The third week of the Olympus US Open Series will bring the ATP World Tour to the Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington D.C.
Beginning six weeks of intense hard-court action, the Washington event will set the platform for the upcoming Masters 1000 events in Toronto and Cincinnati.
The hot and humid conditions in D.C. have never been easy for the ATP players to deal with (especially during the day), but there is no doubt that the fitness and mental fortitude of every main draw player will be pushed to the limit.
Two-time defending champion Juan Martin del Potro remains sidelined with a wrist injury, and will not be able to compete for a third straight title. The Tandil native has set a comeback date for the end of September, and will be sadly missed during the current and forthcoming marquee events on the circuit.
With three of the top 10 players in the world present in Washington this year, let's now take a look at the top and bottom halves of the draw, and who the potential winners and surprises could be.
Wimbledon finalist, Tomas Berdych will lead the way in Washington this year. Fresh off of his first Grand Slam final in London, which was followed by a semifinal performance at the French Open, Berdych will occupy the unlikely role of the being the favorite this week.
Receiving a bye in the first-round, Berdych will face either Dmitry Tursunov,or Teymuraz Gabasvili in second-round action.
Looking ahead at other potential winners in the top half of the draw, No. 3 seed Fernando Verdasco, No. 5 seed John Isner, and No. 9 seed Ernests Gulbis can't be overlooked.
Verdasco, who spent last week training in Las Vegas in order to better prepare for his hard-court march, took a late wildcard into the event. Originally slated to make his first hard-court appearance in Toronto, Verdasco will make his debut in Washington this year. Losing four of his last five matches on Tour, Verdasco will be adamant on changing his fortunes on the hard-courts of North America.
Marathon man Isner will be looking to add to his recent finals appearance in Atlanta. Reaching four finals this season, Isner continues to prove that his will and serving prowess are more than adequate weapons to sustain a top 20 position.
One wonders if fatigue, and injury will catch up with the 6'9" American, considering that most of his matches this year have gone to the limit—see his Wimbledon first-round against Nicolas Mahut, and more recently the finals of Atlanta against Mardy Fish.
Nevertheless, Isner is currently surrounded by an aura of confidence and hype, and those variables are often more valuable than a put-away forehand.
The dangerous groundstrokes of Latvian Gulbis will be interesting to monitor in Washington. Returning from injury last week in Los Angeles, the 21-year-old was bounced from the event in the second-round, but not before receiving multiple code violations and saving four match points.
Gulbis has exhibited the type of form that has challenged, and defeated the top players in the world, but remains an enigma considering the frequent early round losses that he's encountered in the past.
Gulbis does though, remain one of the purest ball strikers on the circuit, and could become a nightmare for anyone to face if his timing and confidence returns.
Other dangerous floaters that lurk in this half include: Richard Gasquet, James Blake, and Marcos Baghdatis.
Although Berdych provides the most bang for the buck in this half, something tells me that Verdasco's week of heavy duty training in Las Vegas will aid him towards a first time final.
Is it time for Andy Roddick fans to push the parachute button on their backpacks, or will the three time champ, and two time finalist turnaround his slumping form in Washington?
Roddick's year has been filled with quite a few notable momentum changes. His season began with a flourish by taking home two tournament titles in Brisbane and Miami, while reaching two other finals in San Jose and Indian Wells (all on hard-courts).
However, a hiatus from the clay-court season derailed Roddick's level of play, and saw him encounter earlier-than-expected losses at the French Open and Wimbledon.
Observing his matches in Atlanta two weeks ago, Roddick was far from his hard-court best. The American struggled with his returns, and lost a set in each of his first two matches before falling in straight sets to Fish in the semifinals.
Roddick's Washington record does speak for itself, and I think it's safe to say that if he's hoping for a successful summer season, than a deep charge in Washington must be achieved.
He was handed a generous draw up until the semifinals, with the exception of giant killer, and former top three player David Nalbandian as a potential quarterfinal foe.
Nalbandian pulled off an epic performance in the quarterfinals of the Davis Cup against Russia, and his silky smooth backhand has always excelled on hard-courts.
The top quarter of this half contains four players who could all advance to the semifinals. No. 4 seed Marin Cilic, No. 6 seed Sam Querrey, No. 11 seed Lleyton Hewitt, and No. 15 seed Fish have all shown flashes of brilliance on the asphalt this season.
Cilic, who has been in a slump as of late, returns to action after an early exit from Wimbledon. The lanky Croat blazed to the semifinals of the Australian Open earlier this year, but has cooled off considerably after signs of reaching the top 10.
Querrey has always thrived during the North American events, but has struggled to sustain respectable results in tournaments of larger stature. He does remain a menacing force on hard-courts, and appears like a good pick to reach the semifinals considering Hewitt's recent hip injury.
Fish, who remains the man of the moment, will enter Washington on a two tournament winning streak. Making the veteran decision to skip the Los Angeles event last week, Fish's stock would gain further value if he could bag his third title in a row.
Entering the meat of the summer circuit with Toronto and Cincinnati on the horizon, Fish would send a clear message to Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer that he's the player to beat with a victory in D.C.
Although Fish has shown nothing short of the desire to achieve the most out of his game during his final year's of his career, I still feel that his forehand can be exposed by the right caliber player.
All in all, the bottom half of the draw appears far less predictable than the top half. In saying that, one has to think that Roddick will be licking his chops with del Potro not defending his crown.
Five final appearances will definitely spur Roddick's chances at victory. Although the Toronto and Cincinnati events provide more points and prize money, Roddick's US Open chances—in my eyes anyway—will rest on how he performs in Washington.