Thursday, September 11, 2014

My review of the 2014 men's US Open and some thoughts on the future

The most memorable thing of this year's US Open was two first-time Grand Slam finalists with Marin Cilic winning his first Grand Slam title. This was the first time since the 2005 Australian Open when none of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, or Novak Djokovic made the final at a Grand Slam tournament. Unfortunately this wasn't otherwise a particularly interesting tournament, and despite an interesting match-up, the final was pretty one-sided.

In my preview, I pointed out a player who has been troubling the best players during this summer, yet hasn't achieved big success. He was Marin Cilic. After a five-setter against Gilles Simon on the round of 16, he was superb in the last three matches and is a deserving champion. It is always nice to see an offensive player succeeding instead of a player who rather waits for the opponent's errors. But there is a stain in Cilic's career. Last year he failed a drug test during the tournament in Munich. The substance was nikethamide which Cilic said was from incautious use of glucose tablets. As I am not an expert in doping, I cannot question the decision to reduce his ban to only four months because the use was said to be unintended and not to enhance performance. But how the ATP/ITF were hiding his doping case didn't give a good image of the transparency of their anti-doping work.

The runner-up Nishikori had a great tournament despite not winning the title. He beat three top 6 players on his way to the final. On the round of 16, he beat the World No. 6 Milos Raonic in five sets. In the quarterfinal, he beat the No. 4 Stan Wawrinka in five sets, and in the semifinal he beat the World No. 1 Novak Djokovic in four sets. Those long matches may account for his lame performance in the final, even though Cilic was so good that Nishikori would have had trouble even if he had been completely fresh.

It was a pity that the final was so one-sided, it was nice to have two fresh faces in the final. After the final, some people might have said to have actually preferred a final involving two of the big four. While I must say that I preferred the Djokovic-Federer final at Wimbledon, having two big names doesn't always guarantee a great final. From recent years, the 2013 Australian Open final Djokovic-Murray wasn't particularly exciting whereas Nishikori's first 500-level final in Tokyo in 2012 against another first-time 500 finalist Milos Raonic was one of the matches I enjoyed the most that year. I want to see fresh faces on the top of the tour. Nishikori was already in the Madrid Masters final but an injury cost him that match after being a set and a break up against Nadal. That injury forced him aside from the French Open, after having a great start to the clay season with a 500 title in Barcelona. If he could avoid injuries, he would have potential to be on the top of the tour. Cilic is yet to prove he can stay on the top of the tour. Low ranking and tough draws had made it difficult for him to make it to the late rounds in big events. Now with his improved ranking, he should be able to have deep runs more often and he definitely has the potential to win more big titles.

Novak Djokovic is the World No. 1 but he hasn't been playing his best tennis this summer after winning Wimbledon. It is hard to say what was wrong with him on North America's hard courts. He had just won Wimbledon so he should be in a good form but maybe getting married has taken some focus away from tennis. As his fan, I wouldn't be worried yet. He still has a great chance to finish this year as the World No. 1. And at this point of his career, his big goal should be to complete the Career Grand Slam at the French Open. He can still play great tennis and only Nadal has a better peak level on clay. It is hard for Novak to reach Nadal's peak level on clay but if he can avoid heavy decline longer than Nadal, he should have a great chance to win the French Open.

Roger Federer was the player with the best results in the pre-US Open Masters tournaments. But as I said in the preview, he isn't way above the field. I think his current peak level isn't anymore among the very best on the tour. Otherwise he is just another top 10 player but with his consistency he is No. 3 and being the most successful player of all time puts pressure on his opponents. This tournament with Djokovic not playing his best tennis, Nadal aside, and Andy Murray being hardly on top-10 level, was a great opportunity for Roger to win his 18th Grand Slam title but he wasn't just good enough. And maybe this was his last chance, at least outside Wimbledon. I can't see him anymore improving for the next season. On Wimbledon's grass he might still win a title if Djokovic has a bad tournament and Murray cannot anymore find his best level. And if Roger himself plays his best tennis. That may be too many ifs.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Stan Wawrinka were the players I expected to be the most dangerous title rivals for Federer and Djokovic. Tsonga was playing decently on the first three rounds but on the round of 16, he didn't have enough consistency against well-defending Andy Murray. Wawrinka was like he has been most of the season. Great at his best but sloppy at times. That was enough to make the quarterfinals but in the quarters he lost a tight five-setter to Nishikori. Wawrinka's season has been a bit disappointing after winning the Australian Open and the Monte Carlo Masters which made him the No. 1 in the Race to London. After Monte Carlo he is yet to win a title and has had some big disappointments like losing on the first round at the French Open. But with a Grand Slam and a Masters title, I don't consider his season as a disappointment. He has taken a step forward this season, now he can win big titles. He will most likely never dominate the tour but he can win any event he enters if he manages to play his best tennis. I wouldn't be surprised if he won some of the remaining Masters events this year or the World Tour Finals. Tsonga's season has also turned into a good one as he won his second Masters title in Toronto after a bad first half of the season. My expectations for him for the rest of the season are pretty similar to Wawrinka. If he had a great week, he could win some big event.

This season has been a breakthrough for Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov. They have made the top 10 and they both made their first Grand Slam semifinals at Wimbledon. The US Open was a decent performance by both. Neither of them can be happy with a round of 16 exit but they weren't really underperforming. Raonic took the eventual finalist Nishikori to five sets whereas Dimitrov lost to well-playing Gael Monfils.

Monfils was a positive surprise at the US Open. He was yet to drop a set after the second set of his quarterfinal match against Federer. Unfortunately he couldn't keep his level up to win the match but he lost it in five sets, after having match points in Federer's serve in the fourth set. He is such an interesting player that I would love him to succeed but he is already 28, so the time is running out for him to achieve something big. Still, this was his first season with two Grand Slam quarterfinals, so hopefully he can have some good results in the near future.

All in all, it was very nice to see fresh faces succeeding. Unfortunately there weren't particularly memorable matches. Nishikori beating unusually bad Djokovic or Cilic beating 33-year-old Federer isn't as impressive as Robin Söderling beating Nadal at Roland Garros or Wawrinka beating Djokovic at the Australian Open, beating players at a tournament that they have dominated in the previous years. But it is nice that each slam had a different champion this year, not only on men's but also on women's side. And it is also nice that this is the first season since 2003 with two new Grand Slam champions.

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