Sunny skies are in the forecast for Monday, and the eyes of the tennis world will be firmly focused on New York, New York as the Open gets underway in full force. The weather won't be the only thing changing this year at the US Open, because 2011 marks the first time that a player other than Nadal or Federer has been seeded first at a Grand Slam since the 2004 Australian Open.
It's been a long grind this summer, and now that we're arriving at the destination, one has to wonder: who has enough left in the tank to get this done?
Here's a look at the men's draw, complete with picks:
If 2011 is the year of Novak Djokovic, doesn't he pretty much have to seal the deal here by winning his first US Open and by also becoming the 6th man in Open Era history to win three Grand Slams in a calendar year? If he doesn't he'll still have a lot to be proud of -- a 43-match winning streak, the No. 1 ranking and two Grand Slams -- but it will be a bit disappointing for the game's hottest player to lose out in the final slam of the year, on what he claims to be his favorite surface, and at an event that he wants to win badly for many reasons.
Talk has gone from the big four to the trivalry this year, but with both Federer and Nadal sort of limping into the open, it feels like we could have a pretty strong dark horse contingent trying to make some noise in New York. Gone is the aura that surrounded Nadal and his beefed-up serve last year, and certainly gone is the belief that Federer is a shoe-in for the semis, given that he was bounced out of the last two masters events by Tsonga and Berdych, and rather easily at that.
So where does that leave us? Murray comes in hot after taking Cincinnati, so he could be a factor, and there is also del Potro and Fish, two possible usurpers who are hungry for a chance to prove themselves at their favorite event.
Here's a breakdown of the draws to hopefully elucidate matters further:
Losses to Dodig and Fish in the last two events have raised question marks about Rafa. Is he healthy? Will he ever regain his hardcourt form of 2010, or is it too big of an ask? But I wouldn't count the 10-time Grand Slam winner out just yet. For one, his quarter is very favorable. Add to that the fact that he's in the opposite side of the draw from Djokovic, and you have to think that he's got a very good chance to play his way into the tournament, work off some of the rust that might still be lingering from his long post-Wimbledon layoff, and gain some much needed confidence heading into the later rounds.
One big questions lurks: Is Novak's shoulder going to hinder his play? If it does, who the heck knows who is going to come out of this quarter; if it doesn't, Novak will almost certainly find himself in the semis on Super Saturday. It's really hard to imagine anybody in Nole's draw causing him much trouble if he is playing at his best. Berdych, Monfils, Dodig, Gasquet will try to make a difference in this quarter, but their fates depend on Novak's shoulder more than anything.
Resistance could come from big, bad and bald Ivan Ljubicic, Mikhail Youzhny and David Ferrer, but I wouldn't count on anything crazy from Andy Roddick this year -- he doesn't seem to have any mojo at all.
Here's the big question: Was Federer playing possum this summer at the Masters events, or has his level dropped another level since the French Open? The five-time US Open champion is certainly having trouble keeping his head above water these days, but perhaps a return to one of his favorite places to play in all the world will help him get the fire back. Roger is looking to become the 11th player of 30 years of age or older to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era (the last was Agassi), but both Tsonga (his new nemesis) and Fish (coming into his own in a huge way, and the US Open Series winner) lurk in his quarter, so a trip to the semis will not be a walk in the park by any means.
Will Stan the man Wawrinka ruin Andy Murray's US Open for a second consecutive year? I don't think so, but even if he doesn't, Juan Martin del Potro (who is technically defending his '09 title this year), John Isner or Robin Soderling might. This should be a very entertaining quarter of the draw, with Soderling bound to be rusty after a long layoff, and del Potro bound to be hungry upon returning to the scene of his one and only Grand Slam triumph for the first time. Gilles Simon could even be a major factor here, and maybe even Feliciano Lopez. But in the end, I think it's Murray's quarter to win, and Del Potro's quarter to challenge.
Pick: del Potro
Semis: Djokovic over Fish, Del Potro over Nadal
Finals: Djokovic over Del Potro