As we enter the start of the US Open Series, it is fun to ponder what results lie ahead in the summer of hard court tennis.
This swing on tour provides a chance to build serious momentum heading into the US Open. Often, good results in lead up tournaments generate successful campaigns at Flushing Meadows. This top ten list will look back at the greatest runs on the summer hard courts of North America in recent memory.
In 1997 Pat Rafter was a surprise winner at the US Open in a year full of upsets. In 1998 however, there were no such upsets. Rafter loved to play and compete; his serve-volley game required precise rhythm that was affected by too much time off. Unlike many others who take the approach of playing only a few key big events and then have a week off before a major, in 1998 Pat played a staggering six events over the US hard court swing. What is even more impressive is that he won four of them!
The highlight match of the summer was the US Open semi-final against Pete Sampras. This was a match with a lot of context. Rafter was challenging Sampras for the number one ranking. Sampras was desperate to hold on to the top ranking in order to set the record of season-ending number one for six years in a row. In addition, Pete wanted his US Open title back after he allowed Pat to win it in 1997 without facing him. This five setter was an instant classic concluding with the Australian as the victor. Pat defeated countryman Mark Philippoussis in the final.
2003 was Andy Roddick’s year. In fact, he may feel aggrieved to be number two on this list. He used his amazing summer run to propel himself to the number one ranking. On the hard courts in his home country he was just simply unstoppable. No player was yet to figure out his serve. Even Roger Federer could do nothing against the Roddick serve, losing in a 3rd set tiebreak during the Cincinnati semi-final.
In the period before string technology and increased athleticism changed the quality of baseline play, Andy was able to foot it from the back of the court with anyone. Roddick was dominant against the likes of Nalbandian, Ferrero, Fish and Blake. The only reason that Andy did not get the number one spot in this list is that unlike Rafter’s win over Sampras in 1998, there was not quite the defining US Open epic encounter for Andy, as he had a relatively nice path through the draw.
Rafa’s summer in 2013 was staggering. After being out of the game for nine months with bad knees following the 2012 Wimbledon, Nadal stormed back to form during the clay court season. Following a second straight early round loss at Wimbledon and with Djokovic and Murray winning the 2 previous US Opens, nobody thought that Rafa would dominate on his least favored surface: hard courts.
This summer featured Rafa at his absolute best. Playing a more aggressive hard court style than we had seen from him before, he was able to keep his main rivals off balance just enough to let his overpowering competitive will determine the outcome of matches. He beat Novak in a 3rd set tie-break in the Canadian Open and rolled through Federer in Cincinnati. In the US Open final he faced Novak again, winning in four sets. However, Novak appeared to learn something about mental toughness that day. He has since gone 8-0 against Rafa on hard courts.
In the summer of 1987 Ivan Lendl was at the peak of his powers. He had been the number one player of the year for many years, won the French Open and was on the brink of winning Wimbledon after he beat Stefan Edberg in the semi-final. A dream win was not to be however, and he suffered a surprise final loss to Pat Cash.
It seems as though that loss particularly hurt Ivan, for he took out his frustrations on the rest of the tour over the US hard court season. He put together a 17-0 record where he only lost three sets and was simply brutal on opponents. Lendl won the Washington final over Brad Gilbert 6-1 6-0. Ivan also dispatched the most brutal major victory in the first round of US Open where he beat South African Barry Moir 6-0 6-0 6-0. It was definitely a New York bagel celebration for Ivan in 1987!
The 2007 US Open capped the end of Roger’s most dominant period of the game. During that time, Roger won eight out of ten major championships. That particular summer hard court swing also ushered in the era of the Federer-Djokovic hard court rivalry. The pair battled out an epic Canadian Open final that went to a third set tiebreak.
Roger appeared to be galvanized by that defeat, as he went on to tear through the field in both Cincinnati and New York, capped off with a revenge straight set victory over Novak in the US Open final.
2011 was the first huge year for Novak; he won three grand slams and five of the first six masters series titles. Novak finally seemed to have figured out the heat and humidity in the 2011, helped by switching to a gluten free diet.
With confidence that he could go the distance, Novak saved match points to defeat Federer in an epic US Open semi-final. Then Djokovic survived one of the most physical tennis matches I have ever witnessed to beat Rafa in the final. It was only a niggling shoulder injury, forcing retirement in the Cincinnati final, that prevented Novak from achieving the perfect summer swing.
This was Andre’s second coming. He came from nowhere to win the 1994 US Open and that started a period of dominance. During the 1995 hard court swing he was a colossus. Kicking off with a victory in Washington, he would then beat Sampras, Chang and Krajicek in three more finals.
Heading into a rematch with Pete in the US Open final, Andre was riding a 26 match winning streak. Andre had just reversed a semi-final Wimbledon loss to Boris Becker the day before. It seemed that the exertions of the whole summer, finally caught up with Andre. Agassi was outplayed by an inspired Sampras in what was a familiar experience in their US Open final encounters. Despite stumbling at the final hurdle, Andre’s memorable summer still earns a place in our top ten.
In 1988 nobody could beat Mats Wilander. He was victorious at 3 of the 4 grand slams and despite a US Summer hard court swing that was shortened by Davis Cup and the Olympics, he was equally dominant in winning the two events that he played: Cincinnati and the US Open.
The US Open final was an instant classic. Mats faced arch rival Ivan Lendl and emerged from a five set war, victorious. It was his only US Open crown and was the peak of the mountain for Mats as a range of issues saw his career fall off a cliff and he would win only one further ATP title after 1988.
In 2015, Novak was one match against Stan Wawrinka away from the calendar grand slam. Additionally, he was two matches away from a perfect US hard court summer. The largest tournaments in the 2015 summer featured the big guns in the finals.
It was a perfect demonstration of how on any given day, the rivalries can swing. Murray beat Djokovic in the Canadian Open final and Federer beat Novak in the Cincinnati final. However, it was Novak who had the consistency across the whole season and that paid dividends over five sets in Flushing Meadows. In the US Open final he got revenge on Roger in one of the loudest US Open finals in history.
Edberg was like Rafter in that he needed plenty of matches to feel good about his serve and volley game. By the time the 1992 US Open rolled around, Stefan had found his groove after deep runs at multiple summer hard court lead up events.
Stefan Edberg’s 1992 US Open run stands out as one of the greatest in my memory, and is the core reason why he makes this list. From the round of 16 onwards, no champion in the open era has spent more time on court. Edberg needed five sets to beat Krajicek and Lendl, and again in a bruising Super Saturday semi-final with Chang. Finally, he was somehow able to emerge the next day physically stronger to overcome a one set deficit and defeat a tiring Sampras in four.
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