Archive for October, 2009

The Day The World Nearly Ended: Have We Learnt Any Lessons?

October 30, 2009

September 14th, 2008.  The day the that global financial system nearly collapsed under its own strain, the day that the fifth largest bank in the world, ceased to exist.

The day when Lehman Brothers, the fifth largest global financial services firm, was faced with a mass exodus of most of its clients, drastic losses in its stock, devaluation of its assets and an increasingly inward-facing financial market, forcing to file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11 of the United States Code.

Since that traumatic date, long, seemingly endless periods of volatility and unpredictability symbolized the global recession, with job cuts, a reduction in consumer spending and falling house prices being the hallmarks of the ‘credit crunch’.

Nevertheless, these periods of depression and desperation have slowly been replaced by cautious optimism and renewed growth in the financial markets and global economies – the loaded ‘green shoots’ term comes into effect here – but, this has arguably occurred only after significant government bailout strategies were hastily drafted into place.

In the wake of Lehman’s collapse, everyone seemed to agree that fundamental change was necessary.  Bailouts largely stabilized the financial system, but it became clear that regulatory reform was needed to prevent a similar crisis from happening again.

President Obama and Prime Minster Gordon Brown have since cautioned that regulators and companies should continue to step lightly as the economy and financial sector recover from the deep lows of 2008 – but evidently, stringent regulation is desperately needed in order to ensure that similar events never happen again.

Stricter rules are needed within respective economies and industries in order to prevent the domino effect if one large firm collapses.  While it may be inevitable that a certain institution collapses, or files for bankruptcy, at some point in the future, the dragging-down of other key organisations must be avoided at all costs.

Equally, as is the key motto in global economics, the overhaul of regulation must be done in a way that does not smother innovation.  Reckless behaviour, unchecked excess and the desire for ‘quick kills’ must all be limited, if not stopped completely, so that the entire banking system realises the consequences of its actions.

Obama and other members of the G8 have reiterated a number of proposals, including a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency, closing loopholes and gaps in the regulatory system, and putting an end to “too big to fail” by creating resolution authority for non-bank financial institutions. Obama also called on foreign economies to join the United States in its regulatory effort for a coordinated response to the financial crisis.  Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, has even called for a reintroduction of the ‘Tobin Tax’, whereby a levy would be applied to every financial transaction.

The end of the ‘too big to fail’ motto is certainly one that strikes a chord with many executives.  It is widely agreed that regulators and lawmakers needed to impose rules so failing banks could be shut, rather than allowed to operate indefinitely with taxpayer support.

Nevertheless, other lawmakers and regulators have been resistant to some of the changes the administration has proposed. The surprise is not how much has changed in the financial industry, but how little.  Lawmakers have spent most of the last year trying to save the financial industry, rather than transform it.

For instance, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has opposed a new consumer regulator, arguing that it’s the Fed’s job to protect consumers.

Seemingly protected by huge federal and fiscal guarantees, the biggest, most influential banks have restructured only around the edges.  Surprisingly, only a handful of hedge funds have closed; employee salaries and bonuses are, in many instances, returning to pre-crash levels.  Goldman Sachs, for instance, are reported to be giving their workers an average of $700,000 each this year after earning over $3 billion in third quarter (July-September) profits.  This from a highly prestigious, highly trusted bank that was almost ready to fail twelve months ago.

J.P. Morgan, too, have released profits of $3.6 billion for the past quarter.  If anything, the hedge fund arm of this huge retail and investment organisation is performing better than ever before due to a lack of competition from its pusillanimous rivals.

There is an increasing separation from the healthiest and least healthy of the banks, both nationally and internationally, which is only adding to the feeling among the prosperous that there is no need for reform.  In the UK, it is clear that the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group are dragging the financial sector down.

These big banks have had their eyes opened, their books exposed.  They have been able to realise the fragility of certain trading and investment strategies before it is too late, with Lehman being the martyr in this particular financial battle.  By pulling back on risk and reducing leverage, the banks argue, there is no need to impose more regulation in the sector.

Yet critics of the industry argue that a reduction in risk will only produce temporary results, without the necessary deep, regulatory changes.  Many note that banks chronically underestimate their risks and must be managed more cautiously and deeply.  The assumption, too, that governments will always prevent major banks from collapsing so the banks can continue to execute risky trades knowing that the taxpayer will soak up any cataclysmic losses – the so-called ‘moral hazard’, or IBG, ‘I’ll Be Gone’ – only adds to the financial excess.

Economists who predicted last year’s fall, purely from noticing the danger of trading unregulated derivatives, warn that if longstanding issues are not addressed, they could cause an even bigger crisis — in years, not decades. Next time, they say, the credit of the United States government may be at risk.

So what else can be done?  A multitude of solutions have been raised, then quashed.

Principally, investors in financial institutions, especially bondholders, must believe that they will lose money if banks fail, but legislation that would allow regulators to close giant institutions in an orderly fashion has been consistently stalled.  So too have efforts to create a systemic regulator that would focus on the broader risk that might occur from the ripple effects caused by the failure of one major bank.

Another proposed change would require banks to list and trade derivatives through a central clearinghouse, just as stocks and options are traded through exchanges, but it has yet to go anywhere.  Requiring that derivatives be traded openly sounds like a relatively small change, but it could have important effects.  Banks could not hide negative equity positions; they would have to put up money as positions moved against them, since derivatives would be sold if they were not backed by adequate margin.  Showing the power of the banking industry, legislation to force derivatives trading onto exchanges has stalled for now, and banks are still writing contracts with limited regulatory oversight.

Reining in banker’s bonuses, another key media theme in the recession, is another colossal headache for lawmakers.  The bankers and the government are seemingly playing a game of cat and mouse, whereby each act of chasing seems to end in calamity rather than success.

Advocates of bonuses claim that it reinforces a healthy attitude in the City, an attitude that will ultimately bring benefits to the national economy as a whole, with many bonus pounds being put directly into the Chancellor’s tax treasure chest.

Nonetheless, the sheer abhorrence of the status quo to observers is clear to see.  George Osbourne, Shadow Chancellor, has suggested a dramatic reform in the shape of retail bankers being tethered to bonuses worth no more than £2k in cash, with the rest in shares.  The insistence of ‘new equity capital’ – i.e. shares in the banker’s own business – is a common theme from all areas of the political spectrum, both nationally and internationally.

Of course, there is scepticism too from the potential implementers of this system.  Many city lawyers have already been approached about the contractual arrangements of such a scheme, but a predicted consequence of any law would be that bankers will have their salaries doubled or trebled.  Once again, this could increase the risk-taking because the link between performance and profitability will be severed.

There are other complications in this proposal.  Employers could be put in a conflicted position, by trying simultaneously to obey the law and meet the contractual obligations to employees.

In the longer term, there are likely to be tax problems on these share handouts, not to mention the distress of existing shareholders as the value of their own shares diluted by these effective gratuitous giveaways.

There are two main streams of thought at work – deferral and clawback – yet no-one is quite sure what these terms would mean in practice, given the complications of remuneration on such a huge scale.  Nevertheless, with such a barrage of criticism levelled at bonuses it is likely that there will be some sort of change in the future, an ordered transparency and target-based structure.

Clearly, the insatiable hunger for profit and individual bonuses juxtaposed with the need for restraint and transparency is a complex puzzle to solve.  Plus it cannot be denied that the sheer power of the world’s biggest banks in determining fiscal policy suggests that there is no end, and no fundamental reform, in sight.  At least for now.


Review, ‘Skin Deep’ – Identity and Identification: Linking the Self to the Skin

October 28, 2009

I have chosen to critique a particular episode of the popular US drama series, House.  I believe it relates well to the subject of ‘Identity’, in terms of the common stereotype, prejudice and expectation we have encountered when forming identities of others, and the manner in which we hinge our recognition of an individual on what we expect to see, rather than what could, or should be seen.

In this episode – ‘Skin Deep’, from Series 2, Episode 13 – the main protagonist and expert diagnostician, House, treats a teenage supermodel who has collapsed on a catwalk.  At first he believes she has a heroin addiction, an attribute that is believed to be prevalent in the modelling industry.

After disqualifying this theory, then numerous others, the extraordinary diagnosis is that the supermodel has male pseudohermaphroditism (specifically, androgen insensitivity syndrome), also known as testicular feminization syndrome), and the tumor is located in her testes which, due to the syndrome, had never come to drop.  In layman’s terms, women with this syndrome often have primary and secondary sexual characteristics typical of other women; however, they are genetically XY and have internal testes, rather than ovaries.

Thus, at the end of the episode, when the surgical removal of the tumor is set, a consult with a psychiatrist is scheduled as well – showing that for this particular character, as for all individuals, the discovery of a changed, complicated sexual nature is difficult to take in.

Moreover in this instance, it is shown that not only does the viewer take physical identity for granted – there is no question that this character was judged on her feminine beauty throughout the episode until the diagnosis – so does the individual.

The supermodel, when told of her complaint, is distraught; because she has effectively lost her identity – and thus, simultaneously, her occupation – as well as her gender, since all her feminine activities have been a ‘lie’.  This illustrates how much we base our lives around our identity, and how others view us; when this is destroyed, often we have nothing left, and must rebuild our lives from the very foundations.

Additionally, the added layer of sexuality – another key part of identity – in the plot line demonstrates the extent to which there is still anthropological unease over misplaced identity in this context.  This particular episode treats the question of sexuality in society with intelligence and reality, showing a society that sexualizes a teenager, treats her as an adult, then castigates those who look at her as a sexual being, without sympathizing with either side. The added dimension of ‘mixed’ gender adds to the feeling of identity ‘exclusion’ even more.

Once again, the very fact that this critical facet to one’s identity can be fundamentally different to what one expects, and medically modified in an instant (given this illness), the superficiality of beauty, gender and identity in twenty-first century society is reinforced.

Despite being a television drama intended for public rather than academic viewing, House is always thought provoking due to its exploration of ethics, morality and philosophy, as well as unique medical diagnostics.  Additionally, with each episode being based on a true story, the drama looks at issues that have been raised at some stage in reality, adding to the authenticity of its plot lines, and accentuating the existing moral questions that are difficult to resolve in relation to these issues.

Concurrent with the conclusion to this episode, there is no comfort or reassurance that House will save the day; the patient will live; and everyone will be happy; more often than not, the viewer and the character are left with more questions, which is both disturbing, but also truthful, of today’s medically and ethically tangled world.

I believe that this episode is particularly stirring in this respect since it invites us to look below the surface, past our expectations and past our stereotypical view of beauty and identity.  As we have examined in our lecture and seminar investigations, examples of identity and forms of identification throughout history have all reaffirmed the concept of physical identity, and identity on the surface, as being the most crucial elements in day-to-day identification.  These are beliefs that should evidently be altered due to the continuous ‘human errors’ in judging ‘by the skin’.

The title of the episode, ‘Skin Deep’, is a perfect illustration of how we tend to take the physical outside of individuals for granted, rather than actually stopping to analyse the inside, or the unknown, before we make assumptions.

In this manner, the basis of identity, or misplaced identity, and our apparent lack of regard for knowledge and understanding over physical identity, has remained constant for decades.

The BBC and New Editorial Policy: One Step Too Far?

October 26, 2009

The BBC is currently reviewing its Editorial Guidelines, with the updated rules and regulations due for release and implementation in 2010.  Focusing on the BBC’s values of reputation, trust and respect, the Editorial Policy ensures that the BBC’s output consists of no excessive strong language, violence or overt sexuality or harassment, contains due accuracy and impartiality,    The rules aim to make it clear for programme makers and regulators what can and cannot be accepted in the recording or transmission of a broadcast.

The key, here, is to maintain a balance between restriction and a free-for-all, in order that all programmes are of the highest quality yet do not offend in any way.

There is no doubt that these rules are in place in order to ensure that the BBC remains as a respected public service broadcaster – particularly in the wake of recent scandals, including phone vote scams, manipulation of filmed content and ‘Sachsgate’, where an inappropriate, pre-recorded conversation between comedians Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand concerning the granddaughter of actor Andrew Sachs was allowed to air on BBC Radio 2.  The latter event, in particular, set the continuing tone of ‘heavy-handed’ editorial restrictions in the BBC and the media as a whole, in order to ensure that another polemicizing affair does not materialize.

However, there are already worries that the new guidelines will be too restrictive for programme makers.  Combined with aggressive Health and Safety measures, it is thought that innovative, dynamic and forward-thinking comedy, factual and current affairs programmes may disappear from local and national broadcast schedules.

Editorial Policy ‘Post Sachsgate’ was a key issue at this year’s Guardian Media Festival, highlighting the ongoing importance of the issue and profound impact that it could have on the whole of the media industry.

Speaking to a large audience, Top Gear Executive Producer Andy Wilman spoke with hesitation about the forthcoming policy changes.

While it is true that in general, the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines and Editorial Policy are correctly tuned for the benefit of both the BBC’s comprehensive and diverse output and the average viewer, it is nonetheless hoped that the impending Editorial Policy will remain as a series of Guidelines, rather than a Nazi-esque doctrine of necessary precautions and/or omissions to content.

It is natural – and critically important – for key media policies to come under review in order to maintain relevance and increase innovation and modernisation within the dynamic, ever-changing media environment.

However, no matter the detrimental effects of previous events, many within the industry feel that individual ‘appeals’ or checks must be viewed in the context of each individual programme, presenter, time or content.

There have been too many instances when the necessarily strict Guidelines have ruined the atmosphere or the content of certain established ‘laid-back’ BBC programmes, the likes of which have continuously proved themselves to be successful in what they achieve to a wide audience and over a long period, without any serious issues.

It is imperative that care must be taken to avoid too much censorship in these instances, and why, therefore, the review of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines should be viewed from the side of the programme makers, rather than the over-regulatory monitoring agencies.

The ATP World Tour Finals: Expectation Mounts

October 26, 2009

The ATP Tour is set to culminate this year, at the end of a very long season, in London’s grand O2 Arena between Nov. 22 and Nov. 29, where the ATP World Tour Finals are due to take place.

The top eight players, their rankings taken from their year-long results on the tour, will battle it out in this exclusive finale in the hopes of becoming the year’s ultimate tennis champion.

In the last three years, the World Tour Finals (previously called the Tennis Masters Cup) have taken place in Shanghai, where the ATP believed the new economic and sporting revolution in tennis was due to take hold with instant ferocity.

However, events did not transpire as well as planned—the popularity of tennis in China and Asia as a whole, while increasing, has not exploded. One year prior to the conclusion of the original contract, the final event of the men’s calendar has relocated to a more fan-, sponsor-, and television-friendly hub, namely London, accompanied by much media hype, speculation, and expectation.

Currently, six players have determined their position at the event as they have already acquired the amount of points necessary to remain in the top eight until the end of the season.

These players—Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Juan Martin Del Potro, and Andy Roddick—have produced consistently exemplary results throughout the season, thoroughly deserving their place at the O2.

However, organisers—and fans—have reason to worry that the London premiere will not be as spectacular as first thought. Injury troubles and exhaustion have suddenly hit a multitude of players extremely hard.

Rafael Nadal, the current world No. 2 and first qualifier for the championship, and his injury woes have been well documented since his apparent fall from grace at the French Open in Roland Garros in June, where he was beaten triumphantly by an inspired Robin Soderling.

It transpired that his troublesome knees had finally got the better of his mental strength and conditioning, forcing him to take an extended break from the tour, and consequently missing out on defending his French Open crown and Wimbledon.

Even when he returned in August, in preparation for the US Open, his chances of winning the final Slam of the year were severely diminished by a persistent abdomen strain.

Having reached his first ATP Tour final since May at the recent Shanghai Masters 1000 event, critics believed that Nadal was finding his form at just the right moment. However, a subsequent defeat to Nikolay Davydenko at this event gave rise to the rumour once more that Nadal was—and is—still not the indefatigable warrior that he was in his splendid 2008 season.

Federer has only added to the significance of injury worries. Usually a beacon of time management and health, Federer has also been forced to take an extended break from the tour in apparent preparation for the Finals, by resting and recuperating after a summer packed full of long tournaments and life changing events.

Since May, Federer has reached five of his last six tournament finals (three of which were Grand Slams), as well as becoming a new father to twins.

His layoff from the tour, missing events in Tokyo and Shanghai, indicate that he is focusing his attention well and truly on one of his favourite tournaments, the Finals—but the jury is still out on whether his recurring back injuries, muscle tensions, and general tiredness will allow him at least one more successful tournament before the season ends.

Other significant figures and Final participants to fall foul of the arduous tour schedule are Andy Roddick and Juan Martin del Potro. Roddick, in particular, has been vehement in his demands for the tour to be altered. With a troubling knee injury plaguing his preparations, the American may not be fit enough to pose a serious threat to the champion’s trophy.

Suggesting that the tour should be significantly shortened so that world stars such as Nadal, Federer, and himself are fit to play throughout seems to strike an important chord with all players at this time of year.

Roddick stresses that fans and critics alike must remember that not only are tennis tournaments scheduled in quick succession all year long, they cross many time zones, which only adds to the mental and physical tolls on such finely tuned athletes.

Del Potro, too, has suffered tremendous defeats since his victory over Federer in the US Open Final, notably loosing in the first round of the Tokyo Open to a virtual unknown, highlighting yet another case of players running out of energy before the season officially concludes.

Once again, questions are being raised over the potential quality of the upcoming London event. Will these elite players be suitably rested, injury free, and mentally strong enough to provide the spectacle that all parties so clearly demand?

There has rarely been a time when the stars of the men’s game have been so super and the depth of competition among the highest strata has been so fierce. Yet these world-class players feel as if the ATP has an inability to see that even the best athletes need time to recharge, in order to provide tournaments with their appearances, let alone professional performances.

The threat of no-shows or boycotts of one of the ATP’s most lucrative tournaments—arguably its flagship event—must be troubling for the tour’s management.

Yet, still, the present atmosphere in tennis suggests that there is a wind-down, rather than a buildup to a climax, in November; surely this is not what the World Tour Final organisers intended?

Nevertheless, what will have to change to rectify this situation, with necessary benefits for both players and tournaments, remains to be seen.

(Published on Bleacher Report; 26th October 2009)

Archive: Royal Dilemma – Beyond Roger Federer, Who Can Be King of Queens at the US Open?

October 26, 2009

The last Grand Slam of 2009 (and of the first decade of the third millennium) starts on Monday, with 128 male players desperate to create one more highlight in their 2009 tennis resume.

Once again there are many stories on the male side of the draw, making for an all-together enthralling fortnight of tennis duels.

Roger Federer is certainly the reigning king, the defending champion who has won the tournament five times in row, a feat never before achieved in the Open Era. Can he write yet another chapter in tennis history and equal Bill Tilden’s six consecutive Open titles record, while increasing his Grand Slam total to a sweet 16?

Removing Federer from the equation, in a Grand Slam event and in one of his favorite locations, will be incredibly difficult; the birth of his twin girls, Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, seems to have only increased his inspiration and passion for tennis.

A small blip in Montreal notwithstanding, victories at Madrid, Paris, Wimbledon—and, most crucially for the U.S. Open field, at last week’s hard court Masters 1000 event in Cincinnati— demonstrates that Federer enters Flushing Meadows with match practice and blooming confidence.

Yet, this American hard court summer has indicated that there are plenty of stars at the top of the men’s game who can try to dethrone the king.

The increasing parity between the top eight in particular—ranging from Roger Federer at No. 1 to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at No.8—all have impressive hard court credentials and can perform well on a big stage. Only time will tell if the younger members of the elite will withstand a two-week long scrutiny under the New York lights.

There is yet more depth in the lower rankings. One only has to look at Robin Soderling’s elimination of Rafael Nadal, then Fernando Gonzalez, at the French Open in May, to see that any best-of-five set invincibility that the experienced players believed they had has vanished.

Andy Roddick, the gregarious American, has also proved his longstanding endurance and talent in the recent Grand Slam events. Since pairing with coach Larry Stefanki and shedding 15 pounds in weight—to replicate his weight when he won the U.S. Open in 2003—he has reached the semifinal at the Australian Open and the final at Wimbledon among other notable season highlights.

Now back in the top five, and the fifth seed for the U.S. Open, Roddick has matured and recommitted to winning his second Slam title before time runs out.

Perhaps the obvious choice for safer bets, if Federer is taken out of the equation, is Andy Murray. In consistently good form and at his highest ranking this far on the tour, he has won numerous events this year (and, most critically, beaten the top players in doing so).

Reaching the final at his favorite Slam event at last year’s Open, beating Nadal in five sets in the semifinals and loosing to Federer in the finals, means he knows what it takes to progress deep into the event.

Juan Martin del Potro is another favourite. Despite his youth, the Argentine has matured greatly this season. Beating Roddick numerous times amongst others, with a definite strength on hard courts, makes him likely to reach the second week of the tournament, if not further.

The dark horse, of course, is Rafael Nadal. The lingering injury worries and lack of match practice over the past few months makes any predictions difficult to quantify. Can the patellar tendinitis which has so hampered him withstand gruelling best-of-fives on the New York concrete?

Nevertheless we all know that Nadal is a fighter, a warrior who performs his best in the biggest and best tournaments. If he can survive the first week of the event, the practice he is given may just serve him perfectly for the second week’s duels. Wouldn’t it be a story if Nadal could accomplish the Career Grand Slam, too?

Many stories, many ifs, many buts. Who will reign supreme?

(Published on Bleacher Report; August 26th, 2009)

Archive: Who Ever Said This Was A Weak Tennis Era?

October 26, 2009

The ATP made history in Montreal last week, as the top-seeded players at the Rogers Cup Masters—the top eight ranked players in the world—all progressed through to the quarterfinals of an ATP Masters event.

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

An impenetrable line of sheer tennis talent, skill, tenacity, and endurance.

At least for this week.

There many long-term events which, on this one occasion, created the ripe set of circumstances for this feat.

Not long ago it seemed like there was a melting pot of nightmares, injury, tiredness, timeouts and disappointment at the top of the men’s game.

But in Montreal, the tennis stars aligned.

Rafael Nadal’s knees recovered sufficiently from tendinitis and allowed him to attend the tournament. At the same time, Federer’s twin girls, Myla Rose and Charlene Riva, were delivered early enough for him to make something of a surprise entry at the top of the draw.

How times can be so different. Would we have been complaining about the lengthy tennis season and a lack of competition on the men’s side of the game if two of the current tennis greats were not in the Masters 1000 field?

During the tournament, Andy Roddick came back in a decisive third-set tiebreaker to secure a victory. Jo Wilfried Tsonga benefited from Gilles Simon’s continuing slump, passing through the all-French third round encounter to the top-eight row in the quarterfinals.

Arguably, even the tournament itself—a Masters 1000 event, the rung beneath Grand Slams in terms of prestige—played a role in this unique event by providing a first round bye to the top eight players.

Andy Murray, however, rose to the top of the top eight by beating Juan Martin Del Potro in three closely-fought sets in the final.  With a 50-7 record in 2009 at the end of this tournament and a No. 2 ranking to boot, it seems Murray’s hardcourt hegemony is a definite incentive for the rest of the field to equal.

And it makes Murray a certain target for future important matches.

Nevertheless, if we continue to see such a display from the top players in the world, one will be hard-pressed to remember a time when there was such a high level of talent in the game.

The newcomers are maturing, solidifying their games and rightful place at the peak. The veterans are maintaining their consistently high levels of play like never before, tweaking and modifying their skills to keep the young guns at bay. The injury-prone push their weary bodies harder and harder. A constant battle, a never-ending fight, all to stay at the top.

The fallout, perhaps, will be this week’s tournament in Cincinnati.  Another Masters 1000 event, the gruelling back-to-back North American hardcourt tournaments certainly prove a tough test for even the fittest of men.

Andy Roddick has been the first (and arguably, being the home grown player, one of the most important) dropouts, falling to Sam Querrey in the second round.  Will there be more upsets to follow, or will the likes of Murray, Federer and Nadal reign supreme?

The upshot for us? Tennis fans have never had it so good.

(Published on Bleacher Report; August 20th, 2009)

Archive: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Other Protagonists on the American Hardcourts

October 26, 2009

After an eventful early summer on the clay and grass courts of Europe, soon the world’s top players will return to North America for the hardcourt swing of the tennis tour

What can we expect from the coming months? If current news stories are anything to go by, there will be a few riveting story lines to keep tennis fans engaged.

The main protagonists, of course, will be Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer is currently on paternity leave in Switzerland, awaiting the birth of his first child with wife Mirka. No one is sure of the exact date of the new arrival, but it’s certain that tennis will be off-limits for the new dad for several more weeks to come.

It’s expected that Montreal, the first Masters 1000 event of the US Open Series, will be lacking the current World No.1 as he practices diaper-changing and readjusts to playing tennis with a new level of tiredness and new title—Dad.

Hopes are high for a re-appearance in the following 1000 event in Cincinnati; although if the baby arrives late, this too may be off the table. How much practice or match preparation Federer receives is up in the air, widening the prospects for the US Open at the end of August.

Nevertheless, Federer no longer has a suffocating sense of pressure or extreme expectation on his shoulders after his record-shattering 15th Grand Slam title victory at Wimbledon this July—it’s unlikely that he will be heavily impacted by any negative US Open Series results.

Instinctive playing at Flushing Meadows could bring out a new form of the old Federer…watch out opponents?

Rafael Nadal has recently stated his intentions to return to competition from extensive rest in Montreal. He has much to prove.

Although he has experienced a rare tennis luxury of time off in the middle of the season, to rest and replenish his emotional and physical reserves, especially the patellar tendonitis that has devilishly plagued him in recent months. However, it’s yet to be proven if hard courts will provide the best medicine for playing his way back into competitive tennis.

Nadal has always talked up his prospects at Flushing Meadows, but even as No.1 or No.2 in the world, no one can ignore the feeling that tiredness, exhaustion, and injury as a result of a gruelling first half season timetable has hampered the Spaniard’s chances in New York. Add to this, the opinion that hardcourt success, especially in two-week Majors, have always been slightly out of Nadal’s reach.

But in February, part of that argument evaporated. Nadal pushed himself hard to come out victorious in Melbourne at the Australian Open, taking out fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in a five-hour, five-set marathon in the semifinals, then Federer in another five-set epic final.

With this victory, Nadal had won a Slam on all surfaces. He could finally be seen as a true contender for hardcourt tournaments and most crucially, the US Open.

After an extended break (and hopefully, rested body and mind), Nadal may prove difficult to beat throughout the summer.

When we eventually see Nadal take to the court for the first time in months, expect the same voracious appetite for success as before; but with the added factor of a quiet uncertainty and doubt over his physical capabilities in the coming weeks.

There is more possible excitement along the road to the US Open too, highlighted by the sheer depth and talent within the field on hardcourts this year. Practically all matches between now and the Open final could potentially be upsets.

Andy Murray, the current World No.3, is a consistent threat for a final or semifinal position in every tournament that he enters. He made his biggest appearance in his career so far at the US Open last year, where he beat Nadal in five sets in the semifinals to reach his first Major final (where he lost to a newly-energised Federer).

Murray, a former US Open Junior champion, has always stated that his favourite slam is the US Open, so anticipate another exciting run deep into the Slam.

Andy Roddick has always been a dangerous force on cement (he won the US Open in 2003 and reached the final in 2006). With a renewed sense of importance, confidence, and skill, he is an essential man in the field.

The fact that he pushed Federer so close on grass in the recent Wimbledon Final could prove ominous for the Swiss or any other Roddick opponent in the coming weeks.

Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are other big-name threats to the Federer-Nadal-Murray hardcourt hegemony. With powerful groundstrokes and the ability to illuminate the court with acts of beauty and talent, they are sure to have a successful summer.

Novak Djokovic is the current forgotten man of tennis, but he has been successful at the US Open and on the American hardcourts in previous years. A semifinal, final or win in the warm-up tournaments could be just the confidence booster that he needs.

Juan Martin Del Potro’s four week, four victory achievement last summer must not be underestimated either. Del Potro is always a dangerous opponent and an outstanding day for him could create a tumultuous upset.

What about Marat Safin? How sweet would it be, nine years after his US Open victory against Pete Sampras and in the final Major of his career, for him to be the success story of the summer.

Finally…an underdog, Gilles Simon. The Frenchman has fallen off the radar somewhat since his exploits on the hardcourts last summer where he reached the latter stages of several tournaments, including 1000s. He is another player, that given the right mental status and right set of circumstances, could make the tennis headlines.

There are many variables for which to account in the coming weeks. All that is certain is that by the end of September, another name will be inscribed into the history books.

(Published on Bleacher Report; July 20th 2009)