It feels like just last week that the Australian Open was starting, but suddenly here we are less than a week away from the last Grand Slam of the year: the U.S. Open.
Though the tennis season goes on for months after the stars leave New York, for most of the top players, the U.S. Open is the culmination of the season. It's the last chance of the year to take home one of the most prized possessions in tennis.
During the fortnight at Flushing Meadows, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal will try to turn great seasons into legendary ones, while Victoria Azarenka, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will all try to double up their Grand Slam tally for the year.
And, make no mistake about it, everyone in both draws will be looking to have their Marion Bartoli moment.
The spotlight is blinding in New York City, and the stage is set for the last big chapter of the 2013 season to be written.
Rafael Nadal's Back, and He's Undefeated on Hard Courts
Nadal might just be having the greatest comeback from injury ever. After missing seven months starting last June, including the Australian Open this year, he's torpedoed through everything in his wake in 2013—except Wimbledon, of course.
The Spaniard has won all three hard-court tournaments he's played this year, and by being the first player in 10 years to win the Rogers Cup and Western & Southern Open in back-to-back weeks, he won the U.S. Open Series for the second time in his career.
Andy Murray's Become Royalty
Okay, not quite, but he did get awfully close when he won Wimbledon this year. Murray is no longer the second fiddle of the men's game. He has two Grand Slams in the past year and is a threat on every surface. However, his inconsistency in the Masters 1000s has kept his ranking at No. 3 and leaves a few question marks around his form.
Novak Djokovic's Been Under the Radar
It hasn't necessarily been a bad year for Djokovic—he won the Australian Open and is still No. 1 in the rankings. However, compared to his 2011 and 2012 campaigns, this year has been a bit disappointing. He has losses to Grigor Dimitrov, Tommy Haas and John Isner on his resume and has looked lackluster in some big matches, especially at Masters 1000s.
Roger Federer's Struggling
It's natural for Federer to be in decline at his age, but it's still alarming to see. He fell to No. 7 on this week's rankings and had his Grand Slam quarterfinal streak broken at Wimbledon this year by a loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round. He's had back problems, but looked better last week in Cincinnati.
Djokovic's focus has looked on and off all year, ever since he won the Australian Open in January. However, he has proven that he knows how to peak in the Grand Slams, especially on hard courts. He's one of the few who has the talent to take out a top-flight Nadal on this surface, but he has to get there first.
Nadal's Knees and Federer's Back
All signs this summer have pointed to a clean bill of health for Nadal, but after what happened at Wimbledon against Steve Darcis, nothing is a given.
Similarly, Federer's back seems to finally be feeling better, but if it flares up again, he has proven this year that he is susceptible to losses against anyone on tour.
This will be Murray's first time defending a Grand Slam title, and it will be interesting to see how he handles it. He has certainly proven that he can win when the spotlight is on him, but it remains to be seen if the great memories from last year work for or against him.
Juan Martin del Potro
In the era of the Big Four, it seems like everyone else is an afterthought. However, 2009 U.S. Open Champion del Potro has played some sensational tennis in 2013 and seems to be really hitting his stride this summer. He's proven he can win in New York before and will be a threat to all of the top seeds.
The 35-year-old Haas has had a resurgent year, and after a rather quiet summer, he'll be looking to make a strong run in one of his favorite tournaments. The crowd in New York loves him, and his win over Djokovic on hard courts earlier this year will give him confidence.
On the other end of the age spectrum, 22-year-old Janowicz will be trying to get his first win at Flushing Meadows. After making a run to the Wimbledon semifinals, the hard-hitting 2013 Wimbledon semifinalist has proven that he plays his best when he has a crowd, and the wild atmosphere of the U.S. Open should suit him nicely. Nobody will want him in their section of the draw.
After tearing through the two Masters 1000s this summer, Nadal is certainly coming into New York with all of the momentum on his side. With good form and a winning head-to-head record against the entire Top 30, he should be the favorite to capture his 10th title of the year at the U.S. Open.
The defending champion will certainly have his say in things, though. He thoroughly outplayed Djokovic at the U.S. Open last year and in the Wimbledon final this year, and has the swagger of a champion. The only difference is that he hasn't had to face Nadal at a Slam in a while, and he's struggled against Nadal in the past.
Djokovic hasn't lost before the final of a hard-court Grand Slam since the 2010 Australian Open. He loves the U.S. Open and has made Arthur Ashe Stadium his home throughout the years. He can certainly take the title again this year.
Juan Martin del Potro
After his jaw-dropping semifinal showing against Djokovic at Wimbledon and his title run in Washington, D.C. this summer, the Argentinian has looked as good as he did in 2009, when he last won this title.
It just feels strange to not put Federer on a list of contenders. Even though he hasn't been in-form this year, he still has the talent and experience to pull off a miracle, if a few things go his way. Hey, if Pete Sampras did it in 2002, there's no counting Federer out.
John Isner Will Make the Semifinals
Isner has had a great summer and is coming off of the tournament of his life last week at the Western & Southern Open, where he made the final, taking out Djokovic and del Potro along the way.
This week, he did the right thing and pulled out of the Winston-Salem Open to rest. After being forced to withdraw from the Australian Open and retire from Wimbledon, he's going to be determined to make the best of the U.S. Open, and that will result in a semifinal run.
There Will Be One Huge First-Week Upset
it won't be as crazy as Wimblegeddon, but one huge name will fall in the first week on the men's side, probably Murray or Federer.
Nadal and Djokovic Will Have Another Epic Final
Nadal's great summer brought him back up to No. 2 in the rankings, and therefore he can't meet Djokovic until the final. I think they'll add another epic stage to their rivalry at Arthur Ashe Stadium. However...
Nadal Will Win
He's just had too good of a summer not to.
Serena Williams Has Been Great, Week in and Week out
Serena has always been one of the best, but her consistency has been suspect, especially at the smaller tournaments. But this year she's found herself in 10 finals and has gone home with eight titles. That's remarkable for someone who's 32 and has already accomplished so much. Unfortunately, her worst losses have come at the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
Victoria Azarenka Has Challenged
Azarenka has continued to build on her great 2012. Although Serena has been too dominant for Azarenka to grab the No. 1 ranking back after January, she has beaten Serena twice—including last week in the final of the Western & Southern Open—and also made the French Open semifinals.
Maria Sharapova Had a Great Spring, but a Bad Summer
Sharapova had a great start to the year, beating practically everyone in her wake except for Serena Williams. However, since making the French Open final she's only 1-2, and had a bizarre one-month-long partnership with coach Jimmy Connors along the way. There are a lot of doubts surrounding her in New York.
Youngsters Have Impressed
It's been a breakout year for players such as Sloane Stephens, Monica Puig, Madison Keys, Laura Robson and Genie Bouchard. The next generation of the WTA is making an impact now, and it's fun to watch.
The Shaky First Week for the Stars
After Wimbledon, every single first-week match at the U.S. Open will be taken much more seriously. Though it was a lot of fun to have an event where the now-retired Marion Bartoli walked away as the winner, fans will be looking to make sure that Williams, Sharapova and Azarenka all make it to the second week in one piece.
Agnieszka Radwanska's Rebound
A couple of months ago, Radwanska saw what was likely her best shot at a Slam fall through her fingers when she lost in the semifinals of Wimbledon to Sabine Lisicki. She had a couple of more heartbreaking losses this summer before pulling out of the Western & Southern Open to attend her grandfather's funeral. But still, if the draw breaks her way, the tricky No. 4 seed can be dangerous.
Serena's Energy Level
Serena has played a lot of tennis this year, and she is no longer a young player. Her heavy match-play seemed to catch up with her at Wimbledon, and she again looked sluggish in her loss to Azarenka last week. The New York crowd should rejuvenate her, but if she's fatigued, she'll be vulnerable, and the draw could open up.
America's newest sweetheart will have a lot of attention on her as she steps to New York for the final Slam of the year.
Last year, she was just one of many up-and-comers. Now, she's the Australian Open semifinalist and Wimbledon quarterfinalist who has taken out both Williams and Sharapova and climbed up to No. 15 in the world. She has the talent, and she plays well at the Slams, so she could be in for a special tournament.
The 2008 U.S. Open finalist and former No. 1 has seemed to find her love for the game again this year, and it is showing in her tennis. She thrives under the New York spotlight, and her game can give anyone—even Serena—trouble.
Stosur won this title in 2011, so she should never be counted out in Flushing. She won the tournament in Carlsbad earlier this summer, taking out Azarenka in the final, and, although she split with her longtime coach last week, she is looking confident in her game for the first time all year.
Until someone stops her, Serena is the favorite for any tournament she enters, especially the U.S. Open, where she is the defending champion and has won five times.
Azarenka's upset of Serena in the Western & Southern Open final made the U.S. Open a lot more intriguing. The two-time Australian Open Champion got within two points of taking out Serena in the final here last year, and she could go one step further this year.
It's been seven long years since Sharapova won in New York, and after the question marks surrounding her this summer, it would be surprising to see her even make the semifinals. But Sharapova (Or should we call her Sugarpova?) is one of the best competitors in the game and loves the hard courts. Her four Slams mean she's always a factor.
If there are a few upsets along the way, Radwanska could certainly be the one to take advantage. She'll have a good draw as the No. 4 seed and will be ready to avenge her Wimbledon disappointment.
All of the Top Seeds Will Make the Second Week
That's right. After the topsy-turvy Wimbledon, I'm predicting the exact opposite for the U.S. Open. I think that all the top seeds will easily find their way to the second week, and, even better, that the top four seeds—Williams, Sharapova, Azarenka and Radwanska—will make the semifinals.
Sara Errani Will Lose Early
The exception to the above rule will be last year's surprise semifinalist, the now-No. 5 Errani. The Italian has done well to back up her surprise breakthrough in 2012. However, she hasn't looked stellar this summer, and I think she'll get overpowered by a big hitter early on.
There Will be a Repeat of Last Year's Final
Yes, I'm boldly predicting another No. 1 vs. No. 2 final, as I think both Serena and Azarenka will live up to their rankings and take care of their respective halves of the draw.
Serena Williams Will Win
And, just like last year, Serena will survive a tough three-setter to be crowned the Queen of NYC once again.