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The Big Apple's ready for its Open

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Okay, we're almost certain that a Williams sister will win the upcoming U.S. Open, but who do we like on the men's side? I'll try to handicap the field for the world's richest tennis tournament.

Serena Williams has already captured the French Open and Wimbledon this year and maybe she would have taken the Aussie Open too had an injury not forced her out of the event back in January. Venus Williams has won the last two U.S. Opens after Serena reigned supreme in New York in 1999, so I don't think we need John Nash to figure out which family is likely to boast another U.S. Open champion at Flushing Meadows over the next few weeks.

But the men's draw is a slightly different story, since there are no Williams sisters, brothers or otherwise in the deep field.

Arthur Ashe Stadium
High atop Arthur Ashe Stadium
Three different men have hoisted Grand Slam hardware this year, but of the three, only Lleyton Hewitt has a legitimate, if not overwhelming, shot at titling in the Big Apple. Thomas Johansson shocked all by winning the Australian Open seven months ago, but he has played mostly poor tennis since then and may even skip the U.S. Open due to a nagging shoulder injury. Albert Costa stunned the tennis establishment by prevailing at the French Open in June, but he, like Johansson, has basically been a non-factor since claiming his first-ever "major." Hewitt raced to his first Wimbledon championship in July and has been ranked No. 1 in the world since winning it all at last year's U.S. Open, so he'll obviously be the favorite at the '02 edition. Hewitt just seems to be able to dig down a little bit deeper than everyone else right now.

Hewitt hasn't been dominant this year, but he's still been better than anybody else out there, as evidenced by his first-place position in the Champions Race. The controversial, if not unlikable, star can expect his stiffest competition to come from fellow hardcourt stalwarts like 2000 U.S. Open champion Marat Safin, two-time winner Andre Agassi, laser-serving Andy Roddick, and German hopeful Tommy Haas.

The imposing Safin's typically solid at the Slams, but, the 2000 Open aside, he often loses his focus at crunch time, like his mental meltdown against Johansson in the this year's Aussie Open final.

Agassi still likes to do it all from the baseline, as does the back-of-the- court-loving Hewitt, but the only problem there is that Hewitt's 21 years old and Agassi's 32. You can't like the math in that equation, as long matches over a two-week span would have to favor a much-younger performer.

I don't believe that Roddick is quite ready for his breakthrough, but he'll be among the ones to beat on the hardcourts at the USTA National Tennis Center. The teen's cannon-like serve should carry him into the second week, at which point he would no longer be a teen, thanks to an August 30 birthday that will propel the Nebraska native into his 20s.

It's hard to call the talented Haas a darkhorse, considering he's currently ranked No. 3 in the world, but you have to consider the fact that he's never reached a Grand Slam final, and he's had an up-and-down campaign in 2002. I question his "major" mettle.

Arthur Ashe Statue
A general view at sunset of the Arthur Ashe Statue and Stadium during the US Open.
Sure, I could sit here and talk about Tim Henman, Roger Federer and the fading Pete Sampras, but why bother. I don't believe that any one of the three will be left standing after two weeks of action in the Apple. Henman and Federer always run into the proverbial wall, while Sampras (as we all know) hasn't won a single tournament since Wimbledon 2000. That's over two years ago! Davide Sanguinetti owns more titles than Sampras during that span.

The four-time U.S. Open champion Sampras will need a favorable draw (to say the least) if he has any hopes of reaching the quarters in NYC.

The Energizer battery that is Hewitt destroyed a worn-out Sampras in last year's U.S. Open final, Sampras' second straight championship match in Flushing. The American great was dismantled by Safin in the 2000 final, a match that appeared to start Sampras' slide.

Last year's Open, on the men's side, was highlighted by an Agassi-Sampras quarterfinal showdown, surprisingly won by Sampras in four tiebreak sets. Will the American legends meet again this year? Stay tuned.

Federer possesses that silky-smooth game, but he's an immensely-disappointing 3-3 at the Slams this season, including losses in has last three matches, two of which came in the opening rounds in Paris and Wimbledon.

The women's story is a bit more cut and dry. Put your money on Serena (cut) or Venus (dry), as the sisters have accounted for four of the last five, six of the last nine, and seven of the last 12 Slam titles. The two made history a year ago by staging the first-ever all-sibling U.S. Open final, won by Venus in straight sets.

The sisters, who have combined for the last three U.S. Open titles, will be seeded 1-2 at this year's fortnight, so don't be surprised when they clash in a third straight Grand Slam final and a fourth major in five such events. At least one of the sisters has appeared in four of the last five U.S. Open finals.

Yes, the sisters will be challenged by the likes of Aussie Open champion Jennifer Capriati, former U.S. Open titlist Lindsay Davenport, and perhaps last week's Montreal winner Amelie Mauresmo, but I wouldn't hold my breath, and you shouldn't either.

Capriati hasn't won a tournament since nailing down a second straight Melbourne title in January, and Davenport, although extremely powerful and always dangerous, is still on the mend from knee surgery and hasn't lifted a trophy since last fall. She's not quite in Grand Slam shape, but should roll into the second week.

Outside of Davenport, only Capriati can realistically trade bullets with the Williamses. But the boorish Capriati has been unable to "seal the deal" in her last 10 events, with her most-recent setback coming against the talented Mauresmo in the Montreal final. Mauresmo also ousted Capriati at Wimbledon this summer.

Yes, I could sit here and write about former U.S. Open champion Martina Hingis, two-time winner Monica Seles, Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin, Jelena Dokic, Daniela Hantuchova, etc., etc., etc., but Hingis is still fighting her way back from ankle surgery; Seles has been slowed by a foot injury; and the other women on this list have just been too inconsistent to record seven straight wins in the "City That Doesn't Sleep." The city should be able to catch up on some sleep during the first week of the women's draw, as most of the top players typically post lopsided win after lopsided win at the sprawling tennis complex in Queens.

This year's U.S. Open will mark the first one since last year's terrorist attacks stunned the nation and almost brought New York to its knees just two days after the 2001 Open concluded. An opening ceremony will reflect the brotherhood of athletes and the international spirit of tennis by recognizing the more than 70 nations from which players flock to Flushing.

There will also be a gala "U.S. Open Welcomes the World to New York" spectacular in Ashe Stadium on opening night, celebrating all that is great about New York City. And each evening throughout the fortnight, the USTA will recognize a "local hero," people or organizations who have contributed to the city's rebuilding process in a unique/noteworthy way.

The Open gets underway on Monday.

Scott Riley
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