Top 10 Storylines Ahead of the 2014 US Open

Jeremy Eckstein@!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistAugust 25, 2014

Top 10 Storylines Ahead of the 2014 US Open

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    Andy Kropa/Associated Press

    The 2014 U.S. Open has arrived, headlined by Roger Federer and Serena Williams. Both are chasing a major-tournament win for the 18th time in their illustrious careers. 

    Of course, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic will have something to say about that as he seeks a multi-Slam year.

    Several intriguing stories and personalities dot the landscape of the toughest Slam to win in tennis. Will Flushing Meadows see an uprising of youthful stars, or will long-jilted veterans contend for the championships?

    The following are the 10 storylines most likely to capture the interest of sports fans and tennis purists alike.

X-Factors That Make the U.S. Open a Tough Major

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    Bjorn Borg suffered plenty of angst at the U.S. Open's concrete surfaces late at night, when he disdained playing tennis.

    Stefan Edberg used to melt away in the August heat with early exits at Flushing Meadows, until he toughened up late in his career.

    David Ferrer once played so late he had to settle for a McDonald's Big Mac at 4:15 a.m. to survive until the next day.

    New York, the city that never sleeps, with late-night crowds and raucous noise. It's an entertainment venue that is demanding but also rewarding, a place where Jimmy Connors said, "We are professionals. The crowd must be allowed to participate. New Yorkers want blood."

    So, if players can navigate the heat, wind, food and crowds, and survive deep and competitive fields of opponents, they might be on their way to the next match.

    What will be the X-factors during the next two weeks? At the U.S. Open, a story is always emerging.

Rafael Nadal Updates

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Just because Rafael Nadal is sidelined with a right wrist injury doesn't mean there won't be updates in one form or another. The 2013 U.S. Open champion will merit plenty of press, especially if fresh news breaks regarding his future availability.

    There will be Nadal comparisons to champions, past and present, when discussing tennis legacies.

    There will undoubtedly be more articles, discussion and fan debates about the never-ending Nadal-Roger Federer rivalry. Simon Briggs of The Telegraph even threw out a comment that will start a few arguments:

    We can probably agree that Nadal at his best would beat a fit and firing Federer on the majority of surfaces. Even on grass, judging by the epoch-defining Wimbledon final of 2008. But could Nadal ever be as great, for as long, as Federer has been? Not a chance.

    We just wanted you to be prepared.

Caroline Wozniacki's Resurgence as a Grand Slam Contender

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    TOM UHLMAN/Associated Press

    Forget about the past three years of tabloid drama surrounding Caroline Wozniacki and her ex-fiance, professional golf champion Rory McIlroy.

    Forget about her future plans to run the 2014 New York City Marathon. Sideshow or not, Wozniacki's tennis has come alive.

    After Wimbledon, Wozniacki won Istanbul and finished Montreal and Cincinnati with quarterfinal and semifinal three-set losses to Serena Williams. It was her composure, defensive work and better aggression that made her look like a new player, or rather closer to the No. 1 form she displayed in the pre-McIlroy years.

    Success at the U.S. Open for Wozniacki will bring greater attention to women's tennis and fill more seats. She is a brand that will attract the casual sports fan, and if she plays A-level tennis, she could indeed challenge the top players for the final weekend of championship rights.

Will ATP Young Guns Keep Climbing or Experience Setbacks?

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    Are they really ready to compete for the U.S. Open title?

    Unless "superstar" is written all over them, more often than not a young player's unexpected success at a major is followed by a flop.

    Take last year's Wimbledon semifinalist Jerzy Janowicz. The talented Pole has world-class weapons, but his subsequent showing at the U.S. Open saw him lose in the first round to qualifier Maximo Gonzalez. (It should be noted that Janowicz was hobbled by a back injury.)

    Can you get back to the semifinals, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov? If Stanislas Wawrinka tanks out, Raonic might be the favorite to get that semifinal spot. Dimitrov is a solid favorite to meet Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. But the first test is to get there.

    Are you ready to shock the world, Nick Kyrgios? He won't be favored to win his first match against veteran Mikhail Youzhny, but if he serves lights-out, he could be in line to win a few more matches with a relatively mediocre draw.

    Could Jiri Vesely outserve and overpower Stanislas Wawrinka in the first round? Wawrinka's success has been checkered by some feeble upsets, so it's not out of the question.

    Dominic Thiem has a chance to advance against Lukas Lacko, but 11th-seeded Ernests Gulbis is the likely second opponent. Beyond that, there's a chance for another win or two if he matures beyond the steady progress he has made this year.

Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska Need to Prove Their Worth

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    Maybe Simona Halep's quick rise to the No. 2 ranking has caused more tennis fans to examine just how she got there. Her streak really began in summer 2013 when she picked off several mid-level tournaments. Couple that with deeper runs at majors, and she has deservedly moved into the upper echelon of tennis.

    But until she wins a major, there will be questions about her potential to be a dominant player. She has fleet footwork, intelligence and a great work ethic, but has been vulnerable to power players like Maria Sharapova. She has also dropped some important big matches in the third set.

    Agnieszka Radwanska has spent a few years in the top five, but has had similar problems driving through the second weekend at majors. She is also a creative shot-maker who plays beautiful tennis, but is still looking for her first Grand Slam title.

    The good news for Radwanska is her recent capture of the Rogers Cup. She also has a nice draw ahead of her, in which she will be the clear favorite to get to the semifinals for a possible showdown with Halep.

    Halep, after benefiting from mild draws in 2014, would have to get through nemesis Sharapova just to escape the quarterfinals. It would be a minor surprise if she won the U.S. Open, despite her No. 2 seed.

Which ATP Veteran Star Will Make a Run at the Title?

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    Andy Murray has sometimes been placed in the company of the Big Three (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic), but it's clear that while he is ahead of the rest of the ATP field in career accomplishments, he is not at the level of his more-esteemed rivals. He is his own level.

    But right now, Murray's level of play is in the same ballpark as Stanislas Wawrinka, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych. Until he wins big matches against the very top players, he must be considered below his form of 2012-13. Will he get to the finals or win the title? Hard to imagine right now, but it's possible.

    Wawrinka has been hot and cold this year, but at his best he is most certainly a contender on hard courts.

    Ferrer logged a finals appearance at Cincinnati and is usually a reliable pick for at least the quarterfinals.

    Berdych has had a few deep runs in majors and his share of winning important matches, but he is also more likely to get bounced when the pressure is high or the wind swirling.

    How about Jo-Wilfried Tsonga? The Frenchman put it all together in Canada and won the Rogers Cup against a murderer's row of Djokovic, Murray, Grigor Dimitrov and Federer. He showed the power, serve and game to be a contender. But was this just another occasional aberration, or will he settle back into his role as a fourth-round or quarterfinals casualty?

More Attention on Maria Sharapova or Eugenie Bouchard?

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    Maria Sharapova has been the biggest brand in women's tennis for several years. She is the sport's incumbent queen of endorsements, money, fame and popularity, in addition to being the highest-paid female athlete in the world for the 10th straight year, according to Forbes.

    Eugenie Bouchard is the heir-in-waiting to the Sharapova crown, at least in terms of fan appeal and popularity. She has armies of followers and endorsements waiting to pile up with impending major wins. She has also progressed very nicely this year, highlighted by her Wimbledon finals appearance.

    Ordinarily, we would continue to give the nod to Sharapova having the bigger impact and greater tournament, but this might not be the case this time around. Sharapova might be worn out from her great spring results, and she could face Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep just to win her quarter of the bracket.

    Bouchard has an easy road to the quarterfinals where Petra Kvitova is not exactly a lock. She might be the more solid bet to reach the semifinals.

Novak Djokovic to Sweep the Fast-Court Majors?

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    Andy Kropa/Associated Press

    There's no question that Novak Djokovic is the top player in the world, and deservedly so with his No. 1 ranking. Even though he is often the favorite, it seems many fans and pundits look in other directions to name the winner. Right now, Roger Federer's work on fast surfaces has made him a popular choice.

    But Djokovic is an extraordinary hard-court player and tennis talent. He is at the peak of his career and has the energy, resilience and championship savvy to be the true favorite. Even a tougher draw than Federer's half should not deter him from winning it allif he plays close to his best level of tennis.

    Imagine if he sweeps Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, the fast-court package that should not be his absolute specialty. He would be set up well for his favorite tournament, the Australian Open, and in the hunt to chase down all four major championships in one year. No one else in tennis has this possibility right now.

    The U.S. Open title would also give Djokovic two or more majors at every venue except the French Open, where Rafael Nadal has defended like no other player at any other time or place in history. Eight majors would put him in the same company as Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and Ivan Lendl. Not too shabby.

    Djokovic is looking for an all-time legacy update with every championship. He's earned that right.

Serena Williams: Slamless or Dominant?

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    Serena Williams has the most titles (five) on the WTA tour in 2014, but if she does not win the U.S. Open, she will be without a major for the first time since 2011. Even if she holds onto the No. 1 ranking through November, it will be a disappointing year unless she holds up the U.S. Open trophy.

    If she wins, the year will be a great success. It's never a bad year with even one major win. The year-end No. 1 ranking will all but rest in her hands, and she will retain her aura of dominance. What's more, her rivals will know she is still the best when healthy and rolling.

    Williams also has a very nice path to the semifinals. Very few players can trouble her, although she has proved vulnerable when many least expect. Perhaps the challenge will be to move through the draw in the first week as she builds up her invincible mentality and power in the second week.

    She would love nothing more than to win major No. 18, matching Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.

Will Roger Federer Get No. 18?

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    There's really nothing else to add to Roger Federer's illustrious career, except more.

    One more U.S. Open title would be his sixth.

    One more major would be his 18th.

    One more time to be the very best tennis player in the world, at age 33. Imagine that.

    Federer showed his mettle and conditioning at Cincinnati by following up a disappointing finals appearance in Canada with an impressive title. His talent and form are not so much in question, at least given the improved efficiency with his bigger racket. Plus, nemesis Rafael Nadal is out of the draw.

    The biggest question is Federer's energy and concentration in big moments. Although his success is well-documented, he has blown a few big matches this year, with inexplicable and aging play at times. He has been a runner-up for big titles too often, so the U.S. Open is a prime chance for redemption.

    Federer has a relatively easy draw and the support of New York's tennis crowds. He knows what to do; he just has to execute better than his opponent seven times to win seven matches and the title.

    One more time for added history, that's all. If he does win, it will be the story of the year with countless more Greatest of All Time (GOAT) articles.

    Rafael Nadal might hasten his comeback.