Roger Federer fell short in last year's U.S. Open, losing in the quarterfinals. (Carlos M. Saavedra/SI)
NEW YORK -- With the U.S. Open set to begin Monday, here are the five burning questions on the eve of the last Grand Slam tournament of the year.
1. Can Roger Federer silence the skeptics?
Federer's not in crisis mode yet. At least he shouldn't be. After all, the 17-time Slam winner has bounced back before. There were questions in 2008, when Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal defeated him at the first three Slams of the year, and then the Swiss went on to win the U.S. Open, with victories over Djokovic and Andy Murray. Then there was 2011, when he went Slam-less and dropped out of the top three for the first time since 2003. He responded by running the table the rest of the year, going 17-0 and carrying that momentum into the 2012 season, when he won Wimbledon and recaptured the No. 1 ranking. Counting the guy out is dangerous business.
But this year is different. Now 32, Federer is ranked seventh, his lowest position in more than 10 years. At Wimbledon, a player ranked outside the top 100 snapped Federer's insane streak of 36 Slam quarterfinals. Federer said he wasn't going to panic after that loss, but he proceeded to switch rackets (and then switch back) and modify his schedule to play two small clay-court tournaments before the hard-court season (and lost to two guys ranked outside the top 50), something he hadn't done since 2004. He has only one title this year, his fewest since 2001, when he was 20. And then there's that pesky back injury, which has been flaring up with more frequency over the past year.
2. Can anyone outside the ATP Big Four win a major?
Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray have combined to win 33 of the last 34 majors. Juan Martin del Potro is the only other player to win one in that span, at the 2009 U.S. Open. The two men with the best chance to interrupt the Big Four's dominance this year are del Potro and Tomas Berdych. With Nadal facing a tricky draw, Federer slipping, Djokovic looking a bit vulnerable and Murray still basking in the glow of his Wimbledon win, things could open up for the rest of the field.
3. Can Victoria Azarenka spoil the Serena Williams party?
Not to copy and paste what I usually write for Slam, previews but it must be said again: If she's healthy and motivated, Serena Williams is the best female tennis player on the planet. Motivation isn't a problem right now. When asked to describe her year so far, which includes a French Open title, a 34-match winning streak, and eight titles overall, Serena shrugged. "Everybody is like, 'You've had a good year,' and I'm like, Who?'" she said.
It's all about the Slams for Serena, and losing to Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open and Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon still leaves a sour taste. As for her fitness: We'll have to see how she looks when the tournament begins. She didn't play her best in her final lead-up tournament, in Cincinnati, where she looked physically and mentally tired after a heavy summer schedule.
Serena lost in Cincinnati to the woman trying to chase her down in the rankings, 2012 U.S. Open finalist Azarenka. With the 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (6) win, Azarenka improved to 2-0 this year against Serena on hard courts -- both in finals, no less. And in case Williams needs another reason to be concerned about Azarenka's hard-court prowess, she just has to remember that Azarenka served for the match in last year's U.S. Open final only to get nervous and let Serena back in. With each woman having claimed one Slam this year, a U.S. Open title would enable one of them to claim bragging rights in the biggest tournaments.
4. Will anyone pull a Marion Bartoli and abruptly retire?
Pardon me if I'm a little paranoid these days, but let's recall recent history. Last year, Andy Roddick called a surprise news conference before his second-round match at the U.S. Open to pull the ripcord on his career. Last week, Wimbledon champion Bartoli told a sparse press room in Mason, Ohio, that she was done, too. Even this week, American Jill Craybas, who reached a career-high ranking of No. 39 in 2006, told a blogger that she was retiring after the U.S. Open. Let's just say I won't be hopping on the 7 train at the end of the day until I get official confirmation that every player has left the site.
5. How will the Americans fare?
It's been 10 years since Roddick became the last American man to win on home soil. It's also the last time an American man won a Slam anywhere. John Isner's strong lead-up performance, which included victories against Djokovic, del Potro and Milos Raonic, suggested that he was poised to make a deep run into the second week in New York. But then he was given a tough draw, as were most of the Americans not named "Serena."
Stephens will also attract attention. She made the third round last year. If she can improve on that result this year, Serena could be waiting for her in the fourth round.