The year's final major is upon is. The U.S. Open kicks off Monday, Aug. 27, at Flushing Meadows. Novak Djokovic and Sam Stosur look to defend their crowns from last year. Rafael Nadal headlines the list of withdrawals while he rests and mends his troubled knees. The SI.com tennis team breaks down the key storylines heading into the U.S. Open.
How will tuneup results carry into the Open?
But some results do matter because they either establish or reinforce existing trends. Federer's form in Cincinnati and his straight set win over Djokovic make him the clear front-runner. Given Li Na's history of ratcheting up her level immediately after she makes a coaching change, I think her Montreal final and Cincinnati title put her back in the mix. And Djokovic's ability to win Toronto and make the final of Cincinnati shows me that he's not in danger of crashing out early at the U.S Open.
What does Nadal's withdrawal do to the men's field?
Dark Horse players to watch
On the women's side, this will be an awakening for Sloane Stephens, her legion of fans growing by the day. Reaching the fourth round means getting past Francesca Schiavone (first round) and probably Ana Ivanovic, but Stephens will be up to the task. There will be a tremendous commotion surrounding Stephens' match against Wozniacki (slated as a potential fourth-round clash), and that's likely to be the stop sign. Watch out for Varvara Lepchenko, as well. Playing her first Open as an American citizen, she stands a fair chance to meet Stosur in the third round.
As for Querrey and Haas, we're talking about two guys who are streaking. Haas is in the Ferrer quarter and has a potentially tricky opening match against Gulbis. But he's playing well enough to make the second week, which would be yet another tremendous accomplishment for the 34-year-old. Same goes for Querrey, who stands a chance to make the quarters. The other seeds in his section are a struggling Berdych, Florian Mayer and Nicolas Almagro.
Watch out for Li. Two of the three Slams this year have been won by the woman who won the final Premier-level lead-up tournament. (Azarenka won Sydney then Melbourne, Sharapova won Rome then the French). Do you know who they beat in those Premier finals? Li. So how's this for a narrative thread: Li won the final hard-court lead-up tournament in Cincinnati. And just like her French Open run last year, Li has brought on a high-profile coach just weeks before a Slam and has seen immediate results. I have no idea if she can pull it off (she's never played well at the Open), but there's a story developing here that would be incredible if she did. Bonus picks: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Maria Kirilenko.
On the women's side, Kerber's quiet ascension up the ranking this year to No. 6 has put the field on notice. Kerber won the first two titles of her career this year at Paris and Copenhagen, reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and the Olympics, and reached the semis at Wimbledon, before ending Serena Williams' s 19-match win streak at Cincinnati. She enters the Open with a ton of confidence. She also was a semifinalist at the 2011 Open and won't be intimidated if she has to face down Serena again from across the net.
Top players to flame out early
I'd hate to see Venus Williams take a second-round loss, after her courageous performance in Cincinnati, but she won't have the sustained energy to beat the sixth-seeded Kerber. And it's a tough draw for Li, who will be taken down by sentimental favorite Kim Clijsters in the third round.
It's not even close on the women's side. Radwanska's been a ghost, winning no more than two matches a tournament since July, when she made the Wimbledon final. Exhausted and wounded -- she has a right shoulder injury that forced her to retire in New Haven -- I just don't see the No. 2 doing much in New York. Another woman prime for a fall is the defending champion. Drawn into Azarenka's quarter, Stosur will not get past the fourth round.
Wozniacki's "Little Miss Sunshine" act has been hampered by some dark clouds all year. She hasn't won a tournament since New Haven last August and injured her right knee there on Thursday. Wozniacki will stumble into the Open short on confidence and weary of her opponents, who just a year ago were looking up at her at the top of the rankings. With the partisan crowd in her favor, American Sloane Stephens upsets Wozniacki in the third round.
Bold, way out there prediction
And the winners are ...
Serena got a terrific draw, and figures to cruise past Kirilenko and Wozniacki on her way to the semifinals. Kerber will be waiting, but Serena can match the German's power, and her serve will be the difference. In the other half of the draw, look for another godawful shriek-fest between Azarenka and Sharapova in the semifinals, and I don't forecast any Serena meltdowns in this year's Open. She beats either of those players with ease.
Only Serena can beat Serena, who's the best in the sport when ready, willing and able. Remarkably, it's been four years since her last title here: She lost her cool in 2009 and '11 and didn't play in '10. Look for the tour's queen bee to bag her 15th major and inch closer to Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova on the all-time Grand Slam leaderboard.
Let's make it unanimous. This summer has been all about Serena and not much of that is going to change at the Open. If Serena can minimize her penchant for losing her cool under the bright lights on center court, she should have no problem lifting the championship trophy for the fourth time on Arthur Ashe.