If the early doings in Toronto and Montreal this week are any indication, the final Grand Slam of the year is going to be a spectacular shootout in which no champion is safe.
Williams seems to be rounding into shape. On Tuesday, the top seed destroyed former US Open winner Samantha Stosur in Montreal. Then on Thursday, Williams battered Lucie Safarova. Federer, seeded No. 2 in Toronto, squandered six match points in his protracted third-round win over No. 15 seed Marin Cilic. Some feared it was the onset of dementia, for Federer is the 33-year-old grandpa of the ATP. But it’s more likely that the old man, still ranked No. 3 but without a Grand Slam title since the summer of 2012, just wanted to walk on the wild side once more.
Meanwhile, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was thumped in the third round Thursday by tennis' version of a dancing bear, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. He’s a big, powerful and thickly built, and he does things that make spectators go “oooh” and “aaaah.” But he’s too tame to take down the top players but for once in a blue moon. The Wimbledon champ and newly married Djokovic looked somewhat flat and slow, like a guy trying to do one thing while wanting to do something else. You just get the sense that recent events have left him sated rather than stimulated.
Unseeded Kevin Anderson bopped No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka in straight sets, Feliciano Lopez knocked off No. 4 Tomas Berdych and No. 8 seed Andy Murray might have ducked the bloodbath of champions only because No. 12 Richard Gasquet pulled a stomach muscle and threw in the towel.
Back to Montreal: Did you see little Carla Suarez Navarro outthink and outrun No. 4 seed Maria Sharapova in a three-set festival of service breaks? There were 42 break points in that one. Whoever said in tennis it’s assumed the server will hold needs to rethink that premise.
The Montreal tournament got off on the wrong foot thanks to a massive power outage, followed by the demolition of Montreal’s homecoming queen, No. 5 seed and recent Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard. In addition to Suarez Navarro’s big win Thursday, Venus Williams put out No. 6 seed Angelique Kerber. Ekaterina Makarova eliminated No. 2 seed and Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, and U.S. hope Coco Vandeweghe outdueled No. 7 Jelena Jankovic.
And then there’s this: Rafael Nadal, the defending champ in Flushing Meadows, isn’t playing either of the two Masters 1000 events leading up to the final major. His right wrist, injured during practice at home on the island of Mallorca a few days before the start of the Toronto ATP event, is in a splint and bandage. You can see it on YouTube if you’re a Nadal fan, or some kind of splint freak.
Nadal is still planning to defend his US title. It looks as though he’ll have to do it without the benefit of a single match since he became the fourth-round victim of 19-year-old wunderkind Nick Kyrgios at Wimbledon -- not exactly the most confidence-inspiring memory to take into the cauldron of Arthur Ashe Stadium. He’s been out so long that he may have to ask the chair umpire which side he serves from at 15-all.
One theory to explain all this, which regrettably has a measure of credibility, is that most of the top players don’t really want to play two or three warm-up events before a major anymore. So their hearts aren’t really in it when it comes to something like the U.S. Open Series. The European clay court, which gets great support from the elites, is a little different. The year is just picking up steam, and cabin fever motivates everyone to get outside to start working on his or her tan.
There’s probably some truth in that. Thankfully, we have Serena and Roger.