By Michelle Kaufman, The Miami Herald –
Just when it seemed Roger Federer’s star was fading after slipping to No. 3, the Swiss maestro and 31-year-old father of two goes and wins Wimbledon, regains the No. 1 ranking, makes the Olympic final and is the slight favorite heading into the U.S. Open, which begins Monday in Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
With Rafael Nadal out of the picture — he withdrew with knee tendinitis — chances are Federer or Novak Djokovic will win the final major of a season that has seemed extra long because of the Summer Olympics . One of the top three players has won every major but one the past seven and a half years, although this could be the year an outsider makes a serious threat.
Djokovic has the easier draw, with No. 4 David Ferrer as his potential semifinal opponent, but Federer played some of his best tennis this summer and is eager to keep the top ranking until season’s end.
To win, Federer might have to face Andy Murray for the third time this summer. They are on the same side of the draw and could meet in the semifinal. Federer beat Murray for his seventh Wimbledon title in July, and a month later, on the same Centre Court grass, Murray beat Federer for the Olympic gold medal.
“I think a lot of people did write Roger off because the incredible year that Djokovic had last year was phenomenal, and Nadal was looking sharp and he was looking like he was going to play seven to 10 more years,” ESPN analyst Chris Evert said. “Those two players looked a lot stronger. And Roger almost looked a little bit frail in comparison, because, you know, just the training that they had done and how fit they were.
“But Roger surprised us all. I don’t know, he’s gotten his second wind in his career. . . . Certainly the last few months, he played the most beautiful tennis that we have seen in a long time. And the fact that at the end of the year, he’s still playing so well, is remarkable, because this year has been, as we all know, such a long year.”
Federer has also benefited from Nadal’s aching knees, avoiding him at Wimbledon and the Olympics.
“I thought Roger would win another major, but didn’t think he’d get back to No. 1, so he proved a lot of us wrong,” CBS and ESPN analyst John McEnroe said. “There definitely has been a little shift. Federer is playing better, but part of it is luck and matchups, too. Federer prefers the Djokovic matchup to Nadal, and Djokovic prefers Nadal to Federer.”
It also seems that Federer is playing with less pressure than Djokovic because few expected him to be No. 1 heading into the final major of the year. He had not won a major in two and a half years before winning Wimbledon.
“Roger is playing with house money right now,” ESPN commentator Patrick McEnroe said. “He got the monkey off his back winning another major. When he plays with that freedom and abandon, he’s the most talented player I’ve ever seen.”
One factor that could wind up being critical is which player best handles rain delays and potential back-to-back tough matches if weather forces backlogs.
Brad Gilbert, who also will be in the booth for ESPN, said Federer’s fitness and calendar management are the reasons for his longevity.
“I think he’s the youngest 31-year-old ever, and I think he can take a lot of stock in what Andre (Agassi) did (for) about six or seven years, seeing somebody that he can remember that played great until he was 35,” Gilbert said. “He takes amazing, good care of his body, and he never gets injured. He has not missed a major in numerous years . . . and he paces himself unbelievable on the schedule. Doesn’t overplay and seems to know when to take breaks.
“The thing that amazes me more than anything, he never looks stressed on the court. He barely even sweats. He’s younger at 31 than Nadal is at 26. Nadal seems older at his age than Fed does for his age.”
If Federer or Djokovic doesn’t win, Murray is the next safest bet. His Olympic victory, although not a major, was certainly a major confidence boost. Others to watch include former U.S. Open winner Juan Martin del Potro, Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner and Milos Raonic.
On the women’s side, Serena Williams is the heavy favorite after a summer that included a 19-match win streak, Wimbledon title and Olympic gold medals in singles and doubles. She already made headlines in New York this week with the skin-tight, low-cut red dress she wore on the Late Show with David Letterman . The diamond ring was also an eye-catcher.
Williams has a fairly easy draw, with Maria Kirilenko and Caroline Wozniacki before a potential semifinal against Angelique Kerber of Germany, who beat her a few weeks ago in Cincinnati. The other side could feature a shriek-fest between Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.
A different woman has won the past seven Grand Slam titles, so nothing is certain. But Williams is the player to beat.
Said CBS announcer Mary Carillo: “She has an uncomplicated superiority when she’s fit and focused. We saw that at Wimbledon this year, during Olympics, most remarkable brand of tennis I’ve seen her play and she’s past 30.”
Said Evert: “I think Serena has proved that when she’s motivated and healthy and playing well, she’s the player to beat . If you put Sharapova at her best against Serena at her best playing for a title, Serena is going to win.
“Serena will have to work harder at the U.S. Open than she did at Wimbledon. She had a lot of free points at Wimbledon and the Olympics because it was on grass and shots didn’t come back, and she dictated every point. This is going to be a different story. She’s going to have to run down a lot more balls and get a lot more balls back, be more consistent and probably be even in better shape.
“So therein the question lies: Can she do it? Of course she can. But will she do it? I’m not sure. I’m not 100 percent sure.”
2012 U.S. Open
When: Monday-Sept. 9.
Where: Flushing Meadows, N.Y.
Surface: Hard court.
Defending champions: Novak Djokovic, Samantha Stosur.
TV: ESPN and CBS.
MEN TO WATCH
Roger Federer: He won Wimbledon, regained the No. 1 ranking, reached the Olympic final and rolled over Novak Djokovic in the Cincinnati final last Sunday. The 31-year-old Swiss is rejuvenated, and that is bad news for the other men in the draw.
Novak Djokovic: The Serb, coming off a phenomenal 2011, opened 2012 with an Australian Open title. But he has slipped some in recent months. Still, he’s the defending champ and the No. 1 ranking is on the line.
Andy Murray: The Wimbledon loss to Federer was devastating, but the Olympic gold-medal win over Federer a month later was exhilarating. Murray has that win fresh on his mind, but he’d likely have to beat the Swiss and Djokovic — a tough task.
Juan Martin del Potro: He’s the only man outside the Big Three to win a major over the past seven and a half years. The tall Argentine stunned Federer for the 2009 U.S. Open title. Can he do it again?
David Ferrer: With Rafael Nadal home nursing sore knees, another Spaniard could make a deep run. But does Ferrer have enough game to last two weeks?
Others who could go deep: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, John Isner, Janko Tipsarevic.
WOMEN TO WATCH
Serena Williams: Nobody had a better summer — Wimbledon title, 19-match win streak, Olympic golds in singles and doubles. Yes, she hit a speedbump at Cincinnati, losing to Angelique Kerber, but that was most likely because of fatigue. When Williams is on, nobody can beat her.
Maria Sharapova: She won the French Open, completing her career Grand Slam, and has won the U.S. Open before. But she was crushed by Williams a few weeks ago in the Olympic final.
Victoria Azarenka: She started off the year strong with an Australian Open title but has fizzled. She withdrew from events in Montreal and Cincinnati, so hasn’t had much hard-court training.
Agnieszka Radwanska: Expectations grew after the crafty Pole reached the Wimbledon final, but she lost in the first round at the Olympics and has been hampered by injuries.
Li Na: She beat upstart Kerber in the Cincinnati final. When she’s on her game, she can give anyone trouble.
Others who could go deep: Petra Kvitova, Samantha Stosur, Kerber.