One year ago, Roger Federer was being urged by critics and fans to retire. The Maestro’s subpar performance at Wimbledon was still fresh in everyone’s minds, and Federer’s hard court form seemed less than average, producing only a quarterfinals billet at the Cincinnati Open. His prospects looked bleak heading into the US Open. Ultimately, the Swiss fell in the fourth round of the Open to low-ranked Tommy Robredo, ending a month of poor results and disappointing tennis.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal was scooping up titles like candy, winning both the Rogers Cup in Canada and the Cincinnati Open back to back in preparation for what would be a historic run to the top at the US Open. Novak Djokovic had been playing some great tennis as well, but his game was largely overshadowed by Nadal’s “Summer Conquest,” and the Serbian had fallen prey to Nadal’s unique brand of tennis multiple times during the year. These two faced off in the US Open final, and though Djokovic forced the match to four sets, Nadal lifted the trophy yet again.
Fast forward a year. Here, at the cusp of the 2014 US Open, all roles seem reversed. Federer is now the favorite at the Open, Djokovic is under pressure due to multiple losses at the hands of lesser ranked players, and Nadal has dropped out of the Open to tend to his right wrist injury. A number of upcoming contenders have garnered their share of the limelight, most notably Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. With a week of rest now in effect for the highest-ranked players, the courts of Flushing Meadows are prepared for what can only be a fascinating US Open.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga shocked the world with a series of consecutive wins over Big Four players, defeating Djokovic in two sets in the third round of the Rogers Cup, Andy Murray in the quarterfinals and a rejuvenated Roger Federer in the finals. This win secured Tsonga’s second Masters 1000 title and earned him the distinction of being the second player after Andy Roddick to have at least three wins over each Big Four player.
However, while Tsonga’s flashy run to the top captivated the attentions of the crowd, critics were quick to note the revitalized game of Federer. The Swiss Maestro has experienced a revival in the 2014 season, winning a variety of titles on different surfaces and returning to the finals of Wimbledon. Though he fell to Djokovic in the grass court finals, Federer forced his beleaguered opponent to five sets, displaying hints of the classic 2006-07 Federer. He lost to Tsonga in the Rogers Cup final, but Federer showed an adjusted hard court form that would bode well for Cincinnati.
Meanwhile Djokovic was under fire for a subpar performance in Montreal. He lost to Tsonga in the third round, defeated handily 6-2, 6-2. Djokovic seemed tired on court, unable to produce his typical trademark endurance.
Western & Southern Open
Doubling back from two consecutive runner-up appearances at Montreal and Wimbledon, Federer once again made it to the final of the Cincinnati Open, winning his sixth Cincinnati Masters title in the process. By winning the last Masters 1000 event of the US Open Series, Federer has established himself as the favorite entering the US Open.
Due to his wrist injury, Nadal was once again unable to defend his title at Cincinnati, leaving much of the field open to other contenders. However, wonder boy Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, fresh off a victory in Montreal, fell in the first round to Russian journeyman Mikhail Youzhny. But perhaps more surprisingly Novak Djokovic, historically dominant at the event, was easily defeated by the ubiquitous Tommy Robredo in straight sets. It does not bode well for a player like Djokovic to fall in straight sets twice to lower ranked opponents on his favored surface, particularly on the eve of the season’s final Grand Slam.
Meanwhile, Federer was blazing away in spectacular fashion, defeating a wide mixture of opponents like Andy Murray and Milos Raonic. In the final, he met the ever-unlucky David Ferrer, the best player never to win a Slam, and defeated him in three sets. In a bizarre twist of fate, Federer now enters the US Open as a favorite to win the Slam, where just a year ago, he was being urged to retire from the sport altogether for being “too old.”
On the 18th of July, Rafael Nadal announced via his official Twitter account his decision to not defend his US Open title in Flushing Meadows, citing the need to recover from the right wrist injury that cost him the chance to defend his titles in Montreal and Cincinnati. His decision, though detrimental to his own standing in the rankings, is perhaps in his ultimate best interest. Proper preparation and rest are essential to surviving the brutal hard court season that follows the close of the US Open, leading ultimately to the ATP World Tour Finals in London.
As for the rest of the Top Ten — Nadal’s absence opens up the field to non-Big Four contenders and ensures that this year’s US Open will be chock full of surprises. For once, though seeded first, Djokovic is not the favored son entering the tournament. His recent play on hard court in Montreal and Cincinnati has been nothing short of uninspired, leading to questions of his endurance on the surface. Though he has historically performed well on the hard courts of New York, he appears ill-prepared for the relentless grind of the hard court season.
On the other hand, Roger Federer appears well-transitioned and mentally prepared to fight it out in Flushing Meadows. He has made the finals of each of the Masters 1000 events of the US Open Series, and despite a loss to Tsonga in Montreal, handily won Cincinnati. The crowds were stunned by flashes of the old Federer magic in each tournament, and the 33 year old is a clear favorite in New York. Gifted with the second seed position, expect Federer to make a strong showing at the US Open in several weeks’ time.
Andrew Eissen, senior editor of Three for Ten Sports, serves as chief tennis analyst.