Albeit with its typical weather delays, the U.S. Open is underway, and the sport’s biggest stars have launched their quest toward winning the final slam of 2013.
The stakes are certainly high for tennis’ best of the best, and each has much to gain—and to lose—with a championship charge at Flushing Meadows.
For some, it’s a quest for continued dominance or an effort to regain superiority lost. For others, it’s an opportunity to finally claim the sport's biggest prize for the first time or to take a significant step in that direction.
Whatever the benefits beyond simply winning, the top seeds in this year’s Open all have significant motivation to make it through crazy competitive men’s and women’s draws to discover the glory at the end.
Here’s a look at what drives the top three seeds on both sides of the draw and a pair of wild-card stars who are just as much a threat to win the U.S. Open as those at the top.
*Stats are courtesy of Tennis X and Tennis.Matchstat, unless noted otherwise.
Seed: No. 15
What's at Stake: Sloane Stephens might not yet be among the elite, but much is expected of the young American at Flushing Meadows.
Now, the talented young player is looking to take at least one step forward in her learning curve and advance to the final of the U.S. Open and, perhaps, claim a first career major title in the process.
Feasibility: After a sluggish and sloppy opening-round victory over 110th-ranked Mandy Minella, Stephens is fortunate to still be playing in this year’s Open. She will need to greatly improve that form to advance beyond the first week.
Should Stephens make it to the fourth round, she will likely find a focused and determined Serena waiting for her, which is not good news.
As good as she's been against Williams, it's hard to imagine Stephens beating the top-ranked player in two Slams during the same year.
Bottom line, if the 20-year-old hopes to avoid such challenges so early in slams, she needs to greatly improve her ranking between now and the beginning of next year.
Otherwise, she will keep seeing players like Serena far too early to advance much further.
Seed: No. 7
The sport's all-time Grand Slam winner hasn't captured one in more than a year and has claimed only two since 2010.
True to form, however, the Swiss legend remains confident he not only has the game to compete with the top of his sport, but to also win a sixth U.S. Open title and an 18th Grand Slam along the way.
Feasibility: Despite an impressive first-round showing against overmatched Grega Zemlja on Tuesday, Federer didn't arrive at the U.S. Open in solid form.
He was ousted in the second round at Wimbledon a couple months ago and had a winless and largely disappointing hard-court campaign leading up to the season's final Slam.
The 32-year-old has made a career out of proving people wrong and exceeding expectations, but given his No. 7 seed, the path just to the quarterfinals, much less a championship match, will be difficult to say the least.
Federer will improve upon his showing at Wimbledon, but to expect him to run the gauntlet of the top of the men’s game deep into the second week is simply too much to ask.
Seed: No. 3
What’s at Stake: Angieszka Radwanska has won 12 WTA titles, has earned nearly $13 million in her career and is currently ranked fourth in the world.
Yet, until the 24-year-old breaks through and wins a Grand Slam, she will continue to be overlooked in the hierarchy of women’s tennis.
Radwanska has looked good in her first two matches this week, but will have to play some of the best tennis of her life to earn that first Slam of her career at the U.S. Open next week.
Feasibility: Maria Sharapova's withdrawal elevated Radwanska to the tournament’s third seed, meaning she won’t have to play Serena until the final should they both get there.
Given her solid play this year, she has a reasonable chance to make that deep run into the second week.
In addition to two WTA titles this season, Radwanska posted a pair of quarterfinal appearances at the Australian Open and French Open and then advanced to the semifinals at Wimbledon before bowing out to Sabine Lisicki, 7-9, in the third set.
The 2012 Wimbledon runner-up has the all-around game to succeed on the hard courts, and if a few breaks go her way, she could find herself in the final against Williams.
More than likely, however, the improving Radwanska will bow out in the semifinals.
Seed: No. 3
What’s at Stake: Andy Murray is looking to become the first men’s tennis player to repeat as U.S. Open champion since Federer won a remarkable five in a row from 2004 to 2008.
Given what he accomplished last year at Flushing Meadows and the history he made at Wimbledon only a couple months ago, he certainly has the game to do it.
The question, however, is whether Murray’s ready for another grueling Grand Slam run so soon after becoming the first British man to win at the All England Club since 1936.
Feasibility: The Scot has now reached the final of the past four Grand Slams he has played in and has captured two of them, both by beating No. 1 Novak Djokovic.
Despite that recent run, it’s not a sure bet by any stretch that Murray will reach a fifth straight final and ultimately win consecutive U.S. Open titles.
In the wake of his Wimbledon victory, Murray played sparingly and wasn't very good when he did. The No. 3 seed lost in the third round of the Rogers Cup to Ernests Gulbis and then in the quarterfinals at Cincinnati to Thomas Berdych.
Given he’s only played five matches and is coming off such a career-defining victory, a follow-up performance at the Open is a tough sell.
Murray will get to the semifinals, but his run toward joining Federer as the most recent repeat Open champion likely ends there.
Seed: No. 2
What's at Stake: Victoria Azarenka isn't only looking for a first career U.S. Open title, she’s seeking to erase memories of the disappointing loss suffered in last year’s final to Serena.
The top-seeded Williams bested Azarenka in a thrilling three-set battle to win her fourth U.S. Open title last September.
Since then, however, Azarenka has become the clear rival to Williams’ dominance in the women’s game and looks to make a big statement in the next two weeks at Flushing Meadows.
Azarenka has only beaten Serena three times in 15 tries (lost another in a walkover), but two of those have come this year, including a victory over her a couple weeks ago at the Western and Southern Open.
It took three sets for Azarenka to bow out in last year's final, and given the confidence she's gotten from recent success against Williams, she'll have a strong chance to topple her growing rival at Flushing Meadows.
Of course, the 24-year-old rising star has to get to the final first, which is an accomplishment in itself at the U.S. Open.
Seed: No. 2
What's at Stake: Despite his storied career, Rafael Nadal owns just one U.S. Open title, despite a game that is suited to the hard-court surface.
He enters the 2013 event playing well, but the question surrounding Rafa is whether his balky leg that took him out of action for seven months after last year's Wimbledon will hold up at Flushing Meadows.
If it can, Nadal is the favorite to win this year’s Open. If it can’t, another New York disappointment is forthcoming.
Feasibility: Nadal won his record eighth French Open crown back in May, but the victory took a toll on him physically. The Spaniard was bounced from Wimbledon in the second round and took some needed time off to rest his tired legs.
Since his return, Nadal has been in solid form. He won his two U.S. Open tune-ups and defeated both Federer and Djokovic in the process without showing any signs of wear and tear.
If his health remains right and his mental game stays tight, Nadal is a strong favorite to win an extremely talented men’s draw.
Combined with his French title, the triumph would give him a strong argument to be considered the top player in the world.
Seed: No. 1
What's at Stake: As a 16-time Grand Slam winner and the undisputed top player of her generation, there’s little Serena hasn't accomplished in her storied career.
Winning back-to-back U.S. Open titles, however, has managed to elude her.
Williams, the 2012 champion, has an opportunity to change that with a run toward a fifth U.S. Open title during the next two weeks.
Feasibility: Albeit as a clear favorite, the top-seeded American looked dominant and focused in her opening match at Flushing Meadows, defeating 2010 French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, 6-0, 6-1, on Monday.
Certainly things will get tougher for the top seed as players such as Stephens, and ultimately Azarenka, come her way during the Open's second week.
Yet, when Serena is playing her best tennis, she is almost impossible to beat, and it's hard to imagine her being any less than that with a chance to accomplish another first so late in her career.
Indeed, denying Williams a second straight U.S. Open title will be a tall order for no matter who she faces the rest of the way.
Seed: No. 1
What's at Stake: Djokovic entered the U.S. Open ranked No. 1 in the world.
Exactly where he sits among the top three in the sport, however, is another discussion entirely.
Nadal made history at the French Open earlier this year. Murray followed suit at Wimbledon only a month later. Djokovic fell to both of them in the process.
The Serbian has won only one Grand Slam event in the past six after winning three in a row between the 2011 Wimbledon and 2012 Australian Open.
He owns just one U.S. Open triumph in his career and needs the 2013 U.S. Open title to prove he's still the game’s best player.
Feasibility: Djokovic won the 2013 Australian Open, but after a grueling five-set loss to Nadal in the French Open semifinals and a difficult setback to Murray in the Wimbledon final, it’s been a rather average hard-court season by his standards.
The Serbian lost to Rafa in the semifinals of the Rogers Cup in Canada and then was surprised in the quarterfinals by American John Isner at the Western and Southern Open.
As a result, he comes to New York without a win since April.
That said, Djokovic has reached the final at Flushing Meadows three straight years, including his victory in 2011 over Nadal.
If he can refocus his game after his difficult losses this summer, he’ll return for a fourth straight time where he and Nadal will battle for that elusive second career U.S. Open title.