For years, fans have fantasized about a Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal matchup in the U.S. Open final. Their historically compelling rivalry has taken them all over the world, from Centre Court to Roland Garros to the palaces of Shanghai and Monte Carlo, but never Flushing Meadows, where's the year's final proclamations are made.
The notion didn't sound too plausible this spring, when Federer developed such an annoying knack for losing finals, but suddenly it seems possible, even likely that they'll meet for the U.S. Open title.
I wouldn't put much stock in Nadal's sweat-soaked loss to Marcos Baghdatis in Cincinnati. Part of him probably wanted to just get out of there, get some rest, and fully prepare for the one major tournament he hasn't won.
As for Federer, let's just say he's playing the best tennis in the world right now. He got a number of breaks in Cincinnati, including a relatively easy draw and two withdrawals, but he looked fresh, masterful and inventive in his 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 victory over the resurgent Mardy Fish in Sunday's final.
Put it this way: Would you dare favor anyone else in New York the way Federer is playing? Andy Murray was one of Fish's victims last week, admittedly disappointed at how poorly he handled the heat. Just when fans hoped Juan Martin del Potro would be back to defend his Open title, he realized he wasn't adequately recovered from his wrist surgery. The way Federer's mind is working right now, in tandem with his classic strokes, I'd give him the edge over Tomas Berdych, Robin Soderling,Murray or Novak Djokovic.
Every signpost suggests a healthy, wildly motivated Nadal heading into Flushing Meadows, where injuries and fatigue (after the tour's long grind) have beaten him down so often. He needs this title in this worst way. It would significantly elevate his case as the game's greatest ever, a notion held by some, although Federer, Rod Laver and Pete Sampras remain the penthouse choices in most circles.
As for the U.S. prospects in its showcase event, it's difficult to recall a more bleak outlook -- men or women. For my money, Fish is the only player capable of making big noise in either draw.
To review, on the men's side:
Andy Roddick: There's just no reason to put much stock in Roddick's chances. He'll compete until he drops, but the season has been too much of a grind, topped off by his recent case of mononucleosis. After losing to Fish in Cincinnati -- a horrible result, given that he was up a set and 5-2 in the second -- he said, "For me to get in five really tough matches is more than I could've asked for going into the Open. I was thinking maybe two matches, and then we'll see. I hadn't really put too much time in." For Roddick to reach peak form, in a year that has seen him fall consistently short under duress, seems too much to ask.
James Blake: They'll be going crazy in J-Block, that luxury suite in Arthur Ashe Stadium reserved for Blake's old buddies, but he's had a desultory, injury-tormented season and is seriously contemplating retirement. A grand, spectacular exit -- say, the quarterfinals -- would be nice. Realistically, no.
John Isner: After all that buildup, his memorable Wimbledon and his rise to No. 19 in the world, he has torn ankle ligaments and almost certainly won't play.
Sam Querrey: He'll either storm into the second week or take a ridiculous first-round loss to a qualifier. You never quite know with this guy. Recent results aren't always relevant with Querrey, who occasionally crafts greatness off an apparently blank canvas, but it's hard to ignore those second-round losses in his last three tournaments: to Janko Tipsarevic in Washington D.C., Kevin Anderson in Toronto and David Ferrer in Cincinnati.
Fish, clearly, is the man right now. He's got more game than Roddick. Andy has always been aware of that, dating back to their high-school days, but Fish finally realized that he needs to be in shape (thus the 30-pound weight loss) and truly attack his career, not just let it unfold. He came within a tiebreaker victory of knocking off Federer on Sunday, and if you saw the match on ESPN, you know Fish's performance was no fluke. He was right there with the great man.
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Serena Williams' withdrawl from the U.S. Open has caused a bit of panic, some observers claiming the tournament is no longer worth watching, and that's a stretch. I'd love to witness a pair of semifinals involving Caroline Wozniacki (shockingly, the No. 1 seed), Maria Sharapova and a couple of fiery, very watchable young players, Victoria Azarenka and Aravene Rezai. (I'd throw in Francesa Schiavone, and all the aesthetic wonders therein, but she hasn't had much impact since winning the French.)
Let's just hope it doesn't turn out to be Kuznetsova, Petrova, Zvonareva and Dementieva. Good grief, would that be a disaster.
It's ridiculous to even attempt to pick a favorite -- chances are, you'd be wrong -- and downright disheartening to consider the number of players heading into New York without a trace of momentum:
Kim Clijsters: Developed a hip problem in her loss to Vera Zvonareva in Toronto, and that can be a tough injury to shake.
Justine Henin: Long gone with an elbow ailment that put her out for the year.
Sharapova: Has been fighting hard all year, but was so disheartened by an ever-worsening heel injury against Clijsters in Cincinnati, she actually stopped shrieking in the final set.
Jelena Jankovic: Oh, whatever. Injury, mental walkabout, something will get in her way.
Venus Williams: Hasn't played since Wimbledon as she protects her tender knees, and now seems incapable of putting together two pristine weeks.
Samantha Stosur: Expressed deep concern about a debilitating arm injury, and won't be match-tough.
Melanie Oudin: You remember her tremendous run through the first week of last year's tournament, but that was a mirage. Don't even look at her season-long record this year. It's quite depressing.
As for Serena, you have to give her credit. She didn't want anyone knowing how she hurt her foot, whether she actually had surgery (the time and place have not been identified), or what the surgery was for. This is a hell of a trick. Can you imagine Peyton Manning pulling out of the Super Bowl without an explanation? "Oh, you know, just had a little surgery. I don't know -- I fell down, or something. Not sure if it's my ankle or my butt. Take care, now."
At first I thought WTA officials were just sloppy, or incompetent, the way they've kept this vital information from the public, but I've concluded they must savor the intrigue. Serena is the tour's only authentic rock star, and this makes her even more enigmatic, so they've collaborated to keep everyone guessing. I'd consult Serena's well-publicized tweets, but every time I see "LOL," I run for cover.