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As Saturday careened from Soporific to Super to Super-Soporific, one could only wonder what the final Sunday of the Slam season might hold.  At the center of this conundrum stands Novak Djokovic, who boldly shattered anticipations of a Federer-Nadal final with his most stunning Slam performance since the 2008 Australian Open, or perhaps ever.  Reigniting the rivalry with Rafa that witnessed such epics as the 2009 Madrid semifinal, Novak displayed greater physical endurance and mental fortitude against Federer than all but his most ardent supporters could have expected.  In stark contrast with the Serb’s three previous clashes against the Swiss here was the plotline that unfolded during the climactic stages of their 2010 meeting.  Serving to stay in the match at 4-5 in the fifth set, all initially went according to the projected script; a fragile Djokovic shanked an overhead, floated a pair of aimless backhands, and rapidly found himself facing two match points.  But the match turned almost at that instant as he unleashed a series of ferocious forehands to save the first match point and then a spine-tinglingly audacious bomb that left Federer flat-footed on the second match point.  Visibly and understandably disconcerted, the five-time champion surrendered his service game with little ado, yet one more test remained.  When Djokovic served for one of the most important victories of his career, he saved a predictable break point with another confident forehand and then patiently outlasted Federer in a 21-shot exchange on match point.

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Whether or not the Serb seizes the ultimate prize tomorrow, this victory signals a second breakthrough and the end of a protracted “sophomore slump.”  Saving further thoughts on that topic until the tournament recap, however, we turn our attention towards his potential fortunes against Nadal.  The victor in seven of his ten hard-court clashes with the Spaniard, Djokovic has dominated him as much as anyone dominates Rafa on any surface.  None of those meetings occurred in majors, however, where the third seed never has conquered the world #1.  Just as importantly, Nadal has won all of the finals that they have played and all of their clashes at majors in addition to their semifinal at the Beijing Olympics two years ago.  Balancing the surface advantage for the Serb, therefore, is the indisputable fact that Rafa remains the superior competitor at the most critical stages of the most critical tournaments.  Throughout their compelling rivalry, Djokovic has delivered some of his most breathtaking, fearless offense against the Spaniard, which in turn has showcased his opponent’s legendary counterpunching and retrieving talents.  In order to capture his second major, the Serb should build upon the adrenaline burst from his epic triumph on Saturday and seek to establish an early lead.  The third seed will need to target lines and corners with a precision equal to his shot-making in the semifinal, but the fast surface will reward him more than almost all of the other courts where he has dueled with Nadal.  Beyond ordinary fatigue, his greatest enemy may be complacency after deposing the monarch whose throne he long has coveted and who was his New York nemesis until this weekend.  If he doesn’t intend to content himself with that accomplishment, he must cede no territory and stand firmly on top of the baseline, pounding his inside-out forehand and two-handed backhand into Nadal’s forehand corner.  Functioning reliably for Murray in Toronto, that tactic exposes the Spaniard’s backhand corner, towards which his movement is slightly less seamless.

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Despite his hard-court record against Djokovic, Nadal enters this final as the clear if not prohibitive favorite, an unusual position for him to occupy in the championship match of a non-clay major.  Confronting the pressure of completing a career Slam (or “career Golden Slam,” in fact), the top seed has enjoyed a far smoother draw than the Serb and has faced nobody more intimidating than Verdasco.  A sudden upward spike in competition did not trouble the Spaniard at Roland Garros this year, but we’ll be curious to note whether he starts the final a little flat before finding his range.  Aware of his opponent’s probable physical and emotional fatigue, Nadal surely will attempt to prolong the rallies early in the match.  Undefeated against Djokovic in a best-of-five format, the world #1 knows that a lost first set might not prove fatal if he ensures that the Serb expends considerable energy in securing it.  On the other hand, Rafa has dropped serve just twice in six matches this week and will not succumb to the pressure of Novak’s sparkling return as easily as he did when his serve constituted just a point-starting shot.  Content to play defense in most of their previous meetings, Nadal should attempt to dictate a greater proportion of the points this time, not only because of the speedier court but to send a message to Djokovic.  If he knows that his adversary will pounce upon opportunities to transition from defense to offense, the Serb will sense greater pressure and attempt riskier gambits in order to avoid surrendering the initiative.  From a psychological perspective, Nadal’s unglamorous but undemanding task is to maintain his bulletproof intensity from point to point as rigorously as his physicality, staying alert for the sporadic lulls into which Djokovic almost surely will stagger.  One of the most opportunistic players in the sport, the Spaniard is ideally suited to that mission and should become the first player since Rod Laver to win three consecutive majors in the same calendar year.

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No, the final won’t be Federer-Nadal, and the US Open probably never will witness an episode of “the greatest rivalry in sports.”  What it will witness tomorrow, though, might well be more intriguing than anything that the weary albeit classic Fedal saga could provide in its twilight stage.  New York always has been a city of the present rather than the past, and this concluding collision eschews the sepia nostalgia of Rafa-Roger for the neon swagger of Rafa-Novak.  Few conclusions could be better suited to the biggest, loudest, brightest Slam of all.

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Bright lights, big city, baseline bombs:  the US Open has arrived again.  We break down both the men’s and the women’s draws quarter by quarter, this time starting with the ladies…

First quarter: Having captured consecutive titles in Montreal and New Haven, top seed Wozniacki looms over the draw a bit more authoritatively than one might have expected.  The world #2 should cruise through her first two rounds into a potentially intriguing clash with lefty shotmaker Safarova, who often has ambushed marquee players and may profit from her opponent’s fatigue.  If healthy, though, the top seed likely will advance to a final-16 clash with Sharapova, who must overcome surging Australian Jarmila Groth in the first round and French firecracker Rezai in the third round.  On the other side lurks Li Na, unimpressive since Wimbledon but always a formidable competitor in majors with her focus and mental resilience.  Not known for either of those qualities, 2004 champion and 2007 finalist Kuznetsova might encounter the Chinese star in the fourth round if she escapes Roland Garros (and Rome) nemesis Kirilenko in the third round.  The most fearsome offense in this fearsome section, however, belongs to the 14th-seeded Sharapova, who also may benefit from Wozniacki’s weariness and Kuznetsova’s continued fragility.  Despite her premature exits at her last two US Opens, Maria has rediscovered her confidence as well as her serve in recent months, and her savage strokes should sizzle through the fast courts just as they did in Stanford and Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Sharapova

Second quarter: Probably the softest quarter in the draw, this section might open a door for a dark horse like Petrova, who has reached two Slam quarterfinals this year by knocking off Clijsters and Venus.  The enigmatic Russian opens her campaign against rising German Andrea Petkovic before colliding with the crafty Radwanska in the third round; although she sparkled for much of the US Open Series, the Pole lacks the first-strike weaponry required to progress deep into the New York draw.  Eyeing a potential rematch with San Diego nemesis Coco Vandeweghe is Wimbledon finalist Zvonareva, who rebounded from a predictable post-breakthrough lull to reach the Montreal final with a second victory over Clijsters.  Almost vanishing after Roland Garros, Jankovic played only four matches on American hard courts this summer (winning just one) and faces a thorny third-round clash with Kaia Kanepi.  Before charging within a point of the Wimbledon semifinals, the burly Estonian threatened the lithe Serb on the Paris clay.  Suffering an arid summer so far, lower seeds Martinez Sanchez and Wickmayer might struggle to reach the second week.  Whoever emerges from this section, however, likely will be cannon fodder for the semifinalist from the first quarter, whether it is Sharapova, Wozniacki, Kuznetsova, or Li.

Semifinalist:  Zvonareva

Third quarter: Above the top two seeds in this region, Venus and Schiavone, hover substantial uncertainties concerning the motivation level of the former and the fitness level of the latter.  In the third round, the willowy Bulgarian Tsvetana Pironkova aims to complete three-quarters of a Venus Slam, having vanquished the elder Williams at the Australian Open and this year’s Wimbledon.  Yet the more intriguing third-round encounter features Cincinnati semifinalist and former junior #1 Pavlyuchenkova against Stanford champion Azarenka, once again on the threshold of evolving into an elite contender.  Don’t forget last year’s quarterfinalist Flavia Pennetta, a steady all-court veteran who might well oust Venus in the fourth round, but we’ll back the winner of Pavlyuchenkova-Azarenka to reach the final four of a major for the first time in their careers.  (Situated in a relatively benign corner, meanwhile, Melanie Oudin might not fall on her face as disastrously as some Americans have feared.)

Semifinalist:  Azarenka

Fourth quarter: Rivaling the first quarter for potential intrigue, this section features the defending champion, two former #1s, an Olympic gold medalist, and arguably the best server in the tournament.  Like Wozniacki, Clijsters enjoys a pair of comfortable rounds before confronting a quirky Czech lefty with an arhythmic style centered around high risk and high reward.  Since reaching the Wimbledon semifinals, however, Kvitova has struggled to cope with her elevated status and (not unlike Rezai) has returned to her feckless former self.  If Ivanovic can defuse Eastbourne champion Makarova in her opener, she will face the imposing task of overcoming Zheng and then Bartoli in order to arrive at a fourth-round meeting with the defending champion.  The other side of this quarter features several players armed with excellent pedigrees but plagued by recurrent inconsistency, ranging from Stosur and Kleybanova to Safina and Dementieva.  In her New Haven semifinal with Wozniacki, Elena outplayed the eventual champion for much of the match but characteristically squandered a late lead, while the ailing Stosur pried just three games from Petrova last week.  Therefore, opportunity knocks for 2008 semifinalist Safina to extend her encouraging summer with a second-week appearance.  But her run will end by the quarters unless the Belgian’s hip injury resurfaces.

Semifinalist:  Clijsters

Final:  Sharapova vs. Azarenka

Champion:  Sharapova

Turning to the gentlemen and not-so-gentle men…

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First quarter: Uninspired during the summer Masters 1000 tournaments, Nadal should feast upon a section filled with erratic shotmakers and dubious competitors, although projected third-round foe Kohlschreiber did challenge him in Toronto.  The only player to defeat Rafa between Miami and the Rogers Cup, Lopez could intersect with his compatriot in the round of 16 after a third-round meeting with Ljubicic; the Croat has faded swiftly (and unsurprisingly) since winning Indian Wells.  On the other side proliferate some of the ATP’s most distinctive personalities, spearheaded by Verdasco, Gulbis, and Nalbandian.  Sagging after a dazzling clay season, Verdasco likely will fall to the resurgent Argentine in the third round, while Gulbis will be favored to bludgeon slow-surface specialist Ferrer into submission.  Nadal could struggle against the winner of a Gulbis-Nalbandian confrontation, for both of them possess the ability to overpower the Spaniard from the baseline.  Nevertheless, the top seed should rely on his consistency and concentration against the Latvian or his fitness against the Argentine in order to reach a third consecutive semifinal at the only Slam that still eludes him.

Semifinalist:  Nadal

Second quarter: A finalist at two of his last four hard-court majors, Murray once again lies on the threshold of a substantial breakthrough after defeating Federer and Nadal consecutively in Canada.  Occasional hitting partner Wawrinka should test but not thwart the Scot in the third round, and possible fourth-round foe Querrey still must learn how to translate his small-scale success into the majors and Masters 1000 tournaments.  At the base of the quarter rests the revelation of the year, Berdych, although a leg injury in Cincinnati may undercut his efforts to reprise a Roland Garros demolition of Murray and reach a third consecutive Slam semifinal.  Moreover, the Czech appears a bit mentally jaded after his unexpected successes in 2010 have elevated his match total relatively early in the season.  Mentally suspect or physically dubious names populate much of this section, Isner among them; hindered by strained ankle ligaments, the American is still regrouping after his surreal Wimbledon epic.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Third quarter: Although tennis doesn’t incorporate the concept of home-court advantage, both Roddick and Fish will feel relatively satisfied with their section.  Briefly outstanding during his Toronto semifinal, Djokovic lapsed into lethargy and indifference again during his week in Cincinnati, where Andy extended his dominance over the Serb.  They could collide in the quarterfinals for the second straight tournament, but it’s equally likely that Roddick will meet the winner of a third-round duel between Baghdatis and Fish.  Long known for squandering their talents, both the Cypriot and the American reaped the rewards of renewed dedication during the US Open Series.  Despite recuperating from mono, Roddick has enjoyed greater success in the best-of-five format than most of this quarter’s other inhabitants, including potential fourth-round opponents Davydenko and Bellucci.  If he hopes to progress deep into the tournament, however, Andy must win his matches more efficiently than he did in Cincinnati.

Semifinalist:  Roddick

Fourth quarter: Whether seeded at the top or the bottom of the draw, Federer generally finds himself nestled in a cozy corner.  Such is the case again here, as the Swiss legend will not have to overcome anyone more demanding than veterans Hewitt, Ferrero, and Melzer in order to reach the quarterfinals—where he faces the same player whom he defeated here in that round a year ago.  In addition to Soderling’s dismal head-to-head record against Federer, however, one should remember that he dragged the five-time US Open champion within a point of a fifth set last year before dispatching him from Roland Garros (in yet another quarterfinal) this year.  With the massive bookends of the Swede and the Swiss, one might nearly forget about the balanced groundstroke game of Marin Cilic, whose recent swoon is threatening to shift him from the “promising” to the “once-promising” category.  Surrounded by a host of qualifiers, the Croat should reach the second week and a fourth-round encounter with Soderling, but neither he nor the injury-addled Gonzalez currently possesses both the confidence and the weapons to win a best-of-five encounter with the fifth seed.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Final:  Murray vs. Federer

Champion:  Federer

***

Balanced better than the draws of several recent Slams, these quadrants should provide a steady acceleration of action from the first week through the middle weekend towards the championship matches.  We return tomorrow to preview the most scintillating opening salvos of the season’s final major!

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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.

***

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

This second article of our US Open preview series discusses the challengers in the outer circle of contenders, players with legitimate aspirations to win the title but with less airtight cases than the favorites whom we outlined yesterday.  Selecting three members of the ATP and three members of the WTA, we explain why these less legendary players might find themselves with a bit of extra hardware to polish over the winter.

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1) Andy Roddick

Causes for confidence:  Recovering from a bout of mono that hampered much of his summer, Roddick dramatically exceeded expectations in Cincinnati.  After he vanquished fifth-ranked Soderling in a suspenseful third-set tiebreak, the top American extended his mastery over third-ranked Djokovic and nearly doused the flames of a scalding Mardy Fish.  The 2003 US Open champion always enjoys greater crowd support than any of his rivals in New York, creating an electric atmosphere that boosts his spirits in tight matches.  During his earlier hard-court campaigns this season, he scored triumphs over Soderling, Nadal, and Berdych at the Masters 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami.  As illustrated in Cincinnati, Roddick responds better to heat and humidity than most of his future foes.

Causes for concern:  Visibly drained of energy late in his longer matches, the post-mono Roddick may not be ideally prepared for the best-of-five format at a major.  Once stellar in tight sets, Andy has dropped eight of his last eleven tiebreaks, and his prowess in closing out matches has wavered; he failed to serve out matches against Djokovic and Fish after squandering second-set match points against Soderling.  Moreover, there’s that little problem called Federer, who has defeated Roddick in four Slam finals and three Slam semifinals while compiling a 19-2 record against the American.

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2) Robin Soderling

Causes for confidence: A two-time Roland Garros finalist, Soderling came within a point of a fifth set against Federer in a US Open quarterfinal last year.  Despite his clay breakthroughs, the swift surface there should suit his percussive game better than any of the other majors.  The only player in the draw who has defeated both Federer and Nadal at majors, Soderling possesses more than sufficient swagger to assault the summit of the ATP.  His fearsome precision on both serve and groundstrokes should especially dazzle during a night session, when conditions are calmer. Traveling without coach Magnus Norman for the last several weeks, the Swede will be rejoined by his invaluable mentor before confronting the pressure of New York.

Causes for concern:  Ever an inflammable character, Soderling succumbed to his emotions too often during his summer campaign and displayed a disturbing negativity during a few of his recent losses.  Rebounding from TGUE (The Greatest Upset Ever) last spring, Nadal seems to have regained the momentum in that mini-rivalry with victories at the last two majors.  Lacking a Plan B, Soderling often struggles to maintain consistency throughout a tournament and may not be equipped to defeat a range of playing styles over the course of a fortnight; he has won surprisingly few titles considering his vast talents.

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3) Tomas Berdych

Causes for confidence: Rare is the player who takes up residence inside Federer’s cranium, but Berdych joined Nadal in that coveted piece of real estate after the Swiss admitted his anxiety when playing the Czech in Canada.  For the vast majority of that match, Tomas controlled as many baseline rallies as did Roger and kept his legendary opponent at bay with Del Potro-like groundstrokes.  After reaching the Roland Garros semifinals and the Wimbledon final, Berdych adapts well to the best-of-five format, which allows him to find his game, lose it, and find it again.  Yet fast hard courts remain his favorite surface, suggesting that he should improve upon dismal past performances at the US Open.  The Czech’s sturdier mentality will allow him to cope with his glamorous surroundings more capably than before.

Causes for concern: In response to an abysmal bit of scheduling by the Washington event, the old, churlish Berdych resurfaced to express his disgust with this minor tournament.  When he attempted to serve out his match against Federer, more importantly, the old Berdych resurfaced in a different way by donating egregious unforced errors as the pressure mounted upon him.  No such situation arose in Cincinnati, where the Czech suffered a routine loss to Baghdatis amidst discussion of a lingering injury.  Consequently, he brings little momentum to New York and will hope for a tranquil first week in which to regain it.

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1) Svetlana Kuznetsova

Causes for confidence:  Rebounding from a disastrous first half, the mercurial Russian relished her week in San Diego, where she battled to the title past Pennetta and Radwanska.  Armed with the confidence of that long-awaited victory, she tested Sharapova in Cincinnati before reaching the Montreal semifinal.  The 2004 US Open champion and 2007 finalist possesses a Clijsters-like athleticism that will be rewarded on the fast courts and a taste for showmanship that will be welcomed in New York.  Although Kuznetsova’s forehand comprises a more potent weapon than her backhand, she can hit winners from both wings and won’t easily be wrong-footed.  She also enters the tournament with a stronger health record than any of the other contenders, and durability should not be underestimated in the physically demanding context of a major.

Causes for concern:  Don’t be overly discouraged by her semifinal loss to Wozniacki in Canada, played under conditions that would have frustrated most competitors.  But that desultory defeat did remind audiences of her wayward focus, which has undermined on grand stages throughout her career.  Often more concerned with entertaining than winning, Kuznetsova sometimes derails herself with reckless, unintelligent shot-making.  And her game hasn’t returned for a substantial period, so her confidence may falter under pressure.  Furthermore, top contenders will punish her for the late-match nerves that she has displayed throughout this season.

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2) Caroline Wozniacki

Causes for confidence:  Seizing the most important title of her career so far, Wozniacki defeated a string of reasonably formidable opponents at the Rogers Cup and coped impressively with the rain-addled weekend.  The world #2 reached the final here last year by relentlessly exploiting the opportunities that arose and can be trusted to do so again.  More mature than her twenty years would suggest, she should respond calmly and coolly to the New York atmosphere.  Earlier this year, Wozniacki earned hard-court laurels at Indian Wells, where she reached her first Premier Mandatory final.  Recovered from the ankle injury that hampered her clay and grass seasons, she now covers the court as fluidly as ever and generally competes better than the WTA’s other rising stars.

Causes for concern:  Still susceptible to the occasional odd loss, the Pole-Dane folded meekly to Bartoli in Cincinnati and struggled with the high temperatures there, an ominous portent for the Open.  Like Murray, she continues to lack an offensive weapon that would be rewarded on the fast courts (although, like Murray, she proved that counterpunchers can prosper in New York).  Dominating most of her peers, Wozniacki still struggles against most of the WTA veterans and never has defeated a former #1.  As the top seed, she will carry the proverbial “target on the back” into the draw and must cope with the additional burden of this position, not an easy task for a 20-year-old.

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3) Vera Zvonareva

Causes for confidence:  A surprise finalist at Wimbledon,  Zvonareva has scored two wins over Open favorite Clijsters this summer, which itself would suffice to feature her on this list.  Again a finalist in Canada, she dispatched her early opponents with an efficiency valuable in the seven-match fortnight at a Slam.  The meltdown potential that spelled her doom in New York a year ago has receded—although not disappeared—and allowed her to play a more focused, purposeful brand of tennis at key moments.  After struggling with ankle problems throughout her career, her balance looks much less awkward than previously and allows her to reverse direction more smoothly, an important asset on a fast court.  Far less familiar to mainstream fans and media than most contenders, she might coast into the second week with less of the exhausting scrutiny than her rivals will endure.

Causes for concern:  An unassuming personality, Vera clashes with the extroverted atmosphere surrounding the Open.  Just as with Kuznetsova, moreover, her breakthrough has been recent, so it’s difficult to discern whether she can extend success at one major better than she could extend her 2009 triumph at Indian Wells.  Often following impressive results with early exits, she lost early in San Diego and Cincinnati after reaching the Wimbledon final.  Vera often underperforms in finals and has accumulated a 10-14 record in championship matches (1-3 this year); she won eight total games in the Charleston and Montreal finals, suggesting that she might not be able to finish what she starts.

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By contrast, we are fully able to finish what we start.  Tomorrow comes Part III of the US Open previews, focusing on dark horses who (probably) won’t win the title but might spoil the fortnights of a few higher seeds.  Here’s a glimpse of the loveliest mane in the list:

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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!