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August 21, 2014 Article

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Between The Lines By Ray Bowers
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Preview U.S. Open 2014 -- Focus Youth Brigade
by Ray Bowers

Ray Bowers Photo
Ray Bowers

It had been a relatively quiet tennis year. Three different male and three different female superstars had won the first three Slams of 2014 -- Wawrinka, Nadal, and Djokovic among the men, Li Na, Sharapova, and Kvitova among the women. The long-standing Big Four remained prominent in men's tennis, Djokovic and Nadal both having added a Slam runner-up finish to their 2014 Slam triumphs just noted. Meanwhile each of the three female Slam winners had been at least once a previous Slam champion.
But evidence of transition had been unmistakable -- a weakening of the pro tennis hierarchies male and female. It was seen in Wawrinka's breaking of the Big Four's Slam monopoly, for example, and in the absence of Serena Williams from the first three Slam finals in 2014. Serena had been the sole occupant of the women's top tier when the year began. Emerging was a new generation of potential champions -- a youth brigade of stars here defined as aged 22-and-under among the women, 24-and-under among the men.
A few members of the brigade had already penetrated the world's upper levels. Romanian Simona Halep, 22, reached the final at Garros and semis at Wimbledon 2014, and Canada's Eugenie Bouchard, 20, reached the quarters of all three Slams of 2014 including the final round at Wimbledon. Among the males, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, both 23 and both semi-finalists at Wimbledon, along with Kei Nishikori, 24, all moved inside or very close to the world's first ten. Also exciting was the Wimbledon run of the strong Aussie Nick Kyrgios, 19, who reached the final eight at the All-England, defeating Nadal. Especially intriguing had been the cluster of female risers behind Halep and Bouchard, all ranked in the world's top 25 or so.
Listed here is the top echelon of the youth brigade shortly after Wimbledon (ranked by results in Second Trimester 2014, from early April to mid-July).
The 22-and-under female leaders
-- Simona Halep, 22 (Romania)
-- Eugenie Bouchard, 20 (Canada)
-- Garbine Muguruza, 20 (Spain)
-- Madison Keys, 19 (USA)
The 24-and-under male leaders
-- Grigor Dimitrov, 23 (Bulgaria)
-- Milos Raonic, 23 (Canada)
-- Kei Nishikori, 24 (Japan)
-- Jiri Vesely, 21 (Czech Republic)
North American Summer
The youth surge slowed slightly at the start of the summer hard-court season. American Jack Sock, age 21 and now well over 6-0 in height, scored two early wins in Atlanta before losing to the eventual champion, John Isner. But except for Jack's success the event clearly belonged to the older guard. Then two of the sport's most lustrous risers -- Grigor Dimitrov and Eugenie Bouchard -- both withdrew shortly before the start at Citi Open in Washington, an event that usually showcases the latest up-and-comers.
But other members stepped up. In a heavy-hitting split-set final at the Citi, Milos Raonic defeated fellow Canadian Vasek Pospisil, another riser at age 24. The career of Pospisil, at height 6-4, had faded after a remarkable run twelve months earlier, but his powerful serving and stroking in Washington now produced wins over higher-seeded Berdych and Gasquet. Also in Washington, Kurumi Nara, 22, height 5-1, reached the women's final behind a resolute baseline game, defeating fellow risers Keys, Diyas, and Mladenovic and testing veteran Kuznetsova in a split-set final. Meanwhile at the women's tournament in Stanford, two 22-and-unders reached the final eight -- Spain's Muguruza, already in third place, above, and Florida-born Sachia Vickery, 19, who collected two top-hundred wins enroute. Serena Williams won the event, showing stretches of top form in her march to the finish and no hint of the on-court affliction that had caused her withdrawal from the doubles at Wimbledon.
American Shelby Rogers, 21, height 5-9, who was yet ranked deep in the world's second hundred, took no rest after Wimbledon. In July tournament action seven of her opponents were ranked in the first hundred, and Shelby defeated five of them, emerging with her best-ever world ranking, #103. Then in Montreal in early August, she advanced through the qualifiers, claiming another top-hundred victim #40 Peng Shuai and then another in beating riser Tomljanovic, world #56, in first-round main-draw action. Shelby was assuredly at her career best.
Shelby's Tuesday-evening opponent in Montreal was fifth-seeded Eugenie Bouchard, who had received a first-round bye and who had not competed since her wonderful run at Wimbledon. It began as a brutally uneven match-up, where it was the favorite who became the victim.
From the outset Eugenie, surely uncomfortable amid recent adulation and the vast expectations of her home nation, was wholly unable to find her top game against her highly-tuned opponent. An aggressive Shelby swept easily through the first set. Eugenie then briefly righted matters, winning the second set when Shelby had trouble answering a sustained battering of rocketry by Eugenie. But Eugenie's barrage faltered badly early in set three, when Shelby summoned an air-tight defense backed by some superbly accurate first-serving. As the possibility of defeat loomed, Eugenie's weaponry vanished almost fully, and the newest princess of women's tennis was out of the tournament.
Meanwhile in Toronto the same fate nearly befell Grigor Dimitrov, who like Eugenie had not competed since Wimbledon. Grigor struggled against American Donald Young but survived in three. An even tougher victory came the next day, Thursday, over a resourceful Tommy Robredo. Grigor's run continued in another close win over Kevin Anderson but ended in the semis against Tsonga, the eventual tournament champion.
Secondary members of the youth brigade showed remarkably well in Canada -- Moscow-born Yulia Putintseva, 19 (Kazakhstan), beat Pennetta, Britain's Heather Watson, 22, defeated Cibulkova, and heavy-striking American Coco Vandeweghe, 22, defeated both Ivanovic and Jankovic. Meanwhile, Madison Keys defeated Kuznetsova (the recent winner in Washington), and Muguruza took a set in losing to Sharapova. Jack Sock was again impressive in his potent serving and forehand work, winning the first set and carrying the next two to tiebreakers against Raonic fresh from his Washington triumph. The two were closely matched throughout, Sock nearly equaling Raonic in most departments including serving effectiveness. Raonic went on to reach the tournament's final eight. Meanwhile Nick Kyrgios, a wild-card entrant, lost his second match, to Andy Murray.
Under wide scrutiny Serena Williams won three matches, at times showing full readiness for the forthcoming Open but occasionally lapsing toward the lesser form seen through much of the year. The headlines instead went to sister Venus, whose scorching rocketry to the corners was seen all week including in a close semi-final win over Serena. But Venus's magic vanished on final-round Sunday, when Agnieszka Radwanska kept Venus off balance with her placement and movement, yielding almost no mistakes to collect the tournament crown.
Of the men's Big Four, the only absentee from Toronto had been Rafael Nadal, nursing a bad right wrist. The other three -- Djokovic, Murray, and Federer -- were in turn defeated by Jo-wilfried Tsonga, 29, whose power in serving and stroking also knocked out the prime member of the youth brigade, Dimitrov. It was an impressive run by the French superstar, establishing compelling credentials for U.S. Open ahead.
The general script persisted in Cincinnati. The female youth brigade's second tier again scored several excellent wins over older and higher-ranked opponents, further suggesting their readiness to move upward:
Female 22-and-under climbers in Cincinnati
Taylor Townsend, 18, d. Koukalova
Sloane Stephens, 21, d. Petkovic
Annika Beck, 20, d. Muguruza
Elina Svitolina, 19, d. Kvitova and Suarez Navarro
Madison Keys, 19, d. Cornet; then lost to Sharapova in split sets
Meanwhile Simona Halep, top member of the female 22-and-unders, swept through to a quarter-final date with Sharapova. Their meeting became a closely fought three-setter, where Maria's superior power, accompanied by Maria's excellent avoidance of error when it mattered most, decided matters at the finish. Eugenie Bouchard, however, although she played much better than in Montreal, again lost her opening match, beaten in split sets by Kuznetsova.
The male 24-and-unders had comparable success. Milos Raonic reached the semis but then lost to a Federer playing at close to his best ever. Grigor Dimitrov lost in three heavyweight sets to Jerzy Jankovic, also 23. Californian Steve Johnson, 24, upset Paire and Gulbis, then lost to Raonic in split sets, while an even-more-impressive Vasek Pospisil, 24, defeated Stepanek in splits before taking Federer to three.
But ultimately it was again the older generation, indeed the over-30 bunch, that prevailed. Roger Federer, 33, won the men's crown behind sizzling forecourt attacking. Serena Williams, 32, won the ladies', completing a three-week sequence where her only loss came against Venus and where Serena's spells of sub-standard play became fewer and less severe.
For the youth brigade the summer thus far had kindled expectations still further. The rank order among its top members had changed only slightly. Extending our earlier-shown tabulation now through Cincinnati, Halep and Bouchard remained atop the women's list, while Elina Svitolina, 19 (Ukraine), and Caroline Garcia, 19 (France), moved into third and fourth places. Among the men, Dimitrov, Raonic, and Nishikori remained on top, followed by Jack Sock now in fourth place. Which of them would now break through at the Open to reap the glory that now seemed closer than ever?
The predictions here are reached using subjective judgment, but they are also fortified by three numerical indicators -- Basic Indicator, Hard-Court Index, and Current Playing Level, together with their Composite. Both Federer and Serena, the singles champions at Cincinnati, lead in two of the three prime indicators as well as in Composite. In here examining the likely match-ups signaled by the official draw, our analysis introduces a further indicator, past Head-to-Head Results.
Serena's clear lead in our indicators, her success in head-to-head meetings with her strongest challengers, and her seriousness of purpose seen in her recent full-summer commitment, make her the compelling favorite to capture her 18th Slam, her sixth U.S. Open.
Top Quarter
Our Composite of indicators points to Serena Williams and Ana Ivanovic meeting in the final round of this quarter. Serena must first survive a dangerous third-round opponent, Sam Stosur, who is the most recent U.S. Open champion not named Serena. (Sam won the Open in 2011.)
Ana has played consistently well of late, scoring in the top five in both Hard-Court Index (HCX) and Current Playing Level (CPL). Twice in 2014 Ana took sets from Serena in losing efforts. An on-form Serena defeated Ana in straight sets in their final-round meeting in Cincinnati. Serena over Ivanovic.
Second Quarter
Petra Kvitova has posted indifferent results since winning Wimbledon except for reaching the quarters at the New Haven tune-up. There are dangerous young brigadiers enroute -- Mladenovic and Keys. She will then face Victoria Azarenka in the fourth round, but Vika has shown little on-court success in recovering from a long injury-related absence. Petra's slashing lefty serve, her strongest weapon, should carry her through.
Petra has never gone beyond the fourth round at U. S. Open. Her fifth opponent this year according to the seeded order, Eugenie Bouchard, seems vulnerable to early defeat, as despite her run to the Wimbledon final, she has since posted several dismal losses including a thrashing by Stosur at New Haven just before the Open draw. Also difficult for Eugenie will be either veteran Cibulkova or riser Svitolina enroute, though either is beatable if Eugenie finds top form amid three earlier tests.
In a quarter marked by disappointing recent results by its contenders, the message of our indicators --Basic, CPL, and Composite -- should prevail. Kvitova over Bouchard.
Third Quarter
The indicators strongly support the two favorites in the seedings -- Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber, both of them counter-punchers and excellent movers. As to the indicators, Agnieska leads in all but CPL but the two contenders are very close in head-to-head play, Agnieszka leading overall, Kerber leading on hard courts. Kerber has the more difficult journey to their expected meeting. In agreement with Composite, Agnieszka over Kerber.
Bottom Quarter
In this, the most interesting of the quarters, both favorites have serious obstacles to reaching the late rounds.
The favorite in the quarter's upper half, Maria Sharapova, faces several strong possible opponents all at peak tennis age -- tall, big-serving riser Karolina Pliskova, mid-career near-superstar Sabine Lisicki, and former world #1 Caroline Wozniacki, still just aged 24 and now wielding a more-powerful armory than in years past. Confronting the lower-half favorite, Simona Halep, are veteran Venus Williams and youth-brigade-members Garbine Muguruza and Camila Giorgi. (Camila recently defeated Wozniacki in New Haven.)
Our indicators point to Halep, but Maria has won all five of their past meetings including a recent split-setter in Cincinnati. Sharapova over Halep.
Semis and Final
The bigger, more-forceful game is Sharapova's, by wide margin over Radwanska's -- a telling matter when stakes are highest. Agnieszka leads slightly in our calculated indicators, but Maria is far ahead in the head-to-heads by 10-2 careerwise, including two straight-set wins in 2014. Sharapova over Radwanska.
Serena Williams has been similarly dominant over Kvitova, having won all five on-court meetings, all but one in straight sets. (Kvitova won by walkover this year in Madrid.) Serena is far ahead in our prime indicators. Serena over Kvitova.
Serena has been predicted here to triumph at the last three Slams. All three predictions were wrong. But the current picture seems, once again, clear-cut. Serena has won sixteen of her past eighteen matches against Sharapova, including the last fifteen. Serena has stumbled sometimes in 2014, but no matter how well Maria (or any other possible opponent) plays, Serena at anything close to her best will decide the outcome. Serena over Sharapova.
The withdrawal of two past Open champions -- Nadal's owing to right-wrist troubles and del Potro's owing to wrist surgery early in the year -- diminish the initial excitement. Highest-seeded is Novak Djokovic, who was brilliant in capturing Wimbledon 2014 despite arm and shoulder problems.
Novak's later summer was disappointing, however, marked by middle-round losses in Toronto and Cincinnati, where despite seemingly high determination Novak was unable to sustain the power needed to hurt his opponents with his usually relentless stroking. Was he holding back to protect the recent injuries? Or did the distractions of his recent marriage and coming fatherhood perhaps weaken his concentration?
Thus the door may be open for Roger Federer, officially second-seeded but slightly favored by our indicators. Roger is seeking his sixth U.S. Open crown after lapse of five years.
Top Quarter
Djokovic is safe though four rounds, where his main worry is the potent serving of John Isner and the tall American's knowledge how to use that prowess to win sets.
The lower half of the quarter is more juicy, featuring Big Four member Andy Murray (who won the Open in 2012) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, just three weeks removed from his brilliant triumph in Canada. Before Jo-Wilfried's split-set win over Andy in Toronto, Andy had won their last eight meetings. Tsonga leads in our indicators HCX and CPL, and in Composite. Although Jo lost his first match in Cincinnati, Jo-Wilfried's performance in Canada trumps all. A Tsonga vs. Djokovic match-up will decide the quarter.
Tsonga's win over Djokovic in Canada was quick. But before that Djokovic, who is ahead of Tsonga in our Composite, had won their last eleven meetings. In the belief that Novak's decline in August was temporary, the choice is Djokovic over Tsonga.
Second Quarter
Stan Wawrinka staged a good run at Wimbledon but showed indifferent results in August. The winner of Robredo-Pospisil beckons Stan in round three, where unless Stan regains his wonderful form of last January in Australia, the group's survivor should be the Canadian riser. The youth brigade should also prosper in the quarter's lower half, where the weapons of Jack Sock should overcome a recently damaged Nishikori but fall short against a too-difficult opponent Raonic. Thus the quarter's champion will emerge from an all-Canadian match-up. Milos Raonic won their meeting in Washington, and Milos's strong edge in the Indicators forces the choice here Raonic over Pospisil.
Third Quarter
Feliciano Lopez has the head-to-head edge over Tomas Berdych, including wins in their two meetings of 2014 and a narrow advantage on hard courts. The lefty-serving net-attacker from Spain also leads in CPL and is close in Composite, reflecting a fine mid-2014 run. An earlier opponent will be Ernests Gulbis, who leads Feliciano in head-to-head action but has shown indifferent results since Garros this year. Feliciano should advance.
Meanwhile the underrated but resolute Spanish veteran David Ferrer will overcome the difficult Croatian Marin Cilic. Ferrer in turn will defeat Lopez to capture the quarter. David has won their last five meetings and leads in all other indicators. Both are in the top five in CPL. Ferrer over F. Lopez.
Bottom Quarter
An interesting match-up happens in round three when French stars Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet meet. Monfils at 27 has the head-to-head edge, having won both their 2014 meetings in straight sets and also their only past match at U.S. Open, in 2010. Gael's next opponent will be the strong and talented riser Grigor Dimitrov, 23. Grigor Dimitrov leads in our indicators and has the power and temperament to defeat Gael.
But the quarter belongs to Sir Roger, who leads all in our indicators and faces no serious threat in the first four rounds. Federer won his only previous meeting with Dimitrov and knows how to use his wide-ranging weaponry to defeat less experienced albeit equally talented opponents. Federer over Dimitrov.
Semis and Final
Novak Djokovic has won all three previous meetings with Raonic (all on clay) and leads in all numerical indicators except CPL. The two rank second and third in Composite among all comers, where Raonic is lifted by his strong summer results and CPL. Novak must approach his top game to prevail. Djokovic over Raonic.
Roger defeated Ferrer in split sets at both Canada and Cincinnati. Both were well-contested affairs. Roger has won all sixteen of their past meetings. But things are getting closer. Federer over Ferrer.
Djokovic leads in Basic, boosted by his five-set final-round win over Roger at Wimbledon 2014. Roger leads in HCX even though Novak won both Indian Wells and Miami this year on hard courts. Roger's strong summer gives him a firm edge in CPL. Roger thus leads narrowly in Composite. The two split their four meetings in 2014; Roger leads careerwise 18-17, having won their first four back in 2006-2007.
It probably comes down to what is for the moment beyond measurement. (1) How seriously should Novak's August decline be taken? (2) How well will Roger, now aged 33, sustain his recent high level over several best-of-five-set matches? He has paced himself judiciously in past long matches but not always resulting in victory. With help from the indicators, which speak to Federer's current level, the verdict becomes evident, Federer over Djokovic.
Other matters
The full emergence of the youth brigade remains elusive although tantalizingly close. Both male and female brigadiers will have excellent chances for big-time leaps. Raonic and Dimitrov, Halep and Bouchard need only continue the upward path already shaped this year, while a few members of the second and third tiers should produce some successes that are widely unexpected. For the risers of today all is prelude to the future, even as this newest U.S. Open will itself bestow historic rewards on its best.
--Ray Bowers, Arlington, Virginia, U.S.A.
Basic Indicator weights each player's results during the last 15 months according to how well historically each predictor tournament matched results at succeeding U.S. Opens. Hard-Court Index measures success on hard courts during 2014. In Current Playing Level, used for the first time here, we calculate a straight-line equation using each player's performance in each of the preceding six months and then use it to predict each player's playing level in the seventh month, i.e. September 2014. Here are the leaders, in rank order:
-- Basic Indicator. S Williams, A Radwanska, Halep, Sharapova, Kvitova
-- Hard-Court Index. S Williams, A Radwanska, Cibulkova, Ivanovic,Wozniacki
-- Current Playing Level. Halep, S Williams, Wozniacki, Ivanovic, Makarova
-- Composite. S Williams, Halep, A Radwanska, Ivanovic, Wozniacki
-- Basic Indicator. Djokovic, Federer, Wawrinka, Murray, Raonic
-- Hard-Court Index. Federer, Djokovic, Wawrinka, Berdych, Tsonga
-- Current Playing Level. Federer, Raonic, Ferrer, Tsonga, F Lopez
-- Composite. Federer, Djokovic, Raonic, Tsonga, Wawrinka
Here are the seven female and seven male members of our newest watch list of predicted risers. The selectees were computer-selected on 20 July using equations comparing each player's achievements in the just-completed Second Trimester 2014 against the player's previous best 12-month performance, all adjusted for age, height, and statistical regression. Shown are each player's official rank on 20 July 2014 and predicted target rank twelve months hence.
-- Ana Konjuh, 16, 5-9 (Croatia).. Official rank #116. Predicted target #51.
-- Taylor Townsend, 18, 5-7 (USA). Official rank #144. Predicted target #90.
-- Tereza Smitkova, 19, 6-0 (Czech Republic). Official rank #96. Predicted target #69.
-- Eugenie Bouchard, 20, 5-10 (Canada). Official rank #7. Predicted target #4.
-- Caroline Garcia, 20, 5-10 (France). Official rank #44. Predicted target #17.
-- Denisa Allertova, 21, 5-11 (Czech Republic). Official rank #177. Predicted target #120.
-- Karolina Pliskova, 22, 6-1 (Czech Republic). Official rank #45. Predicted target #18.
-- Alex Zverev, 17, 6-4 (Germany). Current rank #161. Predicted target #111.
-- Nick Kyrgios, 19, 6-4 (Australia). Current rank #65. Predicted target #40.
-- Luke Saville, 20, 6-2 (Australia. Current rank #166. Predicted target #117.
-- Mate Delic, 21, 6-5 (Croatia Current rank #181. Predicted target #93.
-- Filip Krajinovic, 22, 6-1 (Serbia). Current rank #134. Predicted target #90.
-- Grigor Dimitrov, 23, 6-3 (Bulgaria). Current ranking #9. Predicted target #4.
-- Roberto Bautista Agut, 26, 6-0 (Spain). Current rank #16. Predicted target #15.
Final Report -- Watch List VIII
Here is the final tally for Watch List VIII, selected in July 2013, its 12-month tenure now ended:
Surpassed predicted target, 3 (Halep, Bencic, Carreno Busta)
Improved but short of predicted target, 7
Regressed, 4

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This column is copyrighted by Ray Bowers, all rights reserved.

Following interesting military and civilian careers, Ray became a regular competitor in the senior divisions, reaching official rank of #1 in the 75 singles in the Mid-Atlantic Section for 2002. He was boys' tennis coach for four years at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Virginia, where the team three times reached the state Final Four. He was named Washington Post All-Metropolitan Coach of the Year in 2003. He is now researching a history of the early pro tennis wars, working mainly at U.S. Library of Congress. A tentative chapter, which appeared on Tennis Server, won a second-place award from U.S. Tennis Writers Association.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ray by using this form.


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