Reaction From USTA Staff, Network Exec. And Media When Draw Was Announced
Sharapova Benefits From Top-Heavy U.S. Open Draw
The USTA merged both the past and present in stirring style in the four-minute U.S. Open preview film played prior to today's U.S. Open draw conducted on the 71st floor of the Empire State Building.
The film served as a celebration of the grandest spectacle on the Slam schedule and as David Bowie's "Changes" blared from speakers mounted on six-foot poles in front of the stage, the history of American stars' ascendancy to Open supremacy played out like a stream of images from a family film.
The young John McEnroe wearing the wide grin of pure elation following his victory over fellow Queens native Vitas Gerulaitis in the 1979 Flushing Meadows final suddenly morphed into the present day McEnroe smiling in the CBS broadcast booth. Billie Jean King racing toward the net with fiercely focused eyes riveted on the ball from behind her wire-rim glasses suddenly fast-forwarded through life in a split second into the Hall of Famer standing before a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium during the 2006 ceremony that saw the USTA officially rename its National Tennis Center in honor of King. Andre Agassi, pony-tail flowing from the back of his black Nike baseball, raised his hands in a pure expression of elation after defeating Michael Stich to win the 1994 Open and suddenly matured into the 2006 Agassi using a strikingly similar hand gesture to acknowledge the adoring crowd in his final farewell to tournament tennis.
You didn't need to consult closing credits to highlight the theme for this edition of the USTA's Showtime: past American stars are still primary present-day draws at America's major.
Special effects filled the screen and sound effects reverberated around the room in the form of audible gasps unleashed by the assembled USTA staff, network execs and even a few members of the media when both Venus Williams and Serena Williams emerged on the same side of the 2007 U.S. Open draw along with top-ranked Justine Henin and the two Serbian title contenders, third-seeded Jelena Jankovic and 2006 U.S. Open Series champion Ana Ivanovic.
Hearing the response to the top half of the draw that's as congested with contenders as Fifth avenue is occupied with spectators during the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, you almost wondered if the spirit of Fay Wray was back in the building. But it was merely the visceral reaction to a loaded top half of the draw that could pose a test as tough as sprinting up the steps of the Empire State Building for players and possibly prove to be a ratings drain for CBS should one or both Williams sisters fail to reach the final four.
In the four-year span from 1999-2002 when the Williams sisters treated the U.S. Open title trophy as their own personal family heirloom in combing for four consecutive championships (Serena's wins in 1999 and 2002 sandwiching Venus' 2000 and 2001 title triumphs), ratings for the women's final on CBS rose considerably. In fact, the 2001 final in which Venus beat Serena, 6-2, 6-4, registered a 6.8 rating, which remains the highest-rated women's final since Hana Mandlikova's 7-6(3), 1-6, 7-6(2), victory over Martina Navratilova in the 1985 final generated a a 7.3 rating. The last four Flushing Meadows women's finals have struggled to capture public interest on the same scale in failing to surpass a 2.7 rating. On this day, the biggest beneficiary of the draw is reigning champion Maria Sharapova, who has a strong shot to advance to her second major final of the season and collect the biggest tennis payday in history in the process. Sharapova claimed the U.S. Open Series title and should she reach the final, she will be playing for a $2.4 champion's check ($1.4 million awarded to the U.S. Open champion plus a $1 million bonus for her U.S. Open Series victory).
"If you had asked me before the draw I would have told you there are six women who can win it," U.S. Davis Cup captain and CBS U.S. Open analyst Patrick McEnroe said. "And five of those six women are in the top half of the draw: Justine Henin, Serena, Venus, Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic. The sixth is Sharapova and she doesn't have to through the toughest players to get into the final."
During her run to the 2006 U.S. Open title, Sharapova starred as the centerpiece of Nike's "I Feel Pretty" ad campaign. One brief glance at this year's draw and the defending champ must feel pretty damn good about her chances of booking a return trip to the final.
Sharapova's bold baseline aggression and willingness to take risk as she frequently steps forward on top of the baseline to scorch shots closer to the sidelines plays well at the U.S. Open, which features the fastest courts in Grand Slam tennis. Sharapova dropped only one set in speeding through the field to take the title last year. She's won 12 of her last 13 U.S. Open matches, dropping just four sets in the past two years.
To beat Sharapova on this surface, you've got to engage her in running rallies to exploit her movement, possess a solid second serve that she can't consistently tee off on and preferably own the ability to alter spins on your shots. Sharapova opens against Italy's Roberta Vinci and would not face a seed until a third-round match with 30th-seeded Agnieska Radwanska.
Nicole Vaidisova, who has reached major semifinals at the French Open last year and the Australian Open in January, has the game to challenge Sharapova, but the 13th-seeded Czech has been sidelined since Wimbledon while recovering from glandular fever. Vaidisova will attempt to play the Open, her agent told Tennis Week today, however she likely won't be at full strength. A third consecutive quarterfinal clash with Anna Chakvetadze looms for Sharapova, who beat her Russian compatriot in both the Australian Open and French Open quarters earlier this year. While Chakvetadze has won four titles on the season compared to one for Sharapova, her serve can be suspect beneath big-match pressure. Sharapova is 5-0 lifetime vs. Chakvetadze and has surrendered only one of the 11 sets the pair have played.
Two other Russian women — fourth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova and seventh-seeded Nadia Petrova, who was on hand for the draw — are the biggest obstacles in Sharapova's path to the final.
The seventh-seeded Petrova, who beat the top-seeded Henin before bowing to Kuznetsova in the 2004 quarterfinals, is a two-time U.S. Open quarterfinalist and should reach the same stage this month.
"I feel pretty good and I'm quite happy with the draw," said Petrova, who looked fit clad in black jeans and a red blouse. "I'm absolutely injury-free. The U.S. Open always has a special buzz about it. It's the last major of the season so everyone seems to get up for playing it and I'm really looking forward to it."
Kuznetsova takes on Klara Zakapolova in the first round and resides in a soft section of the draw that could see her fly under the radar until she plays 16th-seeded Martina Hingis in a potential fourth-round showdown of former U.S. Open champions. Hingis, who has been hampered by hip and lower back problems, lacks the explosiveness and serve to contend with the heavy hitters at the moment, which means Kuznetsova could be looking at a quarterfinal against Petrova or Daniela Hantuchova.
Can Kuznetsova, who made history as the first reigning U.S. Open women's champion to fall in the first round in 2005, regain the form she showed in reaching four finals this season? Or will she revert back to the sometimes moody competitor with the monstrous forehand who can hit spray her way out of matches against top players?
"I'm sure winning a Grand Slam title changes those who do it," said Petrova, who is 1-3 lifetime vs. Kuznetsova. "They seem to be completely different people so I definitely think it helps your confidence when you win a major."
The top half of the draw features all three reigning Grand Slam title holders in French Open champ Henin, who opens with a qualifier; Australian Open champion Serena Williams, who faces Germany's Angelique Kerber in the first round and Wimbledon winner Venus Williams, who drew a qualifier in her first round match.
Speculation surrounding Serena's status for the Open continues to swirl since she she's spent the summer hard-court season withdrawing from events while practicing on the hard courts of Southern California in an effort to rehab the thumb injury she sustained in her Wimbledon quarterfinal loss to Henin.
"I saw Serena practicing out in San Diego and she was hitting one-handed backhands," ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez said. "She hasn't played since Wimbledon, but Serena has made a huge believer out of me that she does not need matches to win majors."
If Williams' thumb is strong enough to permit her hit her trademark two-handed backhand at full strength she should be able to play her way through the early rounds and a third consecutive major quarterfinal meeting with Henin is possible. Henin, who beat Jankovic to win the Rogers Cup on Sunday, could be tested in the fourth round by 2006 quarterfinalist Tatiana Golovin, the 17th seed, who took a set off the Belgian in her return to tournament tennis in Paris earlier this year.
The Henin-Serena quarterfinal winner could face either the third-seeded Jankovic, Venus or Ivanovic in the semifinals. Ivanovic has beaten Jankovic in four of their five meetings, including three times this year, however Venus showed her superior court coverage in scoring her third straight win over Ivanovic in the Wimbledon semifinals. Venus typically hits the ball better on the move than Ivanovic, which makes her the favorite over the fifth-seeded Serbian should they meet in the fourth round with the winner likely to face Jankovic for a place in the semifinals.
It's quite possible one of the three reigning Grand Slam champions will be playing for a second major title this season when the women's prime-time final is played on Sept. 8 and if that final features Sharapova vs. one of the Williams sisters, the groans heard during the draw today will be a distant memory.
"You never know what to predict when it comes to [the Williams sisters]," Petrova said standing adjacent to the stage this afternoon. "You know if they're healthy they are very dangerous players so if they're healthy and ready to go then they will both definitely be very dangerous."