|Sam Stosur might be the defending champ, but she's no favorite going in. (Getty Images)|
On the eve of the U.S. Open, favorites are pretty easy to identify.
When you look at the men's side, there have been a quartet of gentlemen dominating the Slams in recent years. With one of them -- Rafael Nadal -- out of the picture due to injury, that leaves Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray as strong favorites to reach the semifinals.
On the women's draw things are always a bit more fluid but of course you can count on Serena Williams being there. The same goes for Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka. If you were to identify three favorites to win, that's where you have to start.
But what about the underdogs? Who could step out from under those enormous shadows and into the limelight? Being proper and all, ladies first.
First rule of thumb: Ride the hot hand. Kvitova heads into New York having captured the New Haven Open at Yale by taking out Maria Kirilenko in the final on Saturday. Kvitova also came out with the crown at the Rogers Cup in Montreal a few weeks back (she was ousted in the semifinals in Cincinnati between the two victories).
The problem for Kvitova? She finds herself in the same quarter of the draw as Sharapova, who has been nothing but a thorn in her Slam side this season. The two ladies ran into one another in the semis in both the Aussie Open and at Roland Garros with Sharapova coming out on top in both cases. In total, Kvitova has lost three straight to Sharapova -- all in semifinals in 2012. However Kvitova did beat Sharapova in the 2011 Wimbledon final.
Maybe the fourth time would be the charm for Kvitova should she and Sharapova cross paths in the quarters. If that happens (or if Sharapova is upset earlier) then the Czech Kvitova could be looking at another feather in her cap at the tail end of the season.
It feels like there is something wrong with picking a defending champion as an "underdog" but Stosur fits that bill going into Flushing Meadows. Her victory over Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final last year feels like a long time ago.
To be frank, it hasn't been a great year for Stosur. In Australia to open the year she lost three of the four matches she played in, including going out in the first round of the Australian Open. That was a harbinger of bad things to come as Stosur has only reached one final, losing to Victoria Azarenka in Qatar. Since Wimbledon Stosur has won just three of five matches on hard courts.
Still, she holds the No. 7 ranking on the WTA coming into Flushing Meadows. And again, she's the defending champion, so she gets at least the benefit of the doubt going in. She earned that a year ago. But she's going to have to reverse her fortunes in a hurry and start playing her top-level tennis again.
Here's another rule of thumb: Don't underestimate the value of determination and sentimentality. Clijsters is saying goodbye after the U.S. Open and she'll be looking to go out on top. She's done it before in New York, going back-to-back in 2009 and 2010. She has had to retire from a few Opens over the years so she'll actually be going for a remarkable fourth U.S. Open title in as many tries.
Clijsters undertook a much lighter schedule this season, her last, with concerns not only over the injuries and wear and tear but also personal obligations like being a mother. She hasn't played a tournament since Wimbledon (although she did compete in the Olympics for Belgium) but Clijsters has always been at her best on the hard courts. She did reach the semifinals of the Aussie Open this year, after all.
There will be no reason for Clijsters to leave anything on the table with this being it for her. She knows that all too well and everybody dreams of going out on top. She has been the best in New York when she's competing so you definitely can't forget she's there. She is in the same quarter as both Azarenka and Stosur -- her and Stosur would actually meet in the fourth round if they both get that far -- so there will be some competition.
With all of that said, you also have to watch out for the No. 2 seed Agnieszka Radwanksa. She hasn't lit up the hard-court circuit since Wimbledon but she seems to have a relatively favorable quarter but lines up with Williams' quarter in the semis.
Now, for the men.
Tsonga has had the unfortunate lot in life of being the fifth or sixth best player in an era with four superstars playing with him. It hasn't allowed him to get that ultimate breakthrough on the big stage, although he always seems to come close.
Flushing Meadows hasn't always been his best venue -- that would belong to the other hard-court Slam event in Australia. He reached the final there in 2008 and had a semifinal appearance again in 2010. At the U.S. Open he has reached the quarters just once, last year, and he has a pretty favorable draw to get that far again.
Tsonga finds himself in the same quarter as Murray, but his path up to there doesn't seem to be too dangerous. The only other seeded players in his half of the bracket are No. 32 Jeremy Chardy and No. 17 Kei Nishikori then possibly No. 12 Marin Cilic in the fourth round. Should Tsonga meet Murray in the quarters you wouldn't fancy his chances much, he has lost five in a row to Murray but the last time he did beat Murray came on the hard courts in a Slam (2008 Aussie Open).
Also, you cannot forget the showmanship that Tsonga brings to the table and how a crowd like the one in New York can appreciate that and back a guy like Tsonga.
Don't forget that Del Potro won this event in 2009, going through Nadal and Federer in the semis and final. When he is healthy he is as quiet a threat as anybody in the men's game. The problem is people have forgotten that with the injuries he has had to deal with.
But he seems to be rounding back into form again. Nothing illustrated that better than the excellent tennis Del Potro played in the Olympics, nearly defeating Federer in the semifinals (losing the third set 17-19) before surprising Djokovic in the bronze-medal match. His last time out he lost a rematch with Djokovic in the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open. Wouldn't you know it that he's in the same quarter as Djokovic again? The rubber match would be a great quarter matchup should it happen and you can't discount the value of that win in the Olympics in giving Del Potro confidence.
One thing I like a lot about Del Potro is that he seems to rarely lose to guys he has no business losing to. Since the Aussie Open began Del Potro has lost 12 matches including the Olympics. Of those 12 losses, 11 came against players ranked higher than him on the ATP list. The only "upset" on the resume was to Radek Stepanek, who is No. 38. The point is, he doesn't usually get upset, and he seems a pretty safe bet to reach that matchup with Djokovic in the quarters.
It feels like a long time since the American men had a top contender coming into the U.S. Open not named Andy Roddick, but the torch has been passed. Isner comes into the tourney with the 9th seed, hot off a tournament victory in Winston Salem. Along the way to the title he took out Tomas Berdych and Tsonga to do it. It was his second title since Wimbledon, so the confidence should be high.
Everybody knows what Isner is going to do ... he's going to serve and serve some more. The breaks don't even matter as much with Isner, as long as he can hold serve he's in a great spot. There are few players who are tougher to take out in a tie-breaker than Isner.
Coming into the tournament as the top-seeded American carries the burden of being the home-team hope but that comes with some added benefit, as well. The crowd always rallies around the Americans in New York and that can always lift a guy along for a good ride.
Isner has never had a lot of success at the U.S. Open -- his best showing was a quarterfinal finish last year -- so the track record doesn't really support him much. However he is in perhaps the most favorable quarter there is with No. 4 Ferrer the top of the bracket and then Janko Tipsarevic as the No. 8. It could the route Isner needs to have a breakthrough performance.
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