The Open's wide open

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Who's gonna win the U.S. Open titles next month?

Your guess is as good as mine.

The bulldog that is Andre Agassi looked like a clear-cut favorite a few weeks ago, but he's struggled since claiming a title in Los Angeles last month. While on the women's side, it looks like a coin toss between a pack of powerful Americans -- Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Davenport, and Serena Williams. Belgian Kim Clijsters is my darkhorse.

The Australian Open champion Agassi had been playing like the wizard of hardcourts this season before hitting the proverbial wall at Tennis Masters Series events in Montreal and Cincinnati, suffering back-to-back opening-round losses (Ivan Ljubicic and Gaston Gaudio, respectively). And in all likelihood, he'll have to get past a pair of red-hot stars in Gustavo "Guga" Kuerten and Patrick Rafter if he wants to reign supreme in New York.

Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi looked like a clear-cut favorite a few weeks ago, but he's struggled since claiming a title in Los Angeles last month.
The French Open champion Kuerten, of course, is the well-documented "King of Clay," but the dirtmaster general has also been playing some high-quality hardcourt tennis, as evidenced by a stunningly-easy 6-1, 6-3 victory over the equally-as-popular Rafter at last week's Cincy final. Maybe it should come as no surprise when Kuerten captures an event as the top seed, but we all know Guga attained his lofty world ranking by getting fat during the clay-court season. True, he did title at Indy and the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup last year, but those runs had been his only non-clay titles heading into this current campaign.

Rafter has been red-hot recently, yet has no titles to show for it. He's reached three straight finals, and come up empty each time. The humble Aussie star lost to miracle man Goran Ivanisevic in the epic Wimbledon final in July; gave way to journeyman Andrei Pavel in Montreal earlier this month; and crumbled against Kuerten in Cincy. But maybe he'll breakthrough at Flushing Meadows, where he claimed his only Grand Slam tournament championships, back-to-back, in 1997-98.

We know Andre and Pat know how to win in New York, but will it be Kuerten's turn to take a bite out of the Big Apple in 2001?

On the ladies' side, Venus (2000), Serena (1999) and Davenport (1998) have already titled at the Open, but the native-New Yorker Capriati should have something to say this year, having never titled in her backyard. Wouldn't "Cappy" love to add that coveted crown to her Australian and French Open championships this year?

Venus will be the favorite in a couple of weeks, but Capriati has already won 2-of-3 Slams this season; the 2000 U.S. Open runner-up Davenport is fresh off an impressive showing/championship near L.A.; Serena is always dangerous (if the part-time tennis player can cut down on the errors); and Clijsters recently outdueled Davenport for Bank of the West Classic hardware at Stanford and gave the re-born Capriati everything she could handle in the French Open final in June, including a gut-wrenching 12-10 final set in South Paris. And the dangerous Clijsters loves playing on the fast surfaces, such as the Open's DecoTurf II.

No, I did not forget the apparently-fading Martina Hingis, the not-fit-enough Monica Seles or the diminutive-upstart Justine Henin. I just feel they have no shot to run the table in NYC.

Martina Hingis
Martina Hingis hasn't claimed a Grand Slam tourney since the 1999 Aussie Open.
(Photo by Empics)

Let's not forget, the "Swiss Miss" hasn't claimed a Grand Slam tourney since the Aussie Open...the 1999 Aussie Open! That's 10 such tourneys if you're counting. Hingis was this year's Aussie Open runner-up to Capriati. And Seles, well, her Grand Slam days are well behind her -- with her last Slam coming in Melbourne 5 1/2 years ago. The 5-foot-6 Henin made it all the way to this year's Wimbledon final (where she lost to Venus), but don't expect that same run at the National Tennis Center. Henin's gritty and talented, but doesn't possess the same power as Venus, Capriati, Davenport or Serena.

With Clijsters representing my darkhorse among the women, my darkhorse among the men would have to be athletic Swiss Roger Federer. No, he's not Agassi, Kuerten or Rafter, yet, but I think he will be soon enough. The giant-killer stopped Pete Sampras' remarkable run at Wimbledon, and will soon be a giant in his own right when he learns how to properly construct a point.

Expect the "Fed" to be a force in Flushing for the next decade.

I know it's early yet, but I favor Agassi and the reigning champion Venus to complete an American sweep at "America's Open," which swings into action August 27. If the ageless Agassi can turn the trick for a third time, he'd become the first over-30 men's Open champion since Jimmy Connors (31) 18 years ago.

As for the four-time U.S. Open champion Sampras, he's still lookin' for his first title of any kind since Wimbledon 2000 -- nearly 14 months ago. He may have one more Open run in him, but then again, he may not.

And wouldn't Rafter like to go out in style, with his possible retirement looming at season's end.

As for Rafter's fellow Aussie -- Lleyton Hewitt -- he has yet to claim a major title -- Grand Slam or Masters Series -- amid all the hype over the last few years.

One thing I can assure you is that hot-headed Russian Marat Safin will not repeat in New York this year. He's been basically brutal from the word go this season, having not even sniffed a Slam title, or any other title for that matter.

Safin hasn't done much of anything on the courts since soundly whipping Sampras in last year's U.S. Open final.

And don't buy into all the Roddick hype just yet. He's still too young and unseasoned to win seven matches at a Slam...but then again, so was a guy named Sampras in 1990.

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