It's never too early to begin looking ahead.
Sure, the image of Novak Djokovic kissing the Wimbledon Championship trophy is still fresh in our minds, but that doesn't mean we can't start speculating about the last Grand Slam tournament of the year. This one may, in fact, be the hardest to predict.
The main contenders for the 2011 U.S. Open are, of course, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic. With all due respect to Andy Murray and 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro, their formidable games are not quite within striking distance of the sport's dominant trifecta.
Within this trio, one finds the defending champion (Nadal), the hottest player all year (Djokovic) and a guy who happens to be the only player in the Open Era to ever win five consecutive U.S. Open titles (Federer).
But who has the edge right now? Let's take a closer look so you have something to ponder for the next couple of months.
Out of respect, let's start with last year's champion.
Nadal has already had a commendable year, winning the French Open and succumbing to Djokovic in the Wimbledon finals. But he has been dethroned from his top spot in the world rankings, settling into No. 2 for the first time in almost 13 months.
Nadal has been impressive on hard courts, going 19-4 in 2011. It should be noted, however, that half of those hard-court losses have come against Novak Djokovic.
What's more, Djokovic is 8-4 all-time against Nadal on hard courts and he has won their last five head-to-head matchups (regardless of surface).
Nadal did beat Djokovic in last year's U.S. Open finals to complete his career Grand Slam. But the Serbian star has made many strides in his game since then, amazingly rendering that match forgettable after only 10 months.
Nadal appears overmatched entering the final major tournament of the year, and that's without even mentioning Roger Federer. Federer and Nadal have split their matches on hard court surfaces, each winning four. Federer is the historically better hard court player, however. Nadal, whose topspin can be deadly on other surfaces, is somewhat neutralized on hard courts (relatively speaking, of course).
It's still hard to count this guy out.
Roger Federer has historically been an excellent hard court player, owing to his fast serve and flatter forehand.
The U.S. Open has particularly been a friendly tournament for him, as he has reached the semifinals or better in every year since 2003—including five consecutive titles.
Federer has another streak that hinges on his U.S. Open performance: He has won at least one Grand Slam tournament in every year since 2002. He, of course, has gone 0-for-3 in 2011, meaning this is his last shot to keep the streak alive.
Federer has gone 22-4 on hard court surfaces this season, but, like Nadal, he has been stopped by the "Djoker" quite frequently. Three of Federer's four losses on hard court have come at the hands of Novak Djokovic.
Federer has a healthy 15-9 overall lead against Djokovic in their head-to-head matchups, including a 5-3 mark in Grand Slams. He was the one who ended Djokovic's potentially record-breaking winning streak by defeating him during the semifinals of the French Open.
You can bet Djokovic will be extra motivated if the two meet again during the U.S. Open.
The easiest pick, perhaps, but the smartest pick.
The new world No. 1 has to be the favorite entering the U.S. Open. He has almost everything going for him.
His obvious advantage is momentum. After his Wimbledon win, Djokovic is 48-1 in 2011. He has been the most consistently dominant player on tour, including against his most formidable rivals. Djokovic has defeated Federer three times this year, and he just won his first Grand Slam match against Nadal in six attempts.
He has always been a strong hard court player, particularly because of how well he moves around the court. Djokovic seems to be playing with even greater agility in 2011, perhaps owing this enhanced stamina to his new gluten-free diet. His nutritionist discovered the star had a gluten allergy late last year, and Djokovic has since been stricter with his eating.
Djokovic's quality return game also renders him a dominant force at the U.S. Open. He has twice made the finals, making it the only Grand Slam tournament in which he has been a runner-up. In 2007 and 2010, respectively, Djokovic lost to Federer and Nadal.
This year, however, he seems to have the edge over both his worthy counterparts, which is why, right now, he should be everyone's pick to win.