Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia poses for photographers after receiving a trophy commemorating his number one ATP singles ranking during the Rogers Cup at Uniprix Stadium on August 8, 2011 in Montreal, Canada.

Djokovic:  An overwhelming favorite before Cincinnati began, the world #1 remains the favorite despite the fatigue and shoulder soreness that caused him to withdraw from last week’s final.  Confident that he will overcome those issues before the US Open begins, Djokovic has won 20 of his last 21 matches at non-clay matches, eight of his nine matches this year against Nadal and Federer, and 57 of 59 matches in 2011 overall.  The US Open historically has proved his finest major, where he has not lost before the semifinals or to anyone outside the top three since 2006, and the city’s glamorous atmosphere mirrors his personality.  If he reaches the championship weekend, his improved fitness should allow him to weather the challenges of playing best-of-five matches on consecutive days better than before.  In fact, his failure to win Cincinnati ultimately may improve his prospects in New York by diminishing expectations for him.

Nadal:  Quelled by Djokovic in five finals this season, the defending champion struggled in the US Open Series while registering just two victories and squandering multiple leads in an opening-round Montreal defeat.  An outstanding year by almost anyone’s standards has proven relatively disappointing for Nadal, whose futility against the Serb has translated into a general uncertainty against other opponents.  But the glimpse of his rival’s frailty will embolden this keen competitor, if he can find the formidable serving that carried him to last year’s title, and his “underperformance” to this stage may heighten his motivation.  Other than Djokovic and perhaps Murray at their finest, few of his rivals currently can sustain the level of calculated aggression necessary to overcome Nadal in a best-of-five format.

Federer:  Gone by the quarterfinals in his last three tournaments, the five-time US Open titlist has become increasingly unreliable in his old age.  While his serve should benefit from the fastest Slam surface, he seems unlikely to progress through an entire fortnight without at least one notable lapse upon which a talented opponent could capitalize.  His vintage, inspired self against Del Potro in his Cincinnati opener, Federer looked passive when confronted by the physicality of Tsonga and Berdych.  Nevertheless, he will enjoy ardent crowd support in New York, and he remains the only player to convert a match point against Djokovic this year.  Should he meet the Serb for the fifth straight Open, Federer will gain confidence from his three previous victories there and from their memorable encounter in Paris.

Murray:  A finalist and semifinalist at the two non-clay majors so far, the Cincinnati champion won’t become a favorite to win a major until he does.  Murray might exploit any lingering injury to Djokovic and the erratic form of Nadal and Federer, though, for his counterpunching style demands both durability and consistency from his opponents.  Having played many fewer matches this year than the top two, he might bring greater energy to New York.  Considering the US Open his favorite major, Murray remains vulnerable to explosive hitters on its fast courts.  Moreover, he has lost all three of his Slam finals in straight sets, wilting miserably in the most important matches of his career.

Ferrer:  A clay-court specialist, the Spaniard has reached improbable semifinals at both hard-court majors.  His grinding, underpowered style seemingly would struggle here, but Ferrer rarely loses matches that he should win or contributes to his own demise.  Not a genuine title threat, he could spoil the hopes of one or two rivals before someone hits through him.

Soderling:  Still seeking his first Slam semifinal outside Roland Garros, the Swede will find his weaknesses minimized and his strengths maximized on a surface that favors first-strike firepower over crisp movement or footwork.  Injured for much of 2011, Soderling began the year with three titles in two months but has faded since then at significant tournaments, including Slam losses to second-tier threats Dolgopolov and Tomic.  He nearly extended Federer to five sets here two years ago, however, and should not find the grand stage intimidating.  Absent from Montreal and Cincinnati, Soderling probably needs more hard-court matches to mount a legitimate threat.

Fish:  Like Li and Schiavone, the new top-ranked American has crossed the line from spoiler to contender in his late 20s and now can hope (albeit faintly) for a debut Slam title.  A three-time finalist in the US Open Series, Fish has struggled in finals throughout his career and never has passed the quarterfinals at a major.  Assuming the mantle of Roddick, the newest home hope will go as far as his first serve can carry him and survive as long as he maintains his focus, difficult for him in the best-of-five format before.  A win over Nadal and a tight three-setter against Djokovic will have encouraged the world #7 to believe in his ability to compete with the best.

Tsonga:  Twice defeating Federer this summer, he should find a rapt audience in New York for his distinctively acrobatic brand of tennis.  Leaping and darting to the Wimbledon semifinal, Tsonga never has excelled at the US Open as injuries have hampered his attempts to sustain momentum after his breakthroughs.  In addition to his status as Federer’s most recent nemesis, though, his winning record against Djokovic and Slam success against Nadal inspires thoughts of a splashy potential upset.  A title probably lies out of reach, especially if the Frenchman confronts Murray or a similarly steady opponent.

Del Potro:  Never discount former champions, but a player who lost to Gulbis and Cilic in straight sets this summer looks more like a dark horse than a title threat.  Thoroughly outplayed by Federer in Cincinnati, Del Potro regressed from his spring form in recent weeks and has recalled his younger, more tentative self in recent losses.  Will his first match in New York since the greatest triumph of his career revive him?  While not impossible, that prospect seems distant for a player who has lost all of his matches against the top three since returning from shoulder surgery.

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We return tomorrow with a parallel article on the top women at the season’s final Slam.

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