Can struggling Federer defend his honor in NYC?

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The fourth and final tennis major of 2008 will get underway next week, as reigning four-time champion Roger Federer will be on hand to defend his title at the U.S. Open. For the women, on the other hand, there will definitely be a new champ, as Justine Henin will not return for a defense after retiring from the sport earlier this year.

The top seeds in Flushing will be high-flying Wimbledon, French Open and Olympic gold medal titlist Rafael Nadal and Roland Garros winner Ana Ivanovic. Nadal will be looking for his first-ever U.S. Open crown, as will Ivanovic, who has performed in three of the last six Grand Slam finals, going 1-2. The Serbian star was this year's Aussie Open runner-up to Maria Sharapova, and handled surging Russian Dinara Safina in the French Open finale.

Federer hasn't lost at the U.S. Open since the fourth round back in 2003, but Nadal looks like the true favorite heading in this time around. The muscular Spaniard has won 38 of his last 39 matches overall, including titles in the last three big events on tour -- Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Beijing Games -- on three different surfaces -- clay, grass and hardcourt.

New No. 1 Rafael Nadal has already won the French Open, Wimbledon and an Olympic gold medal this year.
On Monday of this week, the reigning four-time French Open champion Nadal became the 24th man to reach No. 1, as he finally supplanted the mighty Federer, who'd reigned supreme for a record 237 consecutive weeks since the first week of February in 2004. Nadal had been chasing Federer from the No. 2 spot for a record 160 straight weeks, but he's now the fifth lefthander (joining Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Thomas Muster and Marcelo Rios) and third-ever Spaniard (joining Carlos Moya and Juan Carlos Ferrero) to reach the apex of men's tennis.

Federer still owns an awesome 12 Grand Slam titles, but he hasn't closed in on the great Pete Sampras since going 7-0 at last year's U.S. Open, where he edged out world No. 3 Serbian star Novak Djokovic in the final. Since then, Djokovic has corralled an Aussie Open championship, and Nadal secured majors in Paris and at Wimbledon.

Sampras is the all-time leader with his 14 Grand Slam titles, a mark that many people thought Federer would equal, perhaps even surpass, heading into this '08 season (including yours truly). Sampras also holds the record at 286 total weeks (not in succession) at No. 1.

Ana Ivanovic hopes to land in a fourth Grand Slam final in seven tries.
FYI, when it comes to singles tennis, Federer failed to pick up a medal of any kind last week in Beijing, where Nadal claimed gold, Fernando Gonzalez earned silver and Djokovic pocketed bronze. The classy Swiss did, however, manage to win doubles gold, playing alongside fellow Top-10 countryman Stan Wawrinka.

The dare I say "struggling" Federer will limp into NYC having lost four of his last eight matches, including a heartbreaking setback against Rafa in that exquisite Wimbledon finale last month, when the Spaniard prevailed in five high-quality sets (practically in the dark at the end) at the famed All England Club, where Federer had been the reigning five-time champ and riding a remarkable 40-match winning streak. When Nadal finally came out on top in the longest (and greatest) Wimbledon final of all-time, he became the first man since Bjorn Borg 28 years ago to capture the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. You're always in pretty good company when you're being mentioned in the same sentence as Borg.

And it would appear as though Federer hasn't quite recovered since the stunning turn of events at the Big W.

I'm not sure that I have.

Nadal also flat-out spanked the Fed in June's French Open final, as the Swiss, predictably, fell to Rafa for a third straight year in the Roland Garros title tilt.

Can Nadal strike again, this time in Gotham, where he's never advanced beyond the quarterfinals (2006)?

Did You Know?: Rafael Nadal is the only man in the Open Era (since 1968) to win an Olympic gold medal and at least one Grand Slam event title in the same year.

Former No. 1 Roger Federer is the reigning four-time U.S. Open champ.
Nadal, Federer and Djokovic won't be the only studs in the Big Apple, as they can expect strong opposition from the likes of speedy Spaniard David Ferrer, steady Russian Nikolay Davydenko, surging Brit Andy Murray, American crowd favorites Andy Roddick and James Blake, the Olympic silver medalist Gonzalez and scalding-hot Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, who has won his last four tournaments.

Ferrer soared all the way to the U.S. Open semis a year ago and was last year's Tennis Masters Cup runner-up to Federer, while Davydenko usually hangs around until the second week at the majors, but just doesn't seem to have enough firepower to break all the way through. He made it to the semis in Flushing the last two years.

Murray has been playing Top-5-type tennis in recent months and is the real deal if he can keep his head on straight. The 21-year-old Scotsman has the game...he just needs to prove it at the majors.

The former top-ranked Roddick is the last man not named Federer to run the table in New York (2003), but the rocket-launching American hasn't captured a major since his run in the Apple five years ago.

The Yonkers native Blake plays his best major tennis in New York, where he's reached the quarters in two of the last three years, but winning a tournament that features Nadal, Federer and Djokovic will prove to be too much for the former Harvard student. Blake stunned Federer in Beijing last week, but then lost to "Gonzo" in the semis at the Summer Games. Another near-miss for Jimbo.

The 2008 Olympic silver and 2004 bronze medalist Gonzalez can beat anybody on one of his really good days, but going 7-0 at a major seems like a tall order for the mostly one-dimensional slugger from Chile.

Sorry, Gonzo.

Novak Djokovic captured the Australian Open title back in January.
Del Potro, meanwhile, is almost as hot as Nadal right now. The skinny 6-foot-6 Argentine is flying high with a 19-match winning streak, with titles coming in his last four outings. He hasn't done much at the majors, but he's never entered a Slam on this kind of roll (how many people have?) and is still only 19 years old. He's playing at a Top-5 level heading into the Open, but only time will tell if he's played too much tennis leading up to the Open.

Back over on the women's side, Ivanovic may be the top seed in New York, but I wouldn't necessarily consider her the favorite. She's among the favorites, for sure, along with fellow Serb Jelena Jankovic, the aforementioned Safina, perennial contender Svetlana Kuznetsova, the intimidating Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, and perhaps even women's Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva. Kuznetsova captured the Open four years ago (by beating Dementieva in an all-Russian final) and succumbed to the future Hall-of-Famer Henin in last year's title match.

The 2006 champion and three-time major titlist Sharapova will skip the Open due to a shoulder injury.

That's too bad.

Ivanovic and Jankovic have combined to give tiny Serbia a hold on the women's No. 1 ranking for the last 11 weeks, as Ivanovic has now held it 10 out of the last 11 weeks, while Jankovic enjoyed a very (very) short stay at the top, just for last week.

In the past couple of years, Jankovic always seems like a threat to win a major, but she still has not been able to get past the semis at the Slams, while Ivanovic has been getting to finals, and, of course, won one earlier this year in Paris.

Safina is arguably the hottest player in women's tennis. The French Open and Olympics runner-up has won 32 of her last 36 matches overall and has already appeared in six finals this season, going 3-3.

Jelena Jankovic is still seeking that elusive first-ever trip into a major final.
And by virtue of her U.S. Open Series win, Safina would claim $2.5 million with a big title in New York.

The reigning two-time Wimbledon champion Venus won back-to-back Opens in 2000 and 2001, and is also a two-time runner-up in New York. She reached the semifinals there a year ago.

The former world No. 1 owns seven career Grand Slam titles, including a whopping five Wimbledon crowns.

The Wimbledon runner-up Serena, herself a former top-ranked star, is also a former two-time U.S. Open champ and was the 2001 runner-up to her older sister. She bested big sis in the 2002 final.

Serena is an eight-time major titlist, which gives the formidable sisters a combined 15 Grand Slam singles titles.

Not too shabby.

Kuznetsova has fared well at the Open, having reached a pair of finals in her last four trips, while Dementieva is a two-time Grand Slam finalist and coming off her surprising gold medal-winning performance in Beijing, where she overcame Safina in an all-too-common all-Russian finale.

Two other women to keep an eye on in Flushing will be Olympic bronze medalist Vera Zvonareva and Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska. The Russian Zvonareva has enjoyed a solid '08 campaign, as has Radwanska, who shocked a then-reigning champion Sharapova in the third round in Flushing last year.

It's that time again. Time to predict some champions.

After barely falling at Wimbledon, I thought I would like Federer to bounce back at the Open. But how can I not pick Rafa here? It will certainly come down to Nadal, Federer and Djokovic, with Nadal getting my vote. Nadal and Federer, as you would expect, could only meet in the final in Flushing.

By the way, Federer has reached 12 of the last 13 Grand Slam finals, going 8-4 since Wimbledon 2005. He's 12-4 in 16 career major finals.

Among the women, it's a little cloudy, but I'm gonna go with Serena. Why not? She's still got the hammer, she's due, and loves the big city lights.

An American woman hasn't captured America's Open since Serena turned the trick six years ago. Her win in '02 gave the United States a fifth straight champion there at the time.

Meanwhile, Roddick is one of only two American men to win the U.S. Open this decade. Sampras was the other, as a No. 17 seed, in 2002.

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