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Spearheaded by American #1 Roddick, the fledgling Atlanta event initiates the US Open Series today.  Similar to the “Road to Roland Garros,” these eleven tournaments (six ATP, five WTA) attempt to serve the dual purpose of affording players ample preparation for the year’s final major while creating a crescendo of enthusiasm among the sport’s followers.  Despite the attendant pomp and circumstance, the USOS often falls a bit short of its lofty designation as “the greatest roadtrip in sports,” especially in comparison with its momentous clay counterpart.  Yet these events do play a pivotal role in the calendar as the threshold to the season’s second half, which frequently offers a jarringly divergent set of narratives from the first half.  We present five potential plotlines for the 2010 edition.

1a)  Can the ATP top two extend their momentum? 

After an indifferent beginning to 2010, vultures were circling around the Spaniard and the Serb as commentators queried whether either of them could recapitulate their 2008 peaks.  First to awaken was Nadal, whose literally perfect clay season foreshadowed his second career Channel Slam.  Still slumbering on much of the terre battue, Djokovic reinvigorated himself with a Wimbledon semifinal run that once again illustrated his stylish, multifaceted all-court style.  So will Rafa dominate the hard courts as he did the clay and grass, and will Novak justify his elevated ranking over the summer?  Often weary from first-half exertions, Nadal rarely displays his most brilliant tennis in this phase of the season, whereas Djokovic has garnered his most consistent results at the US Open (three consecutive semifinals).  Nevertheless, the world #1 will enter both Masters Series events as the distinct favorite, while the Serb will attract far less attention than a typical #2; such a role might benefit the easily diverted Djokovic, though, allowing him to focus upon forehands and backhands.  [Some sources suggest that Nadal will play only one event in the US Open Series, but he has not yet withdrawn from either Canada or Cincinnati.]

1b)  Can the next two reverse their momentum?

Since a sparkling Melbourne campaign, Federer has suffered a series of prodigious blows on all three surfaces, culminating in an uninspired quarterfinal loss at Wimbledon.  To be sure, a similar scenario unfolded two years ago before the Swiss grandmaster rallied to capture three of the next four Slams, so discussions of his demise sound a trifle premature.  Yet his mid-season swoon looked much more disquieting this time, for his Slam losses occurred against players whom he had formerly dominated instead of against long-time nemesis Nadal.  Inscribed on almost every meaningful page in the sport’s record book, Federer recently has struggled for motivation at Masters Series events and will be vulnerable to any ball-bruising baseliner brimming with confidence.  Positively horrific between Melbourne and Wimbledon, meanwhile, Murray must avoid the mental torpor that descended upon him after his previous Slam disappointment.  The Scot excelled in Canada and Cincinnati last year but has exited before the semis at all five Masters Series events in 2010.

2)  Which American will enjoy the strongest summer?

Had Serena remembered to look before she stepped, this question would have been easy to answer.  In her absence, can Venus and Roddick rebound from their tepid Wimbledons to lead the charge?  Falling just one victory short of an Indian Wells-Miami double, Andy has endured pre-quarterfinal exits in his last four tournaments, while Serena’s sister has not won a single North American hard-court event in nearly a decade.  The toast of New York a year ago, Melanie Oudin has faded into near-invisibility in 2010 with the exception of Fed Cup.  Fortunately for the stars and stripes, three moderately familiar ATP names seem poised to shine in their home nation.  Recently reaching two grass-court finals (Queens Club, Newport), Mardy Fish might ride his crackling serve to a key upset somewhere, just as he did against Murray in Miami this spring.  Yet the towering duo of Querrey and Isner may shoulder the principal burdens of American hopes; these rapidly maturing baseliners possess an ideal game for these fast hard courts and might well record a stirring performance or two.

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3)  How much will we miss Del Potro, Serena, and Henin?

Vanquishing Nadal, Roddick, and nearly Murray in Montreal, the lanky Argentine provided arguably the most compelling storyline of last year’s US Open Series.  His breakthrough not only delighted spectators with electrifying shotmaking but provided a refreshing counterpoint to the Roger-Rafa dichotomy.  In 2010, the task of creating an appetizing alternate narrative will fall instead to players like Soderling and Berdych, whom we expect to acquit themselves creditably in that role.  On the other hand, the injuries to 40% of the WTA’s Big Five severely undermined the women’s events.  We wouldn’t have foretold titles for either Serena or Henin, for Serena generally delivers lackadaisical, unpersausive tennis at venues like Cincinnati, and Henin’s comeback has faltered since its sensational beginning in Australia.  But the WTA Premier draws will look perceptibly depleted without those marquee names, whose mere presence infuses a stadium with intrigue regardless of their current form.

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4)  Can the Russian women rise again?

Between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, only one Russian woman (Dementieva) remained in the top 10 from the legions who had populated that uppermost echelon in the WTA hierarchy.  Two-time major champion Kuznetsova has drifted to the fringes of the top 20 after recording a single quarterfinal in 2010, while three-time major finalist Safina could be unseeded for the US Open unless she regains her rhythm in the coming weeks.  A quarterfinalist at both the Australian Open and Roland Garros, Petrova has failed to find the necessary consistency to maintain a high ranking, and Dementieva herself has alternated impressive results (a French Open semifinal) with patches of listlessness.  At the All England Club, however, two Russians did perform convincingly.  To almost everyone’s surprise, Zvonareva defeated Clijsters en route to her first career Slam final; to almost nobody’s surprise, Sharapova built upon her scintillating French Open form to reach a fiercely contested second-week collision with Serena.  Do those two efforts signal a Russian resurgence, or has this nation’s tide of dominance definitively receded, leaving occasional achievements like driftwood on the shore rather than cresting into a mighty tsunami?

5)  Which (if any) WTA youngster / unknown will score the greatest impact?                    

Among the most intriguing and least predictable plotlines at Wimbledon was the emergence of Petra Kvitova and Tsvetana Pironkova as stern competitors who could test the WTA elite.  Moreover, Kaia Kanepi revived her sagging career with a quarterfinal run that preceded her maiden title in Palermo last week.  When the tour shifts from red and green to blue, we’ll follow these three figures in addition to nascent stars including Wickmayer and Pavlyuchenkova.  Although Wozniacki and Azarenka have struggled with injuries and erratic performance over the last few months, meanwhile, the post-Wimbledon hiatus might have reinvigorated the 2009 US Open finalist and 2009 Miami champion.  Yet the WTA’s veteran core looks likely to retain its stranglehold over the key events, where their superior mental fortitude separates them from the youthful upstarts.  Thus far, Generation Next has not demonstrated that it can regularly solve not only established champions like the Williams sisters, Clijsters, and Sharapova but also the tour’s ladies-in-waiting like Jankovic and Dementieva.  Eventually, however, youth must break through…mustn’t it?

5+1)  Are hard courts really faster than grass?

By the middle weekend at Wimbledon, the Centre Court baselines resembled a dusty clay court much more than pristine grass.  Over the past few years, commentators and players alike have remarked upon the slowing speed of the grass together with the accelerating speed of clay to explain the increasing ease with which players transition between these seemingly antithetical surfaces.  By contrast, the North American hard courts often play progressively faster as a tournament approaches its latter stages, aiding powerful servers and ultra-aggressive shotmakers against counterpunchers.  (This characteristic may have influenced Nadal’s struggle in New York as much as his second-half fatigue.)  Once considered a little slower than Wimbledon, therefore, the US Open now possesses an arguable claim to the speediest surface of any major.  Are the courts throughout the US Open Series equally fast?  Is there significant variation in speed among them?  How relevant are results from these preparatory tournaments if the ball travels perceptibly faster at the climactic event?  Cast a thought to those issues as the “greatest roadtrip in sports” unfolds.


In a few days, we return with an article on John Isner, which will differ in format from our previous player profiles but will cover most of the same issues.