First Serve: WNYC Previews the U.S. Open

Late summer in New York City means back to school sales, closing up the summer rental, new shows on Broadway, and the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows Park, the last Slam of the year on the pro tennis tour. 

WNYC's U.S. Open blog, "The Net Post," is here to help you track the top players, the underdogs, the upsets, and the storylines of the fortnight.  And there are some surprising ones developing already.

"All Things Considered" host and admitted tennis addict Amy Eddings, and writer and Brooklyn tennis pro Nate Chura, get the conversation started.  Feel free to join in.

AMY: Nate, with world No. 1 Serena Williams out of the way because of a mysterious injury to her foot, the women's half of the tournament is more intriguing. I don’t think defending champion Kim Clijsters is a lock to win again.  While the Belgian won titles in Cincinnati and Miami, she hurt her left thigh during a loss to Vera Zvonareva in the quarterfinals in Montreal just over a week ago.  We may not be seeing her trademark splits as a result. My favorite player, French Open finalist Samantha Stosur, would seem to have a strong chance.  But she’s also coming back from an injury, to her arm. When I saw her this week beating Sara Errani in three sets at the Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven, Conn., Stosur conceded she was playing her way back into match form.

Caroline Wozniacki, the runner-up at last year’s Open, is the No. 1 seed. She’s won three titles this year, including Montreal, and is the favorite to win in New Haven this weekend. However, the Dane could face the once-again-formidable Maria Sharapova in the fourth round. And with all her playing of late, will she have the energy left to beat her?

I like the looks of a final between Victoria Azarenka (winner at Stanford) and Vera Zvonereva (runner-up at Wimbledon and Montreal).

NATE: Azarenka sure is a player looking to break through to the next level, but I actually think Maria Sharapova could be the player to take advantage of this rare opportunity. She played great against Justine Henin (currently out due to injury) at the French Open and nearly squeaked an upset past Serena at Wimbledon. Right now, the timing’s right. The women’s game hasn’t been this wide open in a long time. I’m not sure it’s the same case on the men’s side.

Despite the fact Rafael Nadal’s the world No. 1, the Spaniard struggles this time of year on hard courts. Last week he admitted his backhand was in severe trouble and if his compatriots, Fernando Verdasco or David Ferrer, or worse, the Argentine fast-court specialist, David Nalbandian, bring their top games, it could be a tall order for El Numero Uno. And after witnessing Roger Federer dismantle American Mardy Fish in the finals of the Cincinnati Masters, I think the former world No. 1 is looking in fine form.

I chatted with TennisPlayer.Net creator/editor, John Yandell, who was filming Federer in Cincinnati. With respect to Federer’s game today compared to Federer of yore, Yandell opined, “Roger's game looks smoother and even more technically perfect.” Scary, if you ask me…

AMY:  I’ll tell you what’s scary: Fed’s five-set, first round cliffhanger against Alejandro Falla at Wimbledon. And, yeah, Federer gutted Fish in Cincy, but it took him three sets. And it’s only his second title this year, a letdown for Federer. The Greatest of All Time is beatable, especially by Robin Soderling, who could meet Federer in the quarterfinal. Soderling defeated Federer on his way to losing to Nadal in the final of the French Open. Nadal’s knees are healthy, he’s played only 19 matches so far (only Murray, at 18, has fewer among the top 10), and I think he’s due for his career Grand Slam.

NATE: Yeah, but you’re not including Roger’s X Factor, new coach, Paul Annacone, who helped the great Pete Sampras realize his potential during the twilight of his career. So, for those mourners of the bygone era of net rushing, cheer up and watch Federer in the coming weeks. He’s been tuning up his volley. But if anyone’s going to steal his thunder, I think it could be sleeper Marin Cilic. The 11th seeded giant might just prove to be a bad early-round match for Fed.

AMY: What do you think of Andy Murray? He beat both Federer and Nadal on his way to the title in Montreal. ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert has picked his former student to get his first Slam here. But Murray could meet up with Tomas Berdych in the quarters. The Czech is having a great year, reaching the semis at the French Open and the final at Wimbledon, where he lost to Nadal. I like the looks of a rematch at the U.S. Open.

NATE: I love Murray’s chance to go deep. He and Berdych or Nadal would be a great match. They certainly will be the favorites to watch in the top half of the draw, but there are a couple other spoilers to keep an eye on. Look out for young Americans Sam Querry and John Isner. No one’s really picking them to go far, but boy could they slay a giant or two if they get on a roll.

AMY: I don't know about Isner, Nate.  The 6'9" Isner , winner of the world’s longest match at Wimbledon, hurt his ankle in a match against the resurgent David Nalbandian in Cincinnati and retired. He later Tweeted, “need a miracle.” I don’t think he’s going to have a deep run in the Open as a result. You're right, though, to keep an eye on Sam Querrey. No. 22 in the world, Querrey defeated Murray to win the title in L.A; he also beat Isner and Fish for titles at Queen’s Club and Belgrade, respectively.  

The new and improved Fish will be a great story this year, like Taylor Dent’s thrilling return-from-back-surgery run last fall. The 28-year-old Fish is unrecognizable from years past. He's lost 30 pounds. He's more focused. He won in Atlanta, defeating his buddy, top American Andy Roddick, in the semis and Isner in the final. Fish's ranking jumped 15 places in one week, to No. 21. Maybe his confidence will take him past No. 16 seed Marcos Bagdahtis and No. 3 seed Novak Djokovich in his part of the draw.

NATE: Yeah, Fish is floating around, looking to be a tennis menace. I think his section of the draw is, by far, the one to watch. Funny how no one’s really talking about Novak Djokovic. 

AMY: That’s probably because of the breathing problems he seems to have during long court battles and hot and humid conditions. Bad news for Nole: Temperatures are supposed to be in the low to mid 90s for most of next week. Roddick thrashed him in the quarterfinals at Cincinnati; mentally and physically, Djokovic was not there. 

NATE:  Let’s end our chat with Andy Roddick. Earlier this month, he temporarily dropped out of the top 10, leaving the United States without a top 10 male player for the first time since computer rankings were introduced more than 37 years ago. He’s breaking hearts with his valiant attempts to prove he’s more than a one-Slam wonder, with his U.S. Open win in 2003. But he’s in that interesting and tough part of the draw I’ve been talking about, potentially facing the charismatic Frenchman Gael Monfils and No. 6 seed Nicolay Davydenko before meeting up with Djokovic, Fish or Baghdatis in the quarters. And then Fed awaits in the semis. Yikes.

I think we’re going to see some great tennis.  And as this year is the 40th anniversary of the use of tie-breakers at the U.S. Open, I’ll be rooting for some thrilling, fifth-set “breakers.”