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This third article in our US Open preview series discusses the dark horses, players who almost certainly won’t win the title in New York but who might topple some notable names during the first week or so. Rankings, not seeds, are in parentheses.  Did we forget someone?  Let us know in the comments.

Baghdatis (18):  Most dangerous when most discounted, the Cypriot ambushed Cilic and Berdych in Cincinnati before overcoming Nadal for the first time in seven meetings.  Although Rafa lacked his trademark intensity in their quarterfinal, Baghdatis completed the upset with impressive composure.  Two weeks earlier, he reached the final in Washington as well after defeating Verdasco.  Active in New Haven this week, though, he may arrive in New York a little fatigued, and the best-of-five format undermines a player who has struggled with fitness.

Fish (21): Who knew that fish could stay fresh in the heat?  Sizzling since Wimbledon, Mardy posted the best results of any American in the US Open Series and would have had a chance to win it had he not withdrawn (wisely) from New Haven.  Fish came within a tiebreak of the Cincinnati title after rallying from one-set deficits against both of the ATP’s leading Andys.  Fitter than ever, he also overcame Roddick and Isner in Atlanta despite the scorching heat.  On the other hand, he sometimes fades in best-of-five matches, as he did after winning the first set from Nadal at the 2008 US Open.

Querrey (22):  The future of American tennis together with the ailing Isner, Querrey scored one of the biggest wins of his career by defeating Murray in the LA final after saving match point on multiple occasions throughout the tournament.  The lanky Californian should enjoy the fast courts and supportive crowds in New York; he owns more titles than anyone but Nadal this year and is the only player to win a tournament on every surface in 2010.  Aligned against him are his indifferent performances at majors (cf. this year’s French Open), although a second-week showing at Wimbledon boded well for the future.

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Gulbis (26):  A tiebreak away from defeating an overheated Murray in Cincinnati, Gulbis also took a set from Soderling in Toronto despite rustiness after the leg injury that curtailed his Roland Garros and Wimbledon campaigns.  Having scored victories over Federer and Djokovic, he constitutes a threat to all of the ATP’s elite contenders; his encounter with Roddick at the 2008 US Open proved one of that tournament’s most scintillating first-week matches.  An abysmal 2009 included an uninspired first-round against Murray there last year, but outstanding performances this spring suggest that the charismatic Latvian will substantially improve upon that performance.  But he still revels in unpredictability and could produce a head-scratching loss just as easily as a sensational upset.

Kohlschreiber (31):  The flashy German with the sparkling one-handed backhand severely tested Nadal in a three-set Rogers Cup quarterfinal before withdrawing from Cincinnati with a shoulder strain.  Powerful off both wings, Kohlschreiber’s balanced groundstroke game and relentlessly attacking style should reap dividends on the fast surface in New York, where short points will expose his struggles with consistency less frequently.  Undermining his chances for a deep run are his serve, less reliable than the deliveries of most higher-ranked players, and his fragile sense of self-belief

Nalbandian (33):  Surging within a set of the final in 2003, the enigmatic Argentine may be the most dangerous name on the list.  Since Wimbledon, he defeated Davydenko and Youzhny in Davis Cup, then swept to the Washington title with victories over Simon, Cilic, and Baghdatis.  Murray and Djokovic dispatched him routinely at the two Masters 1000 events, but not before he had ousted Ferrer, Soderling, and Ljubicic.  Like many of the figures on this list, his injuries and dubious fitness hamper him in the best-of-five format, yet his often-questioned motivation is soaring; Nalbandian finally recognizes the approaching endpoint of his career and is playing with more urgency than he has shown in years.  The Argentine’s early ball-striking and flat two-hander will flourish on the New York courts against all but the best movers.

Potential victims: Wallowing in a summer-long slump, Davydenko has endured several losses to sub-50 players after returning from the wrist injury that he suffered in Miami.  Although he has enjoyed past success in New York, he also has suffered a few bizarre losses to unheralded opponents such as Gilles Muller.  Verdasco might be a threat under normal conditions, but the Spaniard exhausted himself with clay-season exertions and sagged listlessly during the US Open Series.  Moreover, no serious contender for the Open should be playing on the red dirt after Wimbledon unless it’s a home tournament, as it was for Soderling.  After a dazzling start to 2010 and a maiden Slam semifinal in Australia, Cilic has reeled from one early exit to another against foes from Garcia-Lopez to Michael Llodra and Florian Mayer.  Despite upsetting Murray in New York last year, he lacks the steely confidence to enjoy a deep run in New York.  Fellow Croat Ljubicic has faded quietly since startling rivals and audiences with his Indian Wells title run, even dropping his Wimbledon opener to a little-known Pole.

On to the ladies:

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Pennetta (21):  A quarterfinalist at last year’s US Open, this emotional Italian enjoys almost as much success on hard courts as on her beloved clay.  An impressive US Open Series included quarterfinals in both of the Premier Five events (Cincinnati and Canada), during which she threatened leading contenders Clijsters and Wozniacki.  Before Cincinnati, she reached the semifinals of San Diego with a commanding victory over Stosur.  All three players who defeated Pennetta in the summer hard-court season have progressed to win the title, so only a top-drawer performance sufficed to overcome her.  On the other hand, she looked weary and literally foot-sore in Montreal but chose to play New Haven anyway, perhaps not the most judicious decision for her New York longevity.

Pavlyuchenkova (22):  The Russians keep coming as relentlessly as the rain in Montreal last weekend, and this former junior #1 seems destined for the top 10.  During a breakthrough week in Cincinnati, she overcame Hantuchova, Dementieva, and Wickmayer before taking a set from Sharapova; also impressive was her stamina in the heat, an auspicious omen for the Open.  Less encouraging were her struggles with double faults and a hip injury that forced her to withdraw from New Haven and may have hampered her during a three-set loss to Kuznetsova in Montreal.

Zheng (23):  Better known for her accomplishments in doubles, the Chinese firecracker battled toe-to-toe with Sharapova for much of their Stanford encounter and later ambushed Dementieva in Canada en route to the quarterfinals.  She has scored multiple victories over former #1s and rises to the occasion on the grandest stages, including semifinals at Wimbledon in 2008 and the Australian Open in 2009.  Inside her petite frame lies far more competitive determination than is found inside many of her colleagues.  Sadly for her, her serve is as benign as her charming smile and offers too inviting a target for the WTA’s top returners.

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Ivanovic (41):  A surprise semifinalist in Cincinnati, the sensuous Serb gathered momentum after a thrilling three-set comeback over Stanford champion Azarenka, during which she hovered within two points of defeat on three different occasions.  Could that match be the turning point that her fans long have awaited?  Profiting from a relatively barren section of the draw, Ana romped through her next three rounds with the loss of just 13 games but injured her ankle ligaments early in the semifinal against Clijsters.  Even if she recovers, she must grapple with negative memories of New York, her least successful major; exposing her tentative backhand, the fast courts there have fueled first-week exits in all but one of her appearances.

Oudin (44):  To be sure, she enters the Open on a four-match losing streak and has been dreadful for the vast majority of the past 12 months.  Nevertheless, some players remain oddly steady at a certain tournament despite disasters everywhere else.  While Oudin will feel the pressure of justifying last year’s result, the crowd will be enthusiastically behind her on every point.  Should we still BELIEVE?  The moment of truth approaches.

Safina (59):  A semifinalist in 2008, the Russian former #1 suffered a string of ignominious exits after returning from a back injury this summer but has shown recent signs of life.  Probably her most impressive victory of the US Open Series was a tightly contested three-setter against her compatriot Petrova, a two-time Slam quarterfinalist herself this year.  This week, Safina gained revenge upon Montreal nemesis Schiavone, so she’s gathering momentum at an ideal time.  It’s probable that she’ll wilt eventually under the bright lights of New York, but her penetrating groundstrokes might generate a first-week headline or two.

Potential victims:  Perpetually injured, ill, exhausted, or all of the above, Jankovic lost consecutive matches to qualifiers in Cincinnati and Montreal.  The 2008 US Open finalist won just one match in the US Open Series (against a qualifier) and has vanished from the radar almost completely since an especially feckless implosion in the Roland Garros semifinals.  Struggling with an arm injury, Stosur is saving match points against Errani as we write and never has progressed past the second round in New York.  Not unlike Ivanovic, she struggles to conceal her tepid backhand on the fast courts.  Seemingly content with that magical Roland Garros title, Schiavone has won very few matches since then and probably won’t revive her competitive vigor until the Fed Cup final in November.  (On the other hand, she did reach the second week at the Open last year.)  Finally, Roland Garros semifinalist Dementieva has fallen from the top 10 after a combination of injuries and straight-set losses to Pavlyuchenkova and Zheng in the early rounds of the two Premier Five events.

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We return on Friday or Saturday to break down each quarter of both draws in our usual fashion.

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