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Tennis' plot thickens for Open
Federer is the headliner, but his supporting cast, including a teen sensation, injury-plagued sisters and a feisty underdog, may steal the show.
By KEITH NIEBUHR
Published August 29, 2005
After winning a recent event in Cincinnati, men's No. 1 Roger Federer was asked to assess the field at the upcoming U.S. Open, and his response was vintage Federer.
To the point.
And with a tinge of cockiness.
"The players, I know them all," Federer said. "I've beaten them all."
Well, it's not bragging if it's the truth, right?
During the past two years, Federer has been a nearly unbeatable force on a tour that takes pride in its depth. When the U.S. Open, one of the sport's crown jewels and easily the most prestigious event played on American soil, begins today at the USTA National Tennis Center in New York, the defending champion will enter with a remarkable 64-3 record this year that includes a recent title at Wimbledon. Four of his five Grand Slam titles have come since the start of 2004.
"To see him play is to watch a genius on court," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe.
Federer's dominance, without question, is a major topic of conversation in tennis, but it's certainly not the only story line at the Open. In fact, this year's event arguably is the most anticipated in years because of the numerous plots that have developed. Among the most intriguing questions today are:
Can American Andy Roddick win his second Open? And better yet, can he find a way to bring down Federer? Roddick has not won a major since claiming the 2003 Open, and Federer has been his greatest nemesis. The two have played 11 times overall and Roddick trails the series 10-1, with two of the defeats in Wimbledon finals.
"I guess my game matches up well with his," Federer said recently. "That's my only explanation. I guess I know how to play him, I've got the game to play him. But it's not easy, because if he serves big and takes his chances, let's say like early in the match, he's a great front-runner."
Will sisters Serena and Venus Williams emerge from a season of highs and lows? Serena has been plagued by injuries (ankle, stomach, shoulder and knee), and no one knows what to expect from her game. If she shows up to the Open in shape, look out. If not, she probably won't make it very far. Venus won Wimbledon in dramatic fashion but hasn't played particularly well since. And then there's this: The sisters landed in the same section of the draw, setting up a possible fourth-round meeting.
Can 19-year-old Spanish standout Rafael Nadal continue to amaze? Nadal is 65-9 this year with nine titles, but only one was on a hardcourt surface. His youth could hurt him on tennis' largest stage, but his skills are undeniable. The left-hander's recent win over Andre Agassi, one of the great hardcourt players of this generation, was proof that he's capable of big things in New York. And he's 2-1 against Federer.
Is Kim Clijsters finally ready to win a major? The Belgian star has more victories (27) than any female player in history without a Grand Slam singles title. Clijsters has had a dominant summer and plays her best at hardcourt events, but she faces a difficult path. Her draw includes the Williams sisters and top-seeded Maria Sharapova.
"Kim is playing the best right now," two-time Open champ Tracy Austin said.
Can the American men keep it up? Agassi and Roddick, both of whom had solid summers, aren't the only ones in the hunt. In recent weeks, Americans James Blake, a Tampa resident, and Robby Ginepri have played the best tennis of their careers, and each has to be seen as a viable threat. Both were considered afterthoughts not long ago.
Will the Russian women make their presence felt? For all the hype this group received last year, only Maria Sharapova has been consistently good in 2005. Defending champion Svetlana Kuznetsova is a disappointing 27-14 this year and hasn't won a title. Neither has Elena Dementieva, the 2004 runnerup, or Anastasia Myskina.
Does 35-year-old Andre Agassi have another major title left in the tank? When Agassi slipped earlier this year, there was speculation among some that he might retire. But instead of fading away, Agassi picked his game up and could contend in New York. He's the only one who stepped up and gave Federer a match here a year ago.
"For Andre to win, a lot of things have to go right," McEnroe said. "The weather has to be cool. And he has to get a couple of easy matches early on. His draw is very favorable."
History has shown anything can happen at the Open.
Unknowns have broken through. Aging veterans have discovered the fountain of youth. Teen sensations have made their mark. And, yes, even heavy favorites have been tossed aside.
"This is not a slam dunk for Federer," men's legend John McEnroe said.
SAFIN OUT: Fifth-seeded Marat Safin, the 2000 champion, withdrew Sunday because of an ongoing problem with his left knee. He handed Federer one of his three losses this year, in the semifinals of the Australian Open, en route to winning the event. Bjorn Phau will take his place.