US Open 2015: An exciting Week 1

Amazingly, the US Open 2015 is already a week through after some exciting Round of 16 matches on a sizzling Labor Day. For the most part, the favorites are still around on both sides. Even though some of our faves were hit by the upset bug including the fading Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, the tennis certainly has been electric.

One of many adjectives to describe Roger Federer, who took out a game John Isner in straights winning two tiebreaks and finally breaking him in the final game for a 7-6, 7-6, 6-4 triumph. Feds is just remarkable. At 34, he shows no signs of slowing down. He’ll next meet Richard Gasquet in the quarterfinals. The rejuvenated Frenchman took out Tomas Berdych in four to earn it. Nice to see the flashy Frenchman with the sweet one-handed backhand back doing damage at a second straight major. At Wimbledon, he took out French Open champ Stan Wawrinka to reach the semis before falling to eventual All England Club champion Novak Djokovic. The world number one remains the man to beat. He’ll take on serve and volley Spaniard Feliciano Lopez. Assuming he prevails, it could be defending Open winner Marin Cilic standing in his path. Cilic will have to overcome a ankle sprain and powerful Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

As disappointing as it is that Nadal lost in excruciating fashion to Italian grinder Fabio Fognini, it’s probably for the best. At 29, Rafa needs to go back to the drawing board. He plays too defensive on the hard court and allows opponents to dictate. It was still shocking to see him blow a two sets to love lead for the first time in his illustrious career. He’d been a perfect 152-0 prior. That he blew a break lead in both the third and fourth sets points to how predictable his serve has become. He is capable of ratcheting it up by going down the tee. However, he still leans heavily on spinning it in especially in the ad court which allows opponents to anticipate it. Is it time for Nadal to make a coaching change from Uncle Toni? He definitely could be more aggressive by stepping in more from the baseline and using his athleticism to finish points at the net. That along with a better serve can lengthen his career. Let’s face it. His grinding style has taken a toll. He’s an old 29. Will the 14-time grand slam winner be able to adjust? Hopefully, he’ll be back in 2016.

As for Murray, he lost in four sets to South African Kevin Anderson. Anderson had never been past the fourth round in any slam and was winless against the top 10 at majors. However, the big and powerful 6-8 Anderson flipped the script by taking the first two sets to put Murray in a hole. Unbelievably, Murray nearly rallied from double break down in set two before Anderson delivered the goods sealing it with an ace that clipped the line. The fiery Scot was none too pleased breaking his racket after handing back a break in the third set. As usual, he was chirping away talking to himself and his box. He found a way to pull out the third set tiebreak giving himself a puncher’s chance. However, Anderson wouldn’t budge. Eventually, the two held serve for a dozen games and needed another breaker. In this one, Anderson was bolder winning all seven points to finally pull the upset. Kudos to him. He next faces Wawrinka, who needed four sets before disposing of entertaining 26-year old American Donald Young. It was nice to see Young make his second Round of 16 in Flushing. He admitted that he’s more mature and improved fitness has helped. It might explain his two thrilling comebacks from two sets down including a great triumph over Victor Troicki. He also admitted that he didn’t always fight in the past. Hopefully, an improved attitude will finally boost Young’s performance in the future.

Later tonight, it all comes down to this for Serena Williams. After playing her best in a straight sets win over future star Madison Keys, the 21-time grand slam winner faces older sister Venus Williams in prime time. She also beat her at Wimbledon en route to a fourth consecutive slam inching closer to Steffi Graf. Graf holds the modern day record with 22 slams in the Open Era. When she was 19, Graf won all four slams in a single season doing it in 1988. Here is Serena needing three wins to match Steffi. She’s still the best the sport has to offer. She’s having fun too. She seems more relaxed with all the pressure surrounding her. However, once the lights are on, the intensity is up. How will it go against Venus, who at 35 remains a graceful champion who last won a slam in ’08 when she claimed her fifth Wimbledon. Venus has had a fine career winning seven majors including back-to-back US Opens in ’00 and ’01. Of course, she pales in comparison to Serena who is going for history. No one gives her a chance later today. But you know she’ll put up a great fight. It’s sure to be emotional at Ashe Stadium on Day 9.

The winner of the Williams quarter will face either Roberta Vinci or Kristina Mladenovic. With a walkover over injured Genie Bouchard due to a concussion, Vinci matched her best result reaching the quarters for the third time in the Big Apple. The 32-year old Italian veteran can better it if she bests her younger opponent. Mladenovic is only 22 and has had a good year at singles. She’s a pretty accomplished doubles player finishing as a runner-up and semifinalist the last two years at Wimbledon. The elegant blonde Frenchwoman mixes a strong forehand with variety. She hits well from both sides and can finish points at the net. Not the fleetest of foot, she does get there with good reach and does damage. Mladenovic is in her first ever slam quarter after defeating accomplished Russian Ekaterina Makarova in three sets. Does she have what it takes to beat Vinci and face a Williams in major semifinal?

While the top half favors either Williams, the bottom shows familiar faces in Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova. Each are playing their best tennis. Azarenka had to dig deep in the match of the Open on the women’s side edging German Angelique Kerber in the third round before dismissing American Varvara Lepchenko in straights to reach this point. She’ll next see second seeded Romanian Simona Halep. In an emotional come from behind three set win over German Sabine Lasicki, she overcame seven breaks of serve and a injury that limited her movement. Astonishingly, she forced a third set after limping during a game. Lisicki just couldn’t take advantage struggling with her normally reliable serve and spraying balls. She played too tentatively. Halep played on guts and wore down Lisicki in a three set win. Halep is the number two ranked player on the WTA Tour. She is very good. But against Azarenka, she’ll be the underdog. Vika is a two-time Australian Open champion and two-time runner up here. She’s only seeded 20 due to injuries. How much does Halep have left?

The other women’s quarterfinal pits Kvitova against Italian Flavia Pennetta. Pennetta is a entertaining player with a few tricks up her sleeve. Unconventional, she can mix it up and delivers a fun brand of tennis. She beat former Open champ Samantha Stosur in straights. Kvitova has won Wimbledon twice but never fared well at the United States Tennis Center. After defeating qualifier Johanna Konta in straights, she’s in her first Open quarter. The talented 25-year old Czech lefty hits a heavy ball and is streaky. When she’s on, she can beat anyone. She won New Haven for a second consecutive year. Kvitova will be the favorite against Pennetta. How will she handle expectation? That’s what makes this event so great.

Even without some headliners including last year’s runner-up Caroline Wozniacki, who flamed out in the second round to Petra Cetkovska in a three hour marathon, it’s still been a good tournament. Especially when you have Vika against Halep for one spot in the semis. Kvitova is still playing. Plus you have new blood in Mladenovic going up against experience in Vinci. Mladenovic also pulled off the shot of the Open with the always entertaining ‘tweener which was made better when she won the point. All in all, another pleasant week of tennis in the city that never sleeps. One more big week ahead!

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Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.

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