Monday, September 09, 2013

2013 US OPEN: Men's Final Preview

Novak Djokovic (SRB) [1] vs. Rafael Nadal (ESP) [2]

This is my prediction post for the men's final at the 2013 US Open. This year I correctly predicted that Serena Williams would defeat Victoria Azarenka in the women's final. I also correctly predicted 2 of 2 women's semifinals2 of 2 men's semifinals4 of 4 women's quarterfinals and 2 of 4 men's quarterfinals this year. Last year I correctly predicted Serena Williams would defeat Victoria Azarenka in the women's final and that Andy Murray would defeat Novak Djokovic in the men's final.

How They Got Here: Men's Semifinals Review.
Novak Djokovic (SRB) [1] d. Stanislas Wawrinka (SUI) [9], 2-6 7-6(4) 3-6 6-3 6-4. Although this is not the reprise of last year's men's final that everyone was expecting when the draw came out Wawrinka was able to make quite a match out of this match-up. Taking confidence from his previous two rounds where he bounced defending champion Andy Murray from the tournament and outlasted hard-hitting and big serving from World #5 Tomas Berdych, Wawrinka came out firing from the first ball and quickly ran away with the first set. He was up a break relatively late in the second set and threatening to take an impressive 2-0 set lead when the World #1 emerged from his slumber and was able to break back to force a tiebreaker and win it. Having re-set the match into a three-set match, one would have expected Djokovic to dominate the match from that point but instead it was Wawrinka who continued blasting forehands and (one-handed) backhands on to the lines and redlining on his serve. That enabled Wawrinka to win the third set. The fourth set featured an incredible 19 minute game on Wawrinka's second service game where Djokovic had 5 breakpoints and failed to convert them. There was an expectation at that point whomever won that game (which was almost the length of some sets in the tournament) would go on to win the match. But when Wawrinka finally won that third game of the fourth set with an unreturnable serve and roared as he walked to his chair Djokovic just squared his shoulders, proceeded to hold his serve relatively easily in under 3 minutes and put the pressure right back on his opponent and this time he broke. He nursed that service break to win the fourth set and after an injury time-out following a spill to the court Wawrinka's timing was off and shots that were winners earlier in the match became unforced errors and Djokovic pulled through with a win in the 5th set and took the match. Even though Wawrinka lost the match he has to be proud that in both hard court majors played in 2013 he took the #1 hard-court player of the last five years to five sets. He should use these results to build on his confidence for the future.

Rafael Nadal (ESP) [2] d. Richard Gasquet (FRA) [8], 6-4 7-6(1) 6-2. Nadal increased his unbeaten streak on hard courts in 2013 to twenty one by defeating a player who he has beaten ten times before (6 times on clay and 4 on hard courts). Although the demise of the one-handed backhand in the men's game has been prematurely and repeatedly predicted there is no question that a right-handed player with a one-handed backhand has some strategic disadvantages when playing a powerful left-handed player like Nadal. However, half of this year's US Open male semifinalists and four of this year's US Open male quarterfinalists had one-handed backhands, which is somewhat surprising since only 3 out of the Top 10 (and 7 of the Top 20) players on the ATP World Tour rankings play with one-handed backhands. Gasquet demonstrated that he does deserve to be in the top echelon of the men's game by breaking Nadal's serve (for the first time in the tournament!) but also that there is a difference between a legitimate Top 10 player and a contended for World #1.

Who Will Win: Men's Final Preview
The men's final will be Djokovic-Nadal XXXVII, the 37th entry in what is now officially the longest men's rivalry of the Open era, surpassing the 36 times that Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe played. Nadal leads the rivalry 21-15 but Djokovic leads 11-6 on hard courts. The last time they played was on a hard court and Nadal won in a 3rd set tiebreak in the semifinals of the Rogers Cup in Montreal. The two have played in five major finals and Djokovic leads 3-2, including 2-1 in hard court finals. In ATP tour finals the two are tied at 8-all, and in the three times they have played this year Nadal leads 2-1.

Nadal is unbeaten for the year on hard courts, having won 21 consecutive matches, and if there is any time when he should be able to beat Djokovic in a hard court final, it is this year. Although the World #1 ranking is not at stake, Nadal's record of reaching the final of 12 of the 13 tournament's he has played this year (winning an astonishing ten titles in 2013 so far) means that he will almost certainly end the year as #1 regardless of who win this match today. However, it is incredibly important for their places in history. If Nadal wins he will advance to 13 major titles, almost certainly moving to within striking distance of Roger Federer's record 17 titles and the 2013 Roland Garros champion will pick up the 2013 US Open title. If Djokovic wins then the 2013 Australian Open champion will have won both hard court majors in the year and will have a significant ammunition to back up his argument that he is the world's top player, despite what the computer says, having reached 3 major finals and won two of them.

Nadal is playing his most aggressive tennis I have ever seen him exhibit on a hard court. It's his serve and his willingness to come to net to finish off the point that is doing the damage. He has been broken only once in the tournament and has only lost a set once (a tiebreaker against Philip Kohlschreiber in the 4th round). He is playing better than Djokovic so far this tournament, but it should not be forgotten that for a string of 7 finals from 2011 to 2012 Nadal lost 7 times in a row to Djokovic, including their 6-hour titanic battle at the 2012 Australian Open, which was clearly the best men's tennis match of last year.

By looking at the X's and O's Nadal should win this match (as others have predicted) but I am convinced by the hard court head-to-head advantage that Djokovic has and the knowledge that he could have (and should have) won their Roland Garros semifinal this year. Djokovic knows what he needs to do to beat Nadal, and Nadal knows that Djokovic can beat him. I would be very surprised if the match does not go to five sets. Really this is a title that will be decided by a handful of points and very brief moments, but that being said I think that Djokovic will win his 7th major title to cement his status as Nadal's chief rival.

MadProfessah's pick: Djokovic.

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