The 2013 U.S. Open is the final stop on tennis' Grand Slam tour and a raucous venue for high drama.
New York in deep summer is heat, noise and taxi cabs. It is streets, skyscrapers and boundless energy where only the strong survive. Rapper and Brooklyn icon Jay-Z lyricized that New York is a "concrete jungle where dreams are made of."
It's a hard city that tests the will of each ATP tennis pro. Some wither away at the slightest pressure, but a few find the courage to thrive. Tennis legend Jimmy Connors famously quipped, "When you play in New York (at the U.S. Open), they come to see two guys kill each other. They know I'll go out and spill my guts to win."
Here is why the 2013 U.S. Open promises so much great tennis and drama.
The North American hard court tour features Masters 1000 tournaments in Montreal and Cincinnati. They are the opening acts to the U.S. Open and a tennis fan's window into who is hot and who is not.
The players acclimate themselves to the faster hard courts and summer grind to prepare for peak performances. Last year, Novak Djokovic took Toronto, and Roger Federer captured Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Andy Murray struggled with injuries, but he still rebounded to take a bite out of the Big Apple. And Murray's performance is what people will remember most.
The U.S. Open also determines which players will be most motivated for the final Masters 1000 tournaments in Shanghai and Paris.
Finally, the top eight players will meet in the WTF in London when the final rankings of the year will be determined. There is still much tennis to play this year.
Roger Federer dominated the U.S. Open with five consecutive titles from 2004-2008. He was also the last champion to defend his title.
Since then, the titlists have included Juan Martin del Potro (2009), Rafael Nadal (2010), Novak Djokovic (2011) and Andy Murray (2012). Murray will attempt the difficult task of defending his title in perhaps the toughest tournament in tennis.
New York's fervent crowds and electric lights unnerved the great Bjorn Borg. He never won a title here.
Many great players contend, but one bad match and it's curtains. It will require hot tennis, Lady Luck and the spirit of Jimmy Connors. There are no inconspicuous subway rides to a title.
The Australian Open is a fair tennis surface for most of the ATP—as long as they can hit groundstrokes in hot weather while playing themselves into shape. Wacky results often thin the field of its best contenders.
The French Open has proven to be the most difficult tournament to win because of Rafael Nadal's dominance. Not everybody can play on red clay, and many strong tennis players die through attrition.
Wimbledon eliminates many clay-court players from contention. It favors big servers and tennis athletes with quick reflexes. The pool of realistic titlists is shallow.
But the U.S. Open is the toughest Slam to win. Never mind that the players take a pounding on the fast hard courts. It's a venue that doesn't allow anyone to maximize all his strengths and does not discriminate against clay-court or grass players. Everyone is dangerous in the deepest tournament in tennis. It's the ultimate, versatile setting that requires all-court skills and adaptability.
And it's an outright requirement for players to keep their composure while serving. New Yorkers love to yell out and test the players' nerves as many points begin.
Who has ice water in his veins?
We probably just jinxed Tomas Berdych. Last year, he upset Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. He took the first set in the semifinals against Andy Murray. Then, heavy winds teased his high toss and flustered his groundstrokes. He had already tossed his mental game into his tennis bag long before getting swept in the final three sets.
That was last year, which probably means Berdych will be a non-factor this year. He, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Juan Martin del Potro spin around on an accursed merry-go-round, only one at a time able to make a deep run into a Grand Slam tournament.
There are other paper contenders such as David Ferrer, Richard Gasquet and Tommy Haas. Odds are most of them will win a few rounds and go out quietly like a tired Broadway production.
But one surprise will find the quarterfinals and, perhaps, contend further. Who will it be?
The New York state of mind says that you are either the best or you are a loser. It's a hard standard for tennis as well, and the battle for No. 1 will run through the Big Apple.
Novak Djokovic seeks a third straight year finishing with the No. 1 ranking. His results dating back to 2012 give him a wide lead of almost 3,000 points over Andy Murray. If he wins the U.S. Open, he all but clinches the top ranking with merely respectable showings to close out 2013.
Andy Murray, at No. 2, is the only player to win two of the last four Grand Slam titles, but it will be difficult for him to catch Djokovic. He will lose gold medal Olympics points and will drop at least 800 points if he does not defend his U.S. Open title. He will need to capitalize on winning Montreal and Cincinnati if he hopes to bid for No. 1. He would then have to win a couple more big tournaments to close the year.
Rafael Nadal has captured the most points in 2013, on the strength of seven titles and the French Open crown. This is amazing considering his absence at Australia and his first round flop at Wimbledon. He has the best opportunity to capture more points, but this means outplaying Djokovic and Murray on hard courts. He must be healthy and hot. A U.S. Open title would make him the likely winner.
Roger Federer and David Ferrer are not factors for the U.S. Open but can create more parity by shaking up the top of the tree.
Last year, Jerzy Janowicz, ranked No. 86, lost in the first round to wild card Dennis Novikov. Expect a better result this time around for the No. 17 ranked player.
Janowicz proved he could be a Grand Slam finalist at Wimbledon, but the odds say this will be very difficult to match. Young players in recent years have had roller coaster rides and, typically, more hard times than success.
Could Janowicz win the U.S. Open? We will know more with Montreal and Cincinnati, but the Pole has the power and skills to succeed wildly on hard courts. Come September, his run for a title may be more important to prove that he has the mental fortitude and consistency to be a top ten player.
Just maybe he can pull a Pete Sampras and go 1990 on all of us. If it does happen, he might open a Polish shoe store in New York as a symbolic token of those who bought him shoes to compete here two years ago.
Three years have passed since Rafael Nadal's last Grand Slam title outside Roland Garros. He was derailed by Novak Djokovic in 2011 and recovering from injuries for much of 2012.
Nadal is an enigma with a lot to prove. It is difficult to forecast the extent of his health and motivation to play on hard courts. He might not show up, or he might win the title. Whatever happens, it will be one of the top stories, guaranteed.
The odds are against Nadal, and a quick exit here would likely banish his chances further from winning another Grand Slam off clay. There is also the chance that he plays like he did at Indian Wells, riding aggressive groundstrokes and big points to an epic title run. High drama swirls around the Spaniard.
Recently, every Roger Federer article is somehow required to mention his age. (Oops, sorry about that.)
Last year, the Swiss Maestro looked great after destroying Novak Djokovic in Cincinnati. He was seeded No. 1 and swept his way to the quarterfinals with the added rest of a walkover in the fourth round.
Then, Tomas Berdych played big, held on, and suddenly, Federer was out.
Federer has more great tennis left, and New York would be a great place to wield some of his former dominance. He likes the fast courts and is oblivious to the screaming fans and rock concert environment. Every match is like this for Federer.
He may be the most dangerous player in the U.S. Open. If he can play his "A" game, perhaps, nobody will beat him. New Yorkers should flock to Arthur Ashe Stadium to get another look at the legend. It's been a long time since he obliterated Lleyton Hewitt in the 2004 U.S. Open final.
It's been two years since Djokovic won a Grand Slam title outside Australia. It's time for the Serbian to reassert his dominance on tennis and close out the year with two Slam titles.
It's in his control. A U.S. Open win would all but seal the No. 1 ranking and undisputed claim to being Player of the Year. It would also allow him some peace of mind from the vultures who hover above his every loss.
There's a strong chance he would have to win the U.S. Open by going through rival Andy Murray. Vengeance and motivation will not be lacking. He has lost two of three Slam finals to the Scotsman.
There is no surer bet than Djokovic making a run to at least the semifinals. He is consistently great and often a victim of this success from those who expect it should just happen.
Just don't take the Serbian for granted. You never know when he will provide the entertainment besides his tennis. Here's hoping for more impersonations of his fellow tennis professionals.
Out of the swirling winds of the 2012 U.S. Open, Andy Murray came forth to become a Grand Slam champion. He had finally realized his talent and potential. He was changed forever.
Now is the time to defend his title. A lot of media has already tagged him as the favorite, but he must prove he can win when he is the hunted. He must be smarter, more agile and able to anticipate the twists and turns to adversity. It's survival on the streets of New York.
Murray must be tougher than ever, gritty, willing to battle through heat, abrasive crowds and feature matches that could turn into Midnight Madness. Recovery must be swift and resolve ironclad.
Can the good times keep rolling along for Great Britain? For 76 years, they were shut out from seeing a native son capture a Grand Slam title. Now, an empire is reforming with the possibility of three Slams in five attempts. A nation could get spoiled like this.
For now, Murray is the man of the moment.