Jo-Wilfried Tsonga can beat any of the best, but his output at the Slams this year leaves much to be desired. (US Presswire)
Some may be surging, some slumping. Yet for a handful of players, success at this year's U.S. Open could mean a complete re-write of their 2012 season, and in some cases, their careers. Here are the five men and women who could really use a breakthrough U.S. Open campaign.
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Sorry Jo, but when you spend year after year wowing us with deep Slam runs we start to get accustomed to it. Tsonga cannonballed onto the scene in 2008 by beating Rafael Nadal soundly in straight sets at the Australian Open, making his first major final. In 2010 he beat Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinal of the Australian Open to make the semis, and of course he had that memorable comeback last year at Wimbledon against Roger Federer to make his first Wimbledon semifinal. Talk about a guy who's proven himself to be able to take out the Big Three on the big stages. He has yet to reach those heights this year, though that's not to say he hasn't given us some memorable matches. His epic five-set loss to Djokovic at the French Open was home to one of the most incredible scenes at Roland Garros, and of course there was his 25-23 marathon win over Milos Raonic at the Olympics. He did make a run to the Wimbledon semis, but didn't have to face anyone in the top 10 after benefiting greatly from Rafael Nadal's early exit. The 27-year-old Frenchman is due for an explosive win and given his track record, Andy Murray should be watching his back. A win over Murray to make the semis would complete his set.
Tomas Berdych: Talk about a guy who hit the wall. Berdych was surging through the first half of the year, making the quarterfinals or better in eight of 11 tournaments through the French Open. Wins over Andy Murray (Monte Carlo) and Juan Martin del Potro (Madrid) made it looks like he was building momentum for arguably his best surface, grass. But the Big Berd has stalled since stepping off clay. Heading into this week's tournament in Winston-Salem, Berdych was 3-5 since Roland Garros, failing to win back-to-back matches during that stretch including first-round losses at Wimbledon and the Olympics. The big-hitting Czech needs to find that edge again. He did well to push Nadal in the Australian Open quarterfinal early this year but his Slam results have slipped since then.
Mardy Fish: Given Fish's grueling 2011 season and frightening health scare with a heart issue this year, I don't think anyone would begrudge Mardy the right to write off 2012 as a whole and move on. But he's rebounded well since having his heart arrhythmia diagnosed in May, slowly building some momentum through the North American hardcourt season. Though he was unable to defend his mass of points -- he's dropped to No. 24 and sits behind Andy Roddick as the No. 3 American -- Fish's confidence is on the rise and it all culminated in a highly entertaining quarterfinal in Cincinnati. Fish played as well as he could against an in-form Federer, eventually losing 6-3, 7-6 (4). He walked away knowing he was right there with the eventual champion. Now to carry that confidence into the U.S Open, where a deep run could redeem his year...
Milos Raonic: At just 21 years old, no one's tapping the Canuck to run the table at the U.S. Open. He's been gaining in hype as the year has progressed and rightfully so. He possesses the style of game that can do damage at Slams, with a monster serve and an inside-out forehand that can cause anyone problems. But as well as Raonic has performed on the ATP Tour this year, he has underperformed at the Slams. He was outplayed by Lleyton Hewitt in the third round of the Australian Open, 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (5), 3-6, out-worked by Juan Monaco in the third round of the French Open, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 4-6, and out-gutted by Sam Querrey in another tight five set loss at Wimbledon. Throw in his 25-23 loss to Tsonga in the third set at the Olympics and the trend of Roanic being unable to close or breakthrough for some big wins seems to be growing. To Raonic's credit, he seems to be taking all these losses (including a few close losses to Federer in Indian Wells, Madrid and Halle) in stride as learning experiences. But enough of the learning, let's get to the doing. Now up to No. 14 in the rankings, a big run at the U.S. Open would cement Raonic as the go-to star of the future.
Andy Roddick: Since getting healthy, Roddick has shown he can play top 20 tennis, securing two titles in Eastbourne and Atlanta. Now to see if his 29-year-old body can hold up for a second week run at the U.S. Open. Despite his summer success, the expectations are low for Roddick. He picked up a back injury in his opening-round loss to Jeremy Chardy in Cincinnati and lost in two close tiebreakers to Steve Darcis in Winston-Salem this week.
Kim Clijsters has battled injury in what has turned out to be a disappointing final season. (EPA)
Kim Clijsters: Boy, this has been one quiet retirement tour. Clijsters probably didn't know what she was getting herself into when she announced 2012 would be her last year and that the U.S Open would be her final tournament. What should have been a celebratory year-long farewell has felt more like a "Oh, right, Kim's still playing?" tour, as injuries have hampered her all year. An ankle injury marred her Australian Open, she was forced to skip the French, and by the time Wimbledon and the Olympics rolled around she was almost an afterthought. If her body and focus could hold up over two weeks to end her career with a Slam title it would be one of the most miraculous stories in tennis.
Sam Stosur: I'm not sure there's been a player who goes into a Slam as defending champion with less hype. That's not true. I'm sure there have been, but it really doesn't feel like it. A year ago Stosur shocked everyone by grinding through six matches to make her second career Slam final, only to step up and play the best tennis of her career to hand Serena Williams the closest thing to a beatdown as she's had in a Slam final. If anyone was waiting for Stosur to have a career transformation after capturing her maiden Slam, they'd be disappointed. Stosur hasn't been bad this year, but not much more than average. As always, she struggled to play in Australia (winning one match in three tournaments including a first-round loss in Melbourne), lost to players she normally loses to on hardcourts (Azarenka, Serena, Petrova), found her form on clay by making the semifinal of Roland Garros before a surprise loss to Sara Errani, and then disappeared on grass. After a hard-fought loss to a surging Venus Williams in Cincinnati, it wouldn't be fair to say Stosur is struggling heading into New York. But she definitely isn't riding a wave of confidence.
Petra Kvitova: You know what speaks volumes to the expectations put on Kvitova? She was the only woman to make the quarterfinals or better at all three majors this year, yet is still thought to be under-performing. That's what happens when you have a breakout year, winning a Slam and six WTA titles, and come within 70 points of the No. 1 ranking. After finally breaking her title drought with a win in Montreal and following that up immediately with a semifinal run in Cincinnati, Kvitova finally seems to have built some momentum. More importantly, she's learned that she can indeed win matches in North America, though we'll have to see how hot and humid it gets in New York next week. Kvitova caught a bit of a break with some unseasonably cool temperatures in Montreal and Cincinnati. I'm not sure New York will be as kind.
Li Na: Along with Kvitova, Li could silence a lot of critics if she can capture another Slam title. She has spoken often of her Chinese critics insinuation that her Roland Garros title was a feat of pure luck and that's she actually not as good as people think she is. With that chip on her shoulder and new coach Carlos Rodriguez in her ear, she might just be able to prove them wrong once and for all. Buoyed by a strong North American summer, making the final of Montreal and winning her first title since the 2011 French Open in Cincinnati, Li is like a woman reborn. She says she struggled with her hunger after the French Open, but her excitement for working with Rodriguez seems to have rekindled her drive. Li has never made it a secret that she's not getting younger. This is a great opportunity to put a cap on a tremendous career and she knows it.