The professional tennis calendar starts in January and stretches on deep into the fall. But it's the U.S. Open, held next Monday through Sept. 12 in New York City, that represents the sport's season finale. It's where poseurs and pretenders are exposed and eliminated. With tennis's last big show of the season about to air, here are a few points to ponder.
Is Rafa Ready?
He's handsome, charismatic, unnaturally poised and currently dominating his sport, most recently winning the French Open and Wimbledon. But Rafael Nadal still hasn't completely punctured the American sports consciousness, and perhaps that's because, for all his excellence, he's never been at his best at the U.S. Open. His relentless, violent game inevitably leaves him banged up and tired come late summer. However, if he fulfills his top seeding, he'll not only complete a career Grand Slam but will also become the first man since Rod Laver to win in Paris, Wimbledon and New York in the same year.
Will Roger Return?
While his struggles hardly compare to those of his friend and analog on the PGA Tour, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer hasn't exactly been going gangbusters lately. He's fallen to second in the rankings behind Nadal and has won only one title since January's Australian Open. The tennis salon can debate whether at 29, Federer is finally descending, or whether the rest of the field has finally caught him. Federer, of course, can make it a moot point by winning again in New York, a feat he's achieved five times since 2004.
Can Clijsters Defend?
With Serena Williams out after foot surgery, the 2010 champion is unlikely to be a Williams (sister Venus hasn't won a Slam singles title outside Wimbledon since '01) or Maria Sharapova, still struggling as she is with shoulder and foot ailments. Instead consider defending champ Kim Clijsters. Last summer Clijsters made a smashing comeback, taking the Open just a few weeks after ending a two-year retirement. This summer, she's again been the best player on the hardcourt swing, most recently winning the title in Cincinnati.
Can Murray Break Through?
That Andy Murray will win a major title one day has become an article of faith in the Republic of Tennis. A Scottish baseliner, the 23-year-old Murray possesses a complete game, a deceptively strong serve and perhaps the sharpest tactical mind in the sport. He's won all sorts of titles, reached the finals of two majors and even has a winning record against Federer. Murray's game dipped slightly this spring and early summer but he then beat Nadal and Federer in succession two weeks ago to win the Toronto event. Free of the intense pressure that accompanies him at Wimbledon, Murray usually summons his best tennis in New York.
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Full coverage of the 2010 U.S. Open begins Aug. 30 at SI.com/tennis
Call Of the Wild
While the world's top 100 or so players automatically receive a slot in the main draw of U.S. Open, anyone armed with a racket (and the $125 entry fee) could try to earn one of the other 28 berths. The USTA ran a four-month National Playoff Championship in which the winner would get a wild-card entry in the Open qualifying tournament. The event drew more than 1,000 hopefuls, including a New York rabbi, former ATP bad boy Jeff Tarango and Olympic skier Bode Miller. After winning nine rounds, the men's champion was Blake Strode(below), 23, a former All-America at Arkansas who deferred Harvard Law School to try to engineer a pro career. The women's winner: Alexandra Mueller, 22, of Abington, Pa., once a formidable junior.
Photograph by FRED VUICH
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND Nadal lightened his pre-Open schedule to prepare for a run at a career Slam.
ARKANSAS MEDIA RELATIONS (STRODE)