Bryan Armen Graham
Tuesday August 25th, 2009

With the last Grand Slam of the decade kicking off next Monday, here's a look at five of the most pressing questions entering the U.S. Open:

1. Can anybody usurp the King of Queens?

Five-time defending champion Roger Federer is fixing to rewrite another chapter of the record book, with Bill Tilden's mark of six consecutive U.S. Open titles squarely in his crosshairs. Can anybody stop him?

The short answer: yes. More than any one player, the well-documented parity atop the men's tour -- six players already have at least 40 victories this year -- complicates Federer's quest. And Robin Soderling's historic French Open victory against Rafael Nadal should dispel any illusions of invincibility, underscoring the cross-sport truism of no sure things.

Deposing Federer won't be easy. Since a post-Wimbledon hiatus to welcome his twin daughters into the world, the 28-year-old has won yet another Masters title (at Cincnninati) and seven of eight matches overall, the only smudge a mind-boggling collapse against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Montreal.

2. Can Rafael Nadal regain his form in time to contend?

Only six men have won each of the four major tournaments, making the career Grand Slam roughly a once-in-a-generation accomplishment. What a story it'd make if Nadal could become the second player this year to turn the trick.

But the Spaniard's patchy form since missing two months with tendinitis in both knees appears likely to preclude a serious title challenge. Yes, Nadal is playing without pain -- but signs of rust linger. Case in point: last week's Cincinnat semis, when Nadal went down in straight sets to Novak Djokovic in his second tournament since returning.

No matter how it plays out, if you read only one thing during the next two weeks -- besides's U.S. Open blog, of course -- make sure to check out Nadal's always-entertaining dispatches for the Times Online.

3. How far can Kim Clijsters go?

Whether Clijsters' impressive string of victories on the heels of a two-year hiatus speaks to her extraordinary abilities or the mediocrity of the women's tour is a debate best left to the cynics. Instead, just appreciate the Belgian's comeback for what it is.

After defeating three straight top 20 opponents before falling to No. 1 Dinara Safina in her Cincinnati return two weeks ago, Clijsters followed it up at last week's Rogers Cup with a come-from-behind victory over eighth-ranked Victoria Azarenka. In the next round, Clijsters led No. 5Jelena Jankovic 5-3 in the third set before losing.

Incredibly, British oddsmaker William Hill lists Clijsters, a wild-card entry, at 8-to-1 to win the U.S. Open, making her the third favorite with Azarenka and Elena Dementieva. (Serena Williams is 15-to-8 and Venus Williams is 4-to-1.)

4. Can Andy Roddick finally break through for that elusive second major?

It's ironic Roddick's highly successful 2009 season may be remembered most for a match he didn't win: that spectacular loss to Federer in the Wimbledon final.

In the year since Roddick enlisted Larry Stefanki as his coach and shed 15 pounds, the improvements to his game -- in tactics, in fitness, in mental makeup -- have been evident. As a result, the big-serving American -- who advanced to the quarterfinals in 11 of 12 tournaments before last week's second-round loss to Sam Querrey -- is back in the top five for the first time in two years.

Roddick has not openly acknowledged the sentiment that his legacy depends on winning a second major, but his recommitment to fitness and sharpened play seem to reflect that matured brand of desperation.

That said, a favorable draw might help: Roddick is 46-11 in '09 -- but 0-5 against Federer and Nadal.

5. Which Slam-less contender has the best chance of winning a first major?

The obvious choice in the men's draw is Murray. The 22-year-old Scot and current U.S. Open Series front-runner comes to New York in good form after winning a Masters title in Montreal and reaching the semifinals in Cincinnati. What's more, Murray's runner-up finish at last year's Open stands as the best Grand Slam result of his career.

The popular dark horse is Juan Martin del Potro, who turns 21 next month. Del Potro is 29-6 on hard courts this year, including a victory against Roddick in the Legg Mason final earlier this month.

If Nikolay Davydenko finds himself on the opposite side of the draw as Federer -- against whom he's winless in a dozen matches -- don't sleep on the oft-overlooked Russian. A four-time Grand Slam semifinalist, including twice at the U.S. Open, the eighth-ranked Davydenko is a veteran baseliner whose hard ground strokes are tailor-made for the blue cement in Queens.

On the women's side, many expect Safina to play up to her No. 1 ranking sooner or later. Jankovic, the only year-end No. 1 in tour history without a Slam, has rebounded from an uninspired first half and seems primed for a deep run.

But I'll take a flier on Dementieva, the 27-year-old power-baseliner who climbed to No. 4 this week after winning the Rogers Cup. She has advanced to the quarterfinals or beyond in four of the past five Opens and remains eager to win a Slam as she approaches the twilight of her career. If that sometimes-unreliable serve is clicking, watch out.

"My hamstrings are not big fans of sprints... Is it worrying that I've had 'Party in the Usa' by Miley Cyrus in my head allllllllll day??!!" --Laura Robson, training while acting her age (15), Aug. 19, 12:42 p.m.

"Disappointed and a little frustrated with the match last night, still shows how close I am to Top five level after a few matches back" --Kim Clijsters, on her third-round loss to Jelena Jankovic in Toronto, Aug. 21, 7:54 a.m.

"Having a tough day rehabbing and trying to see the light so I'm following the Dalai Lama on twitter now for some inspiration!" --Anne Keothavong, finding her spiritual center while recovering from an ACL tear, Aug. 25, 7:41 a.m.

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