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)