Rafael Nadal must be breathing a little easier right now. His quarter of the 2011 U.S. Open draw is the easiest. The seeds in his section have either been having a tough year, or are simply not great on hard courts.
Expect those blisters to be fine heading into the semifinals, and expect Nadal to gain back some confidence. The one downside is that, absent a real test, he'll be forced to raise his level markedly for the semifinals.
First round match to watch:
Mikhail Youzhny and Ernests Gulbis
Circle this match as a big upset alert. Gulbis, a rising star, has had a great hard-court season, with a tournament win in Los Angeles and solid play in Cincinnati and Montreal. Youzhny is in a major slide, with only one hard-court match win since February and some bad first-match losses on the North American circuit.
Matchups we're hoping for:
Andy Roddick and David Ferrer
Andy Roddick should be able to use his first three rounds to get his serve in order and try to get to a competitive level for his later matches. He might have to topple two Americans (a bit of patriotic wishful thinking, perhaps) before having to deal with Nicolas Almagro, who is still stronger on clay courts.
The story for Ferrer is more or less similar, so the fourth-round match between these two veterans could see them both in better form and ready to do battle. A great server versus a great returner can always be fun, so let's hope this pans out.
Of course, the winner gets the privilege of playing Nadal, which might make the victory seem a bit hollow.
Ernests Gulbis and Rafael Nadal
Gulbis has a really good chance to come out of his section, passing through Youzhny, Gilles Muller and Jurgen Melzer along the way. He won't scare Rafael Nadal, but could still take a set off him, especially if Nadal is still rusty at all. This is another of those matches that should tell a lot about the abilities of Gulbis.