tooth and nail

American Hopes Higher Than Ever for the US Open

For the first time in a few years American fans must be feeling very confident about the men’s side of the draw at their home Slam beginning in New York on Monday.

While Serena’s absence means home hopes will be firmly lodged behind older sister Venus in the women’s game, for the first time in a few years American dreams will be spread amongst a small band of merry brothers hoping to hoist the red, white and blue flag high above Flushing Meadows come the conclusion of finals day.

Even the most pessimistic of American tennis fans would be hard pushed to disagree that there are five men capable of pushing deep in to the draw and giving the country something to shout about. It’s not certain of course, form and injury permitting, but it is possible.

At 27, Andy Roddick should be at the peak of his powers. The 2003 Champion is the only American to have lifted the US Open since Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras used to fight tooth and nail over the hallowed trophy.

Last year he fought out on of the toughest Wimbledon finals in recent memory before finally succumbing to the powers of Roger Federer but this year his form has been somewhat erratic and following his Washington defeat to Gilles Simon he dropped out of the top 10 for the first time in 2006, meaning there was no American in the top 10 rankings for the first time since their inception.

His diagnosis with mononucleosis seemed like his end to 2010 was going to be hugely disappointing. But then A-Rod did what he does best and stopped the critics jabbering.

At Cincy last week he defeated plucky Swede Robin Soderling as well as world No. 3 Novak Djokovic. He was serving for the semifinal against Mardy Fish before having a trademark wobble and losing the tie 6-4, 6-7(3), 1-6.

But the earlier performances will buoy a man who is getting over an illness which causes lethargy and nausea. Only a cold-hearted hermit would fail to be warmed and rallied by the cheers of a home crowd and a country as proud of their own as the US of A will undoubtedly be throwing the weight of their voices behind a man they have been praying will repeat that 2003 triumph for the past 7 years.

However his draw isn’t the easiest. A second round against Janko Tipsarevic or Olivier Rochus won’t be easy and then he has the possibility of Gael Monfils or Igor Andreev to come.

And what of that Cincinnati semifinal victor Mardy Fish? Right now the man is the hottest property on the ATP Tour and the name on most people’s lips. He pushed Federer all the way in the Cincy final and only a year ago, maybe even six months ago, that would have been unthinkable.

His recent performances have seen a huge progression in his ATP ranking and he is the hottest man along with David Nalbandian and Marcos Baghdatis entering Flushing Meadows.

Jan Hajek shouldn’t pose too many problems in round one for the number 19 seed and the opposition doesn’t look too tough from then on either. Fish and Roddick could even meet at the quarter finals stage if all goes well for both men.

Fish has only once reached that mark here in 2008 but on current form who would bet against him repeating that in 2010? He looks a very good outside bet for the betting man to possibly earn a semifinal berth.

Then of course there are the two young men who not so long ago were being touted as future stars of this sport.

In the summer of 2009 the future looked very rosy for Sam Querrey. He reached three ATP Tour finals in a row, losing to compatriot Rajeev Ram in Newport, another American Robby Ginepri at Indianapolis before breaking that streak by defeating the Aussie Carston Ball at the LA Open.

Despite a run-in with a glass table that nearly ended his career in the autumn Querrey finished the year at a career-high world No. 25 and was tipped to fly in to the top 20 during 2010.

A first-round Aussie Open defeat to Rainer Schuttler wasn’t exactly the best start to the year. A run of early defeats followed before he reached the final of the US Men’s Clay Court Championships in April where he lost to Argentine clay specialist Juan Ignacio Chela.

After losing the first round in France to that man Ginepri again he began complaining of mental troubles and claimed that he had “fallen out of love” with tennis in an Andy Murray-style full on collywobbler. However, come Queens he’s turned it around again and after beating Fish in the final, his first title on grass and third in 2010, he became the only player this year to win titles on three surfaces.

He then defeated Murray in the final of the LA Open to hold on to his title and so things are looking slightly rosier again for the world No. 22 and the No. 20 seed next week.

Chela lurks in his quarter of the draw but other than him the names don’t look like they will pose too much of a threat before the later stages.

Finally we have the massive John Isner. The 6 ft. 9 North Carolinian is the current world No. 20 and has never progressed past the fourth round of a Slam reaching that mark here last year and back in the Australian Open in January.

He started the year brilliantly by winning his first tournament, the Heineken Open in Aukland, before that Aussie Open result. He fought valiantly during the USA’s 2-3 defeat to Serbia in the first round of Davis Cup World Group Stage play before a few disappointing showings.

At the Serbian Open he reached the final after wins over Josselin Ouanna, Richard Gasquet and Stanlislas Wawrinka but doubles partner and good friend Querrey pipped him to the title on this occasion.

He made history at Wimbledon of course with that mammoth matchup with Nicolas Mahut but we have heard very little from him since. Perhaps he is still recovering? Shoulder injuries have been troubling him and there are still a few doubts as to whether he will make next week, but he strenuously denies these.

Perhaps the least likely to progress deep in to the draw due to form and injury concerns. His first two rounds should be straightforward but then he may begin meeting the likes of Radek Stepanek, Julien Benneteau, Tommy Robredo, Victor Hanescu or the No. 7 seed Tomas Berdych and this is where, on current form, you would fancy him to fall.

There are, of course, a large spattering of Americans throughout the rest of the draw but the serious money will be on these five. However the home players do this is shaping up to be a great tournament once more full of enough thrills and spills to outlast any Hollywood Blockbuster.

SERBIA LOOKING FOR MORE RECOGNITION ON WORLD STAGE

Earlier this year I blogged on how players like Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis can help their home countries in terms of finances, profile and inspiration with top performances on the professional sports circuit.

In countries where money isn’t the largest commodity players have to fight tooth and nail and really aim high to make it in sport. With the Serbian Open taking place in Belgrade this week the spotlight now returns to Novak Djokovic, who helped found the competition before its inception last year.

Born on 22 May 1987, Novak was the eldest of three brothers who all set their sights on the professional game. He was spotted at eight years old by the Yugoslavian tennis legend Jelena Gencic who declared: “This is the greatest talent I have seen since Monica Seles.”

He won his first professional tournament in 2006, not dropping a set on his way to lifting the Dutch Open in Amersfoort with a win over Nicolas Massu in the final. He then took the Open de Moselle in Metz which saw him enter the world’s Top 20 for the first time.

Since then he has continued to grow and mature and his final appearance at the 2007 US Open before beginning 2008 by lifting the Australian Open shows the levels Novak can rise to.

There have been questions about his temperament, his drive and his personality but Novak has put all that behind him and as of this year he is looking to shut a lot of critics up and prove he can match the best of the best tournament to tournament.

The Serbian Open debuted in 2009 as an ATP 250 tournament offering the winner the prize of €373, 200. It was a resounding success with over 100,000 attending the showpiece that were treated to stars like Djokovic, compatriot Janko Tipsarevic, Croatian Ivan Ljubicic and Russian Igor Andreev.

“This tournament means a lot to me because I play in my country and my hometown,” said Djokovic in a statement on his official website. “I always give maximum, I’m not one of those players who can go on court and lose, even though they’re favourites,”

“I’m hoping for a full stadium, not only on my matches, but also on matches of the rest of our players. This tournament makes me proud, because it shows the most beautiful face of Serbia to the world.”

Djokovic added that he hopes the tournament will attract some of the world’s top players over the coming years which will help with attendances and in promoting Serbia to the rest of Europe. The country has produced the likes of Djokovic, Tipsarevic, Viktor Troicki and Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Nenad Zimonjic over recent years and with top tennis inspiring the country this group will only expand and add to the previous success of Monika Seles and Jelena Dokic.

However Novak realises the scheduling problems for the tournament: “The tournament is held between two ATP World Tour Masters events, and most of the players save their energy for Madrid and Roland Garros. That’s why it is difficult to attract ‘stronger’ names at the moment,” he bemoans.

But the Open is a step in the right direction for one of Europe’s newest entities. The Republic of Serbia only became an Independent Republic in 2006 in yet another shifting of the former Yugoslavian states. Famous more for its wars than its sport, the players have a lot of PR work to do with the world’s media.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper back in January 2008 Novak acknowledged how the success of the likes of himself and Ivanovic was helping tennis become one of Serbia’s largest exports. Following Novak taking the 2008 Serbian Sports Personality of the Year (his only real competition was Ivanovic and Jankovic) his mother, Dijan, part of the Djokovic sporting dynasty now working in Serbia, spoke of her wish to set up a tennis academy in her son’s name to help the Serbs of the future.

“The important thing is that the idols for young Serbs now are very good kids,” she said in the same interview. “They are people who really worked hard to get where they are now. They didn’t steal, cheat, or kill somebody to get there. For 10 years it was so bad. The role models were gangsters, or drug dealers. Everything is changing.”

It shows how the war-torn state is moving forward and beginning to think like a developed country.

Ana Ivanovic was the first player from Serbia to top the WTA rankings back in 2008. “We have all witnessed the dramatic rise in Serbian tennis during the last few years and on Monday [09/06/2008] that will reach a new pinnacle when Ana Ivanovic is recognised as the WTA Tour’s new number one player,” WTA Tour chief Larry Scott said in a statement at the time.

She has taken part in the new “Me, Myself” advertising campaign by sports giants Adidas and appears in their star-studded advert campaigns blazing across television screens throughout Europe. A popular figure at home, Serbian actress Katarina Radivojevic has even asked Ana to star in a film with her.

Yet she has remained true to her Serbian roots and always remembers where she started. An insightful interview with British newspaper The Sunday Telegraph back in 2007 opened up her thoughts on the rest of the world and their attitude towards her as a Serbian.

“It was very upsetting, especially when I went abroad,” she said. “People were very suspicious when they talked to you, they wouldn’t really trust you. And we would have trouble getting visas and getting through customs. It drove me a little bit crazy. Maybe somewhere deep inside me it helped.”

She bemoaned the facilities available to players and the lack of help provided by the authorities: “Our tennis federation didn’t really help us much at all,” she complained. “I think they did a little bit more for the men, but for the women they didn’t really do anything – they almost abandoned us. It’s really sad. They should appreciate it [having three players in the top 10] because who knows when it’s going to happen again.”

Three years on, hosting their own ATP250 tournament looks like a huge step in the right direction for Serbia and can only serve to improve the country’s standing in the eyes of the sporting and media world.

With players like Djokovic, Jankovic and Ivanovic; lovely people who you never see in the papers for the wrong reasons, the future generations of Serbians can only pick good role models to idolise and forget the war-torn past. With their football side also participating at this year’s FIFA World Cup in South Africa the future certainly looks promising.