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Thoughts Before the US Open 2015

August 24, 2015

This year’s US Open could have great historical significance on both the men’s and women’s side. For our ESPN tennis team, it’s an honor for the first time to broadcast all of the US Open from first to last serve. We are a team that has been together for many years, and we provide the viewer with informative tennis insights in entertaining ways. Above all, we need to remember to use the strongest broadcaster’s tool, the lay out (a term we use to describe when we hold back our comments and let the crowd noise, action on the court speak for itself). We have such compelling athletes at the top of our game for the last decade that is known to tennis fans from around the world. The New York crowds are noisy, brash and worth hearing. I hope I take plenty of pauses while on air and off to enjoy the sights and sounds of this last major of the year.

Serena Williams is the biggest story in sports this summer. Her pursuit of the calendar year Grand Slam has been our biggest topic since she won Wimbledon, the third leg of the Grand Slam. If she wins the US Open, she would become the fourth woman to have won it and sixth tennis player in history to accomplish this milestone. There have been twice as many horses to win the Triple Crown than Grand Slam tennis winners. Stephanie Graf, in 1988, was the last to do it. An irony for Serena is IF she wins the Grand Slam, she would tie Stefanie Graf at 22 Grand Slam singles titles.

In 2015 majors, Serena has had to fight back many times to win. Nine of her 21 match wins have needed a deciding set. Graf lost only two sets through her Grand Slam year, which a month later in Seoul, Korea at the Olympics would become a Golden Grand Slam. Serena has not played her best tennis along the way, but she has competed well and with great emotion. At times her emotions have warranted code of conduct warnings. Many an f-bomb has been dropped which are easy to see on camera. It is clear by looking at the stress of Serena’s face that she is feeling the pressure of the Grand Slam pursuit, and why not. It’s the job of her great team led by her coach Patrick Mouratoglou to find ways to take the pressure off.

Serena’s serve has long been the beacon of her game. It’s a huge weapon, the best ever in women’s tennis, and she needs it to perform close to its best to win again in New York. In recent tournaments such as Toronto and Cincinnati, her serve at times completely left her. Whether it’s partly the elbow injury, or the pressure of the situation, the result has been inconsistent serves. At times Serena’s great “go to” shot, her serve, looked yippy and a shadow of its former self. At other times, it looked like its normal self, –a great serve. It’s a major concern for Serena and her camp just a week out of the US Open. This is the problem as we age, the sudden loss of a once dependable shot for no apparent reason other than tension and loss of confidence. The pressure at the US Open will be immense on Serena, and how her emotions and serve hold up will be fascinating to witness. Another compelling aspect to watch will be Serena’s forehand follow through. Is it struck with good racket head speed with a full follow through or is it victim to less racket head speed and an abbreviated finish above her head?

Meanwhile, Roger Federer is one of the three favorites along with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray to win the US Open. If Roger can win his 18th major at age 34, he will distance himself from Rafael Nadal at a time when Rafa is suffering his worst slump ever. Roger is playing great free flowing tennis with clarity such as when he rushes forward to the net position. For too many years, Roger has tried to beat Rafa, Novak and Andy from the baseline. Playing Rafa especially took its toll on Roger by pushing him back literally and figuratively. Whether it’s the healthy back, bigger racket, Stefan Edberg, family-life balance, or all of the above, Roger is using his great net skills, quick hands and feet to be the most gifted player from the net position since John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova. Some of Roger’s attack of second serves from positions as close as two feet from the service line, as well as more traditional chip and charge returns is reminiscent of the way tennis was played in the 60’s 70’s and 80’s.

Many of my fellow commentators have said that because of the rackets, strings and power of today’s game, the style Roger showed in Cincinnati could not continue to be a winning style. It can still be a winning style of play and unsettle the power baseliner. Roger is having fun with this game plan; so let’s see if he can play the same way at the US Open.

Most of us who analyze these things will pick Novak to win due to the two weeks and five-set potential, but Andy is playing well, and Stan Wawrinka, now with two majors, always needs to be considered a possible champion at the US Open. Who will win the title that Marin Cilic won last year? Do Cilic and even Kei Nishikori have a chance?

I can’t wait to see all the NYC drama unfold at the year’s last major. As I close this out, I just want to send my deepest love and sympathy to the Evert family after the loss of Mr. Evert last Friday night. He was the model tennis parent/coach. Since Jimmy Evert coached his kids, including Chrissie, an 18 time major winner, no tennis parent/coach has done the duel roles as well and with as much class as he did. RIP Mr. Evert.