For Roger Federer, it's the chance to slam-dunk it away. For Rafael Nadal, it's the event that can keep his chances for the year-end #1 alive, and maybe put some fear in Federer for next year. For Andre Agassi, it's the end.
It's likely to be a U. S. Open with three and only three stories. True, the Federer/Nadal stranglehold on required event titles was broken by Andy Roddick at Cincinnati. True, we're seeing a lot of fine young players -- Tomas Berdych, Richard Gasquet, Andy Murray -- moving toward the top of the game. True, we're seeing the number of injuries continue to rocket. But those are "outside court" stories. When Federer or Nadal or Agassi is on the court, all eyes will be there.
If it is Federer who is to defend his title, he'd better have his passing shots ready. The #1 seed opens against Yeu-Tzuoo Wang, but then he'll have to face either Tim Henman or Greg Rusedski (neither of whom is in the best of shape, to be sure). The first seed he is supposed to meet is #29 Jonas Bjorkman. Then comes a change, since he would face either Juan Carlos Ferrero or Gaston Gaudio in the Round of Sixteen. He's seeded to face James Blake in the quarterfinal -- and Blake has not played at all well since winning Indianapolis. The seed he is supposed to face in the semifinal is David Nalbandian, who used to give him trouble but who has not made it to a Round of Sixteen since Roland Garros. The other high seed in his half is Nikolay Davydenko, who is playing well but who will be pretty tired. Federer has to like his draw a lot.
#2 seed Rafael Nadal may face somewhat stiffer resistance -- and his summer hardcourt results don't inspire much confidence. He opens against Mark Philippoussis -- though Philippoussis has been invisible since winning Newport; he can't be in very good hardcourt shape. The Spaniard's second round, against Luis Horna or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, doesn't look bad. But then he'll face some heat from #27 Gael Monfils or Max Mirnyi. As with Federer, he gets a change of pace in the Round of Sixteen, when his potential opponents are #13 Jarkko Nieminen or #24 Jose Acasuso. #6 Tommy Robredo is his potential quarterfinal opponent (if not Robredo, then probably another slowcourt player, #11 David Ferrer or #19 Dominik Hrbaty or #31 Juan Ignacio Chela). Robredo has had a pretty solid hardcourt summer, too -- better than Nadal, really. The winner of that would face #3 seed Ivan Ljubicic.
#3 Ljubicic has struggled at big events, though he did make the Roland Garros semifinal and the quarterfinal at Cincinnati. He'll open against another big server, Feliciano Lopez -- who is, however, in a big slump. The first real threat to him is probably #25 seed Richard Gasquet in the third round. Then he could face Lleyton Hewitt, if Hewitt can play, or Novak Djokovic, who played only two hardcourt matches this summer. Marcos Baghdatis or Andy Roddick could wait in the quarterfinal.
#4 seed Nalbandian's draw seems almost designed to help him break his slump. He opens against Michael Berrer. He could face Marat Safin in the second round -- but of course Safin has a concussion. His third round opponent could be #26 Olivier Rochus -- who, however, is barely back from his own injury. Round of Sixteen opponent and #14 seed Tommy Haas has struggled since winning Los Angeles, and the other possibility, #18 Robby Ginepri, has just plain struggled. It will get harder in the quarterfinal, of course, when he has to face Davydenko or Fernando Gonzalez or Andy Murray.
#5 seed James Blake, despite his troubles, may well be all right until the Round of Sixteen. His first two rounds are easy. In the third round, he would face #28 Agustin Calleri or Carlos Moya or Paul-Henri Mathieu, but Calleri is tired and Moya is breaking down and Mathieu is a mess. Danger lurks in the fourth round, though, in #12 Tomas Berdych or #24 Dmitry Tursunov. And then comes Federer.
#6 Tommy Robredo also faces some fairly easy early rounds, though his second match would be against Hyung-Taik Lee (always dangerous on hardcourts) or Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo (who suddenly seems to be picking up hardcourt tennis). The first seed he would face would be #31 Juan Ignacio Chela -- though Chela may be the seed most vulnerable to upset. Then he would take on #11 David Ferrer or #19 Dominik Hrbaty, then Nadal.
#7 Nikolay Davydenko will come in more tired than usual because of New Haven, but his early rounds are easy; the first seed he could face would be #32 Kristof Vliegen. Then it gets tough: #10 Fernando Gonzalez, who made the semifinals of both hardcourt Masters plus Los Angeles, or #18 Andy Murray, who seems to be on course for a Round of Sixteen (he made the final of Washington, she semifinal of Toronto, and the quarterfinal of Cincinnati). Based on current form, Davydenko's quarterfinal against Nalbandian could actually be easier than his fourth round match.
#8 Marcos Baghdatis seems to be intent on setting some sort of record for gap between his Slam and non-Slam results: After making the Wimbledon semifinal, he lost first round at the Canadian Open, made the Cincinnati Round of Sixteen, and lost in the Round of Sixteen at New Haven also. He can probably handle Alexander Waske in the first round, but then comes Andrei Pavel or Andre Agassi -- and Baghdatis, who is popular with most fans, will probably never have felt a crowd root so hard for his opponent as when he plays Agassi. If he somehow survives that, he would face #30 Sebastien Grosjean or Thomas Johansson in the third round, then #9 Andy Roddick or #22 Fernando Verdasco. It's almost certainly the toughest draw for any of the top eight seeds.
#9 Andy Roddick definitely put himself back in the mix with his title at Cincinnati. It's hard to assess the chances of anyone not named Federer or Nadal, these days, but he probably is the #3 choice. After all, he managed to fit a Cincinnati title and an Indianapolis final around his injury this summer. His first couple of rounds don't look bad at all, though he has to face #25 Fernando Verdasco in the third round. Then, theoretically, Baghdatis, then Ljubicic. The Roddick of 2003 could have handled that. We'll have to see about the 2006 model.
#10 seed Fernando Gonzalez, as noted, made the semifinal at both summer Masters. His first two rounds look easy on paper -- but Jan Hajek, whom he could face in the second round, looks very promising. Of course, he also looks like a guy who will be trying for his first Slam wins.... Gonzalez faces #17 Murray in the third round, then Davydenko. It's not an easy draw, but he's been playing very well lately.
#11 David Ferrer wins mostly with speed, so he can be overwhelmed, but he can also give you fits. He'll open against countryman Nicolas Almagro, and takes on Dominik Hrbaty in the third round, then Robredo.
#12 Tomas Berdych also has a couple of easy early rounds, but he's been inconsistent on hardcourts. His third round against #23 Dmitry Tursunov could be interesting, with the winner to face Blake. That could be very interesting indeed.
#13 Jarkko Nieminen is supposed to open against Xavier Malisse, who is hurt. If Malisse recovers fast, he might have some trouble. Otherwise, his draw looks pretty good.
#14 Tommy Haas posted only a 3-2 record since winning Los Angeles, but he did win Los Angeles. His draw is easy until he faces Robby Ginepri in the third round -- and if he wins that, he could face struggling #4 seed David Nalbandian.
Lleyton Hewitt is the #15 seed, but he's hurting and a withdrawal would be no surprise. His early rounds are easy, but Novak Djokovic in the third round is no pushover.
#16 Juan Carlos Ferrero seems finally to be playing a bit better, and he was the Cincinnati finalist as well as a former finalist here. And his draw looks pretty good until he faces Federer in the fourth round; clay-loving #21 seed Gaston Gaudio is the first seed he would face.
#17 Andy Murray was way up there in summer hardcourt wins, with a final at Washington, a semi at Toronto, and a quarter at Cincinnati. By the end, he was obviously exhausted. But he's had more than a week to rest, and has two easy early rounds. Whether he can play five sets against Fernando Gonzalez in the third round is another question.
#18 Robby Ginepri has struggled since making the semifinal last year, and he has to open against giant-killed Julien Benneteau. And #14 Haas in the third round. He looks like a player heading for a fall.
#19 Dominik Hrbaty lives for long matches. He may get his wish, since he opens against Mikhail Youzhny, then maybe Nicolas Massu, then #11 seed David Ferrer. Even Hrbaty will have to reach deep to beat all those guys.
#20 Novak Djokovic didn't get in much hardcourt preparation; he stayed on clay through Umag, and played only two matches at Cincinnati. The big threat to him is probably Mardy Fish in the second round. He would face Hewitt in the third -- if Hewitt lasts that long.
#21 Gaston Gaudio played only one hardcourt match in preparation; he has what should be an easy draw, but Sam Querrey might be a threat to someone who hates hardcourts that much, and #16 Ferrero waits in the third round.
#22 Fernando Verdasco plays a hard-hitting, basic game. He'll meet his opposite in Fabrice Santoro. If he wins that, he ought to be able to reach Roddick in the third round. And that could spell fireworks.
#23 Dmitry Tursunov has been playing perhaps more than is good for him, and his results declined gradually: He made the Los Angeles final, the Washington semifinal, the Toronto third round, and the Cincinnati second round. Still, he's had a week off and doesn't face anything too tough until he takes on Berdych in the third round.
#24 Jose Acasuso made the Canadian Open quarterfinal, but lost first round at Cincinnati and fell to Chela at New Haven. His best hope may be injury: His first opponent, Paradorn Srichaphan, is hurting, and after that, he faces struggling Jiri Novak or inconsistent Arnaud Clement. He'll have a tough third round assignment in Jarkko Nieminen.
#25 Richard Gasquet is fully healthy, playing well -- and finally winning on hardcourt, with a Canadian Open final on his record. And he's well-rested. And his draw is easy. It will be interesting to see his touch against Ljubicic's power in the third round.
#26 Olivier Rochus had only one real chance at a warmup, and he has to face Guillermo Coria in the second round -- but Coria isn't himself. Rochus might well be all right until he faces Nalbandian in the third round.
#27 Gael Monfils is another player who missed a lot of time with injury; he managed to play Cincinnati and New Haven, but won only one match at each. He may do it again, since he opens against Michael Russell, but then comes the power serving of Max Mirnyi or Wesley Moodie. His passing shots will be well-tested if he lasts long enough to face Nadal in the third round.
#28 Agustin Calleri comes in tired, and has to face Carlos Moya, then Paul-Henri Mathieu, then James Blake. He's really going to be tired by the time he finishes.
#29 Jonas Bjorkman has to face Federer in the third round, and might have problems with big-serving Gilles Muller or patient Vincent Spadea the round before.
#30 Sebastien Grosjean has been struggling dreadfully this year, and he has to face Thomas Johansson in the first round, then Baghdatis in the third round; his chances wouldn't look good even if this weren't his worst Slam.
#31 Juan Ignacio Chela faces one of the worst draws -- maybe the worst draw -- of any seed: First he has to face Stanislas Wawrinka, then the winner of the match between Robin Soderling (who is playing very well) and Ivo Karlovic. And then he faces Robredo. How many changes of pace can he handle?
#32 Kristof Vliegen has had a good year, but whether he has the consistency to hurt Davydenko in the third round is an open question.
There are a lot of fairly big names unseeded -- Marat Safin, Guillermo Coria, Thomas Johansson. They've all been struggling, of course. Then there is Andre Agassi. He's been too injured to struggle. If a crowd can pump a guy up, of course, he'll be close to invincible. If not -- well, he has to face Andrei Pavel, then Baghdatis, then Grosjean, than Roddick. Agassi has made the Open quarterfinal an amazing 13 times. It won't be easy to make it 14. It would sure be a nice way to go out, though.
As usual, it's going to be a quiet week at the top. Roger Federer's lead is so large that even if he loses his opener, and Rafael Nadal wins the Open, Federer will be #1 by some 750 points. And any matches he wins just widen the gap.
Nadal is also safe at #2. Even if he loses his opener, and #3 Ivan Ljubicic wins the Open (and Ljubicic doesn't seem able to win big titles), Nadal is #2 by about 300 points.
At #3, we have a contest. Ljubicic came in with a 150 point lead on David Nalbandian, and Nalbandian has quarterfinalist points to defend compared to Ljubicic's third round points, but Nalbandian still has a chance to regain the #3 spot -- though he must reach at least the semifinal.
Nalbandian is almost certainly safe at #4. Only three players (Davydenko, Robredo, and Baghdatis) can overtake him at all, and they would need titles and Nalbandian would have to lose fairly early.
There will be lots of action around #5, though. With Tommy Robredo having fourth round points to defend, he is a mere #6 in safe points. James Blake, with quarterfinalist points, is down to #10 in safe points! But the span from #5 Davydenko, through Robredo and Baghdatis (#7 in safe points), Andy Roddick (#8), Radek Stepanek (#9, but not playing) and Blake is only about 250 points. So those guys could end up in any order, and Fernando Gonzalez could get in the act with a semifinal. Theoretically, any of about 20 guys have a chance at the Top Ten with a title, but it doesn't seem likely that more than one of them will make it.
Blake isn't the only player in danger of a big drop, though he is surely the player most likely to fall out of the Top Ten -- indeed, he and Stepanek are the only serious candidates to do so. Still, #11 isn't too bad a ranking. It's below that that things get ugly. Andre Agassi is the one in the most trouble. If he loses his opener, he'll have three-quarters of his points come off, and will retire ranked in the #175 range! Guillermo Coria, with quarterfinalist points to defend, has over a third of his points on the line, and could end up in the #70 range. Robby Ginepri, with semifinalist points, could end up below #40. Lleyton Hewitt, also with semifinalist points, would end up below #25. 2005 Quarterfinalist Jarkko Nieminen looks likely to fall below #15.