Our first bite of the Big Apple surveys the state of the principal title threats in the men’s draw—and ranks them.
1. Federer: With his greatest nemesis gone from the outset, the Wimbledon champion can eye an 18th major title confidently following a sensational summer that included a silver medal and a third Masters 1000 title of the season. Having defeated Djokovic at a Wimbledon semifinal and Cincinnati final, Federer has recaptured the momentum in their epic rivalry for the moment as his serve has stifled even the Serb’s sparkling return game. While a loss to Murray in the Olympic gold-medal match raised a few eyebrows, the Swiss never has fallen to the Scot at a major and has lost one total set in their three major finals. Since he does not recover from draining encounters as well as he once did, Federer will hope to avoid the trap of a long Saturday semifinal followed by a Sunday final. His greatest challenge might lie in weathering the unexpected pitfalls of the early rounds, where Benneteau came within two points of toppling him at Wimbledon. Whereas most of his leading rivals enter New York with at least one nagging injury to cloud their minds, Federer looks as fit and agile as he ever has since his glorious peak.
2. Djokovic: Leaving London empty-handed not once but twice this summer, the defending champion regained some of his momentum by cruising through a depleted Rogers Cup field and combining that title with a Cincinnati runner-up trophy for the second straight year. As Djokovic noted, the US Open favors his game slightly more than the conditions in Cincinnati, and he has reached at least the semifinals there in every year since 2007, which makes it his most consistent major. Less auspicious is his long history against Federer there. A 2012 final between the top two men would mark their sixth consecutive US Open collision, with the older man either winning or holding multiple match points in all six. During his charmed season last year, Djokovic escaped a seemingly inevitable defeat against the Swiss with a burst of timely magic, but he has not found that magic often since the Australian Open. Still, he has lost only one match this year to someone outside the top four, and he never has lost to Murray in the best-of-five format.
3. Murray: The Olympics gold medalist took a key step forward with that triumph on home soil, coming on the heels of consecutive victories over Djokovic and (an admittedly weary) Federer. Perhaps to tweak his English fans, Murray has labeled the US Open his favorite major, and he generally shines most on hard courts. In the last Olympic year, his fitness carried him through a draw of players battered physically and dulled mentally by the exhausting summer, until Federer halted him in the final. Three of Murray’s four losses in major finals have come against the Swiss, so one wonders how much his victory in the gold-medal match will compensate for those setbacks should they meet again. Outside two losses to Djokovic at the Australian Open, one lopsided and one very tight, he has competed reasonably well against the Serb while winning his share of their meetings on North American hard courts. A knee injury hampered the Scot during the last two Masters 1000 tournaments, however, and he can ill afford any threat to his mobility on these fast courts.
4. Del Potro: Three long years ago, he won the title here before fading into an injury-addled lull from which he may have emerged with a bronze medal. The Tower of Tandil had generated few headlines since 2009 while losing every completed match that he played against top-three opponents, so his thrilling semifinal against Federer and ensuing victory over Djokovic hinted at a second breakthrough. At his best, Del Potro can penetrate these courts at ease with his flat cross-court forehand and movement surprisingly effective for his height, but an ominous left wrist injury may blunt his power on key points. When he injured his right wrist, the former champion lost confidence in his weapons, and this less significant injury appears to have reduced his faith in his backhand. Del Potro has not defeated Federer since that memorable final at the 2009 US Open, and he never has solved Djokovic on an outdoor hard court. But the best-of-five format gives him time to find his groove, lose it, and find it again, while a seven-round tournament allows him to develop a rhythm as he plays his way into the fortnight.
5. Tsonga: Just when he appeared to have turned around his season with a Roland Garros quarterfinal and Wimbledon semifinal, he walked into a fire hydrant in Toronto and withdrew from Cincinnati with a lacerated knee. The drama of nearly upsetting Djokovic at his home major appeared to have reinvigorated Tsonga for the grass season, which culminated in an epic victory over Raonic and a silver medal in doubles. More reliant on momentum than most elite players, he has struggled to sustain his consistency as injuries have troubled him. Under the bright lights of New York, the extroverted Tsonga should entertain audiences seeking a spectacle and earn the crowd support that often helps him to build an inspired charge. Nevertheless, the Frenchman has not recorded a win over a top-four opponent this year and too frequently wanders in focus across the course of five sets. At last year’s US Open, an exciting but inefficient five-set victory over Fish left him listless a round later for a highly anticipated clash with Federer that fizzled.
The rest: After a strong five-month span to start the year, Berdych has a losing record since the grass season began and never has left an impact on the US Open. But he has reached a final at a fast-court major before (Wimbledon 2010), where he defeated both of the current top two men, so they can neglect him at their peril. Delighted to see no Nadal in New York, having lost his last 11 meetings to him, Berdych might meet another Spaniard in the quarterfinal against whom he would fancy his chances much more. Although he has recorded the best season of his career in 2012, including five titles, Ferrer may have peaked with the last of them earlier this summer in Sweden. He looked lackluster in early losses at the Olympics and Cincinnati to players clearly below his quality, so the assurance of not facing a leading contender until the semifinals may mean little. Remaining in the top eight seeds with Nadal’s withdrawal, the ninth-seeded Tipsarevic battled to the quarterfinals here last year but has impressed only sporadically this year. As for home hopes, veterans Roddick and Fish aim to deliver one last statement as they slide towards retirement, perhaps a second-week appearance or a gallant effort over a top-ranked opponent. Their compatriot Isner has more time with which to create memories of his own, and even more belongs to rising Canadian star Raonic. Armed with overpowering serves, either could furrow the brow of a top seed on courts that suit their strengths.
We return on Wednesday to complete a similar survey of the leading ladies.