defeating Roger
Federer was exciting to watch, but at the same time there was sadness in seeing
the great champion of our times once again fail on this singular stage.
I watched the singles finals from my recorder. The women's pitted two
Russians--Safina and Dementieva--both sluggers from the baseline. By reputation
Dementieva was the better mover but the less solid server. The difference indeed lay
in the serving, but it was Safina who contributed 17 double-faults,
Dementieva only three. Otherwise the match featured many magnificent baseline power
duels, where neither player's offense was strong enough to overwhelm the other's
defenses, leaving most points to be decided by errors relatively unforced.
Elena's small edge in stamina became clearer and Dinara's frustration with her
serving woes increased as the play lengthened. Dementieva d. Safina, 36 75 63.
For Fernando Gonzalez to have defeated Rafael Nadal in the men's final would
have been an upset of almost unprecedented dimension. Fernando played
aggressively, at what was surely his highest level, trying to seize the initiative by
backing up his potent first serve with forehands of extreme power. The barrage
called forth Rafael's magnificent defensive and counter-punching skills, but
the most dazzling weapon of the date was the Nadal attacking forehand, which
carried equal velocity to Rafael's and yet more overspin and accuracy.
A lull by the current world's #1 allowed Gonzalez to reach two set points in
the second set, either of which might have momentarily equalized matters. But
after Rafael again found his best tennis in one-sidedly winning the set-ending
tiebreak game, the tiredness set in for Fernando. There was still plenty of
fire in the Gonzo forehand, but the outcome of the third set was never in
doubt. Nadal d. Gonzalez, 63 76 63.
There is no national team award in Olympics tennis, but it was interesting to
track the match wins by nation, especially since the doubles involved only
same-nation pairs. France was the nation whose men's contingent won the most
matches--twelve victories in all, mainly from broad early-round success in
singles plus three doubles wins by Clement-Llodra. Switzerland and Spain tied for
second, each with nine wins, including five for the Swiss by Federer-Wawrinka in
capturing the doubles gold and six for Spain by Nadal in singles. The women's
tally showed Russia on top, reflecting that the Russkayas won the gold,
silver, and bronze medals in singles. U.S.A. was second in the team tally behind
the success of the sisters in doubles.
PREDICTING U.S. OPEN 08
In here predicting outcomes at U.S. Open 08, we weight player results at
recent major tournaments. (See footnote on the calculations.) Our computer in this
case emphatically identified the top three.candidates, listed here with their
calculated scores "Sc" and odds for winning the tournament.
#1. Rafael Nadal, Sc 6.18, odds even. As champion of Garros, Wimbledon, and
Olympics 08, Nadal's play this spring and summer has been so strong that it is
hard to see how anyone can beat Rafa in best-of-five-set competition. Still,
there are possible pitfalls enroute to a first U.S. Open crown for Rafa,
including the chance of injury or that one of his leading rivals will perform at his
absolute highest level (thereby requiring the same of Rafa).
#2. Novak Djokovic, Sc 5.20, odds 2.7-1. The firm-hitting 22-year-old is
approaching prime tennis age, having won Australian Open 08, then beating Nadal
both at Indian Wells 08 and at the recent Cincinnati Masters, and most recently
taken a set from Rafa at the Olympics. Novak was runner-up last year at U.S.
Open, losing the final to Federer in three close sets.
#3. Roger Federer, Sc 4.72, odds 4.5-1. Having won U.S. Open the last four
years, Roger's chances this year cannot be taken lightly. His results to date
this year, however, are well below those of recent years, showing losses in most
of the events he has entered. Outwardly, Roger's skills seem no different
than before, but he seems no longer able invariably to summon his very best
tennis at critical times--a hallmark of his past greatness. At age 27, he is
apparently being overtaken by the younger tennis generation, which includes Nadal and
Here are the 2008 head-to-head W-L records among the Big Three. The values
seem to support the results of our model.
Nadal over Djokovic, 4-2
Nadal over Federer, 4-0
Djokovic and Federer, 1-1 (tied)
THE NEXT THREE
#4. Nicolay Davydenko, Sc 2.91, odds 65-1. The 27-year-old Davydenko
sometimes plays with absolute brilliance, as in winning Miami 08 in a run that
included a final-round win over Nadal. Typically he plays well but exits in the late
rounds, as in reaching the semis at U.S. Open 06 and 07. Lightning-quick on
court, he plays a strong all-around game suited to either clay or hard courts.
His 2008 record against the Big Three is 2-2.
#5. James Blake, Sc 2.83, odds 77-1. Blake ranks higher in our calculation
than in the official seedings, lifted here by his fourth-place finish and win
over Federer at the Olympics. His 2008 record against the Big Three is 1-3, but
he defeated Nadal three times without loss in previous years before losing
twice to Rafael in 2008.
#6. Andy Murray, Sc 2.70, odds 105-1. Murray's success in the North American
summer events--reaching the semis in Toronto and winning at Cincinnati--raised
him from the pack in our calculations. Seeded sixth at the Olympics, he lost
in the first round at Beijing. His 2008 record against the Big Three is 3-4.
The odds for all other players are 300-1 or longer.
Shown below are the four quarters of the draw. Players are listed with their
calculated values of Sc. Three of the quarters are headed by a member of the
Nadal 6.18, Blake 2.83, Berdych 2.05, Mathieu 1.50, Nalbandian 1.49,
Kohlschreiber 1.42, Fish 1.30, Soderling 1.36, Karlovic 1.22, Monfils 1.10, Querrey
0.89, Troicki 0.42. There should be many intersting match-ups in this quarter,
but no one seems capable of winning more than one set from Nadal. Probably
Blake is the most dangerous threat, given James's past success against Rafa. But
Nadal remains the strong favorite here.
Murray 2.70, Ferrer 2.28, Wawrinka 2.24, Youzhny 1.89, Simon 1.67, Lopez
1.40, Monaco 1.33, del Potro 0.55. None of our Big Three inhabit this quarter. The
calculations make Murray the favorite, correctly so in my opinion although
Ferrer is actually the high-seeded player in the quarter. If Murray plays at the
level seen just prior to the Olympics, he should certainly prevail. Young del
Potro must surmount Simon to reach a meeting with Ferrer, but in my opinion
the teenager is capable of beating both. The choice to reach the final four is
Djokovic 5.20, Roddick 2.06, Kiefer 1.78, Tsonga 1.68, Gonzalez 1.67, Cilic
1.66, Moya 1.37, Seppi 1.32, Robredo 1.29, Safin 1.22, Gulbis 1.16. There is no
serious hurdle for Djokovic in his section, except perhaps a third-round
meeting with young Cilic. Andy Roddick, whose lackluster summer seems to point to
further disappointment ahead, must surmount the impressive teenager Gulbis
early-on. Andy seems the likely quarter-finalist opponent for Djokovic, but his
chances against the powerful 21-year-old seem faint. The unhesitating choice
here is Djokovic.
Federer 4.72, Davydenko 2.91, Gasquet 1.97, Andreev 1.96, Verdasco 1.7, Haas
1.65, Tipsarevic 1.54, Tursunov 1.44, Stepanek 1.38. This quarter, like the
first, holds many interesting liikely second- and third-round match-ups. The
four-time champion, Federer, should certainly be safe, but starting in the third
round against Stepanek he dare not play very far below his best. Either
Andreev or Verdasco will come next, both dangerous. Davydenko and Gasquet are in the
opposite section from Roger, and their quarter-final should be closely
fought. Federer must be conceded this quarter.
An important matter in recent draws has been whether Djokovic would fall into
Nadal's or Federer's half. Unlike what has usually happened, in this case
Federer and Djokovic are aligned to meet in the semis. Our calculations point to
the younger player, and although it is difficult to pass on the erstwhile
champion, Novak Djokovic is indeed my selection. In the other half, although a Murray win
is conceivable, the probabilities strongly favor Nadal.
Thus a Nadal-Djokovic final seems ahead, a match-up likely to recur in many
future Slam finals. In judging the probable outcome, the superb abilities of
Djokovic in many areas of the game must be acknowledged. But Nadal's remarkable
command of his own unique array of strengths, all assembled in a magnificent
system of defensive and offensive tactics, makes a Rafa triumph by far the more
likely. Novak could--indeed probably will--win at least one set and also
carry at least one other into a tiebreaker. It should be Rafael's third
consecutive Slam crown, essentially assuring him the year-end #1 world ranking.
Maria Sharapova is sidelined with shoulder trouble, and last year's champion,
Justine Henin, has retired from the pro game. Seven prime candidates--the
eight leaders in the 2008 points race less Maria--stand out in their chances for
winning the crown. But matters remain very unclear among this group, especially
as to the readiness of the sisters Williams. Composing the Big Seven are two
American, two Serbian, and three Russian players.
Serena and Venus Williams. The readiness of the sisters Williams for the
newest Slam is, as usual, unclear. Either, if at her best, can be heads above all
others, but injuries and perhaps other distractions have intermittently
weakened their performances over recent years. Last year at the Open, both in turn
lost to Henin. Their most recent singles triumph came at Wimbledon 08, where
both reached the final without having lost a set, Venus prevailing. After that,
both were mostly away from competition until the Olympics, where both lost in
Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic. The two Serbian stars rank almost together
atop the year-to-date race, with Jankovic in first place by a small margin.
(Ivanovic's lead in the 12-month running standings caused her to be seeded first
at the Open.) Jelena's major 2008 triumph came at Rome, while Ivanovic won at
Indian Wells and Garros 08. Jelena, the older at 23, has an attractive
all-court game built about mobility and well-controlled stroking. She won three
matches at Beijing before losing in split sets to eventual runner-up Safina. Ana,
20, is taller, heavier, and more powerful, with seemingly the stronger serving
and stroking weaponry. Ivanovic's summer was spoiled by a hand/thumb injury,
which forced her withdrawal at the Olympics and creates doubts as to her
readiness for the Open.
Dinara Safina, Elena Dementieva, and Svetlana Kuznetsova. Safina ranks behind
the Serbs and Serena in fourth place in the 2008 race, ahead of the other
members of this Russian trio and Venus. Dinara was a big summertime winner,
starting an upward surge when she triumphed in Berlin and reached the final at
Garros, both on clay. Continuing to show her improved movement and power hitting,
Dinara then triumphed on hard courts in Los Angeles and Montreal. These
excellent results lifted Safina slightly above the other two in the 2008 race, but
Dementieva's tough final-round win over Dinara in the Olympics final is a
compelling reommendation. Kuznetsova, a well-seasoned veteran at only 23, seems
always among the top contenders and was U.S. Open champion in 2004 and runner-up
Helpful in sorting out matters is the 2008 W-L record of each Big Seven
member in head-to-head play against other members of the group, as follows:
S. Williams, 3-4
V. Williams, 2-4
Safina's success within the group is persuasive, and in my opinion she should
be deemed the favorite to win the Open. I rate Dementieva second-best in her
chances, as she won both meetings with Ivanovic and was impressive in
defeating Safina in Beijing. The Williamses, with four past U.S. Open crowns between
them, looked healthy in their Olympics doubles final, so we place them also
ahead of Ana, who was unsuccessful in her only outing since Wimbledon. Here then
are the seeming probabilities, expressed as odds for winning the Open:
Safina, odds 3-1
S. Williams, 6-1
V. Williams, 8-1
Radwanska, Zvonareva, Azarenka, Chakvetadze, Cornet, each 80-1
all others, 200-1 or longer
Likely to attract special interest are Lindsay Davenport and Amelie
Mauresmo--veteran favorites seeking to relive old glory. The contingent from China will
probably produce some surprises, along with the host of young players rising
from eastern Europe.
The highest-seeded eight players at the Open consist of our Big Seven, above,
plus Zvonareva, whose recent results have been strong, though our order of
merit differs considerably from the official seedings. Each of the eight indeed
should win her way to the quarter-finals, though of course it would be
remarkable if all eight actually did so. Shown below are the seeded players in each
quarter of the draw, shown in seeded order.
Ivanovic (seeded #1), Safina (#6), Hantuchova, Pennetta, Cornet, Petrova,
Razzano, Mauresmo. Amelie Mauresmo, who started with two good wins at New Haven
this week, lurks as possible third-round opponent for Ivanovic. Meanwhile
Alicia Cornet, who is in Safina's section of this quarter, has been rising of late.
Both frontrunners, however, seem likely to withstand the challenges of
experience and youth, respectively. In the likely quarter-final match-up, Safina's
strong play in recent months along with Ivanovic's stretch of inactivity
requires choosing Safina.
V. Williams (#7), S. Williams (#9), Radwanska, Szavey, Cibulkova, Vaidisova,
A. Bondarenko, Sugiyama. Drawing the sisters into the same quarter was
unfortunate. Venus won their last official meeting, at Wimbledon 08. Serena's record
was slightly better than Venus's last week at the Olympics, however, where
Serena played well but, having played a tough three-setter against Cornet, became
tired and then lost to the eventual champion. There will be longer
opportunities for rest between matches at the Open. Largely guessing, the edge this time
will be Serena's.
Kuznetsova (#3), Dementieva (#5), Chakvetadze, Schnyder, Kirilenko, Peer,
Schiavone, Srebotnik. Elena Dementieva's improved serving at the Olympics raises
her over her higher-seeded countrywoman, Kuznetsova, whom she defeated in
their only meeting this year, at Doha. Both should have too much firepower for any
of the others in this quarter. Dementieva.
Jankovic (#2), Zvonareva (#8), Bartoli, Azarenka, Wozniacki, Davenport,
Medina Garriguez, Bammer. Davenport withdrew from the singles at Beijing and seems
at best likely to pull off only one surprise. Jankovic stands low in our
analysis, above, and will be pressed by Zvonareva or Davenport, but must be deemed
the favorite here.
Safina beat Serena last spring at Garros, but the edge on New York hard
courts could shift toward the American. But for me, Dinara's strong summer
performances and Serena's limited success since Wimbledon are amply persuasive.
Meanwhile in the other semi-final, Dementieva's slightly superior play at the
Olympics--seen in their comparative results against Safina--argue for a close win
here for Elena.
Safina and Dementieva have met four times in 2008, including in the final at
the Olympics. Safina won the first three. Accordingly, although Elena's win in
Beijing was in no way tarnished, the greater evidence argues that usually
Dinara will be the winner. Thus the choice here--to capture her first Slam and
escape from the large shadow of her older brother--is Safina.
Wimbledon 08 will be hard to beat. I'm predicting that this newest Slam will
be almost as splendid.
The weights used in our calculation are determined by how well various
predictor events have correlated in their results with those at U.S. Open, as shown
in data over the past eight years. Here are the weights used here for
predicting player chances (i.e., score Sc) at U.S. Open 08.
U.S. Open 07, 11.7%
Australian Open 08, 11.1%
Garros 08, 5.1%
Wimbledon 08, 9.7%
Indian Wells, Miami, Canada, Cincinnati, and Olympics 08, each 9.4%
Monte Carlo, Rome, Hamburg 08, each 5.1%
The favorite's (Nadal's) chances for winning the crown is here established by
judgment at 50%, or even odds. This value is then used to calibrate the field
of calculated Sc values to reach an overall probability of 1.0, thereby
determining the odds shown in the text for the other players.