The No. 1 seed, Wimbledon and Australian Open victor, recently accorded metaphysical significance by novelist David Foster Wallace, the impeccable Swiss arrives at Flushing Meadows seeking a third consecutive Open title. If not for a loss to Nadal in the French Open final, we’d all be talking calendar-year Grand Slam, but three out of four isn’t too shabby. Federer has shown some vulnerability this year, notably on high, nastily top-spun balls to his backhand; he hasn’t really gotten into a serving groove yet on hard courts; and Britain’s Andy Murray bounced him out of a lead-up tournament in Cincinnati in the second round. Still, he’s the clear favorite. A dream final would pit him against Nadal in a French-Wimbly rematch.
For the Spanish sensation, the U.S. Open represents his second-best chance, after the French, to capture a Slam. His murderously effective topspin and obscene quickness should see him easily into the second week, and his competitive fervor—not to mention his desire to get a third crack at Federer—could carry him all the way to the finals. Wimbledon showed that he has been developing his forehand into a point-ending weapon, but depending on how the seedings go, No. 2 Nadal could have to get through both James Blake and a suddenly resurgent Andy Roddick. Nadal’s results in the U.S. Open Series leading up to our national championships have been unremarkable, but with the format switching to a grueling best of five sets, he will strive to break opponents down physically and mentally.
With his win two weeks ago in Cincinnati after more or less two years of wandering in the wilderness, A-Rod has announced that, even though his ranking has dropped him to the bottom of the Top 10, he continues to be a force to reckon with. The 2003 Open champ has, in an unexpected move that caught everyone’s attention, added Jimmy Connors as a part-time coach, a move that appears to have restored Roddick’s swaggering aggressiveness (as opposed to last year’s freaky, AWOL “mojo” of the Am-Ex ads). He’s back to pounding his first serve, then pouncing on any weak returns, crushing them with his brutal forehand. He’s even starting to attack the net more frequently. It isn’t pretty and never has been, but it makes him the most dangerous man in the draw, as well as a good bet for a run to the semifinals, especially if the USTA delivers slick courts.
Out of basically nowhere, this moody Scottish kid has abruptly popped up on the tennis radar after beating Federer in Cincinnati—becoming the only other player besides Nadal to notch a win over the Great One this year, but more importantly exposing Federer’s troubled serving by breaking the Swiss seven times in two sets. Onlookers credit “Winning Ugly” coach Brad Gilbert, who was hired by the Brits earlier this year to do something with this arrogant, sullen but deceptively talented teenager. Murray has a unique capacity to make just about everyone he plays look and feel uncomfortable—he’s the professional equivalent of the club-level “pusher,” flubbing the ball around before slipping in a drop shot or a crackerjack backhand down-the-line winner. The last time a prospect entered the Open with Gilbert newly in his corner, that prospect’s name was Andy Roddick, and he won the whole shebang.
After starting out the hard-court season impressively, Blake has struggled of late. He’s still the top-ranked American, however, and in returning to New York he will once again enjoy the fanatical support of his “J. Block” cheering section. Far and away the most dangerous hard-court player on Planet Earth, Blake has the kind of foot speed that keeps him in points, a missile-like flat forehand that he can pound for winners from anywhere on the court, and a backhand that’s no longer a liability. Regrettably, he’s shown flashes of his old mental weakness since Wimbledon, this time around based on his inability to maintain his intensity and, when pressed, to take his game into higher gear. At 26, he’s smack in the middle of his prime, so if he hopes to bring home the one Slam that he has a realistic shot at winning, he needs to dig deep on the Open’s hard courts.
Women to Watch
She finally got the monkey off her back at Wimbledon and enters the U.S. Open as the world No. 1. There’s a bit of a Federer-Nadal thing happening on the women’s side this year between Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne; the two have faced each other in a pair of finals (Henin-Hardenne controversially retired at the Australian Open, leading some to argue that Mauresmo’s first Slam win wasn’t truly earned). Niggling injuries have kept her out of action since Wimbledon, and with her big, attacking game, she may have to fight through a few early-round matches to find her form. However, her record in the Slams is the best of any woman in the draw, and if she can get the crowds behind her and avoid any physical problems, she should glide into the second week and make it to the quarters at least.
The hard-bitten, ferociously competitive little Belgian will be alone in holding up the honor of her small nation among the top women at this year’s Open, as 2005 champ Kim Clijsters won’t be able to defend due to a worrisome wrist injury. The world rankings have her at No. 3, but everyone knows that she’s been the second-best player, behind Mauresmo, in this year’s Slams, getting to the finals at both the Australian and Wimbledon. Her outsized game, centered on her technically perfect backhand, allows her to compete on any surface. She won the Open in 2003 and has to be seen as Mauresmo’s and Sharapova’s main competition, but a long layoff post-Wimbledon could leave her vulnerable to a first-week upset.
The swanlike Russian has, over the past year or so, begun to bulk up. This seems to have messed up her timing, although it’s probably added some volume to her incessant shrieking after every shot. She’s trying to add more variety to her game, but for the most part she employs a simple strategy: hit hard and, if that doesn’t work, hit harder. This approach has, in the case of Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport, yielded Slams in the past. Unfortunately, it seems to be wearing Sharapova out—she withdrew from a U.S. Open warm-up tournament, citing exhaustion. Any physical weariness against a Mauresmo or Henin-Hardenne will take Sharapova out of the running this year.
She’s back! No kidding—by making a final two weeks ago, even though she lost, Hingis re-entered the Top 10. Her comeback has been a disorienting experience for many of the players she has faced. As women’s pro tennis has become more and more a power game, a style of play based on all-court positional gambits has become rare. This year, Hingis has made plenty of otherwise successful women look foolish. Of course, unlike most other women these days, she still lacks a point-ending weapon, but she has managed to avoid being blown off the court. Her serve is a touch beefier than it was before she retired, and her overall court sense remains wizardly. Thus far, 2006 has been all about rebuilding her confidence. Now that she’s proven she can hang with the big girls, the stage is set for a semifinal run.
Serena is in the midst of a comeback, and her results so far have been shockingly good, at least on hard courts: In consecutive lead-up tournaments to the U.S. Open this year, she has made the semis both times. The X factor with her game is fitness: One-week tournaments seem to wear her out, such that she has done herself in with unforced errors. Even if she can make it through Week 1 at the Open, she may not have enough in the tank to survive Week 2. Her position in the draw is another issue; she won’t be seeded, so she’ll be facing tough competition much earlier. However, that could make trouble for the seeds: The last person you want to play in the first or second round is a two-time champ who can rip the fuzz off the ball.