Tuesday August 23rd, 2011

Previewing the American players' prospects for the U.S. Open, which begins next Monday:

Serena Williams: There's a segment of the tennis media that doesn't believe a word she says at any time, so there was a fair amount of skepticism over her withdrawal at Cincinnati. Had she grown weary of crushing players in events that don't mean that much to her? Was she more concerned about being on hand for Kim Kardashian's wedding? Or did she find it alarmingly taxing to have played seven matches in eight days?

She'll have the last laugh in the end, a familiar stance for Serena, and it's hard to believe her injury (a swollen right big toe) will be a significant factor in New York with the benefit of off-days between matches. It was probably smart for her to take a break and charge into the Open completely fresh.

She has already re-established her dominance, winning convincingly at Stanford and Toronto, and now it's time for the real thing. I just can't see anyone staring her down, especially those at the top of the rankings: Caroline Wozniacki, Vera Zvonareva, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. They don't have the game or the sustained mental prowess to pull it off.

Mardy Fish: There's a feeling among some insiders that Fish's remarkable comeback has peaked, and there's no shame in that. He went from a capable, unmotivated and somewhat overweight player to an absolute force on tour, rising to a career-high No. 7 in the rankings (No. 8 this week) and making it quite clear, to everyone, that he has surpassed Andy Roddick as the best male player in the country.

Fish isn't all that thrilled with the distinction. He always trumpeted his good friend Roddick as the best, in both game and reputation, and he meant every word. "This is new for me," he said after losing the Montreal final to Novak Djokovic. "It's not a place I feel extremely comfortable in. It's very different. It's much harder to play when you're supposed to win."

Make no mistake, the 29-year-old Fish is playing fabulous all-court tennis, he's playing it smart this week (taking a much-needed break), and he wants that first career major. "I want it so badly, it hurts," he said. He took another massive stride by defeating Rafael Nadal at Cincinnati, but that was a noticeably tired and injured (burned fingers) Nadal, who had spent nearly five hours on court playing singles and doubles the previous day. I'm not sure that Fish, who has never been to a Slam semifinal, believes he can crack the Djokovic-Roger Federer-Nadal stronghold in any major. If he's ever going to spend some time on the throne, this is it.

Alex Bogomolov Jr.: At 28, he's hardly a newcomer, but this is the first time he enters a major with a bit of buzz surrounding him. As he rose into the top 50 for the first time this summer (he's now 45th), Bogomolov was asked to hit with Nadal in Montreal and crafted a straight-set rout of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Cincinnati. Savoring the joys of his second marriage, and a father for the first time, Bogomolov (who was born in Moscow and moved to Florida at 11) is feeling like a major threat.

Ryan Harrison: Perhaps "surprise" isn't the right word in Harrison's case, for everyone on tour knows of the 19-year-old's skill and potential. It wouldn't be at all shocking to see No. 67 Harrison knock off a couple of lesser-ranked players in the first two rounds. But I see him beating someone important, a testament to the kid's resolve and willingness to improve. He remains limited by an ordinary backhand (glaringly exposed by Djokovic in Cincinnati), but he has the kind of inner drive that cannot be taught.

Venus Williams: Nobody's giving her a chance after a long summer of injuries and illness, most recently a virus that kept her out of Toronto, Cincinnati and New Haven. She hasn't played since the fourth round of Wimbledon and has become a somewhat ghostly presence, more myth than reality. Given all that, she's still Venus Williams. She'll knock off at least one top 10 player, break into a long-familiar smile and dance about the court before a deeply appreciative crowd.

Christina McHale: This really depends on the draw. McHale played a smart, fearless match in defeating the defensive-minded Wozniacki in Cincinnati, but when confronted with a taste of real power (Nadia Petrova), she fell in straight sets. Credit McHale, 19, for marked improvements in her physique and her game, and for ascending to the No. 66 ranking. But too many potential opponents play better on the attack.

Bethanie Mattek-Sands: As much as she'd love to make an impact -- beyond her garish fashion ensembles -- she hasn't played in two months because of shoulder problems and will try to get back into match-tough condition during the Open. That's too much to ask.

Andy Roddick: It was sad to see him stage a petulant tirade against the chair umpire in Cincinnati, and even sadder to see him fade away so quietly (6-1 in the third set) of his loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber. Roddick has had on-and-off shoulder problems, plus an abdominal injury, and can no longer serve his way out of trouble. Even at his best, the tour has long since caught up his game.

Donald Young: You can't go on Twitter to unleash a childish, obscene rant against the USTA and expect everything to be OK. It isn't. Diplomatic responses came forth, but the tennis establishment has seen and heard quite enough of Young, a kid who has always gone it alone -- thanks to his parents, who insisted on coaching him -- and hasn't fulfilled the vast potential of his teenage years. No one can accuse the USTA of holding a grudge: It has gifted Young a wild card to the main draw after an early-August run to the Washington, D.C., semifinals propelled him back into the top 100 (he's up to 85th). But both of his big wins this year -- at Indian Wells (Andy Murray) and Washington (Marcos Baghdatis) -- came against guys who were far from motivated, and he was routed by Bogomolov 6-0, 6-4 in the Cincinnati qualifying. Can't see any big splashes in New York.

John Isner: The future will always be limited for a too-tall player (6-10) who depends on a booming serve and a match full of tiebreakers. John McEnroe said it best in a recent conference call, lamenting Isner's tendency to grind it out from the baseline: "I don't think he's as dangerous as he could be. He gets stuck in too many rallies. I'd like to see him take more chances and not let guys get into a rhythm against him."

Robby Ginepri: Fans will always remember his inspired run to the 2005 U.S. Open semifinals, but we now see a man ranked No. 358 in the wake of countless injuries. He has played only six events since last year's Open after undergoing surgery on his broken left arm, the result of a biking accident.

James Blake: Just give him one more night match, with the "J-Block" boys in their customary spot and Blake drilling every forehand on the corners. At this late stage of his career, Blake's strong suit is nostalgia.

Jack Sock: The 18-year-old has a personal point to prove, after losing in the first round of last year's Open to Switzerland's Marco Chiudinelli, and says he's "a bit more polished this time around. I'm not going there settling for a first-round loss." He's definitely on a roll, having recently defended his title at the USTA Boys 18 National Championships at Kalamazoo, Mich.

Steve Johnson: He earned a wild-card spot after winning the NCAA singles title (at USC) for the second straight year. This will be a very telling event for a kid who has proved his competitive nature and was invited to practice with the U.S. Davis Cup team earlier this summer in Austin, Texas.

Melanie Oudin: We all remember her as the darling of the 2009 U.S. Open, but "first-round loss" describes her career in essence since then, and it's likely to happen next week, as well. Give the 19-year-old Oudin some credit, though, for her accountability. "I don't feel like it's somebody else's fault," she said after losing 6-0, 6-1 to Elena Baltacha in the first round of Carlsbad earlier this month. "Some players, when they don't do well, they just blame the coach [in her case, longtime coach Brian de Villiers]. I'm smart enough to realize that it's all on me."

(There are other American prospects in the women's draw, including Vania King, Sloane Stephens, Coco Vandeweghe and Lauren Davis, but it's a collective non-story until one of them truly steps to the front.)

Jill Craybas: She's 37, with almost no chance to make an impact, but this will be her 44th consecutive major, dating to the 2000 U.S. Open. All hail her longevity.

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