Before It All Begins
August 28, 2011 -- Weeks before the earthquake wobbled the east coast and Hurricane Irene swirled her way toward New York City, expectations had gelled, at least on the men's side. For the first time in three years, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer wouldn't be the top picks to win the 2011 U. S. Open. All eyes had settled on Novak Djokovic.
For the women, the singles draw is wide open. No news there. The state of their game has been in flux, searching and yearning for that one-two dominant punch of players that would ignite fans and the game at the top. Gone are the rivalries of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova; Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, and most recently the unwanted rivalry between the sisters Serena and Venus Williams.
Serena Williams foot injury sidelined her for close to a year; and, Venus Williams groin injury plus a recent virus removed her from the public eye beginning in Melbourne, Australia. Of course both will fight through the draw, beginning on Monday. However, Venus isn't seeded and Serena is seeded 28. Both could disrupt their sections of the draw, before the second week.
The absence of the two American powerhouses plus Kim Clijsters' injury-prone career of late, has kept the gate wide open for Caroline Wozniacki to remain on top. She has entered and won a slew of tournaments -- she has 17 career titles -- but shows no determination or plan that would allow her to concentrate on winning a major.
Wozniacki arrives at the Open on the tail of her fourth consecutive title in New Haven, a record first set by Venus Williams during the years, 1998-2002. However all the joy of that victory cannot erase the Dane's dismal results from the summer's hard-court season. She lost to Roberta Vinci in her first round at Rogers Cup, as the defending title holder. And she lost in her first round in Cincinnati to American upstart Christina McHale, who was ranked #67 at the time. Wozniacki looked listless and incapable of rising to the occasions. She didn't seem to have a second plan, revealing what many already suspected -- she didn't have one. McHale wracked up her biggest win by mirroring her opponent's game: consistency. Make your opponent hit one more shot.
Some of the unease on court could stem from her father/coach Piotr, and that relationship. She has never worked one-on-one with anyone but her father since turning pro at 15.
The pea under the Wozniacki family mattress teeters on one contentious issue -- Caroline holds the top spot but has no Grand Slams to her credit. The media has insinuated and outright blamed Piotr for Caroline's defensive court position, too, adding that she cannot seriously consider herself the champion of champions on the WTA tour without winning a major. Caroline and her father have butted heads with the press on these matters, repeatedly saying she is not a robot; she can't win everything, all the while continuing to schedule tournaments upon tournaments.
Therefore Caroline and Piotr have admitted that a new coach is in the pipeline, according to tennisworld.com. "It was more of Piotr's decision to bring in a new voice, as he was upset by criticism that she had been playing too defensively."
The as-yet named coach will remain in the background. He will "implement his ideas on the practice court and in her matches," Piotr was quoted as saying in the same article.
In addition to a roller coaster ride with dad, Caroline began dating Rory McIlroy months ago, the new golf icon and winner of U. S. Open. Thank goodness that relationship is out in the open. At least the Caroline camp doesn't have to hide that part of her life anymore. Young love can certainly quash career motivation; however, the two admit that talking about their careers and how to handle the entire basket of troubles and triumphs it precipitates is more on their minds.
Novak Djokovic, like Caroline Wozniacki, has a target on his back as the number one seed. The Serbian's chances of winning his third major of the year probably are as high as they'll ever be in his career. His presence on any surface speaks volumes. He is not feared, as no professional tennis player would ever admit to that emotion. However, his game is a solid package only two have penetrated: Roger Federer and Andy Murray, leaving Djokovic with a 57 and 2 record.
But let's be realistic here. Roger Federer genuinely halted Djokovic's streak in Paris during the semifinals, disrupting what could have been his first French Open title and the possibility of a true Grand Slam -- winning all four in a calendar year. Andy Murray won the Cincinnati Masters, but Djokovic retired in the second set down 0-3. His shoulder, which he said had been bothering him for 10 days, made it impossible for him to continue the match. Had he waited another second or two before closing up shop, the impending rain storm could have allowed a locker room break, where Coach Marian Vajda might have convinced him to continue. But Djokovic's mind was made up. He was convinced he could not go on; he would ruin his chances at the Open.
In his press conference he rhetorically asked the press, why should I continue ... I can't beat him with one shot, meaning his right arm was kaput and the title and fans didn't hold much value or interest. His comment and action left the press with questions about his true character and commitment to the game. It left fans dispirited. Where was their hero, the one who so boldly danced through the early spring and summer? Hadn't he just taken a five week rest before Montreal?
Karen Crouse of The New York Times recently delved into Djokovic's retirement in Cincinnati, plus his entourage's plans to up the Serb's likability and image in America. (He's all that in Europe for sure.) Crouse's story embellished little on Novak's near-term tournament plans, but did shine a light on his dream of becoming an actor. Maybe the drama displayed during his less-than-perfect finish in Cincinnati was a rehearsal for his future life on stage. It was his fifth retirement in a match.
Ambiguities rest on both the WTA and ATP sides of the net for the upcoming two weeks. Maria Sharapova broke through in Cincinnati, although she committed 60 unforced errors. Jelena Jankovic, the runner up, could tone down her drama, concentrate on her job and do well. Samantha Stosur lost to Serena in Toronto, but the Aussie's form is in the right spot. The two seed, Vera Zvonareva, flies under radar everywhere she goes, but remains a threat. Victoria Azarenka proved to the world at Wimbledon she could go beyond the quarterfinal at a major, making her power-packed game a considerable force. And Li Na, the French Open champion, should pull herself center and fight like a champ.
Outside these commonly mentioned names is a group ripe to rock the draw: Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion; Andrea Petkovic; Sabine Lisicki; and Agnieszka Radwanska. With the ever-present outlier due to poke her head through the crowd, this U. S. Open could begin to shape a sturdier totem pole for women's tennis and its fans.
If all the injured men sooth their aches and pains before play begins Monday -- which the USTA plans to do -- the back stage possibilities are Mardy Fish, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga, Gael Monfils, David Ferrer, Robin Soderling, and Tomas Berdych.