Novak Djokovic caught a break when No. 3 seed Andy Murray was drawn into Roger Federer's half. (Icon SMI)
Defending champions Novak Djokovic and Samantha Stosur were on hand Thursday as the draws for this year's U.S. Open unfolded. When the chips settled, we got two fairly lopsided draws, the result of a certain snarling Spaniard's absence on the men's side and sheer luck for the women. Here's how the draws broke down. Play kicks off Monday, Aug. 27.
Federer's half: The big question going into the men's draw was where Andy Murray would fall. The No. 3 seed landed in Federer's half, so if the seeds hold, we'd get a rematch of the Wimbledon and Olympic finals in the U.S. Open semis. Given the exclamation point Federer put on his only U.S. Open lead-up, winning the title in Cincinnati without getting broken (and only facing three break points through the week), his road to the semifinal is relatively clear of anyone who could beat him in a best-of-five format. Federer could face Mardy Fish in the fourth round, and Fish played him tough in their quarterfinal clash in Cincy. But with Federer's projected quarterfinal opponent, Tomas Berdych, struggling for wins since the French Open, Fed looks like a safe bet to reach the semis.
Whether he'll face Murray there is more an open question. The Brit lost to Jeremy Chardy in straight sets in Cincinnati, a loss that he blames on his inability to adjust to the hardcourts after over a month on grass, and the fact that Chardy has played some very good tennis as of late. The loss is no reason to panic, but it does mean Murray will go into the U.S. Open with a mere two hardcourt matches under his belt. He'll need some relatively easy matches early to get into rhythm and he's avoided the dangerous floaters early: he'll start his campaign off against Alex Bogomolov Jr. and is projected to meet Ivan Dodig and Feliciano Lopez in the second and third round. From there the competition level ratchets up. Murray could face Milos Raonic in the fourth round -- the young Canadian is primed for a major scalp at a Slam -- and he could get the always explosive Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals. Tsonga hasn't beaten Murray since 2008, but that sole win was on hardcourts at the Australian Open.
Djokovic's half: The No. 2 seed will breathe a sigh of relief knowing he won't have to face either Federer or Murray until the final, but his half of the draw is a bit of a free-for-all. This is where the loss of Rafael Nadal is the most jarring. Djokovic's quarter features Juan Martin del Potro, who is struggling with a left-wrist injury that has hampered his backhand. The other half of the draw, anchored by No. 4 seed David Ferrer and No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic is a mish-mash of players who are primed to make a career run in Rafa's absence. In particular, keep an eye out for John Isner. If he can keep his early round matches drama-free (a big ask for him at the majors), there's no reason he can't make the semifinals. Isner's projected route: Malisse, Nieminen, Kohlschreiber, Tipsarevic, Ferrer. That's doable for the big-hitting American No. 1.
First round matches to watch: Juan Martin del Potro vs. David Nalbandian, Tomas Berdych vs. David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov vs. Benoit Paire, Ernests Gulbis vs. Tommy Haas, Sam Querrey vs. Lu Yen-Hsun, Jack Sock vs. Florian Mayer, James Blake vs. Lukas Lacko, Brian Baker vs. Jan Hajek, Ryan Harrison vs. Benjamin Becker.
Potential early matches to watch: Janko Tipsarevic vs. Brian Baker (second round), Juan Martin del Potro vs. Ryan Harrison (second round), Andy Roddick vs. Bernard Tomic (second round), Alexander Dolgopolov vs. Marcos Baghdatis (second round), Mardy Fish vs. Gilles Simon (third round), Sam Querrey vs. Tomas Berdych (third round), John Isner vs. Philipp Kohlschreiber (third round), Richard Gasquet vs. Tommy Haas (third round), Lleyton Hewitt vs. David Ferrer (third round).
My pick: Federer def. Djokovic.
Azarenka's half: Other than Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber, any woman who is either dangerous or in-form right now is floating in the top half of the draw. That's how lopsided this draw is, which is good news for Serena. It's also arguably good news for fans, as a number of blockbuster matches will kick off early. Cincinnati champion Li Na could find some redemption in a third-round match with Kim Clijsters in a rematch of their Australian Open fourth rounder in which Li blew five match points against an injured Clijsters to lose. In fact, Li is the wildcard in this half, as she rides a wave of confidence after a very successful turn in Montreal (finalist) and Cincinnati (champion). She's more than capable of beating Clijsters, defending champion Stosur, and top seed Azarenka, all of whom she could face before the semifinals.
In the other quarter sit Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova. At their best they should make it through their draws to face off in the quarterfinal, but whether they'll be able to bring their best is a big question. Sharapova hasn't played a single hardcourt match since Miami, though much like Murray, the draw has been kind enough to keep the dangerous floaters away from her early. As for Kvitova, she comes into the U.S. Open, a tournament she has never played well in, with confidence. The heat and humidity in North America has always wreaked havoc on her asthma but she posted her best summer results this year, winning Montreal and making the semifinals of Cincinnati. But don't let those results fool you. The humidity at both those tournaments was nothing near what it will be like in New York. An early-round upset is certainly not out of the question.
Radwanska's half: The good news for Serena Williams is virtually everyone drawn into the bottom half is struggling. The bad news is her sister Venus is lurking here too, and if Venus can get past a second round match against Angelique Kerber -- Kerber beat her in two hard-fought sets at the Olympics --the sisters could meet in the semifinal. Still, that's a huge "if". Venus played the best tennis of her comeback last week in Cincinnati, making the semifinals of a tournament for the first time since 2010. But she was hampered by a back issue in her loss to Li, so aside from her illness, a permanent question mark at this point, she has some troubling health concerns coming into the tournament.
While Serena and Kerber are the names you expect to see through in the bottom half, keep an eye on Maria Kirilenko, Sloane Stephens, and Caroline Wozniacki. Wozniacki could gain some confidence from her week in New Haven (she's into the semifinals) and she did beat Serena in Miami in the spring. Meanwhile, Kirilenko has been playing some of her best tennis in the last few months, making the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the bronze medal match at the Olympics. She's slated to meet Serena in the fourth round. As for Stephens. she's got a good chance to better her third round result from last year. She just needs to keep that head in check.
As for the woman who actually headlines this half of the draw, don't expect much. Radwanska has been a shell of herself since making the Wimbledon final and she's carrying a shoulder injury that forced her to retire from her opening match in New Haven this week. The scoreline when she retired? She was down 6-0, 2-1. Hard to have much confidence in the No. 2 seed right now.
First round matches to watch: Sabine Lisicki vs. Sorana Cirstea, Daniela Hantuchova vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Tsvetana Pironkova vs. Camila Giorgi, Francesca Schiavone vs. Sloane Stephens, Serena Williams vs. Coco Vandeweghe, Venus Williams vs. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Lucie Safarova vs. Melanie Oudin, Nicole Gibbs vs. Alize Cornet, Mallory Burdette vs. Timea Bacsinszky.
Potential early matches to watch: Angelique Kerber vs. Venus Williams (second round), Marion Bartoli vs. Andrea Petkovic (second round), Li Na vs. Kim Clijsters (third round), Marion Bartoli vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (third round), Caroline Wozniacki vs. Camila Giorgi (third round), Ana Ivanovic vs. Sloane Stephens (third round), Jelena Jankovic vs. Agnieszka Radwanska (third round).