Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Without Pete Sampras or Serena Williams on hand, the U.S. Open will be without both of its defending champions for the first time in 32 years when action gets underway Monday at Flushing Meadows.
The legendary Sampras hasn't lifted a tennis racquet since capturing his fifth U.S. Open and 14th overall Grand Slam crown last September and appears to be all but retired, while the remarkable Serena recently underwent knee surgery that will prevent her from competing for a sixth Grand Slam championship in seven tries.
America's Open hasn't been without either defending champion since 1971 (Ken Rosewall, Margaret Smith Court).
So who will prevail this year among the men, and will the women's title (as it has been four years running) still be corralled by somebody named Williams?
There are several favorites on the men's side, most notably the scorching-hot Andy Roddick, top-seeded and two-time winner Andre Agassi and Wimbledon titlist Roger Federer.
Roddick is a brilliant 20-1 on hardcourts this season, including back-to-back Masters Series titles in Montreal and Cincinnati.
What can you say about the surging Roddick? He's won five of his last eight tournaments, including four under new (and former Agassi) coach Brad Gilbert, to grab the lead in the tight ATP Champions Race for the first time in his young career. The huge-serving "A-Rod" is a sizzling 30-2 since employing Gilbert and has posted a brilliant 20-1 mark on hardcourts, including back-to- back Masters Series victories in Montreal and Cincinnati, a feat that hadn't been done since Patrick Rafter in 1998.
Roddick and Federer lead the ATP with five tourney wins apiece this season, but Federer is the only one of the two to hoist a Grand Slam trophy (Wimbledon). Can the 20-year-old Roddick breakthrough for his first "major" championship? Don't forget, he hasn't reached a Grand Slam final since turning pro in 2000, but he has appeared in a pair of Slam semis this year, with disappointing losses coming against Rainer Schuettler in Melbourne and Federer at Wimby. Roddick reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2001 and 2002 after suffering a first-round setback in his 2000 debut in Flushing.
Surprisingly, the perennial favorite that is Agassi is seeking his first title of any kind since stopping Roddick in a popular all-American final in Houston way back in April.
The 33-year-old Agassi already owns one Grand Slam title this season, as he nailed down a fourth Australian Open championship back in January to compile his eighth overall major crown. He won the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1999 and recorded runner-up finishes to Sampras in New York in 1990, 1995 and last year, when he gave way to his long-time rival in the dream final at Ashe Stadium.
Agassi, who still leads the official world rankings (the Singles Entry system), could roll again at the Open with his nemesis (Sampras) on the sidelines. Unfortunately, he still has to get past a plethora of younger stars.
Are clay-court specialists Juan Carlos Ferrero and Guillermo Coria threats to go all the way in the Big Apple? I don't think so.
The French Open champion Ferrero has been fairly solid on hardcourts this season (15-7), but has been just mediocre (3-3) on the surface over the past few weeks. Coria can play on hardcourts, but, like Ferrero, has yet to title on the surface this year, while going a respectable 12-7. Coria has failed to advance beyond the quarterfinals on hardcourts this season, while Ferrero has only gone beyond the quarters at one hardcourt event, a season-opening affair in Sydney (lost to Hyung-Taik Lee?) back in January.
Are Ferrero and Coria one-trick (clay) ponies? Perhaps.
Don't be surprised to see Federer capture a second straight Slam, as the super Swiss can impress on any surface, as evidenced by his five wins on four different coverings in 2003. He's 27-8 on hardcourts this year, including titles in Marseille and Dubai, but, needless to say, Marseille and Dubai are not New York.
Federer, despite the recent Wimbledon success, still needs to show some more consistency at the Slams. He's never gotten past the fourth round in Flushing, including round-of-16 losses in 2001 and 2002.
Who are the darkhorses, you say? There are decent chances for the likes of Aussies Mark Philippoussis and Lleyton Hewitt. A healthy Philippoussis, the 1998 U.S. Open runner-up, was July's Wimbledon runner-up to Federer, while Hewitt, although struggling right now, is, of course, a two-time year-end No. 1 and captured the Open in 2001.
Hewitt has failed to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal this year, culminating with a shocking first-round loss at Wimbledon where the fiery star had been the defending champ. Will he be able to regain his top form in time for the Big Apple Slam? I think he'll need a favorable draw.
Some other darkhorses would include the likes of the Aussie Open finalist Schuettler, Carlos Moya, David Nalbandian, Sebastien Grosjean, Jiri Novak, Sjeng Schalken and Fernando Gonzalez.
Are there any other Americans (Mardy Fish, James Blake, etc.) with a shot outside of Roddick and Agassi? No!
On the ladies' side, with Serena out of the picture, I believe only five women have a legitimate chance to win seven straight matches in New York, most notably (and in no particular order) current world No. 1 Kim Clijsters, French Open champion Justine Henin-Hardenne and two-time U.S. Open winner Venus Williams.
The high-flying Clijsters co-leads the WTA Tour with six titles this season, but she's never won a Slam and has never advanced beyond the quarters in Flushing, including a fourth-round exit there last year.
Henin-Hardenne owns six titles this year, including the French Open championship.
Is she due? Can the amicable Clijsters take the final step in her progression as a tennis player by winning her first Slam? The top seed would clearly have her hands full with the white-hot Henin-Hardenne, who beat Clijsters in the French Open final and has won four of her last six tournaments, including a title match victory over Clijsters in San Diego earlier this month.
Henin-Hardenne is currently the hottest female player on the planet, but, like Clijsters, she's never moved past the fourth round in New York, suffering fourth-round losses in each of the last three years. Also, the lightning-fast DecoTurf 2 surface at the USTA National Tennis Center is not the diminutive Belgian's favorite.
Outside of Clijsters and Henin-Hardenne, you'd have to look at former champions Venus and Lindsay Davenport, as well as Jennifer Capriati. Venus won back-to-back Opens in 2000 and 2001 and was last year's runner-up to her little sister, but the older Williams has been plagued by leg and abdominal injuries in recent weeks and hasn't played any tennis since her runner-up finish to Serena at Wimbledon early last month. The abdominal problem has taken plenty of pace off Venus' typically-lethal serve and powerful groundstrokes.
The former world No. 1 Venus hasn't claimed a major championship since besting Serena in the 2001 U.S. Open final, and she's given way to Serena in five of the last six Grand Slam finals. Is Venus due, or past her prime? Without Serena in the draw, I'd have to say she's due. Venus is a brilliant 35-4 lifetime at the Open.
The 1998 champion Davenport has a slight chance in New York, but she just doesn't appear fit enough right now to win seven matches in the Apple, not to mention she's a combined 0-6 this year against Clijsters (0-4), Henin- Hardenne (0-1) and Venus (0-1). Ouch!
I almost feel obligated to say the slipping Capriati has a chance at the Open, considering she's a former world No. 1 and three-time major champion, but let's face it, she hasn't hoisted any hardware in 19 months. But weren't we also saying that about Sampras heading into last year's Open?
One other American, Chanda Rubin, could have a shot in New York, but I wouldn't hold my breath, since she's never advanced beyond the fourth round in Flushing and hasn't appeared in a major semifinal since the 1996 Aussie Open, which also marks her only trip to a Grand Slam semi.
Are there any other women with a shot in NYC? Come on. Maybe Amelie Mauresmo, but she's been battling more injuries (as usual) than opponents this season. The Frenchwoman is, however, the only player to beat both Serena and Venus this year. How 'bout that.
Maybe I can pick one of the young Russians to breakthrough, considering they boast seven of the top-30 women on the planet. But then again...maybe I won't. The Anastasia Myskinas, Vera Zvonarevas, Nadia Petrovas, etc. will have to wait until at least next year.
I'm pickin' Roddick (why not?) to rule for the men and Henin-Hardenne to title among the women.
FYI: For the first time ever, both the men's and women's titlists will pocket $1 million apiece at the Open.
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