US Open 2014 preview: Can rising stars break Djokovic & Federer dominance?

US Open 2014 preview: Marianne Bevis takes a look at the men's draw ahead of one of the year's most unpredictable Majors

17-time Major winner Roger Federer Photo: Marianne Bevis

In many ways, this year’s US Open is shaping up to be one of the most unpredictable Grand Slams of the year.

Indeed dating back four years, to Juan Martin del Potro’s victory at this very event in 2009, there has been precious little variation in the names not just on the four Major trophies themselves but on the runners-up honours board, too.

It has, in short, been hard to find any man not named Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray. In 2010, Robin Soderling and Tomas Berdych managed the French Open and Wimbledon finals. David Ferrer reached the French final last year. And Stan Wawrinka won the Australian Open this year.

It’s been the same story in the Masters calendar. Of the last 39 titles, just four have been won by someone other than “the big four”—with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga the only ‘newcomer’.

And yet…

Of the six former US champions still playing the tour, two are missing injured: defending champion Nadal and del Potro.

Djokovic, champion in 2011, made a stunning run through the first half of 2014—titles in Indian Wells, Miami, Rome and Wimbledon plus the final at Roland Garros—to take the Serb to No1. But he has since looked decidedly lack-lustre, as though his heart and mind were somewhere else. Perhaps with reason: He is newly married to his long-standing fiancee and their first child is due in the near future.

The 2012 champion Murray has not reached a final since winning Wimbledon last year, though he also has some cause for the slip in form and rankings. He underwent back surgery soon after losing in the quarters here last year, and though his return in Melbourne was good enough to reach the last eight, and he made a good run to the semis of the French Open, his consistency has since let him down. In his last two tournaments, the Masters in Toronto and Cincinnati, he let a leading score slip through his hands in surprising style. The reason has been hard to pin down: perhaps it is simply confidence.

If anywhere can build that confidence again, it is here. Murray loves New York, the scene of his first Major breakthrough, and the absence of Nadal has done him the favour of a top-eight seeding. Yet he has still drawn the short straw of Djokovic in the quarters.

Then there is Federer, who of all “the big four” was the one who many had begun to write off as a Grand Slam hopeful after a meagre year in 2013. Though he, too, had just reason: a persistent back injury flared up in Indian Wells, and nagged away through his shock second-round loss at Wimbledon and a first-match loss in Gstaad.

A change was afoot by the end of 2013—semis at the World Tour Finals and Paris Masters and the final in Basel—and with a new racket, an inspiring new face, Stefan Edberg, in his team, and back to full fitness, Federer has risen through the ranks back to No3. He reached four finals back-to-back—with titles in Halle and Cincinnati and runner-up trophies from Wimbledon and Toronto—and arrived at this, a remarkable 60th consecutive Grand Slam, understandably confident, understandably one of the favourites for the title.

There is even talk of the Swiss reclaiming the No1 ranking by the end of the year, for if he does win a sixth US Open title and Djokovic falls before the final, Federer will lead the race to London. And with the Serb having four titles to defend through the remainder of this year, Federer back at the top is more than mere fantasy.

What also makes this Major more open than usual is the jostling for position among the top ranks of the new generation. Grigor Dimitrov is seeded in the top eight of a Slam for the first time. Milos Raonic is at his highest seeding, No5, in a Major, and has been in winning form through the US Open Series. Both men were Wimbledon semi-finalists.

The likes of Kei Nishikori, Ernests Gulbis and Marin Cilic, all arguably still among the younger ranks, have had strong seasons, each reaching new milestones, all now seeded in the top 16.

And then there is a clutch of old familiar faces, still eager, still breaking new ground. The 32-year-old Ferrer seldom disappoints, often excels, and comes here with a final run in Cincinnati and a seeding of No4.

Wawrinka’s late-maturing, aggressive tennis inspired many of his fellow players when, at the age of 29, he won his first Grand Slam and first Masters title this year.

Young and not-so-young among the seeds—Feliciano Lopez, John Isner, Roberto Bautista Agut, Tsonga—have all had their moments this summer. But can any of these hopefuls really upset the ambitions and records of Federer, Djokovic and Murray when the chips are down?

Djokovic quarter

Djokovic may have shown signs of cooling since hitting such a hot high this summer, but he is still the man to beat when it comes to Grand Slams. In the last 16 Majors, he has won six times and been runner-up six times. That’s a better strike rate than any of his rivals. And in New York, he has featured in the last four finals, winning in 2011.

With Nadal out of the equation, that must be an extra boost to his confidence, even if his recent runs in Toronto and Cincinnati were not. Djokovic has lost to Nadal in four of those six finals.

It starts well enough for the Serb, with few real threats as far as the fourth round, even in his first seed, No28 Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. Then things get more tricky.

First he is seeded to meet one of the best servers in the business, John Isner, who pushed him hard in Indian Wells, and seems to rise for the American crowd. Twice he has beaten Djokovic on hard North American courts. There may be fly in the ointment for Isner, though. He has been beaten here in the third round in the last two years by Philipp Kohlschreiber—and meets the German again at the same stage.

Come the quarters, the scene is even worse, for he has drawn the No8 seed Murray or, if not the Briton, No9 seed Tsonga, who beat Djokovic on his way to the Toronto Masters title trophy. Djokovic will breathe a sigh of relief that those two may have to face-off against one another before taking on the Serb—and both have testing openers: Murray against Robin Haase, Tsonga against Juan Monaco.

But with both Djokovic and Murray performing below their best ahead of New York, it may come down to confidence—and while Murray has won their last two Grand Slam finals, including here in 2012, Djokovic has not lost before the semis at the US Open since 2006.

Of course, the trouble does not end there for the winner of the quarter-final. The other quarter promises to deliver a tough semi opponent, too.

Semi-finalist: Djokovic

Wawrinka quarter

This may have been a season of highs and then dips from the man who took over the position of No1 Swiss earlier this year—he has now swapped back with Federer again—but there is no doubting that he loves playing hot, hard courts on the big stages. Australia reaped his first Major but New York saw him at his powerful best last year.

He had almost beaten Djokovic in a fine five-setter at the start of the year, and came close to doing the same here, losing out to Djokovic again in the semis. His run into New York has not been great, though—he lost to Julien Benneteau in the Cincinnati quarters, for example—and he has a tough opener against one of the dangerous big young players to appear on the 2014 stage, Jiri Vesely, with Thomaz Bellucci or Nicolas Mahut to follow, both of whom can strike hot on the right day.

Wawrinka should not have a problem with his fourth-round seed Tommy Robredo—but then Federer was told that last year and was soundly beaten. The classy Spaniard has come back from surgery in renewed form and the results have ensured his valuable top-16 seeding.

And to reach the semis, Wawrinka may face the leader of the pack of the ‘young guns’, No5 Milos Raonic. Also in this packed quarter is Mikhail Youzhny (a quarter-finalist last year) who plays the young man who beat Nadal at Wimbledon, Nick Kyrgios. There is, too, the man who beat Nadal there in 2012, Lukas Rosol—who has also just won the title in Winston Salem—plus the rising Vasek Pospisil and Jack Sock, not to mention No10 seed Nishikori, who could prove to be the alternative to Raonic in the quarters if he has managed finally to put injury behind him.

Semi-finalist: Wawrinka

Ferrer quarter

The popular, hard-working Spaniard may have won his own quarter because of Nadal’s absence, but as Federer pointed about the man who almost delivered him a bagel in the Cincinnati final, “we respect [Ferrer] so much. He is such an unbelievable fighter, such a true professional: He’s a real inspiration for all of us.”

He has also been a semi-finalist at this tournament twice before, in 2007 and 2012, and reached the quarters last year. And his increasingly offensive style of play, with some volleying thrown in, continues to reap rewards. He is in a quarter that could see him reach the semis again.

He has the experience to manage the oft-impressive flair of Dustin Brown and Bernard Tomic, and the staying power to outlast his first seed, Gilles Simon. The fourth round could be a tough one, throwing him two of the in-form players of the year, both tall, big-serving players: 18th seed Kevin Anderson or 14th seed Cilic—though there is a danger-man lurking in their section. Jerzy Janowicz may have plummeted in rankings this season but has just reached the Winston Salem final. If he hits the form that took him to No14 a year ago, an upset is on the cards.

The other segment of this quarters is topped by No6 seed Berdych, who has struggled with his form as the year has gone on, and the Czech faces a fascinating opener against former champion Lleyton Hewitt, who beat del Potro last year to reach the fourth round.

Competing for a fourth-round place are Lopez and Gulbis—one of the stand-out match-ups of the draw—so this segment is wide open, and a real battle for Berdych, despite his beating Federer to reach the semis here in 2012.

Semi-finalist: Cilic

Federer quarter

Federer talked of tiredness after a brutal night-time schedule in Toronto on his way to the final, and then beat five top-notch opponents, including Murray, Raonic and Ferrer, to win in Cincinnati. New York, then, will be a real test of the fitness he has clearly regained this season.

He will also want to put his poor performance against Robredo last year to bed, but to do so he will have to get past some of the big men with big serves.

His first opponent, Marinko Matosevic, is no walk-over but should not cause an upset. Federer’s first seed is Ivo Karlovic, though Jurgen Melzer and Jarkko Nieminen are quite capable of an upset there. The fourth round, too, should pose little real trouble, with No15 and 17 seeds Fabio Fognini and Bautista Agut competing for the privilege of meeting the Swiss.

However the other segment of this quarter is packed with interest and potential. Topped by Dimitrov, ready and waiting to take his next step in a year of firsts for the charismatic Bulgarian, it also contains Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils, who have both beaten Federer more than once in the past.

But the quarter has Federer and Dimitrov written all over it… and what a longed-for match-up it would be. They have only met once, in Basel, but Dimitrov has gone from strength to strength and is full of self-belief. Is it time for the junior champion at Wimbledon and the US Open in 2008 to take over the mantle of the man who won the Wimbledon junior title a decade before? Well he has not won a match in three main-tour appearances here so far, while Federer has won 67 across 14 years, winning five titles. No wonder theirs is a sought-after quarter-final.

Semi-finalist: Federer

Final: Wawrinka beats Federer

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