Thursday September 15th, 2011

Andy Murray made it to all four Grand Slam semifinals in 2011, while Caroline Wozniacki has held the No. 1 ranking on the women's Tour since October 2010. (SI)

In last week's Toss, tennis producer C.W. Sesno and Courtney Nguyen debated the best way to decide a final set at the U.S. Open, tiebreak or win by two? The readers sided with Courtney as slightly more than 62 percent said they'd rather see players battle it out in games instead of a shorter tiebreak duel. This week, Courtney and tennis writer Bryan Armen Graham dive into another debate.

Today's Toss: Who will win a Grand Slam tournament first, Andy Murray or Caroline Wozniacki?

Courtney Nguyen: I think Wozniacki will win a Slam before Murray. That’s not to say that her defensive style of game is better than Murray’s more versatile attack, but what she lacks in firepower she makes up for in consistency, and that consistency will provide her opportunities to capitalize on a wide-open women's field. In a sport full of wildly inconsistent players with incomplete games and shakable nerves, Caro's steadiness goes a long way.

Besides, Murray's path to glory has four significant roadblocks: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and, of course, Andy Murray. Before this year, the Scot had a penchant for taking himself out of the Slams, whether it was his shocking loss to Marin Cilic at the 2009 U.S Open, or a straight-set dismissal at the hands of Tomas Berdych at Roland Garros last year. He's improved on that front this year, making the semis of all four majors. But he still hasn't shown he has the mental fortitude to best the three men in front of him. Against Djokovic in Australia and Nadal in Paris, London and New York, he didn't even come close.

Bryan Armen Graham: The run of first-time Slam winners on the women’s side -- Li Na, Petra Kvitova, Sam Stosur -- suggests that Wozniacki’s major breakthrough is likely if not inevitable. And I do think she’ll win, but Murray is even closer. He has all the shots. He can attack, he can defend. (I keep going back to Andre Agassi’s pre-Wimbledon assessment: “I think if you gave me his game, I would be sick if I didn’t win a Slam. I just really would.") Now he just needs to learn how to put it all together when the lights are burning brightest.

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He’s come awfully close, with runner-up showings at three Grand Slams. Highlights include victories over Nadal in the 2008 U.S. Open and ’10 Australian Open. And the consistency is coming around, as you mention, with semifinal runs in all four majors this year. It just seems like a matter of time before it comes together for him, regardless of the stiff competition at the top of the men’s game.

Nguyen: It does seem like a matter of time for Murray. He's made great progress this year. One key factor on his side is the fact that he now seems like a genuine threat at all four Slams. Wozniacki isn't. Her best runs at a Slam have been on hardcourts (semifinals in Australia and semifinals and final in New York). She has yet to prove that she has a legitimate shot on the Paris clay (best result: quarterfinals) or Wimbledon grass (best result: fourth round).

So it's clear we both agree that there seems to be an air of inevitability around these two. But given the unpredictability of the women's field, I think it's more likely that Lady Luck will smile upon Wozniacki before she even passes a glance at Murray. Given their quality, there's no reason why both shouldn't find themselves in the semifinals of at least two Slams a year. From there, it's about taking their chances and breaking through. The difference is that Murray has to deal with two of the greatest players ever and one who is steadily making his case to be included in that mix, while Wozniacki has to deal with a random smattering of streaky players (and, yes, I include Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters in that group). In that analysis, she's got the better shot.

Graham: What you're saying is anybody can win the lottery and it's true. And I agree the weakened field atop the women's game is, on the surface, more conducive to a Wozniacki breakthrough. But I'll take the player whose game is ready-made to win Slams -- regardless of the competition -- and that's Murray.

Wozniacki is the fittest player on the Tour, capable of outlasting and out-retrieving all but the toughest opponents long enough for them to start making mistakes. She's a top-10 talent who's punched above her weight to reach the rankings summit, an achievement that's starting to feel like a millstone as other recent women's No. 1s can attest (see: Safina, Dinara; Ivanovic, Ana). But her lack of a reliable offensive weapon was thrown into sharp relief against Serena in the U.S. Open semis, where she hit a grand total of zero winners in the first set (and just five overall) in a 6-2, 6-4 loss. Unless she's gifted a truly charmed draw -- avoiding truly elite opponents for all seven matches -- I don't see her winning a major without having developed some kind of finishing kick. You decide: Vote in our poll above and sound off in the comments with your pick.

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