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A:

Clijsters:  Rewinding from the listless women’s final, the key to her tournament lay in her third-set performances against Stosur and Venus.  Seemingly in control of her quarterfinal with the Australian midway through the second set, Clijsters suddenly dropped serve five times in a row as both women struggled to find their rhythm amidst blustery conditions.  When the break-a-thon reached 3-3 in the decider, however, she summoned the fortitude and determination to eke out those last three precious games.  Similarly threatened after she squandered  a 4-2 third-set lead against Venus a round later, Clijsters again reined in her mind and her shots to deliver her best tennis in the semifinal’s climactic stages.  A trait only occasionally witnessed during her comeback, this resilience under pressure enabled the Belgian to defend a major title for the first time in her career.  Even if she doesn’t win a Slam outside New York, the last twelve months have allowed Clijsters to finally emerge from Henin’s shadow as a formidable competitor and champion.

Zvonareva:  Almost as surprising as her Wimbledon run was its counterpart here, in which Vera didn’t drop a set until the final.  While her draw may have looked less than fearsome, she adapted even more expertly to the adverse conditions than she did in the Indian Wells final a year ago.  Despite this offense-friendly surface, she fused sound tactics with steady execution in intelligently crafted victories over several players with significantly greater first-strike potential than her.  Difficult to thrust off balance, the Russian showcased her skills with virtually every shot and every area of the court, even the forecourt where many of her rivals struggle.  Through six rounds, she overcame a full spectrum of playing styles and established herself as the leading Russian, a status that she clearly values.  While the old, tempestuous Vera returned in the final, she should depart from New York filled with confidence for her 2011 campaign as well as the rewarding sensation of having fulfilled her vast potential.

A-:

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Federer:  On the eve of Super Saturday, he had matched and perhaps surpassed Nadal in the ruthless efficiency of his progress through the draw, which culminated with an emphatic victory over his Roland Garros conqueror.  In the quarterfinal against Soderling, the five-time US Open champion ascended close to the pinnacle of his former glory with pinpoint serving, feathery volleys, and forehand winners of every variety.  Two days later, hubris turned to nemesis when he succumbed to Djokovic for the first time in four US Open meetings.  Mentally absent for much of the second and fourth sets, Federer then became flustered when historically he has been poised; deep in the fifth set, he donated three egregious forehand errors to drop serve and two more on the last two points of the match.  The moral of his puzzling 2010 Slam campaign?  Don’t count him out at majors, but don’t count on him either.

Youzhny:   Over the course of the fortnight, New York fans unexpectedly discovered that the Russian can create a scintillating spectacle when he deploys his racket in the manner for which it was designed.  To be sure, Youzhny didn’t face either of the top two seeds in his section (see below), and his modest albeit graceful game will almost always fall short against the ATP’s current elite.  That said, he seized the opportunity of a benign draw with both hands, a task more demanding than it seems.  Slowly defusing the mighty serves of Isner in an entertaining four-setter, Youzhny displayed impressive resourcefulness as he relentlessly outmaneuvered the American.  In the quarterfinals, his fitness and tenacity shone brightly in a five-set epic against Wawrinka, during which he twice rallied from deficits.  A strong performer in the 2009 fall season, he’ll be a notable dark horse again this year.

Wozniacki:  During her breakthrough performance against Sharapova, the ugly, “pushing” duckling from the land of Hans Christian Andersen turned into a swan on the largest arena in the sport.  There, the world #2 resolutely shouldered the burden associated with her top seeding to record arguably the most impressive single victory of her career.  When the Russian launched an inevitable late charge, her 20-year-old conqueror firmly refused to be intimidated by the occasion or the opponent.  Two rounds later, the swan turned back into an ugly duckling with a ghastly, wind-addled loss to Zvonareva, whom she had dominated just weeks before in the Montreal final.  Before winning a maiden major, Wozniacki still must add just a few more ounces of baseline aggression, but coveted Slam glory now lies within her reach.

Venus:  A tiebreak away from her first US Open final since 2002, the elder Williams imploded in spectacular fashion and played from behind for the rest of the semifinal.  Before that fateful tiebreak, however, Venus served stunningly and found just enough lines with her forehand to suffocate the defending champion.  A round earlier against Schiavone, moreover, she refused to let the WTA’s craftiest artisan derail her high-precision, high-risk groundstrokes at key moments.  Perhaps psychologically aided by the absence of her sister, Venus exceeded expectations considering that she entered the tournament with no hard-court practice at all. Her dress, on the other hand,…

French Open women’s finalists:  First-round losers at Wimbledon, Stosur and Schiavone rediscovered themselves much earlier than most observers had anticipated.  Reaching the quarterfinals on a surface alien to her style, the Italian routed a series of credible opponents before sternly testing Venus in two extremely tight sets.  (She also receives additional points for replicating Federer’s between-the-legs trick shot.)  If Schiavone continues to perform at this level, the American Fed Cup team will need at least one of the Williams sisters in order to capture the title from Italy.  Rebounding from a mysterious shoulder issue, the Australian rallied from the brink of defeat in her opener to compile a confidence-boosting run headlined by the match of the women’s tournament, a nail-biting victory over Dementieva.  Since Stosur never had advanced past the second round in previous US Opens, her fortnight illustrated the immense strides that she has accomplished in the past year.  Can she handle the pressure of competing before an Australian fan base starved for a home champion?  We can’t wait to find out.

B+:

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Soderling:  Despite an opening-round wobble, the Swede reached his third consecutive Slam quarterfinal and second straight US Open quarterfinal.  Thrashing future star de Bakker before patiently chipping away at Montanes’ defense, he displayed consistency as well as focus and determination.  Much less impressive was his quarterfinal performance against Federer, during which Soderling never seriously challenged the second seed after squandering break points in the Swiss legend’s opening service game.  Irritated by linespeople and the gusts that swirled around Arthur Ashe, the Swede showed traces of the brittleness that undermined him against elite opponents before 2009.  Nevertheless, his fortnight dramatically improved upon his limp performances of the past few tournaments, restoring him to the conversation for the fall indoor season that he relishes.

Kanepi:  Unlike fellow Wimbledon surprises Kvitova and Pironkova, the Estonian continued her journey into relevance with another upset over Jankovic and an even more impressive win over the rising Wickmayer.  Fed a bagel in the first set of that encounter, Kanepi revealed noteworthy grittiness by battling back to win the second set in a tiebreak before coasting through the third set.  Fickle gusts and a smart, experienced opponent frustrated her in the quarterfinals, yet consider how far she has progressed since qualifying for Roland Garros.  While Kanepi’s game is not the most sophisticated or aesthetically pleasurable to watch, she has vastly improved her footwork and shot selection, from which she now is reaping well-deserved rewards.

Cibulkova:  Toppling 2004 champion and San Diego titlist Kuznetsova in the final sixteen, she was the only unseeded player to reach the quarterfinals in either the men’s or the women’s draw.  A former Roland Garros semifinalist, the diminutive Slovak relied on her low center of gravity and seamless movement to unhinge the far more powerful Russian.  While Cibulkova’s inescapable physical limitations will prevent her from contending for major titles, she’s as ready as anyone to punish an erratic shotmaker.  Credit new coach Zeljko Krajan (of Safina fame/notoriety) for her welcome resurgence.

Wawrinka:  After falling meekly to Murray here two years ago, the Swiss #2 boldly attacked his occasional practice partner from the outset of their third-round encounter.  Aided by former Federer coach Peter Lundgren, Wawrinka then outlasted Querrey in a rollercoaster five-setter that demonstrated not only his enhanced baseline aggression but a newfound determination.  It can’t be easy to share both a profession and a passport with Federer, but New York fans could observe that Belgium isn’t the only tiny country with more than one tennis talent.

Verdasco:  Leading by a break seven games into his quarterfinal with Nadal, he crumbled in familiar fashion with a cascade of characteristic ineptitude, from consecutive double faults to an overhead that sailed several rows into the crowd.  Before that match, though, the flamboyant Spaniard obtained satisfying revenge over Wimbledon nemesis Fognini, stifled summer sensation Nalbandian, and rallied from a two-set deficit against indefatigable compatriot Ferrer.  Trailing 4-2 in the final set of that match and 4-2 in the final-set tiebreak, the eighth seed mustered an improbable burst of energy to win the last five points of their epic encounter.  Spectators won’t remember his 90 unforced errors as long as they remember the last winner that he hit:  an electrifying forehand passing shot that curled around a frozen Ferrer as Verdasco sprawled on the court in a mixture of exhaustion and exultation.

B:

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Ivanovic:  Building upon her startling Cincinnati run, the stylish Serb comprehensively dominated three quality opponents, including past tormentor Zheng Jie.  Comprehensively dominated herself by Clijsters in the fourth round, Ivanovic left New York having moved another step forward in her winding road back to the top.  While her shot selection still puzzled at times, her backhand and return of serve looked crisper than they have since 2008, while her forays towards the net reaped regular rewards.

Sharapova:  For the second straight major, she fell to top seed in the fourth round in a valiant effort marred by untimely double faults.  If Sharapova seeks to add another Slam to her trio of titles, she must be able to rely on her serve as an asset rather than compensating for it as a weakness; at the moment, however, it’s uncertain whether this concern can be permanently resolved.  On the other hand, her competitive fearlessness remains undimmed, she adapted surprisingly well to the windy conditions, and her two-outfit ensemble dazzled as much as the explosive groundstroke winners that she still can crack at will from anywhere on the court.  Whether Sharapova wins or loses, her flair for the dramatic and the audacious provide greater entertainment value than many of her higher-ranked, less flamboyant colleagues.

Dementieva:  Having experienced nearly every flavor of heartbreak by now, Elena battled tooth and nail with Stosur in the most compelling women’s match of the tournament.  True to her familiar patterns, she ultimately snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, but she deserves credit for continuing to compete with unflinching resolve despite her endless series of past disappointments.  If she ends her career as the best player of her generation never to win a major, it won’t be for lack of effort or desire.

Gasquet/Monfils:  Ever the consummate entertainers, these two Frenchmen delighted the New York crowd with inspired, often surreal shotmaking.  After a lengthy arid spell at majors, Gasquet returned to the second week with a resounding upset over Davydenko, which he consolidated with an authoritative win over quirky South African giant Kevin Anderson.  When the former prodigy fell to his compatriot in the final sixteen, however, Gael noted Richard’s preference for form over function and style over substance as well as his struggle to cope with pressure or adverse conditions.  Ironically, the same description fit Monfils himself perfectly in his loss to Djokovic a round later.  More concerned with the journey than the destination, these Frenchmen lack the motivation or concentration to contend for key titles, yet the first weeks of majors would be duller without them.

Nalbandian:  Entering the tournament, a trendy topic of discussion concerned not whether the enigmatic Argentine would reach a quarterfinal with Nadal but how severely he would test Rafa once he reached their rendezvous.  We never found out, as Nalbandian nearly crashed out to the anonymous Rik de Voest in his opener and mustered little resistance against a mortal-looking Verdasco in the third round.  In the twilight of his career, the best-of-five format clearly burdens his fragile body and mind with excessive pressure.

B-:

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Jankovic:  Nearly dragging Serena into the third set during their 2008 final here, the Serb has won just three total matches in her last two appearances at the US Open and has never been quite herself since the controversy surrounding her short-lived status as #1.  Once able to wear down all but the most relentless offenses on any surface, Jankovic now struggles against even standard-issue aggressors on surfaces other than clay or the slowest of hard courts.  Although she will continue to challenge at Roland Garros, her decline should serve as a cautionary tale to Wozniacki and other rising players with a similar affinity for counterpunching.

Kuznetsova:  While we didn’t consider Sveta  a serious title contender, we expected a modestly noteworthy from the San Diego champion and Montreal semifinalist, bolstered by a new coach.  Having led Cibulkova in both sets of their fourth-round encounter, she still found ways to lose to an opponent ranked barely inside the top 50 and whose game is far less suited to the fast courts in New York.  Perhaps she should consider the example of her compatriot Zvonareva, much less athletically talented but much more sturdy in the muscle that matters most.  (Hint:  it’s inside the skull.)

Davydenko:  After he sagged to a listless defeat against Gasquet, he said that he was discarding all of his rackets and equipment in order to have a completely fresh start.  It’s certainly needed after a summer that effectively erased his momentum from his heroics in late 2009 and early 2010, but regrettably the clock is ticking on this scintillating veteran.

American men:  Hobbled by an ankle injury, Isner nevertheless competed valiantly during his third-round loss to Youzhny, which is more than can be said of his compatriots.  Preoccupied with distinguishing his right foot from his left, Roddick ponderously plodded to a second-round exit against the sprightly Tipsarevic.  Despite the exhortations of thousands of his countrymen, Blake failed to recapture any shreds of his former New York magic during a routine loss to Djokovic; a round later, Fish showed little spark or backbone against the Serb, who looked vulnerable early in the tournament.  The last home hope, Querrey flirted tantalizingly with reaching a first career Slam quarterfinal before lethargically succumbing to the more versatile and—critically—more intense Wawrinka.

C:

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Murray:  When you’re being outhit on a fast court by mighty sluggers such as Soderling or Del Potro, one can understand.  When you’re being outhit on a fast court by the not-so-mighty Wawrinka, we have a problem.  Like Sharapova’s serve, this issue may not lie within the power (haha) of the Scot to resolve, but flattening his forehand and staying closer to the baseline would be essential steps towards winning the maiden major that once seemed inevitable.

Berdych:  When was the last time that an ATP player reached the Wimbledon final and exited the US Open without winning a set?  Just as it seemed that the Czech had conquered his inner demons and had crossed the threshold of realizing his potential, he Czeched out again against the admittedly surging Llodra (yet another of those entertaining, enigmatic Frenchmen).

Mother Nature:  Not content to co-star in a commercial with Serena, she felt compelled to interfere in match after match on Arthur Ashe by unleashing unexpected gusts from all directions.  The fickle wind played mischievously with the balls and the minds of the players, creating curious exercises in improvisation rather than meticulously constructed points.  Among its most prominent victims were Soderling and Wozniacki, but a host of players found themselves forced to eschew precise shot-making for the not-so-simple objective of keeping the ball in the court.  Nevertheless, the wind’s merry mayhem did lead to some attractive and atmospheric tableaux:

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***

Did anyone seem strangely absent from this article?  Tomorrow, we return with a more extensive look at the best of the best, the two players who received an A+ from their exploits at the final Slam of 2010.

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