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Serena, Federer favorites at U.S. Open, more storylines to watch

Can anyone stop Serena? We've seen the younger Williams in this mode before, so dominating that her opponents should establish a "safe word" before going on court. At both Wimbledon and the Olympics, Serena didn't so much compete against counterparts as she gave them clinics. In London, she dropped 17 games in six matches. (While she lost last week in Cincinnati, there was a distinct sense she was not giving a wholehearted effort.)

It's been the mantra in women's tennis for the better part of a decade: Serena is the best in the business, when able and willing. Lately she is both, recovered from injuries and a frightening pulmonary embolism, motivated to show that, even in her 30s, she still has primacy. She hasn't won the U.S. Open since 2008, and she embarrassed herself in the final last year, losing both her cool and the match. But if she doesn't win in 2012, it will mark a monumental upset.

Can Andy alchemize gold? Ivan Lendl didn't waste time. As soon as he signed on as Andy Murray's coach, Lendl unleashed some withering candor on his new protégé: It's time you toughened up as a competitor. Fair enough. While Murray is still in search of a Grand Slam title, he prospected gold at the London Olympics. His final takedown of Roger Federer -- a rematch of the Wimbledon final, played on the same court but with an altogether different result -- was one of the great Big Match performances in recent tennis history. Either Federer, Novak Djokovic, or Rafael Nadal, a/k/a the Big Three, has won 29 of the last 30 majors, the most underrated record in contemporary sports. Murray, (along with Argentina's Juan Martin del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open winner) is the best bet to interrupt the streak and break through.

Roger that? Roger Federer effectively ended the GOAT ("Greatest of All Time") discussion at Wimbledon earlier this summer. He won at the All England Club for a record seventh time, in the process regaining the No.1 ranking he had capitulated first to Nadal and then to Djokovic. Yes, Federer looked decidedly mortal in his last big match, the straight sets thrashing at the hands of Murray with Olympic gold at stake. And yes, last year at the U.S. Open, Federer held match points -- on his own serve, no less -- in the fifth set against Djokovic, but was unable to close. But Federer has exercised and exorcised Djokovic three times this summer, most recently last Sunday in Cincinnati. And Nadal is out of the draw, suffering from Hoffa Sydrome, which, appropriately, involves a kneecap injury. So Federer, 31, arrives at the U.S. Open, an event he has won five times, as the favorite, if a slim one.

Who will crash the party? If the men's game is a study in top-heavy excellence, the women's game is a study in parity. Seven different players have won the last seven majors, and an eighth, Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki, was recently ranked No. 1. While we're tipping Serena to win and consolidate her power, recent history tells us to brace for a surprise winner. One player worth watching: Venus Williams. Because of her autoimmune disorder, she has been a shard of her self this year, including a first round loss at Wimbledon, an event she once owned. But her health, and thus stamina, is slowly returning -- she looked terrific at times during the Olympics and in Cincinnati -- and benefits from the day off between matches. Her days of winning majors might be over, but don't be surprised if she makes her presence felt.

How does Maria solve a problem like Serena? Maria Sharapova is the player best equipped to challenge Serena Williams. The French Open winner, Sharapova can match Williams' power. And, unlike too many on the WTA Tour, she has a cultivated taste for combat. "Competition is what keeps me going," she says flatly. She and Williams offer a contrast in styles, and there's even some personal tension, Serena long displeased that Sharapova may have had a less decorated career but has eclipsed her in the "endorsement income" category. Problem is, Sharapova is Serena's nemesis much the way grass is the nemesis of a lawnmower. Sharapova has won only two of their 11 meetings -- and none since 2004 -- clearly unmoored by Williams' power and aura. Nice if she could mount a challenge, if only to imbue the women's game with a rivalry it desperately needs.

Who's got next? The good news for U.S. tennis: Players from America -- a country presumably in a tennis drought -- took three of the five golds and an additional bronze medal at the London Olympics. The less good news: The average age of the winners (Serena and Venus Williams, Bob and Mike Bryan, and Lisa Raymond) was 34, each of them squarely in their 30s. Where's the next star the USTA has worked -- and spent -- so intensely to harvest? We wait like Godot. Ryan Harrison, 20, is a prospect with abundant gifts but still prone to emotional meltdowns during matches. Among the women, consider Sloane Stephens, a delightfully outgoing teenager. She is a work in progress. But she is progressing.

Remember us? Between them, Djokovic and Nadal have won eight of the past nine majors, and have met in the finals of the U.S. Open each of the last two years. But Nadal's balky knees -- legacies of his violent ballstriking and indefatigable playing style -- are preventing him from playing. After turning in perhaps the most sublime season in men's tennis history in 2011 (match record: 70-6), Djokovic has been far off that pace in 2012, winning "only" two events this year. He could salvage his season in New York.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, g'day? Asked several years ago to assess their career prospects, a crush of players expressed an interest in competing through the 2012 Olympics. The Games have now, of course, passed, and retirement announcements await. Kim Clijsters of Belgium, a three-time champ in Queens, has already announced that this U.S. Open will be her final tournament. Her one-time fiancée and another past winner, Lleyton Hewitt, 31, may also draw the drapes on a Hall of Fame Career. Same for the popular and stylish Italian Francesca Schiavone, 32. Then there's Andy Roddick, the 2003 champ. The top American for so many years. Roddick turns 30 and has told confidantes that he will play next year. But one wonders how much longer someone so fiercely competitive can endure another year like his 2012, one in which he has struggled with his health, struggled to win matches -- especially at the big events -- and departed from the top 20.

Make it a doubles? Imagine another sport that -- at no additional price to fans -- offers the chance to see stars play in an additional competition. Plus, this "bonus event" showcases skills and tactics that purists complain have fallen out of vogue. In tennis, there is doubles. Too often neglected or dismissed as a "subsport," the doubles draws will feature two of the best teams ever, the Williams-Williams juggernaut and twins Bob and Mike Bryan, both pairs fresh from winning gold in London. The doubles draws will also feature some of the most entertaining points, shotmaking and net play you will see during the tournament.

Can Brian author more chapters in his remarkable story? A decade ago, Brian Baker, a lanky all-court player from Nashville, was a top American prospect, hailed in many corners as the second coming of Andy Roddick. No sooner had Baker turned pro in 2003, the injuries came, fast and furious. Hips. Knees. Elbow. Wrist. When he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2008, it was only one of a half-dozen procedures he endured -- as zippers of scars will attest. Out of the game for six years, he quietly entered some low-level events last summer. He won. And won. And won some more. By this spring, Baker was winning tour-level matches. After qualifying for the main draw at Wimbledon, Baker, now 27, reached the fourth round, cracked the top 100 and, not insignificantly, won roughly $125,000. Though he returned to earth a bit this summer, if he makes a run on the cement of the U.S. Open, it will lock this in as one of the sport's all-time great comeback stories.

Other mini stories to follow:

? The WTA will issue its policy on grunting. What will it sound like?

? Will tennis' thirty-somethings continue to rule the roost?

? Will the U.S. Open finally catch a break from Mother Nature. Or will we get a fifth straight Monday final on account of rain, causing a downpour of complaints about the absence of a roof?