Thursday August 25th, 2011

Novak Djokovic received a favorable draw, but an ailing shoulder causes concern. (Icon/SMI)

Despite ESPN's efforts to make the U.S. Open draw ceremony completely confusing and somewhat pointless (really, what's the point of televising an official reading of numbers and names without accompanying graphics that allow you to track the draw sheet?), the draw is finally done. We can now proceed with the squinting, the analyzing and the flipping of coins.

The Men

For the fifth straight Slam, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are projected to clash in the semifinals. I'm no mathematician, but that sure does seem to be a case for Mathnet. Djokovic will open up against a qualifier and it's hard to think there is anyone in his quarter who will impede a run to the semis. Gael Monfils and Tomas Berdych could pose threats, but an injured and fatigued Nole beat them in Cincinnati last week.  The guy has lost to only one person outside the top four since last year's U.S. Open (a second-round defeat in Paris to Michael Llorda). But as long as Djokovic's shoulder holds true, don't expect the world No. 1 to fall before the semis.

Federer and Mardy Fish find themselves in the same quarter alongside the always explosive Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. If the seeds hold, Tsonga and Fish would meet in the quarterfinals, the winner to take on Federer. With Tsonga's electrifying game and Fish's home-court advantage, that's a match I've already pegged as a must-see.

The question marks lie in the bottom half of the draw. Andy Murray is in the company of quite a few big names who have been struggling as of late. Robin Soderling, Juan Martin del Potro, Stanislas Wawrinka and Feliciano Lopez are all capable of pulling off a big upset on hardcourts, but none have shown their best recently. That said, we all know Murray's form can rise and fall from match to match with incredible, soul-crushing drama. Buckle up, Britain.

Rafael Nadal struggled mightily through the North American hardcourt swing.  He lost his first match in Montreal and followed that with a less-than-convincing run in Cincinnati, where he eventually lost to Fish. A week off should help heal his burnt fingers from a freak accident at a restaurant, but is it enough for Rafa to get his swagger back? His first week will be telling.

Early matches to watch: Dimitrov/Monfils, Isner/Baghdatis, Harrison/Cilic, Gulbis/Youzhny, Tomic/Harrison (potential second round), Harrison/Federer (potential third round), Verdasco/Tsonga (potential third round), Soderling/Isner (potential third round) and, of course, the Judy Murray Special: Lopez vs. Murray (potential third round).  Because it's always fun to play against your mum's very public crush.

The Women

WHERE'S SERENAAAAAAAAAA?!? Those were the collective cries as everyone waited impatiently to see where Serena Williams, the presumptive favorite after winning back-to-back titles in Stanford and Toronto this summer, would land in the draw. Well, we got our answer.  She's landed in the top half and could play No. 4 seed Victoria Azarenka in the third round. Good luck with that, Vika.

Of course, Serena's placement in the top half also means she could face No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki in the semifinals, assuming that the Dane can get that far. It took Wozniacki three tournaments until she was finally able to win a match on the summer hardcourts. She's not inspiring much confidence lately. When you're the No. 1 player in the world and people would rather ask you about your boyfriend than your tennis, you have a problem.

With the spotlight on Serena, could Maria Sharapova actually be flying under the radar here? Short answer: no.  I'm pretty sure there's a law of nature, physics or something else really science-y that I'm unfamiliar with that states that it is impossible for Sharapova to fly under the radar anywhere, even if she's in a plane that is literally flying under the radar. That said, the Russian has had a strong summer, making the semis at Stanford and capturing the title in Cincy last week. The inconsistency on her serve is still giving her fans chronic heartburn, but her will to win and ability to compete remains. Early matches to watch: Serena/Jovanovski, Peer/Mirza, Pennetta/Rezai, Lisicki/Venus (potential second round), McHale/Bartoli (potential second round), Lucic/Schiavone (potential second round), Kuznetsova/Baltacha (potential second round) and the blockbuster potential third-rounder between Serena and Vika.

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