Last year’s US Open produced a truly unique tennis moment. A single shot that defined a match, a tournament and possibly even an entire season. In a sport rarely judged by singular moments of brilliance, Novak Djokovic’s mind-blowing forehand return winner at match-point down to Roger Federer might be a completely unparalleled event.
The shot, the charismatic celebration and the subsequently inevitable victory was the eye of Djokovic’s 2011 perfect storm. His remorseless completion of the greatest season in tennis history (don’t bother arguing, McEnroe and Federer) against Rafa Nadal in the final may not linger in the memory; but Djokovic’s forehand will live in tennis immortality.
After the match Federer was pilloried for his rather ungracious remarks: “For me, this is very hard to understand. How can you play a shot like that on match point?” yet he might well have had a point. The last-roll-of-the-dice nature of Djokovic’s forehand symbolised a different, imperceptibly more fleeting, type of success to that achieved by Federer and Nadal. A great player? Certainly. One of the greats? Possibly not yet. (And I argue that with sadness, as Djokovic always appears the most likeable, humble and fullest of heart among the Big Three.)
So, twelve months later, to this year’s instalment of the biggest, brashest show in tennis. The dynamics of the top 3 have changed dramatically throughout the course of 2012: Djokovic’s level – understandably so – has begun to drop noticeably over the summer; while Federer has ascended back to the summit of the game; and Nadal misses the tournament with a knee injury.
The dream final for the neutral observer is probably a sixth consecutive meeting between Federer and Djokovic at Flushing Meadows (4 previous Semi-Finals and 1 final). However, this may just be the tournament where the balance of power in the men’s game ultimately begins to shift from the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic hegemony that has existed in some form or another since 2005.
Olympic champion Andy Murray, crowd-favourite Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Spanish roadrunner David Ferrer will all come into New York in possession of varying levels of confidence that this is their time. And, perhaps most dangerously of all, lurks the only other man who has won a Grand Slam in the trinity’s era.
After a decade of observing tennis, I remain convinced that no-one has ever struck the ball with more ferocity than Juan Martin Del Potro did during the final two sets of his 2009 US Open final victory over Federer. Despite a nervous start that night, his consistently flat, howitzer-like forehand completely eviscerated Federer towards the end of the match. A genuine contender was born. Or was; until a wrist injury befell the monstrous Argentine.
Finally, three years on, Del Potro has regained close to his best form this summer; hammering those lethal groundstrokes with the force of old and serving imperiously. If he can overcome yet more niggling ailments (wrist and knee, currently) then Del Potro is a serious contender to take down Djokovic in the Quarter-Finals, and potentially make a run at the title.
Similarly, Murray – the greatest player ever, never to have won a major – will surely believe that this is his best chance to win a Grand Slam. Following a remarkable destruction of Federer in the Olympic final, and finally in possession of a consistent forehand, and additional – if not yet abundant –composure; this will be as good a chance as Murray ever has to win a Grand Slam.
Federer bt. Berdych (Federer in 3); Murray bt. Tsonga (Murray in 4); Ferrer bt. Isner (Ferrer in 5); Del Potro bt. Djokovic (Del Potro in 5).
Murray bt. Federer (Murray in 4); Del Potro bt. Ferrer (Del Potro in 3).
Murray bt. Del Potro (Murray in 4).
I’d expect the top half of the draw to proceed according to seeding. If Murray can negotiate the Lopez/Raonic/Tsonga minefield – as I believe he will – then a Semi-Final against Federer will surely be the outcome. The combination of Murray’s clinically accurate backhand and increasingly formidable serve, allied to playing on his favourite surface, should be enough to throttle Federer over 5 sets.
The other half of the draw is wide open. As detailed above, I think Del Potro – injury permitting – is ready to advance to a Grand Slam final again. A potential Quarter-Final with Djokovic is a salivating prospect. David Ferrer should come through the weakest quarter of the draw, although John Isner, Richard Gasquet and Tommy Haas could also have legitimate chances to make the Semi-finals. Once there, any of the four will lose to Del Potro. Or Djokovic. Take your pick.
My predicted final – Murray v Del Potro – would be a rematch of the 2008 Quarter Final, one of the most brutal tennis matches I can remember witnessing (Murray eventually triumphing 7-6 7-6 4-6 7-5 after almost 4 hours of suffocating tennis). The power and accuracy on display from both participants was quite remarkable that day and would be just as fitting a climax to this tournament as Federer Djokovic VI.