2012 has been the year of tennis monarchs returning to claim their thrones. The king and queen, Roger Federer and Serena Williams, both came back to win their first Grand Slam tournaments in more than two years.
Federer and Williams will each try to add to their all-time medal hauls (Federer 17, Williams 14) at this year's U.S. Open, but each faces stiff competition from some of the brightest stars in the sport.
On the men's side, Federer will get some relief by not having to face the injured Rafael Nadal, but his greatest threat by far will be from defending champion Novak Djokovic. Aside from Djokovic, recent Olympic champion and 2012 Wimbledon foe Andy Murray and a handful of other elite players all hope to break the stranglehold on the majors held by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
Williams does not have things any easier than Federer. Three competitors are ranked higher than her, each of whom has the talent to win at Flushing Meadows. The women's game presently has much more parity than the men's game, and more than a half-dozen competitors have a strong chance of winning at Flushing Meadows.
Here is a look at the odds, courtesy of British gaming company Ladbrokes, for the top-10 men and women at the U.S. Open, and a breakdown of the chances of each competitor to win the U.S. Open title.
After his Wimbledon victory and Olympic silver medal, Roger Federer seems to have silenced his critics who argued that the maestro was washed up after failing to win a major in more than two years. Federer's recent dominance has changed the question from "Is Federer all done?" to "How much longer can he go on?"
There's no reason to think Federer doesn't have a great chance to win at Flushing Meadows. With his greatest rival out of the tournament due to injury, Federer's greatest challenges will come from Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. While Murray has reached the U.S. Open finals (where he lost to Federer in 2008) and Djokovic is the defending champion, neither can claim anything near the success that Federer has had at the tournament.
Federer won five straight U.S. Opens between 2004 and 2008, the longest streak since Bill Tilden's in the 1920s. He's been no slouch since 2008, reaching the finals in 2009 and the semifinals in each of the last two seasons.
Federer can no longer steamroll his way to victory at the U.S. Open, and with new winners at each of the last three tournaments, several of tennis's best now believe they can win in New York. Still, Federer appears to be in the midst of a career resurgence, and the greatest player of all time has a strong chance of adding to his 17 major victories.
Despite Roger Federer's recent run of dominance on the grass at the All England Lawn and Tennis Club, Novak Djokovic is the handicapper's favorite to defend his title at the 2012 U.S. Open.
It's hard to imagine anyone more relieved to see Rafael Nadal's name missing from the draw than Djokovic. Djokovic was denied his career Grand Slam at this year's French Open by Nadal in the final, the second time Nadal has defeated Djokovic in the final of a major. Nadal also denied Djokovic in the final at the Monte-Carlo Rolex Masters, Nadal's eighth consecutive title at the tournament.
But even Nadal has had a tough time beating Djokovic on hard courts, where Djokovic has an 11-5 advantage over his rival. Federer and Andy Murray have had more success on the surface, but Djokovic will be tough to beat at Flushing Meadows, where he has reached two finals and two semifinals in addition to his 2011 victory.
Things have been a little quiet for Djokovic lately, a rarity for the jocular star. Expect things to get mighty loud for him very, very soon.
Rafael Nadal came within a few sets of winning his second consecutive U.S. Open last year, but Novak Djokovic proved too much for him. Nadal will have to wait until next year to try to win another Open, as he is suffering from a case of knee tendinitis that also caused him to withdraw from the Olympics, the Rogers Cup and the Cincinnati Masters.
After a phenomenal run of five straight Grand Slam finals in 2011 and 2012, Nadal's injuries have caused him to struggle a bit since winning the French Open earlier this year, where he played what was quite possibly the best tennis of his life. Nadal lost in the quarterfinals at the Gerry Weber Open, then lost in the second round of Wimbledon to Lukas Rosol, ranked 100th in the world.
Nadal has wisely committed to resting until he has fully recovered from his injury. Nadal has suffered from knee tendinitis for a few years, and he would be foolish to risk his future over a few tournaments. It is always a shame to have a Grand Slam missing one of the sport's finest players, but let's hope Nadal will be back in top form at next year's Australian Open.
It's been said several times before, but this time it's really true: this might just be the time that Andy Murray wins his first Grand Slam event.
Murray is still riding the high off his Olympic gold-medal victory over Roger Federer, which no doubt helped erase the blow of losing to the maestro at Wimbledon. Murray played with great confidence and verve at the Olympics, and it seems that Ivan Lendl may be having the effect on Murray that the Scot's fans hoped he would have.
Murray has demonstrated conclusively that he is the fourth-best player in the world, behind the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Assuming he gets past the opponents he will face in the early rounds, the 2012 U.S. Open offers him a real opportunity to win.
Murray is 9-8 lifetime against Federer, with an 8-7 record on hard courts, and after his Olympic victory he would almost certainly approach a Federer matchup with greater confidence than he has had in the past.
Against Djokovic, Murray is 6-8 lifetime, with five of his six wins coming on hard courts. Djokovic has a slight edge, but it is close enough to be within the margin of error.
The one player Murray has truly struggled against is Nadal, who is 13-5 in his career against Murray. Each of Murray's wins have come on hard courts, but Nadal still would be favored to defeat Murray. Murray is therefore quite lucky that Nadal will not be playing in the U.S. Open, leaving only two of his three greatest rivals in his path.
It's possible that Murray is doomed to be one of the greatest players of all time without a Grand Slam victory. But Murray has been a different kind of player over the past few months, and the stars may be aligning to grant him his first Grand Slam victory.
It's an odd situation in which the fifth-ranked tennis player in the world is given 40/1 odds of winning a tournament. Yet in today's tennis world in which only one Grand Slam singles title has been won by someone other than the big three of Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal, this is the reality of handicapping the U.S. Open.
Ferrer has played truly outstanding tennis in 2012. He has won five ATP tournaments in 2012, reached the semifinals at the French Open and the quarterfinals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. His dogged play has earned him universal respect from his competitors, and it's hard not to think that if he played in a different time, he would have earned a Slam or two by now.
At 30 years old, Ferrer is running out of time to win a coveted Slam. He has the benefit of not having Nadal in his way this year, but with the emergence of Andy Murray making it a Big 3.5, Ferrer might be out of luck.
Until someone can show that the Big Three is vulnerable, anyone other than Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic —with the exception of Murray—will always be a long shot at the majors.
After 11 straight Grand Slams in which either Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal had won the title, the 2008 Australian Open final offered the world a new champion, as unseeded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga took on 2007 U.S. Open runner-up Novak Djokovic. Though Djokovic won the Open and went on to join Federer and Nadal as the junior member of the Big Three, Tsonga has become one of the best players in the men's game and a regular threat to win at both ATP tournaments and Grand Slams.
Tsonga has won eight ATP singles tournaments, most recently at the Qatar Open in January. He has also been successful on the doubles side, winning four ATP events and the silver medal at the London Olympics.
In the past five Grand Slam events, Tsonga has reached at least the fourth round in each tournament, including two semifinals. In his career, he has reached three Grand Slam semifinals and four quarterfinals, in addition to his finals loss at the 2008 Australian Open.
Tsonga's aggressive play stymies most of his opponents. He's one of the few players with a legitimate threat of unseating Djokovic and Federer at the Open. Tsonga is 27 years old, and if he is ever going to live up to the promise he has shown over the past five seasons, this is the time to do it.
After a run that included five ATP wins between 2004 and 2009, Tomas Berdych started to show signs that he might be the best young contender in the game. In 2010, Berdych reached the semifinals at the French Open, the first time he had reached the semifinals at a major and only the second time he had made it to at least the quarterfinals. He followed up his performance at Roland Garros by reaching the finals at Wimbledon, where he was beaten in straight sets by Rafael Nadal.
Berdych's hopes of becoming the best player in his age bracket were lost when Novak Djokovic began his assault on Federer and Nadal's dominance. But despite his being a bit overshadowed by the Djoker, Berdych has become an outstanding player. Since his Wimbledon finals appearance, he has reached the finals of three more ATP events, winning at the China Open and Open Sud de France.
Berdych's consistent play earned him the No. 6 ranking in 2010, and he presently is No. 7. Like many of the top players of this era, Berdych is unfortunate to play at the same time as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, and it is easy to imagine him winning a few Slams in another era.
Berdych is capable of wearing down opponents, and no smart player would ever approach a match against him with anything but caution. Still, it's hard to imagine him finding something in his game that we haven't seen yet and winning at Flushing Meadows.
Only one man outside of the Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic has won a Grand Slam event since the 2005 French Open: Juan Martin del Potro. While most of the attention has focused on Andy Murray as having the best chance of upsetting the Big Three, del Potro has actually done it—at the U.S. Open, no less—and his strong play of late indicates that he might be able to do it again.
Del Potro is coming off of a bronze medal at the Olympics, where he defeated Djokovic in the bronze medal match 7-5, 6-4. He also has two ATP wins and one finals loss to his name in 2012, and has climbed back to No. 8 in the world.
Since missing much of 2010 with wrist injuries, del Potro won two ATP events in 2011 and reached at least the third round at the French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. He has been even better at this year's Slams, reaching the quarterfinals at the Australian and French Opens and the fourth round of Wimbledon.
Del Potro has gotten better as he's worked his way back from his injuries, and at only 23, he still has a lot of tennis left in him. He has already proven that he can beat the very best and withstand the pressure of the majors. He ended Federer's streak of five straight U.S. Open wins when he was only 20 years old, younger than Federer was when he won his first major.
Del Potro might not be quite ready yet to win another major; perhaps 2013 will offer his best opportunity. His recent success should give him a good amount of confidence, and in a major with an aging Federer and an injured Nadal, he is a very interesting sleeper pick to win it all.
Though Janko Tipsarevic has not made much of an impact in Grand Slam events, earning the first and only quarterfinal Slam appearance of his career at the 2011 U.S. Open, he has proved that he is capable of beating the best competitors in the world.
Tipsarevic has beaten such players as Novak Djokovic, Tomas Berdych, Andy Murray and David Ferrer, and famously nearly beat Roger Federer in an epic match at the 2008 Australian Open. He's also won a few tournaments, including three ATP singles events and several more Futures and Challenger events.
Yet despite his occasional flashes of brilliance, Tipsarevic has never been able to sustain the high level of play over several days necessary to win a major. Tipsarevic's a good bet for an upset here and there, but it is extremely unlikely that he could put together any kind of run for victory at the U.S. Open.
John Isner is America's best hope to end the eight-year victory drought in the men's singles tournament. Isner, the top-ranked American in the world, has reached 11 ATP finals in his career, but has not yet been able to put together much of a run at a Grand Slam, failing to reach the semifinals in each of the 18 Slam events he has played since his debut at the 2007 U.S. Open.
Isner's best Grand Slam performance came at last year's U.S. Open, when he reached the quarterfinal before falling to Andy Murray.
If Isner is to ever put together a real run at a Grand Slam title, the U.S. Open offers him the best opportunity. At 6'9" and 245 pounds, Isner is able to hit the ball harder than nearly anyone in the sport. He has the eighth-fastest serve ever recorded at 149.9 miles per hour, and his forehand might be the hardest in the sport.
The hard court at the U.S. Open is the best match for this playing style, and it is no coincidence that of the 11 ATP finals Isner has reached, seven were on hard courts.
There is a belief in the tennis world that Isner is hampered in Grand Slam tournaments by his large size, as opponents can tire him out by forcing him to move his sizable frame around the court. This idea makes sense in theory, but Isner showed that his stamina is hardly an issue in his victory over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010, the longest match in history.
Isner is in excellent shape, and though he does have the added burden of moving his mammoth body around the court, the added strength he gains from his size more than makes up for the downside.
Isner's odds are a bit too low for someone who has never made it past the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam event, likely due to the enthusiasm of American tennis fans for their favorite son. Still, the U.S. Open is Isner's best chance for a Grand Slam victory, and he's failed to reach the third round only once in the five Opens he has played.
Victoria Azarenka has to be feeling pretty good lately. After winning her first career major at this year's Australian Open, she reached the fourth round at Roland Garros and the semifinal at Wimbledon, matching her career-best performances in each tournament. She returned to Wimbledon as part of the Belarus Olympic team to win the bronze medal in women's singles and the gold medal in mixed doubles, and has been ranked first in the world since January.
Yet as well as things have been going for Azarenka in 2012, she has to be a bit nervous. Since Azarenka reached the No. 1 spot, Serena Williams has gotten healthy and looks as good as she has looked in at least three years. Williams was unstoppable at Wimbledon, and it's possible that no player on the women's side has ever been in better control of her serve at a major than Williams was at Wimbledon.
Williams also won the doubles crown, then repeated the feat by taking home a pair of gold medals at the Olympics. She is pulling out all the stops to regain her No. 1 ranking, and Azarenka is the biggest roadblock in her path.
Azarenka has reached an impressive six WTA finals this year, winning four, and hard courts are perhaps her best surface. The 6/1 odds given to her demonstrate that handicappers believe she has a great chance to win at Flushing Meadows, which would further cement her hold on No. 1...for now.
Agnieszka Radwanska is very much a question mark heading into the U.S. Open. Her appearance in the final round at Wimbledon marked the first time she made it past the quarterfinals at any major in her career (she had reached the quarterfinal round five times).
Has Radwanska come into her stride at 23, or was her second-place finish the apex of her career?
There are plenty of tennis players who have reached a Wimbledon final and then never returned to the final of another major. In the past 15 years, Marion Bartoli and Nathalie Tauziat both achieved this dubious feat.
Radwanska appears to have the talent to return, and the U.S. Open could be the place she does it. She twice reached the fourth round of the tournament early in her career, but for the past three years she has exited in the second round. Still, while she has shown the talent to win on every type of court, hard courts are her specialty. Of her 10 career WTA Tour wins, seven came on hard courts.
Radwanska has won six tournaments in the last two years, and she has never looked better on the court. A strong performance at the U.S. Open would prove that her Wimbledon final wasn't a fluke and that she's poised to be one of the top competitors of her generation.
She may have the career Grand Slam under her belt, but Maria Sharapova likes to space out her major wins. She won each of her first three Slam titles in two-season increments (2004, 2006 and 2008), and then took four years to finish her Grand Slam with her 2012 French Open victory.
So can she break this habit and win her second Slam event in a single season at the 2012 U.S. Open?
Sharapova has always performed solidly at the U.S. Open, but aside from her 2006 victory, it has never been her best major. Since 2006, she has only escaped the third round once, and has not reached the quarterfinals.
Yet Sharapova hasn't played as well as she has this season at any time since 2006. She has reached the finals in seven WTA tournaments, winning at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and the Italian Open, in addition to her French Open win. She also reached the finals at the Olympics, earning a silver medal.
It remains to be seen what effect her loss to Serena Williams at the Olympics will have on Sharapova's mental game. Williams decimated her 6-0, 6-1, and Sharapova was clearly shaken after the match. Still, Sharapova has been around for nearly a decade, and she should be able to shake off the loss.
Sharapova is on top of her game this year, and if there was ever a year in which she could win two majors, 2012 is it.
Serena Williams may be ranked fourth, but she is the woman to beat in New York.
Williams already has three U.S. Open titles to her name, and would have had another if not for her sister. She lost in last year's final to Samantha Stosur, but she still did not look on top of her game as she was coming back from her health issues.
Over the past few months, Williams has been nearly unstoppable. After a loss in the fourth round at the Australian Open and a shocking first-round exit at Roland Garros, Williams hit her stride on the grass courts of London. She won both the singles and doubles titles at Wimbledon and at the Olympics, largely on the strength of her serve, which was all but unreturnable.
Williams gave her rivals some hope at the Cincinnati Masters, where she lost to Angelique Kerber in the quarterfinals 4-6, 4-6.
Her recent dominance has been entirely on grass, and the Cincinnati Masters showed that she may be beatable on other surfaces. Still, it has only been four years since Williams last won the singles tournament at the U.S. Open, and based on the way she has played tennis over the past few months, she is the clear favorite to take home her 15th Grand Slam singles title.
Since winning the 2011 Wimbledon tournament, Petra Kvitova has reached three WTA tournament finals, winning all of them. Her most recent victory came at the Canadian Open in Montreal earlier this month, where she dispatched Li Na 7-5, 2-6, 6-3.
Kvitova may be the most promising young player in the world. She is the youngest person in the world with a Grand Slam victory, and this year reached the semifinals at both the Australian and French Opens and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
Kvitova plays best on grass, and the U.S. Open is the only major in which she hasn't reached at least the quarterfinals. But her stock is very much on the rise, and at only 22 years old, her talent is likely still far from topping out. She may not quite be ready for a U.S. Open win, but she's a good bet to win it within the next few years.
Angelique Kerber comes into the U.S. Open on a wave of momentum. After a decent performance at the Rogers Cup before losing to Roberta Vinci in the third round, she played outstanding tennis at the Cincinnati Masters, defeating Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova to advance to the finals, where she lost to Li Na.
Kerber earned her first two WTA wins this year, earning the top spot at the Open GDF Suez and the Danish Open. In addition to Cincinnati, she also made the finals at the Eastbourne International, where she fell to Tamira Paszek.
Kerber played great at last year's U.S. Open, advancing past the second round for the first time in her career. She made it all the way to the semifinals, where she lost to Samantha Stosur. She followed this up with a third-round exit at the Australian Open, a quarterfinal at the French Open, a semifinal at Wimbledon and a quarterfinal at the Olympics.
Kerber has yet to reach the final of a Grand Slam, so we don't yet know how she would deal with the pressure of such an accomplishment. She has shown that she has the talent to beat the elite competition, and things are coming together nicely for the 24-year-old. She is a good sleeper pick to win it all.
Samantha Stosur hasn't won a tournament since her 2011 U.S. Open victory, but it would be unwise to count out the defending champion completely. The hard court specialist reached the final at the HP Open in Osaka the month after her Open victory, and started 2012 with another final appearance, at the Qatar Ladies Open in Doha, where she was beaten badly by Victoria Azarenka.
Stosur is mediocre on plexicushion and worse on grass, leaving the French and U.S. Opens as her only realistic Grand Slam opportunities. She reached at least the semifinals of the French Open in three of her past four attempts, and went to the quarterfinal in her 2010 U.S. Open attempt, the year before her win.
Stosur hasn't been on top of her game lately, but she never is on grass. She has proven an ability to come out of nowhere to win tournaments, and the U.S. Open provides her with a good opportunity to do so. She is a bit of a long shot, but it is almost always foolish to write off a defending champion only six months off a tournament victory.
It has been a tough year for Caroline Wozniacki. After her stellar 2010 and 2011 seasons, in which she won a combined 12 WTA tournaments, Wozniacki has failed to win a WTA event since August, 2011. In that time she has reached only a single final, the Danish Open this past April. Her ranking has fallen from No. 1 in October, 2010, to her current No. 8 spot. She is only a few points ahead of Na Li, and a poor performance at the Open could drop her to ninth.
Wozniacki has also turned in disappointing results at the majors. After a solid quarterfinal appearance in the Australian Open, her second-best finish at the event in five tries, she was bounced out of the third round at the French Open and lost in the first round of Wimbledon to Tamira Paszek.
She looked better in her first three rounds of play at the Olympics, but was unlucky enough in the quarterfinal to face the runaway train that was Serena Williams. Wozniacki lost 6-0, 6-3.
Wozniacki has turned in strong performances in her last three U.S. Open attempts. After reaching the final in 2009 (losing to Kim Clijsters 5-7, 3-6), she reached the semifinals in each of the last two tournaments. The U.S. Open is clearly her favorite Grand Slam event, and if she is going to get back on track, this is her best opportunity to do so.
Between the end of the 2009 season and mid-2011, Na Li went on an impressive run at the majors. She reached the quarterfinal at the 2009 U.S. Open (her second major quarterfinal of her career), and followed it up in 2010 with a semifinal appearance at the Australian Open and a quarterfinal run at Wimbledon. She was even better in 2011, reaching the final at the Australian Open and then winning the title at the French Open over Francesca Schiavone, Li's first and only career Grand Slam victory.
Since winning at Roland Garros, Li has played well, but not quite at the super elite level. She reached the fourth round at this year's Australian and French Opens, but exited early at last year's U.S. Open and this year's Wimbledon. She also had gone over a year without winning a WTA tournament since her win in Paris.
Yet things are looking up for Li. She won the Cincinnati Masters last week, defeating Angelique Kerber in the final after dispatching Agnieszka Radwanska and Venus Williams in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
Li was the runner-up just one week earlier at the Canadian Open in Montreal. Like the Cincinnati Masters, this was a hard-court tournament, which bodes well for Li's U.S. Open hopes.
At 30 years old, Li is running out of time to add to her trophy case. She has looked fantastic over the past couple of weeks, and with strong performances at two of this year's Slams, she is a solid pick to win at Flushing Meadows.
Sara Errani seemed to be stuck in her career progression. Though she was clearly among the top few dozen tennis players in the world and capable of winning a couple WTA titles, she had failed to progress past the third round of a Grand Slam event in her first five years of trying.
Things have come together nicely in 2012 for the top-ranked Italian. She reached the quarterfinal at the Australian Open and looked poised to go further until she had the misfortune of having to play No. 2 seed Petra Kvitova. Errani then excelled at Roland Garros on her favored clay surface, reaching the final in the singles tournament and winning the doubles tournament with Roberta Vinci.
Errani was looking strong at Wimbledon before she was beaten badly by Yaroslava Shvedova in the third round. Still, she has continued to play well this year, winning four WTA tournaments.
Errani hopes to improve on her quarterfinal appearance in the 2011 U.S. Open, and Angelique Kerber is the only top talent in her path of at least matching last year's performance.
Agnieszka Radwanska is in her bracket, however, and if the Polish star is able to avoid being upset, Errani would have quite the challenge ahead of her in advancing to the semifinal.