Rafa Rides Right To The Finals

FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – The ball sped off the strings so fast for a moment it appeared the force of the swing could send a vibration dampener spinning around the string bed like a particularly lively super ball bounding around a roulette wheel. Rafael Nadal watched his final serve land safely and exploded into the air like a man propelled from his own personal launching pad. He landed in his first career US Open final after wrapping up a 6-2, 6-3, 6-4 triumph over Mikhail Youzhny in today’s semifinal.

The semifinal had served as a stop sign for Nadal in each of the past two years — he fell to Andy Murray in a rain-interrupted 2008 semifinal and was blown off the court by big-hitting Argentine Juan Martin del Potro in last September’s semis — but the top-seeded Spaniard played with authoritative ambition in surging to his 20th consecutive Grand Slam victory today.

“For me, it is a dream I am going to play the final here in the biggest center court of the world,” Nadal said. “I try my best so after a lot of work so I am very happy for that.”

Playing progressively stronger with each passing round, Nadal has kicked his game into a higher gear like a sprinter downshifting into speedier strides with the tape in sight as he is now one win removed from becoming the seventh man in history to complete the career Grand Slam.

Continuing his quest to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open in succession, Nadal has not surrendered a set in six tournament victories and now the world watches and waits for a potential electrifying encounter in tomorrow’s final.

If five-time champion Roger Federer defeats Novak Djokovic for the fourth consecutive time at the Open in today’s second semifinal then the archrivals will face off in their first Flushing Meadows final. It would be their 18th meeting in a championship match, second to Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe, who met in 20 finals.

Nadal and Federer have split the spoils at the Grand Slam table in combining to claim 21 of the last 24 major championships.

It would be a historic match-up marking the first time in history two men squared off in all four Grand Slam tournament finals. A Federer-Nadal final would be their eighth Grand Slam title match, setting the record for most major meetings (they currently share the record of seven major final face-offs with Bill Tilden and William Johnston, who met in seven straight US Championships from 1919-1925.).

Seeking to become the first Russian man to reach a major final since Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open and the second Russian finalist in Flushing Meadow after Safin, who stunned Pete Sampras to capture the title a decade ago, Youzhny need to play big and bold, but instead looked tired and timid for long stretches of the match.

Youzhny punctuated a few of his errant shots by tapping his adidas with the rim of racquet as if trying to shake some sense into his shot selection through flogging his feet.

“Maybe he was a little bit more tired than me; he played a longer match during the week,” Nadal said.

Depleted by his 3-6, 7-6(7-), 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory over 25th-seeded Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka that spanned exactly four hours, a spent Youzhny looked like a man fully aware he had little left in his inner reservoir. The clarity Youzhny showed in his shot selection against Wawrinka was missing at times today. Nadal’s fast feet and ability to track down balls that elude most mortals caused Youzhny to think before he struck at times and he conceded that the mind-body connection was a bit out of sync.

“I cannot say I’m really tired, but yeah, (I) was not fast enough today,” Youzhny said. “My decision was not really fast. I mean, I (was) moving well, but my head was one step back of my hand and my legs. So that’s why I was thinking too long where I have to play. That’s why some mistakes and that’s why made the score like this one.”

Nadal has a habit of infiltrating opponent’s heads with his anticipation, unerring consistency and court coverage that seems to squeeze the court to the size of a parking space.

“He’s consistent. He play really high level all year,” Youzhny said of Nadal. “Not everybody can play like this. Some players play really well maybe three tournaments and four, five tournaments play not so well. Even top players. But Federer and Nadal I think (are) more consistent players. His level is a little bit higher than all other players.”

Read more of Rich Pagliaro at TennisNow.com.

US Open Womens Preview

(August 28, 2010) Caroline Wozniacki huddled up with a group of formidable supporters in New Haven last week as the Yale football team, who forged a bond with the bubbly blond Dane after she visited one of their practices last season, surrounded her on court following her victory at the Pilot Pen.

Wozniacki enters the US Open seeded first for the first time in a major and while tennis is not a contact sport, the US Open runner-up faces a collision course of a quarter featuring former champions Maria Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova as well as a slew of hard hitters capable of deterring her drive to a second straight Open final.

Defending champion Kim Clijsters was reunited with the shiny silver US Open trophy as she pulled green chips signifying the seeds during the US Open draw ceremony conducted inside the main interview room at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

While Clijsters has a strong shot to return to at least the semifinals for her fourth consecutive time, the congested top quarter is packed with a trio of potential finalists in Wozniacki, the 11th-seeded Kuznetsova and 14th-seeded Sharapova as well as Australian Open semifinalist Na Li, the No. 8 seed, hard hitting French woman Aravane Rezai, who beat Justine Henin and Venus Williams en route to the Madrid title in May, 23rd-seeded Maria Kirilenko, who upset Sharapova at the Australian Open and beat Kuznetsova in Rome, and lefthander Lucie Safarova, who has a history of first-round flame-outs in New York, but can be dangerous when her forehand is firing.

The absence of 13-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams and Australian Open finalist Justine Henin creates an immense opportunity for several players in a field that features a quartet of former champions in Clijsters, Venus Williams, Sharapova and Kuznetsova.

“The women’s side is obviously, because Serena is gone and Henin is out, wildly open,” CBS and ESPN analyst John McEnroe said. “It seems like Wozniacki is starting to find some of her form again, but obviously this is one that is open for the taking. Kim has positioned herself well, I think, in terms of what she needs to do to defend her title. Venus is obviously winging it, but if there is ever time for the draw to be open for her with players that have not played up to their recent form, if she was ever going to win anything again this would be the time if she’s healthy.”

Here’s a quarter by quarter preview of the draw.

Top Quarter

The second-ranked Wozniacki could surpass Serena Williams, who withdrew with a foot injury, for the World No. 1 ranking if she wins the Open, but a brutal draw makes that prospect look about as promising as Wozniacki playing liquid hop scotch atop the dancing water fountains outside Arthur Ashe Stadium. Wozniacki opens with American wild card Chelsey Gullickson and could face Safarova in the third round.

Three-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova has the potentially toughest test of any woman in the quarter opening against Jarmila Groth, a big server who can hammer her forehand with authority and thirves off the type of pace Sharapova brings. Still, given the fact Sharapova reached successive finals in Stanford and Cincinnati and will be pumped and primed to erase the memories of her third round loss to American spitfire Melanie Oudin last year as well as her first-round debacle in Melbourne last January, look for a supremely-focused Sharapova to take Wozniacki out in the fourth round.

Though she hasn’t won a tournament title since Strasbourg on clay in May, Sharapova has restored some of her swagger with successive finals though her serve can still be skittish.

“I absolutely do think (Sharapova has a shot). I think she’s pretty confident looking,” McEnroe said. “I was at a Nike event with her and she was pretty cocky about the dresses (she will wear at the US Open). She had this smug, confident feeling about not only the dresses. I think she’s due for some good luck. She’s had some pretty tough draws and I think she’s poised actually. She does have Wozniacki pretty early in the draw.  I think she’s put herself in position (to contend).  She’s certainly one of the top four choices.”

Kuznetsova, who recalls Marat Safin as arguably the most talented head case in the game, is a woman to watch in this quarter. She opens against 39-year-old Kimiko Date Krumm, who toppled former No. 1 Dinara Safina in the French Open first round. Kuznetsova, the 2004 US Open champion, brings a unique fear factor to New York: she deconstruct the game of any woman in this field or completely detonate herself in self-doubt and frustration. the scary thing is Kuznetsova herself rarely seems to know what type of tennis or attitude she brings to the event until it actually starts.

If Kuznetsova can keep her head together and prevent her rabid emotions from cannibalizing her game, she should beat Li and create a blockbuster all-Russian quarterfinal with Sharapova in what would be a rematch of the Cincinnati first round. Sharapova won that match as a weary Kuznetsova, coming off a win over Agnieszka Radwanska in the Cincinnati first round, faded in the third set. But Kuznetsova has a better and more reliable serve, she’s a better mover and has more variety in her game though Sharapova is a better pressure player.

The winner of the Sharapova-Kuznetsova match should go on to reach the final from the top half of the draw.

Quarterfinal Conclusion: (11) Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. (14) Maria Sharapova

Second Quarter

Hobbled by a creaky ankle and haunted by the timid tennis she played in losing to Samantha Stosur in the French open semifinals, Jelena Jankovic’s game and confidence has been in shambles since Wimbledon. Can the 2008 finalist turn it around in New York?

Jankovic has a kind draw, opening with Simona Halep in the first round followed by a second-round match with Alicia Molik or a qualifier. Yanina Wickmayer, carrying the burden of defending her 2009 semifinal points, looms as a potential fourth-round opponent for the speedy Serbian.

If Jankovic, who seems to create more drama than a soap opera, can work her way through the first week she should get to a quarterfinal against either Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva or the ninth-seeded Radwanska. Jankovic must be willing to play more aggressive and be patient when pulling the trigger on her best shot, the backhand down the line, which she sometimes over plays.

Radwanska is often overlooked because she is not a hard-hitter who lights up the radar gun. In fact, she’s prone to hitting some sub-75 mph second serves that wouldn’t burst a balloon, but she has soft hands, shrewd court sense and is a stubborn competitor who knocked defending champion Sharapova out of the 2007 US Open. She has the ability to reach the semifinals if she can adapt to the court speed and find a way to diffuse the bigger hitters.

Similarly, Zvonareva, who blew six match points in an emotional implosion to Flavia Pennetta at the Open last year, can beat anyone in this quarter or beat up herself in the process. The image of a tearful Zvonareva tearing the tape off her leg and slapping her thigh in frustration during the 2009 Open remains one of the most unsettling moments of the tournaments as she unraveled before the eyes of 23,000 spectators.

Still, Zvonareva, like Kuznetsova in the top quarter of the draw, showed the type of tennis she can play in reaching the Wimbledon final in both singles and doubles. Zvonareva can go deep here if she doesn’t blow up in a temperamental tirade.

Quarterfinal Conclusion: (4) Jelena Jankovic vs. (7) Vera Zvonareva or (9) Agnieszka Radwanska.

Third Quarter

The good news for Venus Williams is she has a soft draw, the bad news is it’s a hard road to reach a Grand Slam semifinal when you haven’t played a match in more than two months, own a temperamental forehand that can go from as fierce as a flame thrower to as sketchy as a leaky water pistol, and are staring down a possible third-round match against the woman who beat you at Wimbledon and the Australian Open.

Third-seeded Venus opens against Italian Robert Vinci and could face her major nemesis, 32nd-seeded Tsvetana Pironkova, in the third round in a rematch of the Wimbledon quarterfinals that saw Pironkova sweep the five-time Wimbledon winner in straight sets.

If Williams can get to the second week she could square off with the dangerous Italian Pennetta, who has reached consecutive quarterfinals in New York. Pennetta pushed Serena Williams in a tight test in the ’09 quarters and has beaten Venus at the French Open in the past.

Look for Venus or Pennetta to play Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals. The 10th-seeded Belarusian retired from the Montreal semifinals on Monday with a blister, but says she will be ready for the Open. Azarenka owns the fast, flat strokes that play well on the Deco Turf. Though she’s never been beyond the fourth round in four career appearances at the Open, Azarenka beat Sharapova in the Stanford final, beat Serena to win Miami last year, and has the game to reach the semifinals. Does she have the nerve?

We’ll find out.

Quarterfinal Conclusion: (10) Victoria Azarenka vs. (3) Venus Williams or (19) Flavia Pennetta

Fourth Quarter

A simple rubber band rather than the familiar Fila visor kept Clijsters’ halo of hair from falling onto her face as the reigning US Open champion arrived at Arthur Ashe Stadium already on the move. Only this time, Clijsters wasn’t skidding into the sliding splits she’s performed beneath the bright lights of the blue stadium court in winning the Flushing Meadows major in each of her last two appearances.

It was the mad dash from the interview room, site of today’s US Open draw ceremony,  to ESPN’s outdoor set across from the practice courts, during a commecial break that kept tennis’ top working mom in motion.

Even when she’s not playing matches, Clijsters always seems to be going places.

The demands of defending the Open are greater than the seven matches required to win the season’s final Grand Slam. To master the season’s final major you must embrace the experience that is New York, navigate the hustle, bustle and muscle of a city that seems to operate at the manic pace of an overcafenated bicycle messenger zipping through traffic.

The question is can Clijsters, who made a memorable, magical run to her second US Open
title as a long shot wild card last year, bear the burden that comes from being a
favorite this time around?

It’s been a bit of an up and down season, but Clijsters says she will start the Open in sound shape mentally and physically despite suffering a hip strain in Montreal last week.

“I know if I play good tennis I can beat anyone out there,” she said.

The second-seeded Belgian opens against Greta Arn and could be looking at a fourth-
round meeting with either 21st-seeded Jie Zheng or former World No. Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round. Neither Zheng nor Ivanovic have played their best tennis in New York. Zheng, who opened the season reaching the Australian Open semifinals, has never been beyong the third round in five appearances in New York. Ivanovic, who retired from the Cincinnati semifinals against Clijsters after sustaining a foot injury, bottomed out of the Open in a first-round loss to Kateryna Bondarenko last year after suffering a shocking second-round setback to 188th-ranked qualifier Julie Coin as the top seed in 2008.

Typically, Clijsters has not always played her best tennis when she’s a favorite. This year could be different. Why?

Because without Serena in the field, Clijsters is the best hard-court player in the sport, she is riding a 14-match winning streak in New York, she is comfortable with the city and spends several weeks every summer with husband Brian Lynch, a New Jersey native and daughter Jada in the couple’s Jersey home, she likes the speed of the court and enjoys as much fan support as any non-American in the field.

Clijsters could be looking at a fourth-round match with Marion Bartoli and a potential quarterfinal with 2004 finalist Elena Dementieva, arguably the best woman yet to master a major.

Quarterfinal conclusion: (2) Kim Clijsters vs. (12) Elena Dementieva

See more of Rich’s work at TennisNow.com, where this article first originated.