A-Rod, J H-H look to defend Open titles

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Is it possible that only four men have a shot at winning the 2004 U.S. Open? That's the way I see it.

Several women could make a title run at America's Open, which gets underway next week, but it looks like only a quartet of fellas have a realistic chance of going all the way in Flushing.

The ATP will be well represented in New York, but I have to single out defending champion Andy Roddick, reigning two-time Wimbledon titlist Roger Federer and former Open champs Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt as the favorites in the Big Apple.

Roddick, of course, bested Spanish slugger Juan Carlos Ferrero in last year's Open final to capture his first-ever Grand Slam title. The monster-serving American also performed in this year's Wimbledon finale, where he gave way to the mighty Federer in four quality sets.

Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick will attempt to give the United States its first repeat men's U.S. Open champ since Pete Sampras in 1995-96.

Roddick's game is perhaps best-suited for the hardcourts, and he's probably my pick to run the table in NYC. You have to like his massive serve, and no doubt the majority of his matches will be under the bright lights at Ashe Stadium, where he'll have a huge advantage with some frenzied home crowd support.

There hasn't been a repeat men's champion in Flushing since Aussie Patrick Rafter in 1997-98 and an American male hasn't won back-to-back in New York since the legendary Pete Sampras turned the trick in 1995-96.

The incomparable Federer is the reigning Wimbledon, Australian Open and Masters Cup champion and running away with the Champions Race, with 887 points (290 points better than Roddick). The world No. 1 "Fed" also leads the circuit with a whopping eight titles this season, including two of the three majors thus far and a trio of Masters Series shields. If he's on, he'll be the man to beat, but something tells me he might fall prior to the final. Call it a hunch.

If Federer does prevail in the Apple, he would become the first man to win three majors in one year since Hall-of-Famer Mats Wilander did so way back in 1988, when the cool Swede nailed down the Aussie, French and U.S. Opens.

The former Open winners Agassi and Hewitt have also been gearing up their games for America's Open, as Hewitt is fresh off his hardcourt title in D.C. last week, while Agassi recently broke a long titleless drought by claiming a Tennis Masters shield in Cincy, where he outlasted the fiery Hewitt in a free- swinging marquee final. The 34-year-old Agassi stunned the soon-to-be-22-year- old Roddick in the Cincy semis. Roddick will turn 22 when the Open commences on Monday.

Agassi captured the U.S. Open in 1994 and 1999 and has appeared in three other finals, while Hewitt made his title run in 2001 and has reached at least the semis in three of the last four years at the USTA National Tennis Center.

I can give honorable mention, only, to a long list of men, but I don't expect to see an Open title coming from the likes of Carlos Moya, Tim Henman, 2003 U.S. Open finalist Juan Carlos Ferrero, David Nalbandian, Sebastien Grosjean, French Open winner Gaston Gaudio, duel Olympic gold medalist Nicolas Massu, former U.S. Open champ and 2004 Aussie Open runner-up Marat Safin, hot German Nicolas Kiefer or Athens silver medalist Mardy Fish. Speedy Argentine and 2004 Roland Garros runner-up Guillermo Coria will not be on hand in the Apple as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery.

When he's on, the big Safin can beat anybody. When he's on! More often than not, in recent months, however, he seems to be off (as evidenced by a first- round loss at Wimby).

The workhorse that is Nalbandian could be a darkhorse in Flushing. He was a point away from the final last year against Roddick and has played strong tennis in his last four majors.

For once, the women's side appears to be more wide open, with the recent health issues concerning Justine Henin-Hardenne, the absence of Kim Clijsters (wrist surgery), and the seeming slippage of the Williams sisters.

Justine Henin-Hardenne
Justine Henin-Hardenne currently holds the U.S. Open, Australian Open and Olympic titles.

The top-ranked Henin-Hardenne returned to action last week after being sidelined for nearly three months while recovering from a bout with a viral illness. She appeared none the worse for wear, however, blowing away the field in Athens to capture gold. The diminutive star (who plays like a giant) currently holds the U.S. Open, Australian Open and Olympic titles and has already nailed down 4/5ths of the career Golden Slam -- the four majors, plus Olympic gold. Only the Wimbledon hardware is missing from her ever- expanding trophy case.

J H-H, who beat Clijsters in last year's all-Belgian Open final, can expect challenges from a boatload of women in Flushing, specifically scalding-hot Lindsay Davenport -- the 1998 Open winner and 2000 runner-up. Davenport has won her last four tournaments, all on hardcourts, and heads into this year's Open with an awesome head of steam...a 17-match winning streak head of steam.

Keep in mind, however, that Davenport hasn't won a major since the 2000 Aussie Open and her lone U.S. Open title was six long years ago. Her health has always been an issue, and nothing tests your physical well-being like two weeks of grueling tennis (a.k.a. a Slam).

Davenport pulled out of this week's Pilot Pen event, citing a "wrist injury."

Aside from J H-H and Davenport, two other former Open champions and the reigning Wimbledon winner could challenge for the title in Flushing. Serena and Venus are lurking, as is 17-year-old Wimbledon queen Maria Sharapova, who shocked Serena in the title match at the All England Club early last month. The cover girl Sharapova's victory at Wimbledon gave surging Russia its second straight Grand Slam champion, to go along with surprise French Open winner Anastasia Myskina.

Serena (knee surgery) and Venus (abdominal strain) both missed last year's Open due to injuries, leaving the door open for the high-flying Henin- Hardenne. Prior to last year, Serena and Venus combined to win the Open four years running (Serena in 1999 and 2002 and Venus in 2000 and 2001), with one of the siblings also finishing as the runner-up in '01 and '02.

Serena, like her big sister, owns two U.S. Open titles, with the first one coming at the tender age of 17 in 1999. Venus has reached at least the semifinals in all six of her previous trips to the Open and is 2-2 in four finals there.

Other serious contenders on the ladies' side are Myskina, Olympic silver medalist Amelie Mauresmo and perhaps even a seemingly-fading Jennifer Capriati, who was two points away from reaching her first U.S. Open final a year ago before the gritty Henin-Hardenne came from behind to win one of the Open's all-time great matches. Can Capriati forget that devastating setback?

The smooth Mauresmo always seems to be on the verge of greatness, but injuries and nerves have usually prevailed in the past. She has a complete all-around game, including that beautiful one-hand backhand, rivaled only by Henin- Hardenne's flyaway one-hander on the women's tour.

Honorable mention among the ladies goes to a trio of Russians -- Roland Garros runner-up Elena Dementieva, rising Svetlana Kuznetsova and last week's Cincinnati runner-up to Davenport, Vera Zvonareva. The up-and-down Dementieva has punishing groundstrokes, but her weak serve makes her vulnerable, especially at the fast-court tourneys such as the Open.

As I mentioned earlier, I like Roddick (or was it Federer?) to win the Open, and Henin-Hardenne and Davenport look like the favorites on the ladies' side, but this scribe's pickin' Serena to land in the Grand Slam win column again. Call it a hunch.

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