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US Open: WhoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s on form as 2010Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s final Slam looms?
The searing heat of the US Open Series has started to assert itself with a vengeance and the two big tennis Masters of the North American swing hove into view: Toronto and Cincinnati.
Time to look at the runners and riders, those in form and those just off the pace, as they race towards the big prize at Flushing Meadows.
The top three men only enter fray when the starterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s gun gets the Canadian Masters under way next week, but others have played three events since Wimbledon.
How many of them will still be in the frame as the blue, sticky, synthetic courts of this arduous swing take their toll?
And will the clay exponents who made hay while the sun shone still be hot news once the ‘big three’ return, refreshed?
So great has been the dominance of Nadal since the spring that he remains almost 4,000 points ahead of the field.
He has not played since his victory at Wimbledon, so will launch his campaign with rested knees and a relaxed head. This must surely make him better prepared than ever for the US Open. He may even fancy his chances of taking the first Cincinnati title of his career.
The days are long gone when Nadal was considered too baseline-driven for success on the fast, hard courts.
With a vastly improved serve, a highly effective backhand slice, and a willingness to take on the net position, his destiny now is in the durability of his body.
If the knees stay sound, and the draw is favourable (avoiding Tomas Berdych or Robin Soderling in the quarters, Federer in the semis, and Murray in the final, for example), Nadal could reach the US Open final for the first time, and could well go all the way.
Since winning in Dubai in February, DjokovicÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s record on hard courts has not been up to his usual level. He took a late decision to pull out of Los Angeles last week, though he was one of the few top men to play Davis Cup after Wimbledon, and led Serbia to victory over a tough Croatian team.
Djokovic was a finalist in Cincinnati last year and a semi-finalist in the US Open, losing to Federer on both occasions. Whichever of the two comes back stronger may determine who holds the No2 and No3 rankings ahead of New York.
Djokovic has the skill and creativity to make this his second Slam success. The question mark is whether his physical endurance can penetrate enough five-setters to give him the chance. If it can, look for the semis or better for the still-young Serb.
Apart from injured players, Federer and Nadal are the only men in the top 30 to play no tennis before the Canadian Masters.
But while Nadal played a lot of matches in winning three Masters and two Slams on the trot, FedererÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 2010 campaign has involved just 40 matches to NadalÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 52. That said, Federer came into the 2009 hard-court swing with two consecutive Slam titles and two six-week-old daughters, and promptly won Cincinnati and reached the US Open final.
If his leg and back are in good order, he hits the ground running in Toronto, and defends his title in Cincinnati, he should be in good form by New York.
New coach Paul Annacone may also help him tackle the big flat shots of Soderling or Berdych and the high attack to his backhand from Nadal. If so, expect to see Federer in his seventh final. Otherwise, this could be another record-breaking run about to reach its end.
Murray was the first man in the top four to play on the ATP circuit since Wimbledon: He lost in the final of Los Angeles to reigning champion Sam Querrey.
Murray revealed just ahead of that tournament that he had split from coach Miles Maclagan. He then broke his usual Miami training regime to take a late wild card for LA, so his loss might be down to lack of preparation.
Last year, this was one of MurrayÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s best phases, winning in Toronto and reaching the semis in Cincinnati. The US Open is his favourite Slam, and hard courts his best surface. If he can reclaim his uninhibited tennis without the shackles of a coach, he has the wherewithal to win his first Slam.
SoderlingÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s only tournament since Wimbledon was in defence of his Swedish Open title in Bastad. He has, in fact, spurned the hard courts altogether in a truncated schedule, perhaps to avoid a repeat of last year when injury forced his withdrawal from the RogerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Cup.
Soderling has already made his mark on the American hard courts with semi finishes at both Miami and Indian Wells, and he gave Federer a real scare in the US Open last year. If his big power game is in tune, expect at least the quarters and possibly the semis in New York. He could even climb another place in the rankings.
Berdych reached his first Slam final at Wimbledon this year, beating Federer in the quarters and dismissing Djokovic in the semis. On the hard courts, he also reached the quarters in Indian Wells and the final in MiamiÃ¢â‚¬â€taking out Federer and Soderling in the process.
He is the top seed at this weekÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 500 event in Washington, and will surely make the quarters in New York. He may even pound his way to the final. Will he be 2010Ã¢â‚¬â„¢s Juan Martín del Potro? ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s just possible.
Querrey beat Murray to regain his title at last weekÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Farmers Classic in LA, his fourth title of the year from five finals.
He has launched straight into the Legg Mason 500 but must take care not to punish his body out of contention during this arduous phase of the year. If his service percentage is good and he maintains fitness and form, he could reasonably target the quarter-finals in New York.
The rejuvenated, slimline Fish won in Newport and Atlanta last month. He pulled out of LA citing fatigue, but his new-found success won him a seeding in Washington where heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s already reached the quarterfinals. But the rigors of Flushing Meadows look a step too far too soon in his striking comeback.
After Indian Wells and Miami, the US Open title looked a real possibility. Things have taken a slide since then, with tough matches in Atlanta not boding well. His chances of a 2003 title repeat seem slim.
Juan MartÃƒÂn del Potro
Even if he does make it back in time for the US Open, the title-holder will struggle to make any impact following his extended injury break.
The Russian will need to find his early 2010 form to make inroads in New York, but judging from recent matches, he will fall just as early as last year (R16).
He has won two titles in the last three weeks, but has only ever reached an ATP final on clay and has never played a Masters final. In North America, even with the benefit of seeding, he will do well to reach the quarter-finals.◀ The Sport Review homepageNext story ►
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