Thursday, August 23, 2012 Updated: August 24, 11:32 AM ET
Newsflash: Fed, Djoker will thrive
By Matt Wilansky ESPN.com
I wanted this story to be different.
I wanted to tell you how the perfect storm of recent events was finally (finally!) going to hurl a new name into the championship spotlight in New York.
The evidence was overwhelming: Olympic hangover. Rafa's absence. Djokovic's return to earth. Federer's age.
I was going to delineate all this detail, and I wanted you to buy it.
"Well, your premise had some merit," said Pam Shriver, who wouldn't dare go there now. "But it doesn't take long for things to change in tennis."
Shriver, an ESPN analyst, was on hand in Cincinnati to watch as tennis found its equilibrium atop the game just in time for the final major of the season. She saw Roger Federer thoroughly blitz the field and Novak Djokovic reach the final, his second straight during the U.S. hard-court swing. She liked what she saw.
"Roger manages his schedule so well," Shriver said. "He's a smarter player, on the court and off the court, than he's ever been. He's balanced in his life with his two [daughters] and his wife. And he regroups better than anyone after tough losses. Look at him. He's back to No. 1.
Don't look now, but here come the same two players we thought would dominate anyway.
"And what Novak has done is unbelievable, playing the Olympics and then losing just one match in his next two tournaments."
So ho-hum, there you have it. After all the hustle and bustle, it looks like only one of those two beasts, that's Federer or Djokovic (I'll tell you which one on Sept. 9 -- late in the day), will be standing with the U.S. Open winner's trophy hoisted high above his head and with a lucrative check in tow.
This will be yet another chapter in the unprecedented string of dominance that Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal started seven-plus long years ago. S-E-V-E-N. To put that in some perspective, nine of the top 20 players that year are now off reveling in retirement somewhere. And most of the others have headed somewhere down south in the rankings.
Nadal, who is stuck in Barcelona trying to rehab his wounded knee, began this remarkable run when he won his first of a record seven French Open titles in 2005. The three of them would go on to snare 29 of 30 Grand Slam events. If you're doing the long division at home, that's a healthy 97 percent, a ludicrous number.
The tale is so old by now that we, your hardened media, don't even think about any other plausible outcomes. Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have hogged so much of the real estate on the far-east end of the tennis brackets that we don't plan on writing any stories down the stretch that aren't hinged on one of those three names. And really, when you think about it, that'll probably be the same approach we take for the next couple years.
And that's why it was so tantalizing, if only for a few fleeting moments, to believe that someone else could have walked away from New York with a title.
You see, before Cincinnati, the 2012 U.S. Open had all the makings of a new narrative. Nadal wasn't going to be around, anyway. Djokovic has rebounded nicely since he fell early at Wimbledon and the Olympics, but even he admits that he doesn't harbor the same invincible aura he did a year ago, when he won three Slams and ran away with the year-end top ranking. And Federer, though he played so courageously at times and brilliantly at others throughout his last title run at Wimbledon, came out flat-footed and listless against Andy Murray in the gold-medal match in London. It was a performance that finally made him look his tennis dotage.
This confluence of events left a rare door open for someone else. Perhaps it could have been the one-time goat-turned-golden boy Murray, who we thought had corralled enough confidence to get over his mental blocks at majors. After all, if he can win at home in front of all those jittery eyeballs peering down on him, even New York, with its hoards of vociferous fans and media and pressure, has to seem less daunting. But as it turns out, Murray's head is still stuck up there in the clouds from the biggest win of his career. According to Shriver, Murray was too ambitious in trying to play in Toronto 48 hours after the Olympics. He retired after one match then went to Cincinnati, where he lasted one round. "Winning comes at a price," Shriver said.
There were others, too, who made us wonder if their dormant superstardom would awaken in time for Flushing:
• Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, for one. He possesses a huge game and some extraordinary shot-making. He has wins over Federer at Wimbledon and Nadal in Australia, where he reached the 2008 final. Tsonga made it to his first U.S. Open quarterfinal last year.
• Then there's the enigmatic Tomas Berdych, who stunned Federer in the 2010 Wimbledon quarterfinals en route to the final. But aside from a couple decent runs in Australia the past two years, Berdych has flatlined. He lost in the first round of Wimbledon this year and hasn't won consecutive matches since the French Open. Still, the guy is capable of beating anyone -- if he's focused.
• How about John Isner, who serves tennis balls down his opponents' jugulars for a living? He has a history of going the distance (and then some) in his matches. Now if he could just go the distance for an entire tournament. He performed well last year in New York, where he reached his first (and only) major quarterfinal.
Each of these players has the vision and the resolve to waylay the game's elite, given the right circumstances. We repeat: given the right circumstances.
But as it turns out, I was obviously busy sniffing a few too many tennis ball cans again. It was naive, perhaps even laughable, to think anyone other than Federer or Djokovic could win in New York given the recent form of those two. They've shown no physical or mental strains from their disheartening losses in London. Djokovic played dynamite ball until the final match in Cincinnati, and Federer looks as spritely as ever. And to boot, neither player relinquished serve until the final of the Western & Southern Open. According to the ATP, that's a first.
"I came here and never dropped my serve," Federer said after he won Cincinnati for the fifth time. "That's the kind of reaction I wanted to see from myself. I didn't have a letdown. Even though I reached almost all goals already this year by securing a medal, winning Wimbledon, and getting back it World No. 1, it's important for me to push forward and give myself the best possible preparation for New York."
So yes, Djokovic and Federer came back from their Olympic travails fully equipped with their short-term memory. The U.S. Open is still a few days away, and we already know one of those two is going to win.
Leave it to them to ruin a good story.