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Roger, Maria look to defend Open crowns

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2007 Grand Slam season will come to a close over the next few weeks, as the U.S. Open gets underway on Monday at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center with the great Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova on hand as defending champions.

The incomparable Federer has won the last three U.S. Opens, and will try to become the first-ever four-peat winner in the Open Era (since 1968) and the first one to do it, period, in over 80 years. The last man to win four straight U.S. championships was the legendary Bill Tilden, who rattled off six consecutive wins from 1920-25. Bill Larned captured the prestigious event five straight times from 1907-11, and Dick Sears nailed down the first seven such championships from 1881-87.

Sharapova reigned supreme a year ago by beating Belgian slugger Justine Henin in straight sets in a marquee women's finale. The 2007 Aussie Open runner-up Sharapova is a two-time major winner in her career, with her other victory coming at Wimbledon three years ago.

The 26-year-old Federer, who's also the reigning Wimbledon and Aussie Open champ, already owns a whopping 11 major titles and is just three shy of the record mark of 14 owned by Hall-of-Famer Pete Sampras. The super Swiss defeated Andy Roddick in four sets in last year's equally-as-marquee men's finale in Flushing.

Roger Federer
Roger Federer will try to become the first man to win four straight U.S. Opens in the Open Era.
The French Open runner-up Federer is fresh off his Masters Series title in Cincinnati, where he handled American James Blake in the final to secure his 50th championship on the ATP. The elegant Swiss now stands alone in ninth place on the all-time titles chart, with the great Ilie Nastase (57) as his next target.

At 26 years, 11 days, Federer became the fifth-youngest player to reach the 50-title plateau. The iconic Bjorn Borg still holds the record at 23 years, 7 months. Jimmy Connors (23 years, 11 months), John McEnroe (25 years, 2 months) and Ivan Lendl (25 years, 7 months) are the only other players ahead of Federer in this particular category.

By the way, half of Federer's 50 titles have come at Grand Slams (11) and Masters Series events (14). He's also won a trio of Masters Cups.

That deserves a wow.

Federer's main competition in New York figures to come from French Open champ and Wimbledon runner-up Rafael Nadal, Montreal Masters titlist Novak Djokovic, the 2003 U.S. Open champion Roddick and perhaps former NYC winner Lleyton Hewitt.

Nadal, of course, is the Fed's top nemesis, going 8-5 lifetime against the swift Swiss. They've split four career matchups on hardcourts, but have never met at a major on the fast surface. The two superstars have also split four meetings this season, none of which have come on the hard stuff.

And as you would imagine when you're talking about the top-two players in the world, Federer and Nadal could only meet in the final at Ashe Stadium next month.

The rapidly-rising Djokovic has already reached a pair of major semis this season, losing to Nadal both times, at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He did, however, run the table in Montreal two weeks ago, beating Roddick, Nadal and Federer in succession. The high-quality Serb became the first man in 13 years to take out the top-three players on the planet in the same tournament. The "Djoker" capped his amazing run in Montreal by dousing Federer in three sets in a vastly entertaining final.

Roddick is always a threat to win a tournament (as long as it's not on red clay). Now having said that, the massive-serving American is a paltry 1-13 lifetime against Federer, including losses in their last nine meetings, dating back to 2003.

The 26-year-old Roddick has appeared in two of the last four U.S. Open finals, and landing in a third in five years is a possibility for the heavy American crowd favorite.

Hewitt won the Open back in 2001 and gave way to Federer in the '04 finale. The two-time major titlist from Adelaide severely pushed Fed in a semifinal in Cincy just last week, as he actually held a lead in the third and final set. Federer managed to come back, however, as he disposed of Hewitt for an 11th straight time, a streak that dates back to '03. And the Swiss is 2-0 in their U.S. Open meetings, with the other victory coming in the '05 semis.

Justine Henin
Justine Henin has reached the final in five of her last six Grand Slams.
Advantage, Federer.

Honorable mention on the men's side comes in the form of Nikolay Davydenko, James Blake and Tommy Haas. Sorry, Fernando Gonzalez, Tommy Robredo and Tomas Berdych.

Davydenko can probably expect a run into the second week in the Big Apple, but he just doesn't seem to have enough weapons to win an event that includes Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Roddick. Does he?

Blake has the game, but just doesn't seem to possess the mental make-up to secure a major. He's never beaten a top-ranked player in his career, and has yet to advance beyond the quarterfinals at any of the Slams.

When Blake succumbed to Federer this past Sunday, Federer improved his recent success against Americans to 35-0. The last American to beat Federer was Roddick, back in '03.

Again...wow.

Haas, like Blake, can play with anybody, but unfortunately, like Blake, he can never seem to seal the biggest of deals.

(Extreme) darkhorses: Mikhail Youzhny, Richard Gasquet, Marcos Baghdatis.

Back on the women's side, the former world No. 1 Sharapova is the defending champ, but doesn't appear to be the favorite at this point.

The current No. 1 Henin, who won the Open in 2003 in addition to her runner-up finish a year ago, looks like the steadiest player heading into New York. She's fresh off her big U.S. Open Series victory in Toronto, and has appeared in the final in five of her last six major events (2-3).

The six-time major champion Henin is the reigning French Open queen, having won at Roland Garros the past three years.

Sharapova, meanwhile, has battled injuries for a good part of this 2007 campaign, and has been fairly inactive heading into this year's Open. She did, however, claim a U.S. Open Series title in San Diego to open up the month and will arrive in NYC as one of the faves.

The 20-year-old Sharapova will try to become the first repeat women's titlist in the Apple since Venus Williams turned the trick in 2000 and 2001.

Andy Roddick
Former champion Andy Roddick has played in two of the last four U.S. Open finals.
Note (a big note): Sharapova's trips to the majors this season have all ended in disaster, as Serena Williams crushed her in the Aussie Open finale; Ana Ivanovic throttled her in the French Open semis; and Venus spanked her in the fourth round at the venerable All England Club.

Ouch!

There are several other contenders for the women's crown in Flushing, including surging Serbs Jelena Jankovic and Ivanovic and the mighty Williams sisters, Serena and Venus.

The world No. 3 Jankovic just gave way to Henin in the Toronto finale and has been having a stellar '07 campaign. She's appeared in seven finals already this year, going 4-3, and landed in the semis at the French Open in June.

Ivanovic, meanwhile, was this year's French Open runner-up to Henin and captured a U.S. Open Series tourney in Los Angeles just two weeks ago. The hard-hitting star also soared all the way into the Wimbledon semifinals last month, only to lose to a resurgent Venus.

If Serena plays in New York, she'll obviously be one of the women to beat. The eight-time major champ surprisingly won the Aussie Open back in January and captured U.S. Open crowns in 1999 and 2002.

Serena has been battling injuries in recent weeks, most notably a sore thumb, but has stated that she expects to perform in New York.

The powerful Serena is a three-time U.S. Open finalist (2-1), with her loss coming at the hands of her big sister back in '01.

Venus, who owns six major titles after capturing a fourth Wimbledon championship last month, is a four-time U.S. Open finalist (2-2), with the losses coming against Martina Hingis in 1997 and Serena in 2002.

FYI, the Williams sisters combined to win the Open four straight years from 1999-2002, and Serena was the last American woman to title in Flushing, in '02.

Honorable mention on the women's side has to go to capable Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova, Anna Chakvetadze and Nadia Petrova. Sorry, Daniela Hantuchova, Wimby runner-up Marion Bartoli and Nicole Vaidisova, who has been slowed by a mono-like illness since Wimbledon.

Kuznetsova captured the Open in 2004 and was last year's Roland Garros runner- up to Henin. Chakvetadze is having a solid '07 season, which already includes no less than four titles, and she reached quarterfinals at the Aussie and French Opens. Petrova can slug with anybody and was the recent runner-up in L.A.

Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova is hoping for a repeat performance in Flushing.
FYI, former world No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo will miss the '07 Open due to injuries. The French star was a two-time major champ last season.

Well, it's about that time again. Time to pick some winners.

How can you go wrong with a Federer selection among the men and an Henin pick among the ladies? Well, obviously you'd be wrong if they didn't win, but I think those two will come out on top in their respective draws in the coming weeks.

The rest of the men's field appears to be gaining some ground on the mighty Fed, but he's still the best player on the globe and is probably on his way to being the best ever (if best-ever is measured by major hardware).

And Henin is not a clear pick among the women...just the best.

Federer is trying to win three major titles in one season for the third time in four years. He'll also try to win Wimbledon and the U.S. Open back-to-back for a fourth straight year. He's already the only player to do it thrice.

The Fed will also try to become the first player in the Open Era to reach all four Grand Slam finals in back-to-back years.

Yet another wow.

If Federer can prevail in Gotham, he would join Connors (5), Sampras (5) and McEnroe (4) as the only four-time U.S. Open winners in the Open Era.

FYI, Federer hasn't lost at the U.S. Open (21-0) since becoming the No. 1 player in the world in 2004.

Both Federer and Sharapova finished atop their respective U.S. Open Series standings this year, which means if either one corrals the $1.4 million first- place check in New York, they will tack on an additional $1 million, for a total windfall of $2.4 million as the champ.

This year's Open purse is a record $19.6 million, and in addition to the base purse, the top-three men's and top-three women's finishers from the U.S. Open Series can earn up to an additional $2.6 million in bonus money, providing a potential overall payout of $22.2 million.

Both of this year's U.S. Open singles champs will also receive a new Lexus.

It's good to be the king/queen.

Ace or double fault? Send your comments to Scott Riley at sriley@sportsnetwork.com.
Scott Riley


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