The 2013 U.S. Open caps off tennis' Grand Slam season on the hard courts of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Despite entering having won two consecutive singles tournaments, Rafael Nadal is the second seed, trailing world No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
Ever since breaking through with a historic, unforgettable Wimbledon Championship and beating Djokovic in the final, defending U.S. Open trophy-bearer Andy Murray has struggled.
Murray hasn't gained traction in adjusting from the grass that treated him so well, bowing out before the semifinals in each of his past two appearances.
Then there's Roger Federer, who's tied for the most wins in the event in the Open era. He's being dismissed as a seventh seed even with his legendary resume.
Below is an analysis of those four players, who should occupy the top of pre-tournament power rankings in some order.
4. Roger Federer (No. 7 seed)
Okay, so he hasn't won the U.S. Open since 2008, but he still won the tournament five times in a row up to that point. The fact that he's the seventh seed is at least a little shocking—even if he's fallen there in the latest ATP rankings.
Federer has won just one singles title this season, showing signs of a clear decline that some predicted would materialize much more obviously in the results years ago.
As recently as last year, the 32-year-old maestro who will likely go down as the greatest player in the history of the sport won a Grand Slam event at Wimbledon. The U.S. Open is historically his second-most-successful tournament of the four tennis majors.
If anyone's stock should be slightly inflated in terms of seeding—even if it's wrongfully so in many eyes—it should be Federer's.
Others such as No. 6 Juan Martin Del Potro and fifth-seeded Tomas Berdych have shown better form than Federer for much of the year, but neither have near the pedigree nor the consistency to grind it out in New York as Federer does.
Given Federer's low seeding, depending on how the draw shakes out, his road should be tougher. But with people doubting him more than ever, the winningest men's singles player in Grand Slams should rise to the occasion and enter the familiar territory of a semifinal.
After all, he did take the opening set off Nadal in their semifinal in Cincinnati last week at the Western & Southern Open.
3. Andy Murray (No. 3 seed)
The Scot has had a bit of a letdown since his triumph at the All England Club, but it seems his outlook is refreshed even after discouraging results as of late.
Oliver Brown of The Telegraph documented some of what Murray had to say leading up to the Grand Slam finale:
I’ve also won in Cincinnati twice, and neither time did I win the US Open after it. So I don’t think it makes a huge difference. Besides, I’m feeling good. I am moving much, much better than when I first came back in Montreal. That’s always a positive sign because, even if you’re not hitting the ball particularly well, you can get through matches with good movement and gradually work yourself into a rhythm.
With the way Murray framed his mindset in that context, it may even bode well for him that he didn't win last week's Masters event.
Having said that, advancing further and getting more competitive repetitions would have helped. Blaming Murray for his latest defeat is to take away from how well Berdych played, though.
The Czech has elite physical tools and is capable of beating any of the biggest names in tennis when he is on. As the current ATP rankings reflect, he in fact belongs in the conversation with those more prominent household names such as Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Federer.
So the talk of Murray's recent downfall is slightly exaggerated and somewhat a result of the heightened expectations. His focus should be renewed as he gears up to defend his title in the Big Apple.
2. Novak Djokovic (No. 1 seed)
The 2011 U.S. Open champion is rightfully the top seed due to his place atop the rankings and consistency.
Who will win the 2013 U.S. Open?
However, he hasn't won a title since the middle of April, where he beat the current No. 2 seed in Nadal, who is having the all-around best season of anyone in men's tennis.
Djokovic fell to Murray in London after beating him in the Australian Open, and his prowess on the hard court can't really be questioned. That surface has made him the three-time reigning champion in the year's first major while producing five of his six career Grand Slam trophies.
A determined John Isner bested Djokovic in the quarterfinals at the Cincinnati Masters, but the Serbinator should by no means be considered anywhere outside the top two favorites.
With his powerful game, outstanding fitness and some of the more versatile, powerful groundstrokes in history, Djokovic could very well return to the final and take home the hardware this time around.
1. Rafael Nadal (No. 2 seed)
Nine singles titles and a record of 53-3 on the year? That's ridiculous, and it seemed unfathomable when Nadal once again missed time with his nagging knee injuries.
During that hiatus between a first-round exit at Wimbledon and a rousing final win in Montreal, it was reported that Nadal might not even play in Cincinnati, which was the site of his latest glory.
Any wear and tear on those knees seemed to be absent in terms of how little Nadal's characteristically reckless, all-out style that is so physically taxing was on full display.
The man he beat in the Cincinnati final was John Isner, who was serving brilliantly to the point that Nadal never had a break point, and required two tiebreakers to get the win.
A nice bonus came for the spectacular Spaniard when news broke that Isner would withdraw from the final U.S. Open series event:
With John Isner's withdrawal from Winston-Salem, Rafael Nadal has clinched the US Open Series. Eligible for $1M bonus if he wins #usopen.— Beyond The Baseline (@SI_BTBaseline) August 20, 2013
Isner had beaten Djokovic and Del Potro—two hard-court stalwarts—just to get to the final.
Nadal proved that he was indeed fit enough to take on extremely tough competition over the past two weeks, which makes him the favorite to win his second U.S. Open. It would add nicely to the 2010 crown that gave him the career Grand Slam.