Saturday, September 6, 2014

Breaking Down Super Surprise Saturday

Two weeks ago, this 2014 US Open was dubbed "the most open Open in the Open Era" and that remains an accurate description of this tournament. Today, the number of potential winners was narrowed from four down to two, but the title is even more up for grabs now than it was 24 hours ago.

Semifinal Saturday featured two match ups that were projected to be blowouts. World No. 1 Novak Djokovic was taking on Kei Nishikori, who plays a similar style of tennis as the Serb, but doesn't really do anything quite as well as his opponent. The other was between Marin Cilic and No. 2 seed Roger Federer. Cilic's biggest weapon is his serve, but Federer is one of the best defensive returners in the game right now presenting a huge match up issue for the Croat.

It was the most lop-sided semifinal matchups at any tournament since Rafael Nadal took on Tomas Berdych and Djokovic faced Nishikori in Miami earlier this year. The result in Miami was a pair of withdrawals by the underdogs, which reminded the tennis world just how big the gap is between the top tier and the rest of the world.

Obviously, today's result was a little different with Cilic and Nishikori coming out on top. For both, it is a first grand slam final and will be a massive boost to their rankings whether they win or lose on Monday.

While many fans will miss seeing their favorite players in a slam final, this is still going to be a very memorable final. More than many of the last 38 grand slam finals, which have all had a member of the Big Four in them, this will be a career-defining match for both players.

What happened today still doesn't mean that this is the end of the Big Four. These four athletes still control the sport, but their stranglehold was loosened once more; and in a bigger way than when Stan Wawrinka won the Australian Open.

So what does the future hold for tennis? With every major in 2014, that question has become harder and harder to answer. After the Australian Open, many thought Berdych and Wawrinka would become part of the mix more often at majors. However, Wawrinka lost in the first round of Roland Garros and Berdych went away quietly in yet another quarterfinal loss at a major.

Then everyone jumped on the Dominic Thiem and Ernests Gulbis bandwagon. But the Gulbis flame didn't last long and he dropped out of the top 10, and Thiem is still several years away from being a slam contender.

Wimbledon gave tennis fans hope that Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, who were being billed as the next slam champions four years ago, might actually live up to expectations, and even Nick Kyrgios had the phrase "future of tennis" thrown around with his name. And once again, there was disappointment. Kyrgios struggled in the US Open series before making a decent run at the US Open only to lose to Tommy Robredo in five sets. Meanwhile, Raonic and Dimitrov both suffered disappointing losses in the fourth round at Flushing Meadows.

All the while, Juan Martin del Potro has been sidelined as tennis fans wait for him to recapture the magic he found at Flushing Meadows in 2009. Also, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Donald Young, Ryan Harrison, Jerzy Janowicz, and Bernard Tomic have done little to suggest that they could one day be at the top of the sport.

So what can we say about Gael Monfils, Cilic, and Nishikori? Will Monday's winner be just another one-slam wonder? Or will Nishikori overcome the constant injuries, Cilic overcome his inability to play best when in

matters most, and Monfils overcome his desire to put entertaining ahead of winning? For me, I don't think any of those three will overcome their own issues.

Nishikori, unfortunately, will always be one of those "what if?" kind of guys when we look back on his career, because of all the injuries. Those won't just suddenly stop because he has reached a grand slam. Cilic meanwhile, will likely follow a similar trajectory as Berdych. One grand slam final followed by many second week appearances, but no titles at any of the four biggest tournaments. For Monfils, it's simply too little too late. He can't turn his career around now, but his matches with Fabio Fognini will always be one of the most memorable parts of this era of tennis.

The Big Four's dominance isn't over yet, but when it finally is over, we won't see anything like it from this next generation. I will sum it up with this prediction: no current top-100 player outside of the Big Four will finish their career with any more than four grand slam titles.

1 comment: