The year's final major is upon is. The U.S. Open kicks off Monday, Aug. 27, at Flushing Meadows. Novak Djokovic and Sam Stosur look to defend their crowns from last year. Rafael Nadal headlines the list of withdrawals while he rests and mends his troubled knees. The SI.com tennis team breaks down the key storylines heading into the U.S. Open.
How will tuneup results carry into the Open?
Jon Wertheim: It's often tough knowing what to make of tuneups. Yes, as the tournaments preceding the majors -- played on the same surface and usually in the same time zone -- they ought to have predictive value. But wary of aggravating an injury or arriving to the major at less than full strength, players often give something other than a full-fledged effort. (See Serena Williams in Cincinnati or Andy Murray in Toronto.) This year, the tuneups were especially quirky, given that only three weeks separated the Olympic tennis event and the start of the U.S. Open. If we should look at any results for guidance, it's the London Games. Murray, Roger Federer, Juan Martin del Potro and Novak Djokovic were the top four finishers there and come to New York as the top four favorites. Other players looking sharp in London -- Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Milos Raonic and John Isner -- could do well, too. Serena, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Kirlenko were the top four women. All are worth watching at the Open.
Bruce Jenkins: A few truisms will hold -- Federer's command, Angelique Kerber's ascent -- but essentially, the tuneups will have no bearing. You won't see Serena looking as if she'd rather be somewhere else, or Djokovic going through the motions in a first set. Li Na's Cincinnati title was inspiring, but perhaps a bit deceiving. Andy Murray has played only three hardcourt matches as he enters the Open. We've barely had a glimpse of Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka, and Agnieszka Radwanska's shoulder injury rendered her ineffective. Most of the top players see the next two weeks as a fresh start.
Courtney Nguyen: My general take on lead-up results is that wins/losses mean little in isolation but in context they can be very telling. I don't take much stock in Andy Murray's or Serena Williams' early exits in Cincinnati, for example. They both came up against hot players and, given the amount of tennis they've played this summer, you have to cut them some slack and give them a chance to rest.
But some results do matter because they either establish or reinforce existing trends. Federer's form in Cincinnati and his straight set win over Djokovic make him the clear front-runner. Given Li Na's history of ratcheting up her level immediately after she makes a coaching change, I think her Montreal final and Cincinnati title put her back in the mix. And Djokovic's ability to win Toronto and make the final of Cincinnati shows me that he's not in danger of crashing out early at the U.S Open.
Bryan Armen Graham: Typically we rely on the predictive value of the tuneups at our own peril, but this year's August standouts are likely to shine in Queens. Much has been made of Federer's emphatic win over Djokovic in Cincinnati, but Nole's form augurs well. ("I lost only one match in two weeks on two [Masters 1000] events," he said after the 6-0, 7-6 loss to Federer in Cincinnati, "so I'm actually feeling good about myself at this moment.") I expect the pair to meet at the U.S. Open for the sixth time in six years, this time in the final. Serena is always a threat, but the 30-year-old's summer of resurgence -- 19 consecutive victories, a Wimbledon title and two Olympic gold medals -- translates to even odds to win the tournament.
Elizabeth Newman: Tuneups rarely matter when it comes to a Grand Slam hard court tournament like the U.S. Open. And with the addition of the Olympics to this summer's schedule, most of the top seeds heading to Flushing Meadows next week have been pretty active, so I don't think preparation is an issue. If anything, fatigue (Serena, Djokovic both ran out of gas at Cincinnati) or nagging injuries (Juan Martin Del Potro sore wrist in Cincy, Caroline Wozniaki sore knee in New Haven) with players who have played too much tennis this summer might produce a few hiccups here and there. But again, this is the U.S. Open and hiccups be damned, everyone is going to be ready to get down and dirty in Queens.
What does Nadal's withdrawal do to the men's field?
Wertheim: Nadal"s absence depletes the field both in terms of losing a past champion and a Big Three member. It benefits others, not least David Ferrer, who moved up into the No. 4 seed position. It increases the odds that a non-Big Three member will win a major, something that has happened only once is the last seven and a half years. The silver lining: If this absence helps Nadal's knees recover and adds some time to the back end of his career, all the better.
Jenkins: It makes Murray's half the toughest in the draw. That means a potentially tough road for the likes of Tsonga, Milos Raonic, Mardy Fish and Tomas Berdych, with Murray lined up to play Federer in the semifinals. In the other half, you'd have to think Djokovic -- given optimum health and motivation -- has an easier path to the finals.
Nguyen: Ideally it should shoot a jolt of urgency and intensity into the field. Put on your big-boy pants, Lukas Rosols of the tennis world, particularly if you're in the David Ferrer quarter of the draw. Given the draw, one of these men could be a U.S. Open semifinalist: Janko Tipsarevic, Isner, Richard Gasquet, Tommy Haas, Lleyton Hewitt or David Ferrer. Talk about an opportunity.
Bryan Armen Graham: Now Ferrer, Nadal's overachieving countryman who scares no one on hard courts, is a top-four seed. Ferrer's quarter of the draw is wide open, offering an opportunity for No. 9-seeded Isner to ride that thunderous serve into the semis. It also slashes Djokovic's odds, who avoids Federer and Murray until the final.
Newman: Make no mistake, every player in the men's field, from No. 1 seed Federer to a petrified qualifier, did the happy dance when Rafa pulled out of the Open because of that recurring knee injury. Still, Federer's side of the draw is stacked with Tsonga, Berdych and Murray -- who could potentially face Federer in the semis for their third match in less than two months. While Rafa's absence makes things less taxing on both the body and mind, the road to the final is still a winding one.
Dark Horse players to watch
Wertheim: The definition of "dark horse" has really changed, given the hegemony of the Big Three. Is Del Potro a dark horse? Yes, he won this event in 2009 and is fresh from a bronze-medal showing at the Olympics. But it's been three years since he's been beyond the quarterfinals of a Slam. Can Haas be a dark horse? Raonic? Rosol? On the women's side, can Li Na be a dark horse? Kerber? If not, I'll take Yaroslava Shvedova.
Jenkins: A couple of young Americans could make some noise. I've got hard-hitting Jack Sock reaching the fourth round until he runs into Berdych. Steve Johnson, coming off a brilliant four-year career at USC, will win his first two matches (likely facing Haas in the second round) before losing to Gasquet. Fish would have to be considered a dark horse, after a summer of medical issues, and he'll get to the fourth round, with an exit at the hands of Federer.
On the women's side, this will be an awakening for Sloane Stephens, her legion of fans growing by the day. Reaching the fourth round means getting past Francesca Schiavone (first round) and probably Ana Ivanovic, but Stephens will be up to the task. There will be a tremendous commotion surrounding Stephens' match against Wozniacki (slated as a potential fourth-round clash), and that's likely to be the stop sign. Watch out for Varvara Lepchenko, as well. Playing her first Open as an American citizen, she stands a fair chance to meet Stosur in the third round.
Nguyen: Isner, Hass and Sam Querrey are the likely candidates on the men's side. Isner made the quarters here last year, surviving two long five-setters (are there any other kind of Isner matches at Slams?) to do it. Hopefully he's figured out a way to avoid those matches to conserve energy early because, given his confident form on hardcourts right now, he's a threat. He's rebounded well after a disastrous clay and grass swing.
As for Querrey and Haas, we're talking about two guys who are streaking. Haas is in the Ferrer quarter and has a potentially tricky opening match against Gulbis. But he's playing well enough to make the second week, which would be yet another tremendous accomplishment for the 34-year-old. Same goes for Querrey, who stands a chance to make the quarters. The other seeds in his section are a struggling Berdych, Florian Mayer and Nicolas Almagro.
Watch out for Li. Two of the three Slams this year have been won by the woman who won the final Premier-level lead-up tournament. (Azarenka won Sydney then Melbourne, Sharapova won Rome then the French). Do you know who they beat in those Premier finals? Li. So how's this for a narrative thread: Li won the final hard-court lead-up tournament in Cincinnati. And just like her French Open run last year, Li has brought on a high-profile coach just weeks before a Slam and has seen immediate results. I have no idea if she can pull it off (she's never played well at the Open), but there's a story developing here that would be incredible if she did. Bonus picks: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Maria Kirilenko.
Graham: Raonic's major breakthrough is a question of when, not if. It says here the time is now. And look for Brian Baker's made-for-Hollywood story to reach another peak at his home major. Among the women, look for the 19-year-old Stephens to build on last year's third-round appearance.
Newman: If his wrist injury is not too serious, Del Potro is my dark horse. The 6-foot-6 Argentine is coming off a win over Djokovic for Olympic bronze, only a day after his four- and-a-half-hour marathon against Federer in the semis. Both matches cemented his quest to restore himself as one of the world's best. Del Potro won the Open in 2009, so he's tasted victory in Queens before. With a healthy wrist and a little help from the other players knocking each other out on the other side of the draw, Del Potro can be a sleeper for a spot in the finals.
On the women's side, Kerber's quiet ascension up the ranking this year to No. 6 has put the field on notice. Kerber won the first two titles of her career this year at Paris and Copenhagen, reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the Olympics, and reached the semis at Wimbledon, before ending Serena Williams' s 19-match win streak at Cincinnati. She enters the Open with a ton of confidence. She also was a semifinalist at the 2011 Open and won't be intimidated if she has to face down Serena again from across the net.
Top players to flame out early
Wertheim: Wozniacki was the top seed a year ago. Since giving up her No.1 ranking, she has given little indication she'll be back. In the best of times, she was too defensive. Now, she's too defensive and lacks self belief. As for the men, Berdych has made a career of wavering between Arctic and Saharan.
Jenkins: In a classic matchup of the old and new schools, Roddick falls to the talented Bernard Tomic in the second round. Raonic, finally ready to make another significant move toward the top, shocks Murray in the fourth round.
I'd hate to see Venus Williams take a second-round loss, after her courageous performance in Cincinnati, but she won't have the sustained energy to beat the sixth-seeded Kerber. And it's a tough draw for Li, who will be taken down by sentimental favorite Kim Clijsters in the third round.
Nguyen: A spotty but successful week in Winston-Salem could turn Berdych's summer around, but he's my tip as the first top 10 player out of the tournament. Going into Winston-Salem he was 3-5 since Roland Garros. That's three wins in the last three months on his best surfaces: grass and hardcourts. To top it off, he's drawn the talented young Belgian David Goffin. Bonus pick: Del Potro: I like the big man's form but the left wrist problem affects his backhand and he faces countryman David Nalbandian in the first round. Tricky stuff.
It's not even close on the women's side. Radwanska's been a ghost, winning no more than two matches a tournament since July, when she made the Wimbledon final. Exhausted and wounded -- she has a right shoulder injury that forced her to retire in New Haven -- I just don't see the No. 2 doing much in New York. Another woman prime for a fall is the defending champion. Drawn into Azarenka's quarter, Stosur will not get past the fourth round.
Graham: Murray is riding high after making a history-making run to the Wimbledon final and winning a gold medal on home soil, but Raonic's breakthrough will come at the Scot's expense in the fourth round. And while Rory McIlroy snapped the much-talked-about Wozzilroy hoodoo at the PGA Championship, expect Wozniacki -- whose stint as the world's No. 1 player (as recently as January!) seems lifetimes ago -- to punctuate her season of regression with a premature exit.
Newman: This won't be a surprise to anyone, but Roddick's dissension into tennis purgatory continues with a second-round loss to Tomic. Berdych has also been on a downward spiral with a few lackluster first-round exits this year. Radek Stepanek will take him down in the fourth round.
Wozniacki's "Little Miss Sunshine" act has been hampered by some dark clouds all year. She hasn't won a tournament since New Haven last August and injured her right knee there on Thursday. Wozniacki will stumble into the Open short on confidence and weary of her opponents, who just a year ago were looking up at her at the top of the rankings. With the partisan crowd in her favor, American Sloane Stephens upsets Wozniacki in the third round.
Bold, way out there prediction
Wertheim: Venus will reach the latter rounds. After a dismal French and Wimbledon, the older Williams played some of her best tennis in a long time, her autoimmune issues apparently in some kind of remission. Especially with a day between matches to rest, she could be a real factor at the U.S. Open, an event she won for the first time 13 (gulp) years ago. Oh, and this bold prediction: An official will not be able to report for work because she will face charges of allegedly murdering her husband with a coffee mug.
Jenkins: Not a drop of rain the entire time. The hurricane season takes a timely break, and the Open sails through magnificently on schedule. Perhaps you scoff, noting that the tournament has been forced into a Monday men's final for four straight years, but this event is due for a dry spell. I covered 22 Opens over the years, and on a number of occasions, the heat of summer gave way to the cool, refreshing breezes of autumn, right around the midway point, without any disruptive weather. It will happen again -- this year.
Nguyen: There will be no Monday men's final. A collegiate player will make the third round (see Burdette, Mallory). The only drama involving Serena will be her harrowing attempt to climb into the players' box. Murray and Federer will play a match for the ages in the semis. For two to three days, issues of prize money, scheduling and boycotts will take over the storylines. Ryan Harrison will not break a racket.
Graham: Isner made his first and only major quarterfinal at last year's U.S. Open and enters this year's field relatively under the radar, having failed to convert promising victories this year over Federer (Davis Cup) and Djokovic (Indian Wells) into strong showings at the majors. That ends here. He'll make the most of that negotiable draw and become the first American man to make the last four since Roddick in 2006.
Newman: Serena will set a record for most aces in a match and a tournament by a woman. At Wimbledon, she set the record for most aces in a match with 24, and in a tournament with 102. Williams knows that the key to victory at this stage of her career means outserving opponents, giving them no shot to play the ball. In Flushing, Williams will up her serve game with 28 aces in one match and 120 for the tournament.
And the winners are ...
Wertheim: Boring, I know. But how do you pick against Serena? She won Wimbledon, of course. And at the Olympics, she was simply playing at a different level from everyone else in the field. The men are intriguing. Djokovic suddenly lacks that certain je ne sais quoi, as they say in Serbia. Murray scored a big win at the Olympics, but can you be the favorite to win a Slam if you've never won one before? Del Potro is in the mix, but, physically, can he withstand seven best-of-five matches? It's neither bold nor imaginative, but how do you not pick Federer?
Jenkins: I like Federer on the men's side. He's faced some stern challenges from Raonic in the past, and this time they'll meet in the semis -- but Federer still has the edge in big matches. (And yes, that means Raonic takes down Murray and Tsonga en route.) Isner will reach the quarters before losing to Ferrer, who won't have enough game to beat Djokovic in the semis. Federer still can't get over that loss to Djokovic in last year's semifinals, and he makes amends this time.
Serena got a terrific draw, and figures to cruise past Kirilenko and Wozniacki on her way to the semifinals. Kerber will be waiting, but Serena can match the German's power, and her serve will be the difference. In the other half of the draw, look for another godawful shriek-fest between Azarenka and Sharapova in the semifinals, and I don't forecast any Serena meltdowns in this year's Open. She beats either of those players with ease.
Nguyen: Yeah, see above. Federer and Serena are my picks.
Graham: Federer's improbable reclamation of the No. 1 ranking is the stuff of legend, and a U.S. Open victory is a snug fit for the narrative, but Djokovic is primer, playing on his favorite surface and may have something resembling a mental edge after rallying to beat the Swiss maestro in the 2010 and '11 semifinals from two match points down in each meeting.
Only Serena can beat Serena, who's the best in the sport when ready, willing and able. Remarkably, it's been four years since her last title here: She lost her cool in 2009 and '11 and didn't play in '10. Look for the tour's queen bee to bag her 15th major and inch closer to Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time Grand Slam leaderboard.
Newman: Federer certainly got his groove back in 2012, winning six titles, including showing Murray who was boss at Wimbledon. He'll beat Djokovic in the final in four sets for his sixth U.S. Open title.
Let's make it unanimous. This summer has been all about Serena and not much of that is going to change at the Open. If Serena can minimize her penchant for losing her cool under the bright lights on center court, she should have no problem lifting the championship trophy for the fourth time on Arthur Ashe.