This first article in our series of US Open previews discusses the tournament favorites, the inner circle of contenders who most closely surround the title.  As with the Wimbledon previews, we outline both causes for confidence and causes for concern regarding each player, four from the ATP and four from the WTA.

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1) Roger Federer

Causes for confidence: A finalist in Toronto and a champion in Cincinnati, Federer duplicated his 2007 performance at the summer Masters 1000 events.  That year, of course, he captured the trophy in New York from the player who denied him the trophy in Canada; we wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar scenario unfold in 2010.  Avenging his Wimbledon loss to Berdych and reasserting his dominance over Djokovic, Federer’s Toronto performance demonstrated his ability to outlast his primary challengers in tense situations.  A week later in Cincinnati, he demonstrated that he could smother inspired dark horses by navigating past Nadal-killer Baghdatis and Murray-killer Fish.  The fast courts of Flushing suit Federer’s game better than the surface at any other major, sparking a streak of six consecutive finals there, and his superb fitness allows him to profit from the best-of-five format in steamy conditions more than any of his rivals except Nadal.

Causes for concern: Firmly in control of his matches against Berdych and Djokovic, Federer wavered in the second set and ultimately came within a few points of defeat on both occasions.  In order to progress efficiently through the draw and conserve energy for the later rounds, he can’t afford such lapses of concentration at the Open.  His draw at Cincinnati couldn’t have been much cozier on paper, featuring a bye, a walkover, a retirement, and just one seeded player (Davydenko); one imagines that his route in New York will be significantly more arduous.  But the most serious issue concerns his Toronto nemesis, Murray, who showed there that he finally has learned to attack Federer just as he attacks Nadal.  A rematch of their 2008 final would be the most compelling men’s championship match that one could expect this year.

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2) Rafael Nadal

Causes for confidence: Having won fourteen consecutive matches at majors, the world #1 seeks to join Federer in the career Slam club.  During his title runs in Paris and London, he overcame several of the players who most tormented him throughout his previous slump, such as Soderling and Murray.  The knees seem healthy after various surgical procedures, and his confidence generally rises in direct proportion to his health.  Almost as much as Federer, Nadal profits from the best-of-five format, which allows him to lose a tight set here or there while gradually wearing down the shotmakers who prosper on the Open’s fast courts.  A semifinalist in his last two appearances there, the Spaniard has followed a pattern of gradual but steady improvement each year that recalls his progress towards the Australian Open title in 2009.  Although Federer has established himself as the favorite, there is little evidence to suggest that he has overcome his mental fragility against Nadal.

Causes for concern: Highly fallible during the summer Masters tournaments, Nadal dropped a set to Kohlschreiber, faced a match point against Benneteau, mustered little resistance against Murray, and sprayed forehands wildly against Baghatis.  Rafa moves much less fluidly on hard court, often still lacks the depth on his groundstrokes, and sometimes displays a negativity never witnessed on clay or grass.  During the second half, fatigue typically prevents him from summoning his best tennis, while the slick surface in New York is antithetical to his movement-based style.  Unquestionably the steeliest competitor in the sport, he remains vulnerable to a swaggering shotmaker who can deny him the rallying rhythm upon which he relies.  Finally, his backhand will need to deliver much more consistently than it did in the past two weeks, for confidence in his weaker groundstroke has been essential to his previous hard-court success.

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3) Andy Murray

Causes for confidence: The almost certain US Open Series winner, Murray enjoys an excellent chance to secure his extra million if he can reproduce his Rogers Cup performance.  In Toronto, the introverted Scot became the first player since Del Potro at last year’s US Open to defeat Nadal and Federer on consecutive days.  Reminding audiences of his quarterfinal victory over Rafa in Australia, Murray suffocated the Spaniard with clutch serving and his lethal cross-court backhand.  In the final, he frustrated Federer with crisp returning and pinpoint passing shots whenever the Swiss legend ventured into the forecourt.  Clearly recovered from his post-Australian Open swoon, Britain’s #1 appears to relish his current coachless status and the independence that he has acquired from it.  Reaching both of his Slam finals on hard courts, Murray considers the US Open his favorite major and will feel much less pressure to succeed there than at the All England Club, two factors that bode well for a breakthrough.

Causes for concern: Unable to blunt Querrey’s power in the LA final and Fish’s power in the Cincinnati quarterfinal, Murray still is susceptible to being battered off the court by the ATP’s premier (and not-so-premier) powerhouses.  A year ago, Cilic dispatched him rather routinely in the round of 16; the Scot’s draw thus could be crucial in deciding his fate, for he often needs to play his way into a tournament in order to find his rhythm.  Although his serve has improved, Murray has yet to develop the type of first-strike weapon that thrives on the Open’s fast surface. As Mats Wilander dryly noted, moreover, his status as a Slam favorite remains dubious until and unless he wins one of them.

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4) Novak Djokovic

Causes for confidence: After a disheartening spring, Djokovic reinvigorated his 2010 campaign with a somewhat unexpected charge to the Wimbledon semifinals on his least favorite surface.  Later in the summer, he starred in Serbia’s Davis Cup victory over Croatia and severely tested Federer deep in the third set of their Rogers Cup semifinal.  Reaching the semifinals or better at his last three US Opens, the Serb has lost to nobody other than Federer in any of those years.  The vibrant New York atmosphere ideally fits his personality, and this ebullient impersonator recaptured the acclaim of Open audiences last year after alienating them with harsh (albeit justifiable) criticism of Roddick in 2008.  Although less impressive than during his 2008 title run in Australia, his serve has grown into a more potent weapon in the last few months than it was at the outset of 2010.

Causes for concern: Predictably bothered by the Canada and Cincinnati heat, Djokovic will find scant relief when the stage shifts to humid New York.  His fitness comprises perhaps his greatest shortcoming, although his odd lack of confidence against elite opponents registers a close second.  Even when facing the relatively untested Berdych at Wimbledon, he slumped into defeatism too soon after encountering adversity; despite his prodigious talents, his appetite for competition simmers quite low.  This mixture of complacency and self-doubt rarely wins majors or defeats dangerous rivals, so Djokovic must quell those character traits before seizing a second Slam.

And now for the ladies…

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1) Kim Clijsters

Causes for confidence: Freed temporarily from the shadow of her more glamorous compatriot, the defending champion extended her American hard-court winning streak by battling to the Premier Five title in Cincinnati.  Often considered too gentle for her own good, Clijsters defied this perception by tenaciously surviving Sharapova’s assault in the final there and by escaping multiple deficits in the quarterfinals against Pennetta.  Her balanced groundstroke game and outstanding athleticism hinders opponents from wrong-footing her as easily as some of her more powerful, less agile colleagues.  Winning both of her majors in New York, the Belgian generally showcases her best tennis in the summer season and will be especially fresh this year after a foot injury curtailed her spring campaign.  Although a hip strain fueled a quarterfinal exit in Canada, she sounded convinced that the injury would not hamper her preparations for the Open.  (In fact, she may find herself better prepared than the four semifinalists there, forced to wait in limbo until the precipitation stops.)

Causes for concern: Not a weapon like the deliveries of Sharapova or Venus, the Belgian’s serve became an outright liability on multiple occasions in Cincinnati and the Rogers Cup.  When one element of her game disintegrates, the other components often descend with it as she struggles to adapt to the circumstances.  Rallying from within five points of defeat against Mattek-Sands in her Montreal opener, Clijsters has suffered chronic premature losses in her comeback, including third-round debacles in Melbourne and Indian Wells.  Her last two defeats have occurred against the mentally suspect Zvonareva, not a player accustomed to upsetting elite contenders, so a dangerous floater could threaten in an early round before she settles into the tournament.

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2) Maria Sharapova

Causes for confidence: A finalist in three of her last four and four of her last six tournaments, Sharapova came within a point of inflicting a 2-and-3 drubbing upon Clijsters in Cincinnati before rain and then fatigue intervened.  At Stanford, she not only avenged her Indian Wells loss to Zheng but secured her first notable wins of 2010 with morale-lifting victories over Dementieva and Radwanska.  Dispatching San Diego champion Kuznetsova in her Cincinnati opener, Maria adjusted surprisingly comfortably to the sultry conditions that week.  Untroubled by a foot injury that forced her to withdraw from Montreal, she should arrive in New York healthier than she has been there since her 2006 title.  The slick surface and glamorous atmosphere of the Open mirror Sharapova’s personality; she relishes playing under the lights and never has lost a night match at a major.  Without recent Slam nemeses Henin and Serena in the draw, Maria will be poised to extend the surge of stirring performances that began with her Strasbourg title in May.

Causes for concern: While the fast courts at the Open enhance Sharapova’s first-strike ferocity, their speed also can expose her movement when opponents stretch her laterally.  Maria’s last two appearances concluded in ignominious third-round exits during which her serve unraveled in spectacular fashion, so one should observe the performance of that shot under pressure.  Even in Cincinnati, Sharapova lost the rhythm on her serve when attempting to close out matches, suggesting that her once-bulletproof confidence has not returned completely after injury travails.  During the two and a half years since her breathtaking run at the 2008 Australian Open, Maria has reached just one Slam quarterfinal (2009 Roland Garros).

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3) Venus Williams

Causes for confidence: Just as Clijsters will benefit from the absence of Henin, Venus should benefit from the absence of her sister and the scrutiny that such a situation inevitably provokes.  Her serve still sizzles through the court more fiercely than any of the other contenders, allowing her to hold serve with greater regularity.  Favoring short exchanges over extended rallies, the swift surface will shield Venus from the consequences of her increasingly erratic groundstrokes; fewer shots are required in order to win points from the baseline.  Probably more gifted in the forecourt than any of the other leading ladies, Serena’s elder sister also can exploit the fast courts to finish points at the net.  After a dismal Wimbledon, moreover, she may prove more motivated than ever to deliver a performance that reaffirms her relevance.  Startlingly, she has won only two fewer Slams (7) than the rest of the draw combined (9).

Causes for concern: Not having played since that Wimbledon loss, Venus enters with no hard-court matches this summer and without having won the Open in nine years, a period longer than many tennis careers.  (Interesting fact:  she has won no tournaments in 2009-10 except Dubai and Acapulco, both of which she won in both years.)  A factor in her loss to Clijsters there last year, her knee injury may forestall a deep run by hampering the 30-year-old’s service rhythm as well as her footwork.  Possessing virtually no B-game, she generally is ghastly when anything less than magnificent and may not be able to maintain her best tennis throughout a fortnight against seven different opponents with diverse playing styles.  Outside Wimbledon, in fact, Venus has reached just one Slam semifinal since 2003 (the 2007 US Open).

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4) Victoria Azarenka

Causes for confidence: Finally free from the hamstring injury that crippled her clay and grass seasons, the Belarussian bombshell returned to her early-season form during the US Open Series.  While capturing the Stanford title, Azarenka lost no more than five games in four of her five matches against opponents including Stosur and Sharapova.  As of this writing, she has reached the Rogers Cup semifinals with emphatic victories over Li Na and Bartoli, who often are formidable at this stage of the season.  (An unkind draw in Cincinnati witnessed her demise at the hands of a suddenly resurgent Ivanovic, no easy first-round assignment.)  Fusing power with intelligence and bold shotmaking with above-average movement, she is a more complete player than any of the WTA’s other rising stars.  Signaled by a Sharapova-esque shriek and a dog named Rolex, the Belarussian’s strutting personality should shine in a city that celebrates showmanship and swagger far more than the other Slam venues.

Causes for concern: A heavily hyped prodigy during her teenage years, Vika broke through only temporarily with the 2009 Miami title and three consecutive Slam quarterfinals.  Still her greatest flaw, this phenom’s overly volatile temper has cost her matches on important stages, such as a third-round encounter with Schiavone at last year’s US Open and a clash with Wozniacki at the year-end championships in Doha.  Under the bright lights of New York, she will feel the pressure of intense media scrutiny, not a situation to which she has responded maturely in the past.  Although she defeated both Sharapova and Clijsters this summer, she has struggled against elite contenders at key tournaments; note that she fell to Maria in Beijing and Clijsters in Miami, both Premier Mandatory events much more significant than Stanford and Eastbourne.

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We return tomorrow with the challengers, the outer circle of contenders with legitimate title aspirations but a little further removed from the season’s final grand prize.  Happy reading!

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