The 2005 u.s. open is billing itself as the two-week culmination of a seasonlong reality show. As marketing campaigns go, it's not half bad. Never mind the coed twentysomething cast, competing elimination-style for a big prize--a record $1.1 million to the winner of each singles draw. No sport trucks in feuds, egomania and sudsy subplots quite as enthusiastically as tennis does.
Scenes from recent episodes include the sport's ultimate diva, Russia's Maria Sharapova, achieving the WTA's top ranking, which not only makes her the player to beat in New York City but also endorses her endorsements--$20 million worth by most counts; Andy Roddick, the 2003 Open champ, reaching the Cincinnati final last weekend but losing early in two other tune-up events (even his American Express ad asks, have you seen andy's mojo?); and Marat Safin, the spectacularly talented, spectacularly erratic Russian, winning this year's Australian Open but spending the summer locked in combat with self-doubt.
To help navigate this series finale, which starts at 11 a.m. on Monday and airs through Sunday, Sept. 11, on USA and CBS, here are 10 plotlines worth following.
1 Will Agassi win one for the memory banks?
Earlier this summer it looked as though the U.S. Open would double as a valedictory for Andre Agassi. At an age (35) at which some players compete on the senior tour, he was losing his match against the assault of time. A chronic back injury contributed to his first-round defeat at the French Open and his withdrawal from Wimbledon. Agassi rested his back, got cortisone injections and returned to go 10--1 on hard courts this summer, sustaining his Top 10 ranking. His inspired play, coupled with a new endorsement deal with Adidas, has doused retirement speculation. "I'm using my experience right now to prepare myself the best I can," says Agassi. "You won't see me on the court if I'm not 100 percent." It's asking a lot of a middle-aged man to play a string of best-of-five-set matches in the late summer heat, particularly against today's studs. But if Agassi--"The most popular player in the history of tennis," says Roddick--can survive the early rounds, he will hijack the Open as no player has done since 39-year-old Jimmy Connors in 1991.
2 Can Rafael Nadal triumph on hard courts?
Nadal, a Spanish teenager who smacks the ball as if it owed him money, is unquestionably the sport's breakout star. He's won more matches this year than any other player and has triumphed at nine tournaments, including the French Open. So long as his titles came exclusively on clay, his appeal--like that of David Hasselhoff--was largely confined to Europe. But when Nadal beat Agassi on a hard court to win the Rogers Cup in Montreal on Aug. 14, his status skyrocketed on this side of the pond. If he can make a deep run in Queens, "El Biceps"will be well on his way to global-celebrity status.
3 Can Serena pull a Venus?
Once the unrivaled leading lady of the tennis reality series, Serena Williams has turned into the brooding, inscrutable supporting character whose antics confuse and vex viewers, to say nothing of the rest of the cast. After heroically taking the 2005 Australian Open, Williams the Younger hasn't won another tournament. Injury and apathy have conspired against her. Slowed by a sprained left ankle and--how to put this delicately?--a bulk in significant excess of her listed playing weight of 135 pounds, Williams was upset in the third round of Wimbledon. And she has played just one match since, hardly ideal preparation for the U.S. Open, a tournament played under famously harsh conditions. (As SI went to press, Serena was still entered in the draw.) On the other hand, she need only look to her sister Venus's command performance at Wimbledon for proof that top-tier players can shake off the doldrums in a hurry.
4 Whom will Lleyton Hewitt offend?
If you thought marriage and impending fatherhood would mellow Hewitt, tennis's fourth-ranked male player and its whiner laureate, you thought wrong. In 2005 alone the combative Australian has provoked one opponent into spitting at him, infuriated countless other colleagues with his fist-pumps and gamesmanship, cut ties with his longtime agent and drawn the ire of gay-rights groups worldwide for calling a chair umpire a "poof." (Sixth-ranked Guillermo Coria of Argentina says of Hewitt, "I'd rather never win a tournament than be like him.") Rest assured, Hewitt will find a way to embroil himself in some controversy in New York. Regardless of his antics, however, take note when he loses. In the last six Grand Slams Hewitt entered, the player who beat him went on to win the tournament.
5 Can Kim Clijsters get nasty?
In striking contrast to her ex-fiancé, Hewitt (told you these tennis plot lines were rich), the 22-year-old Belgian is as charming a pro athlete as you'll ever meet. She has no problem winning friends and fans. What she does have trouble winning are big matches. Clijsters is an exceptional athlete who bludgeons the ball off both flanks and possesses a vicious return game. But unlike other top players (fellow Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne chief among them), she is constitutionally incapable of summoning a mean streak, so she tends to fold when the stakes are highest. Having won five North American hard-court tournaments this year, she is a fair bet to win the first major of her career in New York--if, that is, she can suppress her gracious good nature and get in touch with her inner Hewitt.
6 Is the Russian Revolution ova?
While Russians are still heavily represented in the WTA rankings, they are enduring a collective sophomore slump, Sharapova's success notwithstanding. Anastasia Myskina, the 2004 French Open champion, has fallen out of the Top 10, understandably distracted by her mother's grievous illness. Until Elena Dementieva improves the feeble serve that undermines her otherwise strong game, she will not win a major. Nadia Petrova may be entrenched in the Top 10, but she is in the running to unseat countrywoman Anna Kournikova (remember her?) as the most talented player never to have won a title. And defending U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova hasn't come close to replicating the form she showed last year. After an upset loss in Los Angeles last week she said, "If I keep playing like this, I can go home, because I'm not going to win a match."
7 Will there be a men's doubles mutiny?
In a curious strategy for a de facto players' union, the ATP recently adopted a policy that will eliminate the jobs of dozens of its members. Starting after the U.S. Open, doubles matches at ATP tournaments--which do not include the Grand Slam events--will feature no-ad scoring, sets played to five games and a revamped ranking system. The stated objective is to shorten match times, which will induce the more marketable singles stars to play alongside partners. The real objective is to kill off the "doubles specialist" subphylum, whose members don't sell tickets but earn a cozy living, take complimentary hotel rooms and eat at the gratis buffet in the players' lounge. Not surprisingly the changes have enraged doubles players. "They sold us out big time," says Bob Bryan, who forms, with his twin brother, Mike, the world's top-ranked team. Before bookmarking Monster.com, the beleaguered doubles players are likely to stage a formal protest at the Open.
8 Is Donald Young for real?
Though it always comes with a bodacious Nike deal, the mantle of Great American Tennis Hope is a heavy one. Lately it's fallen on the slight shoulders of Donald Young, 16, a soft-spoken African-American from Chicago who's now based in Atlanta. It's hard to know what to make of Young. A crafty lefty with exceptional foot speed and an expansive vocabulary of shots, he has won scads of junior titles and drawn wide praise. "He reminds me of me," says John McEnroe, who discovered Young when the kid was a ball boy for one of McEnroe's senior match warmups. Young, however, has entered the main draw of six ATP events this year and, looking like a boy among men, has yet to win a set. Suddenly his praises are tempered with terms such as "overhyped" and "too much too soon." By dint of winning the national boys' 18s title two weeks ago in Kalamazoo, Mich., Young received a wild card into the U.S. Open main draw. We'll see if he's ready for prime time.
9 Who will be the new cast members?
More than any other event, the U.S. Open has a way of minting stars, transforming mere parvenus into A-listers. This year keep an eye on a pair of French teenagers, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils. Gasquet is a stylist who, after a rough rookie season--he was sent home from the 2004 U.S. Open qualies for throwing his racket and nearly decapitating a linesman--has found traction this year and even beat Federer last spring. Monfils is a lanky Parisian power hitter still growing into his 6'3" body. On the women's side check out Anna-Lena Groenefeld, a 20-year-old German who serves as hard as many men, and Nicole Vaidisova, 16-year-old Czech whose game and 5'11" frame aren't done growing. A star turn in Flushing Meadows means they'll figure prominently in the next season of the tennis reality series.
10 Can anyone topple Roger Federer?
Unlikely. The Swiss colossus--who won his ninth tournament of 2005 and 22nd straight final on Sunday--is that good.
Never mind the coed cast competing for $1.1 million. No sport trucks in FEUDS AND EGOMANIA quite as enthusiastically as tennis does.
More than any other tournament, the U.S. Open has a way of MINTING STARS, transforming mere parvenus into A-listers.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY FRED HARPER
Whose torch will go out first? Top row, from left: Hewitt, Clijsters, Sharapova, Agassi. Middle: Serena Williams, Federer, Roddick, Venus Williams. Bottom: Nadal, McEnroe.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY FRED HARPER
Young might be the future Donald of U.S. tennis.
ILLUSTRATIONS BY FRED HARPER
Groenefeld's serve could blast rivals out of the house.