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On the road to the 2014 US Open: A stellar start to the Slam season

January 28, 2014 05:58 PM
Stanislas Wawrinka finally proved himself a championship-caliber player after a hard-fought win in Melbourne.
Li Na of China finally claimed the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup after coming close in 2011 and 2013.
By Nicholas J. Walz, USOpen.org
 
The first of the 2014 season’s Slams is now complete, with surprise titlists Stanislas Wawrinka and Li Na capturing the men’s and women’s singles titles at the Australian Open. While it’s still a long way to New York and the 2014 US Open, these breakthrough performances suggest that there are now two more legitimate threats for US Open titles.
 
Here are a few thoughts from the season’s inaugural Slam:
 
Stanislas Wawrinka is for real, and Roger Federer is back
 
Wawrinka erased crushing five-set defeats Novak Djokovic at last year’s Aussie and US Opens by beating the Serb in another marathon, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2, 3-6, 9-7, in the quarterfinals. After that, “Stan the Man” seized the tourney, defeating Tomas Berdych and Nadal to earn the Sir Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. And now, for the first time in 13 years, a Swiss other than Roger Federer is the country’s highest-ranked player.
 
So what does that mean moving forward? The “Big Four” of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray have dominated Grand Slam tennis for most of the last decade, winning 34 of 35 Grand Slam tournaments coming into 2014. (2009 US Open champ Juan Martin del Potro claimed the other.) But Wawrinka, at age 28, has now beaten three of those four in the last six months, in majors no less. Already armed with one of the best one-handed backhands on the planet, he now has gained the confidence that he can win a major in high-pressure, packed-stadium scenarios.
 
And don’t count his compatriot out yet. At age 32, Federer looked in solid shape after a 2013 season marred by back issues. Starting the year paired with childhood idol Stefan Edberg as coach and armed with a new, larger racquet, the 17-time Grand Slam champion notched big wins over two players that have troubled him in recent years – No. 10 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and fourth-seeded Murray – before falling to his nemesis, Nadal, in the semis.
 
Li Na is becoming an all-around threat
 
Li Na had opportunities at the 2011 and 2013 Australian Opens, losing one-set advantages against Kim Clijsters and Victoria Azarenka, respectively. She didn’t let the same fate befall her in 2014. After winning the first set against Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova in a tiebreak, the 31-year-old accelerated to a 6-0 blanking in the second to claim her first hard-court major and second Slam (2011 French Open).
 
Consistency has been emphasized by coach Carlos Rodriguez, who once nurtured the rise of two-time US Open winner Justine Henin. Shots that were hard but flat in years past have been replaced by forehands offered with more topspin, her always steady backhand has become more of a weapon and her movement ranks among the best in the world – all elements that play well in Flushing Meadows.
 
It’s true that she was “five centimeters” from going home, as she jokingly described her third-round scare against Lucie Safarova, but she showed titanic toughness in moments when other top seeds like Agnieszka Radwanska, Maria Sharapova and Azarenka wilted in the Aussie heat. More moments like that, and the 2014 US Open semifinalist may add another Grand Slam trophy this year.
 
The defending US Open champions appeared mortal
 
Both Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams experienced surprising defeats after visible struggles with back pain. Given the age of Williams (32) and the injury track record of Nadal, their sustained success in 2013 appears even more remarkable – and perhaps unsustainable when predicting 2014.
 
The new wave comes of age
 
Tennis has long been ruled by the Big Four on the men’s side and, to a lesser degree, controlled by Williams, Azarenka, Sharapova and, now, Li Na on the women’s side. But there were signs Down Under that others are prepared to break through. The biggest noise was made by 22-year-old Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, who put a scare into Nadal before falling in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal, and 19-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, who battled past Serena-slayer Ana Ivanovic (herself a welcome comeback to the second week of Slams) and into her maiden semifinal.
 
Throw in the stunning run to the final by 24-year-old dynamo Dominika Cibulkova and the continued emergence of young players like Sloane Stephens, Milos Raonic, Simona Halep, and Jerzy Janowicz, and the second week of this year’s US Open may have more than a few fresh faces.
 

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