1. One who achieves unexpected support and success as a political candidate, typically during a party's convention.
2. A little-known, unexpectedly successful entrant, as in a horserace.
A "dark horse" is a term used to describe a little-known person or thing that emerges to prominence.
For convenience sake, the top men at the U.S. Open can be divided into three groups: There is the Big Two of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, both of whom have won multiple majors and had extended stays at No. 1.
Then there’s the Pretty Big Four of Novak Djokovic and Andy Roddick (with one major each), along with Andy Murray and Juan Martin de Potro (who have no slams yet, but have been knocking on the door for the past year).
Then there’s everyone else. By the non-horse racing/political definition, the U.S. Open’s dark horse could come from anywhere out of those ranked No. 7 and beyond. The problem with the U.S. Open for would-be surprises is that it happens on hard courts, which lacks specialists a la Ivo Karlovic and Nicolas Almagro.
Also, unlike in the Australian Open, there isn’t an extended break in play just before it begins, allowing a lesser known player the chance to train like mad and test out his newfound physique under the simmering Melbourne sun.
At the U.S. Open, dark horse winners are a surprise indeed. Andre Agassi was ranked 20th at the time of his 1994 win, and Patrick Rafter was ranked 14th when he triumphed in 1997—and that’s about as surprising as Open winners get.
So, for our purposes, dark horse need not mean “surprise 2009 U.S. Open winner” but rather “the cause of a prominent upset.”
It’s hard to narrow down to one, so here are three of the best candidates.
Tsonga has certainly played this role before, as he mowed down Andy Murray, Richard Gasquet, and Nadal in route to the finals of the 2008 Australian Open.
Since then he has not been a reliable title winner, but his streaky play can still result in huge dividends, such as when he upset Federer in Montreal. That the highest seed in his quarter is the still-recovering Nadal presents him with a great opportunity.
The Frenchman’s rifle of a forehand and great hands at net should, in theory, play dividends if the U.S. Open’s courts play as fast as in recent years. What’s more, his extroversion should play very well with the New York fans.
Potential Upset Victim: Rafael Nadal (quarterfinals)
Biggest Obstacles: Jarkko Nieminen (round two), Tomas Berdych (round four), his own erratic play
If one can surrender to stereotypes for a moment: Cilic is Croatian, therefore he serves huge. His motion, with its distinctly acute bending at the back, is particularly effective on the second serve, employing some of the heaviest kick this side of Andre Agassi.
The Croat Cilic is, like No. 6 del Potro, 6’6” and just north of two decades old. Unlike the towering Argentine, his results have been erratic, but he’s definitely put up some wins that are noteworthy in recent months.
In addition to leading Croatia past the United States in round two of the Davis Cup, Cilic narrowly missed out on derailing the Wimbledon dark horse, Tommy Haas, at the All-England Club.
However, his summer results were disappointing, with him falling in back-to-back first round matches at Washington and Montreal.
Potential Upset Victim: Andy Murray (round four)
Biggest Obstacles: Stanislas Wawrinka (round three), his own inexperience
Long term, this American may have the least potential as an athlete of these three, but his recent results bode well for a good run in New York. The biggest question is whether he’s had too many of these said results.
If there's such a thing as a hard-court specialist, Querrey fits the bill: like Cilic, he's 6’6”, and his massive serve and forehand wing tend to come alive post-Wimbledon. This summer hard court season was no exception, as Querrey won Los Angeles and reached three other finals, topping Haas, Roddick and Nikolay Davydenko along the way.
The biggest question mark for him will be fatigue: He actually played twice yesterday in New Haven, dropping a tight one to Fernando Verdasco in the finals. If he’s got anything left, his draw offers more than one chance for an upset, and would allow him a crack at King Federer in the quarters.
Though a mismatch on paper, Querrey has a reputation for playing close matches against the top players.
Potential Upset Victim: Robin Soderling (round three), Nikolay Davydenko (round 4), Roger Federer [I said "potential," not "likely"!] (quarterfinals)
Biggest Obstacles: Dudi Sela (round two), his own exhaustion
So, which of these has the best chance of pulling off an upset? That would be Querrey, who has the most potential targets. Who has the chance of pulling off a huge surprise? That’s probably Tsonga, who has already proved the ability to beat Nadal.
Who has the best chance of winning the title? Well, none of them this year, but over the long run Cilic’s odds can’t be discounted.