Sunday, August 26. Tennis fanatics worldwide will have their 2012 US Open singles drawsheets printed out and in-hand, or sprawled all over their coffee tables, or they see the gridded field staring back at them from their computer screen after registering for the official US Open Bracket Challenge. It all begins tomorrow and it’s time to make choices.
You feel strong in your prediction about who will win the men’s draw, and confidence in a few additional picks on who might make it to Super Saturday. Beyond that, fans and experts alike enter the realm of estimation and educated guesses. Cognition is a group of mental processes that includes attention, memory, solving problems, making decisions – yet it all-too-often comes back to arbitrary reasoning: “Hey, I saw that guy play I person, he was awesome,” or “this is the year for an American to get back to the finals.” This year, you want your prognostications to be golden and you seek to become the go-to guru of Grand Slam knowledge for your family, friends and/or co-workers.
Don’t go with your gut – go with your brain. If anything, the loss of Rafael Nadal from this year’s mix should challenge us all to think critically about who could join the elite circle of tournament favorites in defending US Open champ Novak Djokovic, world No. 1 and five-time Open winner Roger Federer and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray.
Here, USOpen.org looks at five players in the men’s draw who have never won a Grand Slam but have shown flashes of recent brilliance or promising showings in past years at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. With apologies to Top-10 talent such as David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and 2009 Open winner Juan Martin del Potro, we’re trying to unearth the true under-the-radar racquet men set to make this run in Flushing Meadows their best yet.
Here are your 2012 US Open “unusual suspects”:
1) Bernard Tomic (AUS) - The 19-year-old Aussie has had some sterling Slam moments already as a pro in Melbourne and at Wimbledon: Is this the year we see the 2009 boys’ singles champion put it together in the US Open main draw?
Tomic became the youngest player since Boris Becker in 1986 to reach the quarter finals at Wimbledon in 2011 on the strength of an upset of fifth-seeded Robin Soderling in the third round, followed by another straight- sets victory over former Wimbledon semifinalist Xavier Malisse. He traded sets with Djokovic and was up a break in the third before the eventual champion would fight to a 6-2, 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory. “He's such an unpredictable player – very young and hitting a lot of winners,” said Djokovic after the match. “He did not make a lot of errors from the baseline and that made my life very difficult.”
Six months later, Tomic delighted the locals at the 2012 Australian Open with a first-round victory over No. 22 Fernando Verdasco, rallying from two sets down to win the four-hour affair. He next dispatched Sam Querrey and Alexandr Dolgopolov before his run ended with a loss to Federer in three sets in the round of 16.
The only teenager in the Top 50, Tomic plays a defensive style and is extremely athletic, employing a brilliant slice backhand for drop shots and winners down the line. He’s got a fantastic junior resume, winning three Orange Bowls in the 12s, 14s and 16s competition while taking the 2008 Aussie and 2009 US Open crowns.
The rail-thin Tomic still is maturing physically and thus has struggled to win consistently, but there may be no better candidate to assume the role of best player in the world come the 2017 US Open (barring injury or Federer playing at an elite level beyond his mid-30s – neither scenario impossible). And while it’s probably a bit too early to predict a finals appearance, he’ll get there before long.
2) Milos Raonic (CAN) - A quarterfinal run at last week’s Rogers Cup in Toronto – where he was revered loudly by home country crowds – propelled the 21-year-old Raonic into the Top -20 for the first time in his career. Raonic rose rapidly in the year’s early months, winning ATP titles in Chennai and San Jose and reaching a final in Memphis. At the Indian Wells Masters in March, Raonic reached the third round and made his mark with his strong serving against Federer, forcing the Swiss to three sets. In April, Raonic notched a notable victory over the second-seeded Murray in the Barcelona quarterfinals before losing a tough match to Ferrer in two tie-break sets.
Raonic and Tsonga would hook up at the 2012 London Games at Wimbledon and play one of the most thrilling matches of the summer, setting an Olympic record for playing both the longest match at 66 games (over three sets), beating the previous record of 61 games achieved during the five set doubles final in Seoul in 1988, as well as the longest Olympic games set ever played (beating the previous record by 18 games set in Athens in 2004). Raonic would eventually fall, 3-6, 6-3, 23-25.
As mentioned, Raonic’s biggest weapon is his serve, a blend of velocity and accuracy that has propelled him from No. 156 to No. 19 since the outset of 2011. Overall, he’s averaged more than 15 aces per match and has won 83 percent of his first serve points in 2012, both bests for the ATP World Tour thus far.
Raonic has won at least one main draw match in each of his last four Grand Slam appearances and returns to the site where he competed in his first major, two years ago. A hip injury held Raonic out of last year’s Open, so there’s likely great excitement to get back on the hard courts – his favorite surface – just south of the border of his native Canada.
3) John Isner (USA) - Hovering near the periphery of the Top 10 is Isner, easily the most heralded name on this list. Picking the highest-ranked American alive as an upset special is a product of the dominance of the players at the top: Either Federer, Djokovic or Nadal have won 28 of the last 29 Grand Slam titles (the exception being del Potro’s 2009 US Open victory). There’s simply been no true expectation of any player – save for Murray, who has made four Slam finals in that time – to break through and disrupt the status quo.
Yet with Nadal out of this year’s tournament, Isner can look to 2012 victories over Djokovic and Federer – he had never previously defeated either player – as a fuel for confidence at this year’s Open. Isner defeated Djokovic, 7-6 (7), 3-6, 7-6 (5), to reach the Indian Wells final back in March just one month after shocking Federer on clay in Davis Cup competition in Fribourg, Switzerland, 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-2. His play in Queens has steadily improved since his Grand Slam debut in 2007. He reached his first Open quarterfinal in 2011 on the strength of victories against former Australian Open finalist Marcos Baghdatis and US Open semifinalist Robby Ginepri before falling in four sets to Murray.
Isner’s strength’s as a player have been well-documented and are fairly obvious to even the casual observer: At 6-foot-9, Isner thunders home on of the most consistent serves in the game and compliments that with a big forehand to win points. After winning the longest match in modern history at Wimbledon in 2010 – five sets and 183 games with France’s Nicolas Mahut – his stamina has been regarded as a plus component to his game.
Thanks to the fifth set tie-break, Isner won’t have to display quite as much resilience to win in New York, but then again, nor will he have to break serve to win a match. What he’ll have to do is win the big matches against Djokovic and Federer, yet again, this time on a larger stage. His performances at Grand Slams in 2012 have been pedestrian – lowlighted by a first round Wimbledon loss to unranked Colombian Aljeandro Falla – yet Isner had a good showing back at the All-England Club in reaching the Olympic quarterfinals before losing to Federer in a tight two-setter. Isner is a perfect 4-0 in Davis Cup play in 2012, with the aforementioned win against Federer and victories over France’s Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon, so there may be something special for Isner in representing the United States.
4) Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR) - “Dolgo” put a scare into Djokovic at last year’s Open, battling back and forth with the Serb in nearly a half-hour long first-set tie-break that Djokovic eventually took, 16-14, en route to the victory in the round of 16. Coupled with his first Grand Slam quarterfinal earlier in the year at the 2011 Australian Open, the 23-year-old will be seeded in Flushing for the second time in his career and is primed for an appearance in the Open’s second week.
Despite his youth, it’s been a 20-year journey for Dolgopolov, whose father, Oleksandr, served as his son’s coach since the age of three and was himself a professional who represented the former Soviet Union twice in Davis Cup competition in the 1980s. The junior Dolgopolov turned professional at age 17 and has 67 career ATP singles victories and two titles, the most recent coming at this year’s Citi Open in Washington D.C., where he defeated Americans James Blake and Querrey as well as former world No. 2 Tommy Haas.
Dolgopolov’s explosive serving and speedy play keep opponents off-balance, and he’s not afraid to approach the net. He often features a two-handed backhand with plenty of topspin. On a fast court, Dolgopolov can play the role of pusher and force mistakes – his main weakness is committing one-too-many unforced errors of his own. A first round loss in Toronto to 2011 D.C. winner Radek Stepanek was a disappointment, yet you should buy Dolgopolov’s all-world ability. In a four- or five-set match, with Dolgopolov’s arsenal of shots and motor, he’s as dangerous as any player in the field.
5) Stanislas Wawrinka (SUI) - The final slot came down to either Federer’s countryman, Wawrinka, or Djokovic’s fellow Serbian Janko Tipsarevic, with the Swiss winning out after an impressive semifinal run at the recent Cincinnati Masters. On the year, Wawrinka has appeared in four ATP semifinals (Cincinnati, Estoril, Acapulco and Buenos Aires) and two additional quarterfinals (Monte Carlo, Chennai) and enjoyed the honor of being Switzerland’s national flag bearer at the 2012 London Games, in which he competed four years after his gold medal doubles win in Beijing with Federer.
Wawrinka has a signature Open victory to his name with a third round surprise of Murray two years ago en route to the 2010 US Open quarterfinals. With a chance at the semis, Wawrinka let a two-set-to-one advantage slip away to lose to Mikhail Youzhny, 6-3, 6-7 (7), 6-3, 3-6, 3-6.
Wawrinka often cites his best surface as clay, yet he has advanced furthest at the hard court Grand Slam events, with quarterfinals in Melbourne and New York. His baseline play and tremendous one-handed backhand can neutralize opponents, as he can extend his reach while still pulling off powerful, penetrating shots. At 27 years old and entering his eighth men’s singles draw, Wawrinka will look to avenge the early exit given to him by American wild card Donald Young in the 2011 US Open second round.
Janko Tipsarevic (SRB) - The cerebral Serb, who made a surprise run to last year’s quarters, continued to impress in the 12 months since, winning his first three career ATP titles and defeating Davis Cup teammate Djokovic twice (2011 ATP Finals, 2012 Madrid). Ranked No. 8 in the world, he may be a bit high to be a “sleeper” pick, yet he’s too intriguing not to mention. An extremely fun player to watch.
Marin Cilic (CRO) - Still just 23 years of age and playing in his fifth US Open main draw (not counting 2006 and 2007, when he lost in the qualifying tournament), the top Croatian in the world has been seeded each year since 2008 and has turned in some quality performances, namely beating Murray in straight sets at the 2009 Open. Cilic also made headlines in 2012 by having the second-longest match in the history of Wimbledon, defeating Querrey in five sets, 7–6(6), 6–4, 6–7(2), 6–7(3), 17–15.
Tall and rangy, Cilic’s style and serve play up on the grass and hard courts much like his friend and mentor, Ivanišević, a former US Open semifinalist and Wimbledon winner.
Brian Baker (USA) - Baker receives a direct entry into his first US Open main draw since 2005 after resurrecting a career marred by multiple hip injuries. His runs, first reaching a final in Nice in May and then reaching the Wimbledon round of 16 as a qualifier, were a phenomenal surprise. Baker has just one match victory on the American hard courts since coming back from London, but considering that just a year ago he was coaching tennis at Belmont University and off almost everyone’s radar, he’s easily one of the biggest comeback stories in the game in some time.
Follow USOpen.org's Nicholas J. Walz on Twitter: @ifwalzcouldtalk