The U.S. Open is always the most grueling Grand Slam in the game, and the 2013 edition promises to be no different.
The final major of the season gets underway Monday with the sport's biggest names assembled alongside a dizzying number of critical questions simply begging for answers.
Is the women's most dominant player ready to regain her mojo? Will one of the sport's big three on the men's side separate himself from the others and lay claim to being the best player in the world?
Will an American renew confidence in the stateside state of men's tennis? Can the sport's star of the summer move on from history enough to make more of it in Flushing Meadows?
Those are just a sampling of some of the storylines just itching to unfold at the USTA Tennis Center over the next couple of weeks.
There will be twists and, undoubtedly, turns no one saw coming. Ultimately, they will lead to a pair of celebrated champions and plenty of answers that will put a bow on an intriguing season and provide plenty of momentum toward 2014.
The 2013 Wimbledon Championships was full of startling results. The highest ranked among them was Serena Williams’ failure to reach the quarterfinals at the All England Tennis Club almost two months ago.
At the U.S. Open, the 16-time Grand Slam champion is focused on proving her fourth-round loss to Sabine Lisicki was more anomaly than trend while she looks to reassert her dominance over the game’s elite.
If her play during the hard-court season is any indication, Williams is poised to do exactly that at Flushing Meadows over the next two weeks. In three hard-court events, in the wake of that Wimbledon disappointment, Serena won two of them and advanced to the final of the third.
The American was absolutely dominating in the Swedish Open, losing only 19 games in five matches on her way to the championship. She followed that effort with another cruise to the Rogers Cup title a couple weeks later.
Serena was equally impressive at the Western and Southern Open this past week before stumbling in the final to second-seeded Victoria Azarenka in a third-set tiebreaker.
While a significant win for Azarenka, that outcome causes little pause in placing Williams as the absolute favorite to win a fifth U.S. Open title a little more than two weeks from now.
Serena has won three of the past five Grand Slams, including the 2012 U.S. Open, and has added seven tournament titles on the WTA Tour to her French Open crown this year. Those are the results; the eyeball test is even more impressive.
The U.S. Open's top seed is, by far, the most powerful, athletic and determined player in the women’s game, despite her “advanced” age of 31.
Those qualities will be in high demand in this U.S. Open, where she will, undoubtedly, be tested by the high quality of the women’s game.
Unexpectedly, Serena failed that test at this year's Wimbledon. It would be a foolish use of precious money to bet on her doing that again in the season’s final Slam.
American men’s tennis hit the lowest of lows in England two months ago when not a single Yank managed to get out of the second round at Wimbledon.
It was a loud reminder of just how far men’s tennis in this country has fallen since the days of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier.
If that’s going to change at Flushing Meadows this week, it will be the hard-serving John Isner who carries the flag. The question is whether or not he has it in him.
The talented-but-inconsistent American bowed out in the second round at the All England Club due to injury. Since then, however, he’s played much better on the more comfortable hard courts of the U.S. Open Series.
In five starts prior to the U.S. Open, Isner won the Atlanta Open and advanced to two other finals, including at the Western and Southern Open this past week.
While he lost to Nadal in Cincinnati, he pushed the 12-time Slam winner to a pair of tiebreakers before falling short in both sets.
Providing further hope for a deep U.S. Open run, Isner beat four of the top-12 seeds on the way to that Western and Southern final, including top-seeded Novak Djokovic in three sets. He followed that win by besting former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro in another three-set battle.
Isner’s best performance in the U.S. Open is a quarterfinal appearance in 2011, but it’s doubtful he’s ever come to New York playing as well as he is right now.
After his draining run last week, Isner withdrew from the Winston-Salem Open on Monday to ensure he is rested and healthy for the upcoming fortnight.
If he can maintain his solid form, the 14th-ranked player will be around for the championship’s second week and will have an opportunity to advance further than he ever has before in his nation’s championship.
Just as it is with most American players, however, Isner has little room for error and will have to be in top form to find himself still in the draw late in the tournament's second week.
Roger Federer is one of the greatest champions tennis has ever known.
Yet, even legendary careers come to an end, and one has to wonder whether we’ll be seeing the 17-time Slam winner’s swan song at the U.S. Open this year.
The Swiss star has only won two Slams since January 2010, was ousted in the second round of Wimbledon this year and has endured one of the worst hard-court seasons of his brilliant career.
In his three starts since his loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky at the All England Club in June, Federer has failed to reach the final in any of his three starts, which has included two rather stunning defeats.
Federer fell to relative-unknown Daniel Brands in the first round of the Swiss Open and before that to equally obscure Federico Delbonis in the semifinals of an ATP event in Germany.
Following his Swiss Open loss, Federer withdrew from the Rogers Cup, citing a back injury. The five-time U.S. Open winner returned to action last week and fell to rival Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.
As a result of those recent struggles, Federer enters this fortnight at Flushing Meadows seeded seventh— the first time he’s been placed outside the top three in a major in a decade.
The sum of all that misery has many wondering if Federer, who has slipped significantly behind Djokovic, Andy Murray and Nadal, has enough left to win an 18th Slam. If the answer to that question is no, then the follow-up query is what the legendary netter has left to prove at the age of 32.
He’s already the most accomplished player ever in the modern era of Grand Slam tennis.
Obviously, the decision as to when to hang up the racket belongs to Federer alone. Yet should another early exit come in Queens next week, it’s not a leap to wonder if we would have seen the last of the great at the U.S. Open.
Like a fine wine, Sloane Stephens is taking her time to mature into a Grand Slam champion.
Given her strong play in this year’s biggest tournaments, it may well be time to pop the cork on her significant potential at the 2013 U.S Open.
Given that she is seeded 16th at Flushing Meadows, a run to her first career Slam final won’t be easy and would likely require a fourth-round victory over Williams. That said, there’s no question that the young American has been progressing toward that end during the past year or so.
Stephens had a major breakthrough at this year’s Australian Open, beating Serena in the quarterfinals Down Under.
At the French Open, the 20-year-old advanced to the fourth round before falling to ultimate runner-up Sharapova in straight sets. At Wimbledon, she returned to the quarterfinals before falling to eventual champion Marion Bartoli.
Given those results, expectations should be high for Stephens at this year’s Open. Yet, the momentum from those strong Slam performances haven’t necessarily followed her during the summer hard-court season.
In eight matches through the first round of this week’s New Haven Open at Yale, Stephens is only 5-3.
That performance included a first-round loss to Olga Puchkova at the Citi Open in Washington back in late July.
If seeking a reason for optimism, Stephens did avenge her French Open loss to Sharapova at the Western and Southern Open last week. She bested the world No. 3 in three sets, despite dropping the first 2-6.
Stephens is, by far, the American with the most upside in the women’s game after Williams. Yet as she arrives at Flushing Meadows, it’s with a measure of impatience for what the future could hold for her.
Ultimately, she’s looking to push beyond past accomplishments to finally reach a Grand Slam final and turn her significant potential into championship reality.
Whether or not that happens in the next two weeks is a question only Stephens can answer on the courts of the USTA Tennis Center.
It’s been a revolving door of dominance in the 2013 Grand Slams among the top three of men’s tennis. The question now is who among them will emerge from the U.S. Open as the sport’s clear No. 1.
Easily the top talents in the game, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray have each won a Grand Slam title in 2013, leaving the season's final major as the natural determination as to who is truly the sport’s most elite.
Murray arrives at the USTA Tennis Center as the last player to win a major and is the defending U.S. Open champion. Nadal has been a dominant force on the hard courts and won the French Open a little more than three months ago.
Djokovic, the 2013 Australian Open winner, is the furthest removed from a Slam title, but is seeded No. 1 at Flushing Meadows this week.
The smart money says one of those three will claim the U.S. Open a little more than two weeks from now. Where exactly to lay that cash, however, is an issue far more open for debate.
Will it be Murray, who has been the most celebrated man in tennis since his historic victory at the 2013 Wimbledon Championships, where he became the first Brit to win the event since 1936?
What about Djokovic, who’s been a factor in every slam this year in reaching the final in two of the three?
As for Nadal, he returned from an extended layoff due to injury to win his record eighth French Open and has had an astounding hard-court season.
It’s an easy prediction that either Murray, Djokovic and Nadal will claim the season’s final slam. Likewise, it’s a safe bet to say the one that does will be the sport’s clear No. 1 walking away from it.
While experts are split on who it might be, most agree that the men’s champion is going to come from the big three of Nadal, Murray and Djokovic.
Yet should that trio trip up during the next two weeks, there’s significant talent just waiting to collect some New York hardware in their stead.
In a case of utter dominance, 13 of the past 15 Grand Slam titles have been won by one of those three men. The other two were captured by Federer, who, until recently, was considered an equal to Murray, Djokovic and Nadal.
While he’s slipped a notch in the past couple years, the 17-time Slam winner would be the sentimental favorite to claim another U.S. Open title in what would be an unlikely run from his seventh seed. The Swiss star has made a career out of proving people wrong, and, perhaps, he has one more run to an 18th Slam in his future.
More likely, however, would be a charge by del Potro or David Ferrer. Del Potro is the last man to win a major outside of the top three seeds and Federer. He claimed the 2009 U.S. Open over Federer, his only career Slam victory to date.
The talented Argentinian reached the semifinals at Wimbledon before losing to Djokovic and won the Citi Open over Isner in a U.S. Open tuneup.
For his part, Ferrer reached the final at Roland Garros earlier this year and followed that performance with a trip to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon just a couple weeks later. The Spaniard lost to del Potro in straight sets.
The hard-court season has not been especially good for Ferrer, but his form should improve when the U.S. Open starts.
Both players boast terrific hard-court games, and if a few breaks come their way with the draw, they will be second-week forces to be reckoned with.
In the wake of his inspiring victory at Wimbledon nearly two months ago, Murray has been more Scottish superstar than tennis player this summer.
In fact, since beating Djokovic to become the first Brit to win at the All England Club since 1936, he’s played only five matches to mixed results.
Given that, the question surrounding Murray isn't whether he has the game to defend his 2012 U.S. Open title—that matter is well resolved—but whether his mind is in the right place after such a historic fortnight in London not so long ago.
The talented Scot has been on quite a roll in Slams the past 15 months. Since the 2012 Wimbledon, Murray has reached the final in four straight majors he has played in and won two of them, highlighted by that emotional Wimbledon victory.
Since that triumph, however, he’s started only two events, including the Rogers Cup in Montreal in which he was upset by Ernests Gulbis in the third round.
Things got only slightly better at the Western and Southern Open. The two-time Slam winner won a pair of matches before falling in straight sets to Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals.
Seeded third next week, there’s no doubt that Murray will have to clear his mind and focus strictly on the matter at hand if he is going to successfully defend his U.S. Open title and lay claim to best player in the world status.
Given the form of Nadal and Djokovic, it’s a good bet he’ll have to topple both of them to win a third Slam.
It’s certainly there for the taking, but if Murray is still caught up in his historic achievements from two months ago, it will be difficult to add to them at the USTA Tennis Center two weeks from now.
We’re going chalk on the women’s side and sticking with a member of the sport’s elite trio in the men’s draw.
Sometimes a stunning loss can go a long way toward reigniting competitive fire, and we expect that to be the case with Serena.
By far the game’s most dominant force, Williams let her guard down at the All England Club, and it cost her. She won’t do that at the U.S. Open and will not only win her fifth title at the USTA Tennis Center, but she also will not drop more than two sets along the way.
The 16-time Slam winner will get a test in the final from Azarenka, but will survive in three sets to defend her 2012 U.S. Open title.
On the men’s side, we’ll be treated to yet another Djokovic-Nadal battle that will live up to the epic five-set tussle they gave us in the French Open final back in May.
As he did then, Nadal will outlast the top seed to claim his second U.S. Open title.
With the victory, Nadal will have 13 Slam titles and will renew the discussion as to whether he can ultimately pass his rival Federer for the most all time.