Ranking the U.S. Open favorites
NEW YORK -- This year's U.S. Open features one of the most wide open fields simply because the summer lead-up tournaments were dominated by two legends who have yet to win a Grand Slam this year.
Roger Federer and Serena Williams were the most consistent players through the U.S. Open tune-ups, but can we really rely on them to deliver? And should we so quickly discount the other big names who seem poised for success even if their summers were less than ordinary? These are the questions we're grappling with as the days tick down to the final major of the year, which begins on Monday.
Here's how we rate the tournament favorites:
1. Serena Williams
Why she'll win the U.S. Open: She's the No. 1 player in the world -- her good is better than everyone else's best -- and she's played high-quality tennis during the summer hard-court tournaments. After a stunning (and confusing) exit from Wimbledon in June, Williams has played three tournaments and won two, claiming the trophy at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford and the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati last week.
After her victory in Cincinnati, Serena admitted that didn't feel like she was playing Grand Slam-winning tennis in Stanford. But after her 12-ace performance against Ana Ivanovic in the Western & Southern Open final, she exuded confidence. Gone was all the talk over the last three weeks downplaying the pressure and expectations in New York after her lackluster Slam performances this year. Serena now believes she not only can but should win the U.S. Open.
Why she won't win the U.S. Open: That's some pressure she's putting on herself. Serena is just one major title away from tying Chris Evert and Martina Navritilova for second in the list of Grand Slam singles titles in the Open Era. She won't admit it, but she wants that record. She also wants to redeem her season, which has seen her win a tour-leading five titles, but fall early at all three Slams. New York could provide her some redemption, but pressure and Serena don't always get along.
2. Simona Halep
Why she'll win: The No. 2 seed hasn't been one to suffer poor losses this year, and her season would have taken on a whole new look it she could just figure out how to get past Maria Sharapova, to whom she lost in the Madrid and French Open finals. The reason why I rank Halep ahead of Sharapova or Ivanovic is because there's just not much that can go wrong with her game. She will beat the players she's supposed to beat and put up a good fight against the players who try to overpower her. If she lands a good draw, she'll reach the final easily. If she has to face Serena, she probably won't win -- though it would be their first meeting of the season -- but if it's anyone else, you have to give Halep a chance.
Why she won't: Halep comes into New York undercooked, playing just four matches on the U.S. hardcourts. She'll be rested, but her confidence won't be at the level it was when she reached the French Open final. She's never made it past the quarterfinals in New York.
3. Ana Ivanovic
Why she'll win: Ivanovic's summer season was highlighted by two losses to Serena, one being a tough three-set match in Stanford, and the other coming in the Cincinnati final; she also narrowly lost a three-setter to a big-serving CoCo Vandeweghe in Montreal.
Those aren't bad losses, and if Ivanovic's back issues don't flare up, who know what could happen. The Serb is seeded at No. 8 -- her highest since 2008 -- which should theoretically give her a draw to make the quarterfinals. From there, she's capable of beating anyone in the draw.
Why she won't: She's made the quarterfinals just once in New York, and though she's pushed Serena to three sets this year, she was playing a sub-par Serena each time. There is also the issue of her pinched nerve, which flares up whenever she goes deep in tournaments.
4. Maria Sharapova
Why she'll win: The fight. Sharapova's ability to battle even when she's not playing her best in matches is unparalleled. At a time of the season when other players check out, that's when Sharapova pounces.
Why she won't: She really hasn't played her best tennis over the North American hard court swing, with losses to Carla Suarez Navarro and Ana Ivanovic. She's only made it past the fourth round once since 2006. It's very hard to gauge Sharapova's level since the French Open.
5. Eugenie Bouchard
Why she'll win: You can't discount the fact that Bouchard has been the most successful player at the Grand Slams this year, making the semifinals in Melbourne and Paris, and reaching her first major final at Wimbledon. And she's done it without coming into any of those tournaments in great form. The kid just knows how to step it up.
Why she won't: She went into this week's tournament in New Haven with no wins since Wimbledon, losing to Shelby Rogers and Svetlana Kuznetsova. But her top eight seeding should give her some easier matches.
1. Roger Federer
Why he'll win: All the recent numbers point to Federer as the well-deserved favorite at this year's U.S. Open. He's made four straight finals dating back to his title run on grass in Halle, Germany. He worked through relatively easy draws to make the Wimbledon final and Rogers Cup final in Toronto, losing to Novak Djokovic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, respectively.
His toughest test came last week at the Western & Southern Open, where he arrived fatigued from his Toronto run and proceeded to beat Vasek Pospisil, Gael Monfils, Andy Murray, Milos Raonic and David Ferrer. In a summer when everyone else seemed to flop, Federer rose to the top. Without his perennial stopper Rafael Nadal in the U.S. Open draw, Federer has to be licking his chops.
Why he won't: If Djokovic sorts out his game and makes the final, the advantage goes to the rested Serb, who remains the best pure hard-court player in the game. In their last two meetings in New York, Djokovic staged two memorable comebacks to send Federer out of the tournament. Plus Federer has played 10 matches in 18 days in the last two weeks; that could catch up to his 33-year-old body.
2. Novak Djokovic
Why he'll win: Djokovic has made the U.S. Open final the last four years, winning in 2011 and losing to Nadal twice and Murray once and he's still the best hard-court player on tour. If he can get a nice early draw that gives him some easy confidence-boosting wins, he could roll.
Why he won't: Call it a Wimbledon let-down or honeymoon hangover, but Djokovic hasn't played a good match all summer. He needed three sets to beat Monfils in a third set tiebreaker in Toronto only to get routed by Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a little over an hour. In Cincinnati he battled through another three-setter to beat Gilles Simon, but got bounced by Tommy Robredo in straight sets in the next round. That's just two wins and four total matches before the U.S. Open, where he was a finalist last year.
3. Andy Murray
Why he'll win: He's healthy again and coming off an intense physical training block that has yielded some good -- though inconsistent -- tennis this summer. With the 12-month-baggage of being the reigning Wimbledon champion gone, he can free up and play without too much pressure. His chances will be tied to his draw. The best case scenario for him is to land in David Ferrer's quarter.
Why he won't: The inconsistency. Murray said it himself: he keeps messing up matches.
4. Stan Wawrinka
Why he'll win: Wawrinka is at his best when the expectations are low, and he's in just that position ahead of the U.S. Open. He's the No. 3 seed with little hype after a lackluster summer hard-court season, and the relative lack of attention could be exactly what he needs. He made the semifinal last year and pushed Djokovic to five sets despite being hobbled by a leg injury late in the match. If he can find his power groove and play with nothing to lose, he could blast his way to the final. From there it's anyone's guess.
Why he won't: Since beating Federer to win the Monte Carlo Masters, he's made it past the quarterfinals of a tournament just once.
5. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
Why he'll win: He became the first man since 2007 to beat four top-ten players en route to a title in Toronto, taking down Djokovic, Murray, Grigor Dimitrov and Federer. You can't ignore a run like that. You also can't ignore a guy who's serving 140-mph bombs and holding with ease against some of the best returners in the game.
Why he won't: With all due respect to Tsonga, he's... Tsonga. Did he prove everything he needed to prove in Toronto? Or does he still feel hungry to do something special in New York, where he's never made it past the quarterfinals. In fact, it's the only major he has yet to make the semifinals.