Writing a tennis column has always been an aspiration of mine, and I'm going to take advantage of the U.S. Open going on right now to reflect on the tournament and offer some perspectives.
Today's biggest story was definitely the Djokovic/Stepanek match on Armstrong. The Serb and the Czech slugged it out over 4 hours 44 minutes and the implications of Djokovic being able to pull this one out are immense. On the surface, having to play 5 monster sets this early in the tournament would seem to be a disadvantage in that it definitely takes some time to recover and the question always lingers whether or not a player can rebound fast enough, but for Djokovic, it definitely is going to do great things for his confidence moving through the draw. Look for Djokovic to take out the talented young Spaniard Juan Martin del Potro, and then meet up with the shotmaker Calleri who just pulled a major upset over Lleyton Hewitt in the 4th round. Djokovic shouldn't need more than 4 sets to pull off either of those matches, and he'll likely meet either Robredo or Moya in the quarters. So pencil him into the semis at least, which would equal his performance at the last two slams. One of the things that makes Djokovic such a success on all surfaces really, particularly on the fast grass and hardcourts is the way he hits his backhand. With the full rotation that most players have abandoned for an abbreviated stroke, he generates massive pace and depth and can send that ball skidding on the fast hard courts at Flushing Meadows. His forehand is conventional for the modern player, but he knows how to crack it and is really brilliant off both wings.
The other story of the day is Rafa Nadal's return to form. He played aggressively against Tipsarevic, who can be a tough customer at slams-just ask Fernando Gonzalez-and was in control all the way through. This wouldn't be significant if it wasn't for the circumstances surrounding Nadal's quest to prove he can win a major off of the dirt. The tendinitis that left him pretty unimpressive against Aussie wildcard Alun Jones seems not to be bothering him, and he was moving like one expects the Majorcan who has built his game around lightning footspeed to be. It was a relief to see the hooked passing shots on the dead run and the excellent serving that led Rafa to two Wimbledon finals on display, and he has a shot at going far-at least meeting Djokovic in the semifinals. Another great thing about Rafa is his personality. You could see genuine concern in his conversation with the retiring Tipsarevic, and this is something that is really great to see in such a competitive sport. A couple things about why Nadal is not able to consistently deliver on hard courts. The number one reason in my mind is the speed of the court. The hard courts at Flushing Meadows are faster than Wimbledon and are likely the fastest surface in the game-the USTA has a vested interest in making the surface as fast as possible for the likes of A-Rod and JB. Also, spin is an issue. On clay, Nadal's forehands just break the opponent down. It's like trying to return a brick with the amount of topspin he gets. On clay, when the ball hits, a groove is formed from which the ball kicks up, and the softness also contributes to higher bounce. On grass, the new all-rye surface used at the all-England club actually plays relatively slowly and allows fairly accurate bounce and spin. On a hard court, ball bounce and spin aren't really hindered by the court, generating them is. When an opponents ball skids through the court, it is much harder to get under it with a huge backswing and really raise the rpms. Last, and most important right now, is footing. Nadal is used to moving into shots, especially on clay, and he's also used to slippery surfaces. Hard courts give solid footing, but they aren't conducive to fluid movement, and sliding is very dangerous. Also, unlike Federer who glides above the court on his toes, Nadal pounds the court when he runs, delivering major stress to his joints. Despite all this working against him, Nadal should get to the semis. That said, Djokovic is going to be tough and expect a five-setter with no prediction from my end.
Federer v. Isner: Isner's got a bomb, but Federer is a master defuser. He will take a few games to read Isner's serve, and then get the returns in play and overwhelm the Georgian with a VASTLY superior ground game. Expect tight first set to Federer, and then gradually not so tight 2nd and 3rd
Roddick v. Johansson: Some big serving will go on, but Roddick will take care of business on Ashe in 3 likely tight sets. Johansson will have to wait until Davis Cup in Gothenburg to have a real chance. But this one does have the potential to unravel if Roddick doesn't stay sharp.
Blake easily over Koubek-he has the monkey off his back and he's poised for his best U.S. Open run.
Davydenko will KO Almagro.
F. Lo will show Donald Young what the tour is really like-Donald may get a set if he's lucky but Lopez is too high caliber a player to lose to an 18 year old fresh from the juniors.