If the recent Olympic games reminded us of anything it's that we, America, are a country of winners. I'm not talking about the fact that we tend to produce a heck of a whole lot of them, I'm talking about our unfailing ability (or need) to care only for those who finish first or have a chance to finish first. You can see that in the discussion that has already dominated the U.S. Open. Roger! Serena! Novak! Maria! Andy! Petra! If you're not in the mix for the crown your name will rarely come up.
Yet the other thing the Olympics taught us is that the compulsion to scream "Second place is the first loser!" from the top of the London Eye is a whole load of bull. Every athlete has a story and for 95 percent of them their success is not measured in medals, titles, or even wins. In tennis, winning one match, two matches, or even just qualifying is a career-defining success. You might not walk away with any hardware, but respect and a handful of people not whispering "Who is that?" as you walk to the locker room ain't nothin' to sneeze at.
So here are five players you may not know about who have a chance to do something special when the U.S. Open starts Monday.
Mallory Burdette (USA): The 21-year-old Stanford senior comes from a tennis family, with her two older sisters both four-time All-Americans at Stanford. Burdette won her first WTA match this summer, beating Anne Keothavong after receiving a wildcard at the Bank of the West Classic in -- you guessed it -- Stanford, and had set points on Marion Bartoli before nerves got the better of her. I watched Burdette at Stanford and was thoroughly impressed with her ability to take the ball early and redirect with pace. Burdette is into the main draw at the U.S. Open for the first time by virtue of earning the most points at two of three USTA Pro Circuit hard-court events to claim a wildcard. With her draw she could win not just one match but two. She'll open against Switzerland's Timea Bacsinszky (who has spent the bulk of her summer playing clay ITFs) and then the winner of Lucie Hradecka and Anabel Medina Garrigues in the second round. With a little help from her erratic opponents, Burdette could earn a third round match against Maria Sharapova.
Jeremy Chardy (FRA): Of the army of Mousquetaires that litter the ATP rankings board, Chardy is one of the less-familiar faces. He may not have the success of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the flair of Richard Gasquet, or the athleticism of Gael Monfils, but Chardy is a straight-up workhorse. He is soft-spoken to the point of shy, and he's a nice guy. "One of the good ones," one player told me. Chardy is currently hovering around his career-high of No. 31 (he's at No. 33 this week) and coming off a stellar couple of weeks in North America. In the last three weeks he beat Tsonga in Toronto and a pair of Andys (Murray and Roddick) en route to the quarterfinals in Cincinnati. With Rafael Nadal's withdrawal, Chardy actually secured the last seeded spot at No. 32, which means he has a series of winnable matches before a potential rematch with Tsonga in the third round.
If that's not enough of a reason to track Chardy, follow him because he's a good friend of Serena Williams. Serena perked up when I asked her about practicing with Chardy at the Mouratoglou Academy in Paris over the summer. Chardy says Serena asked to return his serve, which he says she did with mixed results. Serena took great mock-umbrage.
"I totally returned all of Jeremy's serves. I don't know what he's talking about. He needs to come in here and be honest. I hit winners on him," she said laughing. "Basically he's not telling the truth."
Benoit Paire (FRA): Tennis fans crave the lovable crazies. France's Benoit Paire owns that space. Paire has had a breakout season, starting the year barely inside the Top 100 and rising to a career high No. 49 this week. But chances are you haven't caught a glimpse of good ol' Benoit. Often relegated the outer courts or stuck in qualies, Paire has yet to command the stage. That's a shame because in addition to having a thoroughly entertaining game that is full of shotmaking, he also has a highly combustible temperament that is worthy of its own dedicated YouTube channel. The guy will play points with his necklace in his mouth, go for shots that he has no business going for, and tank points just because he feels like it. I'm not saying it's always pretty, but it is always entertaining. Paire opens his U.S Open campaign against another entertaining young man, Grigor Dimitrov, and if you're at the Open that day you must pull up a seat.
Steve Darcis (BEL): The 28-year-old Belgian veteran is listed at 5-foot-10 on the ATP website but I'm going to have to call BS on that. Darcis, who has never looked taller than 5-foot-7 to me, is a small guy who never fails to punch way above his weight class. When he's having a good day he can pull off a bracket busting upset on any day and on any surface, much like he did at the Olympics when he ousted Tomas Berdych on the first day for his biggest win of the year. Then this week, Darcis beat Andy Roddick in Winston-Salem, winning two tiebreakers to win in straight sets. Now ranked No. 81 in the world, he'll kick off his U.S. Open against Tunisia's Malek Jaziri and could get a streaking Stanislas Wawrinka in Round 2. Keep an eye on him. He won't make the second week but he could shake things up early. Camila Giorgi (ITA): Despite making the fourth round of Wimbledon, the 20-year-old Giorgi remains a bit of a mystery. Argentinian by blood and Italian by birth, Giorgi doesn't play many WTA Tour level events, instead working her way through the challenger circuit. But watch her game when she's on and you can see why she's an exciting player to track. She has huge power off both wings and when she connects its beautiful. And when she doesn't it's pretty horrendous. But the Italian impressed this summer, winning a total of six matches at Wimbledon (three to qualify and three in the main draw), with wins over two top 20 opponents in Flavia Pennetta and Nadia Petrova. She hasn't played that well on the North American hardcourts, but she has a draw that could earn her a shot at Caroline Wozniacki in the third round. She'll go up against Tsvetana Pironkova in the first round (a match I'd love to see on grass) and then the winner of an injured Monica Niculescu or Ayumi Morita. Get through those and she gives herself a shot at what would be the biggest win of her career.