The People’s Choices (US Open Final Four Preview)

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September 5, 2014 by Parveer Mann

As the 2014 US Open marches toward the end, many will ultimately judge this event on the actions of a select few. The chance to see a legend join Evert and Navratilova in tennis immortality or the opportunity to witness one of tennis’ favourite stars win her inaugural slam. It is the possibility of seeing an affable Serb win another slam in the most important summer of his life.  But the one that would leave the most buzzing is relishing in the game’s most dignified hero once again raising his arms in victory. The fortunate part is the rest of us will be able to revel in any of these stories or champions that emerge over this final weekend.

Women’s Draw

(10) Caroline Wozniacki vs. Shuai Peng

For Caroline Wozniacki, the US Open and New York has always been a special place. It is the site of her best Grand Slam finishes (finals in 2009, SFs in 2010 and 2011) and they always have seemed to reward her by putting her on one of the show courts despite her fallen ranking these past two years. However, Caro has deserved that spotlight this year with spectacular play and convincing victories over Andrea Petkovic, Maria Sharapova and Sara Errani en route to her fourth semifinal. Many have noted the slight tweaks in her game: a bigger, flatter serve and inching closer to the baseline during rallies. These changes have made her more comfortable matching the power of stronger players and created more winners off her racquet.

Conversely, Peng Shuai is only getting her first real taste of what success in New York means. The 28 year old veteran has won a lot of matches in her career (over 300) but has never experienced the demands and attention given at the last weekend of a slam. However, she’ll try to draw upon her experience these two weeks when she has used clinical efficiency to handle all her opponents including Aga Radwanska.

These two last played in Cincinnati and New Haven last summer with Wozniacki easily winning in Cincy and by retirement in New Haven after Peng won the first set. Overall, the head to head record favours Caroline 5-1 and I expect that will continue. Prediction: Wozniacki in 2 sets

(1) Serena Williams vs. (17) Ekaterina Makarova

After the unexpected poor results in this year’s slams, Serena Williams will finally play in her first Grand Slam semifinal of the year on Friday. It has been very encouraging to see Serena rebound this summer after a Wimbledon to forget. She made the conscientious effort to play a lot of warmup events/matches and so far, it has paid off in New York. The weapons are still there but it also seems the confidence that had slipped earlier has slowly been built back up.

Someone who is certainly not lacking confidence these days is Serena’s opponent, Ekaterina Makarova. Already in the doubles final, Makarova is enjoying her best result in a Grand Slam and has done it without losing a set. Against Victoria Azarenka and Genie Bouchard, she was able employ quality first strike tennis and neutralized two of the more aggressive hitters on tour by forcing mistakes. She’ll have to find a way to do the same against Serena as she certainly doesn’t have the shots to outhit her.

Serena leads the head to head 3-1 with Makarova’s only win coming at the 2012 Australian Open. I believe it’ll be incredibly difficult for Makarova to get Serena out of a rhythm and subsequently should offer little opposition. Prediction: Williams in 2 sets

Men’s Draw

(1) Novak Djokovic vs. (10) Kei Nishikori

The forgotten member of the ‘Next Three’ (with Raonic and Dimitrov) this summer, Kei Nishikori has played some inspiring tennis these two weeks in New York. After missing Toronto and Cincinnati with a foot injury, Nishikori had little to no expectations coming into the US Open and he openly questioned if he would get through the first couple of matches. Not only has he done that, he comes into this semifinal after playing two of the most thrilling and lengthy matches of the entire tournament. I was probably most impressed with how he seemed to get better in the latter sets against both Raonic and Wawrinka when he could have easily gone away quietly.

His opponent on Saturday knows a thing or two about getting better in final sets of a match. After two grueling sets against Andy Murray in their quarterfinal clash, Novak Djokovic seemingly turned it up a notch and wore down the Scot. It was a level obviously better than anything he showed during the summer and closer to the form many expect from the world number one. However, I still feel his serve left something to be desired in the Murray match and against another good returner like Nishikori, it may be the shot he most needs to improve.

Both men were supposed to meet in Miami this year before Kei pulled out so we haven’t seen them play each other since 2011. Ultimately, my decision comes down to Novak’s fitness and all-around game being superior to Kei’s and without that advantage; I feel Kei lacks any other ingredient to beat Novak at this stage. Prediction: Djokovic in 3 sets

(2) Roger Federer vs. (14) Marin Cilic

With the high profile returns of Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg to coaching, it is easy to overlook Goran Ivanisevic‘s impact on coaching and on Marin Cilic’s career. Both men have partnered together and transformed a career that had stalled for many reasons in 2013 into one that is verging on a major breakthrough in 2014. In his victory over Tomas Berdych, I constantly heard every commentator praise Cilic’s renewed serve (a Goran specialty) and the free points he was winning off it. Always highly talented, it finally seems to me that Marin Cilic has put together the game plan needed to compete and he will need all those points against Roger Federer.

In many respects, Roger Federer is lucky to even get to this semifinal match. Facing two match points and a weirdly motivated Gael Monfils, Federer showed resolve and executed critical shots to emerge in five sets. The win continues his successful summer that has seen him put himself into position for every significant tournament these past two months.  It is this consistency that has many believing that Federer has his best shot at capturing another Grand Slam title this weekend.

The last time these two met was in Toronto this summer in a hotly contested three set match with Federer prevailing. Like that match, I think it will be important for Cilic to start strong and for Federer to put Cilic’s first serves back in play with regularity. Prediction: Federer in 4 sets.

 

(Clockwise: Wozniacki, Williams, Federer, Djokovic)

(Clockwise: Wozniacki, Williams, Federer, Djokovic)

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