After an eventful early summer on the clay and grass courts of Europe, soon the world's top players will return to North America for the hardcourt swing of the tennis tour.
What can we expect from the coming months? If current news stories are anything to go by, there will be a few riveting story lines to keep tennis fans engaged.
The main protagonists, of course, will be Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Federer is currently on paternity leave in Switzerland, awaiting the birth of his first child with wife Mirka. No one is sure of the exact date of the new arrival, but it's certain that tennis will be off-limits for the new dad for several more weeks to come.
It's expected that Montreal, the first Masters 1000 event of the US Open Series, will be lacking the current World No.1 as he practices diaper-changing and readjusts to playing tennis with a new level of tiredness and new title—Dad.
Hopes are high for a re-appearance in the following 1000 event in Cincinnati; although if the baby arrives late, this too may be off the table. How much practice or match preparation Federer receives is up in the air, widening the prospects for the US Open at the end of August.
Nevertheless, Federer no longer has a suffocating sense of pressure or extreme expectation on his shoulders after his record-shattering 15th Grand Slam title victory at Wimbledon this July—it's unlikely that he will be heavily impacted by any negative US Open Series results.
Instinctive playing at Flushing Meadows could bring out a new form of the old Federer...watch out opponents?
Rafael Nadal has recently stated his intentions to return to competition from extensive rest in Montreal. He has much to prove.
Although he has experienced a rare tennis luxury of time off in the middle of the season, to rest and replenish his emotional and physical reserves, especially the patellar tendonitis that has devilishly plagued him in recent months. However, it's yet to be proven if hard courts will provide the best medicine for playing his way back into competitive tennis.
Nadal has always talked up his prospects at Flushing Meadows, but even as No.1 or No.2 in the world, no one can ignore the feeling that tiredness, exhaustion, and injury as a result of a gruelling first half season timetable has hampered the Spaniard's chances in New York. Add to this, the opinion that hardcourt success, especially in two-week Majors, have always been slightly out of Nadal's reach.
But in February, part of that argument evaporated. Nadal pushed himself hard to come out victorious in Melbourne at the Australian Open, taking out fellow Spaniard Fernando Verdasco in a five-hour, five-set marathon in the semifinals, then Federer in another five-set epic final.
With this victory, Nadal had won a Slam on all surfaces. He could finally be seen as a true contender for hardcourt tournaments and most crucially, the US Open.
After an extended break (and hopefully, rested body and mind), Nadal may prove difficult to beat throughout the summer.
When we eventually see Nadal take to the court for the first time in months, expect the same voracious appetite for success as before; but with the added factor of a quiet uncertainty and doubt over his physical capabilities in the coming weeks.
There is more possible excitement along the road to the US Open too, highlighted by the sheer depth and talent within the field on hardcourts this year. Practically all matches between now and the Open final could potentially be upsets.
Andy Murray, the current World No.3, is a consistent threat for a final or semifinal position in every tournament that he enters. He made his biggest appearance in his career so far at the US Open last year, where he beat Nadal in five sets in the semifinals to reach his first Major final (where he lost to a newly-energised Federer).
Murray, a former US Open Junior champion, has always stated that his favourite slam is the US Open, so anticipate another exciting run deep into the Slam.
Andy Roddick has always been a dangerous force on cement (he won the US Open in 2003 and reached the final in 2006). With a renewed sense of importance, confidence, and skill, he is an essential man in the field.
The fact that he pushed Federer so close on grass in the recent Wimbledon Final could prove ominous for the Swiss or any other Roddick opponent in the coming weeks.
Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin Del Potro, and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga are other big-name threats to the Federer-Nadal-Murray hardcourt hegemony. With powerful groundstrokes and the ability to illuminate the court with acts of beauty and talent, they are sure to have a successful summer.
Novak Djokovic is the current forgotten man of tennis, but he has been successful at the US Open and on the American hardcourts in previous years. A semifinal, final or win in the warm-up tournaments could be just the confidence booster that he needs.
Juan Martin Del Potro's four week, four victory achievement last summer must not be underestimated either. Del Potro is always a dangerous opponent and an outstanding day for him could create a tumultuous upset.
What about Marat Safin? How sweet would it be, nine years after his US Open victory against Pete Sampras and in the final Major of his career, for him to be the success story of the summer.
Finally...an underdog, Gilles Simon. The Frenchman has fallen off the radar somewhat since his exploits on the hardcourts last summer where he reached the latter stages of several tournaments, including 1000s. He is another player, that given the right mental status and right set of circumstances, could make the tennis headlines.
There are many variables for which to account in the coming weeks. All that is certain is that by the end of September, another name will be inscribed into the history books.
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