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Roger and Serena look to defend Open titles

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The 2009 Grand Slam season will conclude in the next few weeks, as tennis giants Roger Federer and Serena Williams look to defend their titles at the U.S. Open.

Federer will head to the Big Apple seeking a record sixth straight U.S. Open championship. He already holds the record with five straight in the Open Era (since 1968) after beating Britain's Andy Murray in last year's final at Ashe Stadium. Serena captured her third Open title a year ago by holding off Serbian star Jelena Jankovic in the women's finale.

Note: Legends Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras also own five U.S. Open titles in the Open Era...they just didn't come in succession.

Roger Federer will seek a sixth straight U.S. Open title and 16th overall major championship.
What else is there left to say about Federer? The super Swiss seems to hold just about every meaningful record in the sport (as far as the men are concerned).

Federer is the all-time men's leader with 15 major titles, and he's still only 28 years old. He set the mark by outlasting Andy Roddick in last month's epic Wimbledon finale, as the Basel native notched a sixth Wimby title in seven years.

The regal Federer is also one of only six men to capture the career Grand Slam, which he did by nailing down that elusive first-ever French Open title back in June.

Another amazing Federer record is his string of consecutive Grand Slam semifinals, which currently stands at 21. You don't have to be a tennis expert to realize that's an incredible feat. At the very least, it's a testament to his fitness, which is second to none in the history of the game.

The newlywed and father of infant twins will try to win a third straight major title, and currently owns three of the four Grand Slam championships, with only the Aussie Open escaping him over the last year (actually the last two years).

Serena Williams owns three U.S. Open titles and has won three of the last four Grand Slam events overall.
Serena, meanwhile, is clearly one of the all-time greats among the ladies. Like Federer, she currently owns three-quarters of the women's major titles, with only the French Open crown eluding her grasp over the last year (actually the last seven years).

The former top-ranked Serena is an 11-time major champ, with her first Grand Slam event title coming in New York 10 years ago, when she was a mere 17 years old.

Note: In addition to her three U.S. Open titles (1999, 2002, 2008), Serena posted a runner-up finish to her big sister Venus there in 2001.

Surprising Note: When Serena reached the final last year, she became the first Williams finalist at the Open since the sisters battled in their all-sibling final six years earlier.

When you break down the fields, it would appear as though Federer's toughest competition in New York will come from a pair of Andys -- Murray and Roddick -- and Aussie Open champ Rafael Nadal.

Murray reached his lone Grand Slam final in NYC a year ago and is always a threat to win any tournament staged on a hardcourt. The Brit had been a dominant 6-2 lifetime against Federer before the Swiss handled him in this past weekend's semifinals at the U.S. Open tune-up in Cincinnati. But even with his strong 6-3 record against Federer, the Scot has never beaten the masterful Swiss at a major.

Andy Murray is up to No. 2 in the world and was last year's U.S. Open runner-up to Roger Federer.
Is Murray's game big enough to claim a major?

Hmm, I think so.

The former world No. 1 Nadal has played very little tennis since falling off his throne at the French Open back in May. The Spanish strongman was sidelined for two months this summer, as he stayed home to nurse bad knees.

Nadal succumbed to 2007 U.S. Open runner-up Novak Djokovic in the other semi in Cincy last week and doesn't quite look like he's ready to challenge for his first-ever U.S. Open title.

Note: Nadal has only ever reached one semifinal in New York, and that resulted in a loss at the hands of Murray last year. As a matter of fact, Nadal has reached only two quarterfinals at the Open in six trips there.

Nadal is a six-time major champ, but I don't see number seven coming in NYC.

Roddick seems to be in a bit of a funk after losing an opportunity to shock Federer in the Wimbledon final last month. The former top-ranked American pushed Federer to a 30-game fifth set at the All England Club, only to lose at the very end when he lost his serve for the first, and only, time that day.

Andy Roddick captured his lone major title at the 2003 U.S. Open and was this year's Wimbledon runner-up to Roger Federer.
The 26-year-old Roddick, who captured his lone Grand Slam title in New York six long years ago, is the last man not named Federer to win it all in Flushing. Can he do it again?

Roddick also reached a U.S. Open final in 2006, but lost to, who else...the Fed.

Fact: The only other former men's champions, aside from Federer and Roddick, expected to be in this year's Open field are Lleyton Hewitt (2001) and Marat Safin (2000), who will probably perform in his final U.S. Open, as he expects to retire from the ATP World Tour at the end of the season. In addition to being a former champ, Hewitt is also a former U.S. Open runner-up, as he gave way to Federer in the 2004 title tilt.

Serena's main competition figures to come from top-ranked Dinara Safina, Venus, and some other usual suspects like Elena Dementieva and Jankovic. The capable Dementieva, a former U.S. Open runner-up (2004) and reigning Olympic gold medalist, upset Serena in a semifinal in Toronto this past weekend.

Safina is ranked No. 1 in the world and has played in three of the last six major finals, but she has played her worst tennis in these biggest of finals, and I'm guessing the New York spotlight will wind up being too much for the powerful Russian. Expect the 2008 Open semifinalist to reach the second week in Flushing, but don't expect her to break through with that first-ever major title next month.

Despite her massive serve, awesome court coverage and overall power, the seven-time major champion Venus hasn't won a Grand Slam title not called The Championships, Wimbledon, since the 2001 U.S. Open. She's a two-time U.S. Open champ (2000-01) and was the runner-up in the Apple back in 2002. Venus reached the three straight U.S. Open finals earlier this decade, but hasn't made a return trip since '02.

Venus should reach the second week in Flushing, but another U.S. Open title just seems unlikely for the veteran star, who joined the circuit 12 years ago.

Note: Five of Venus' seven major titles have come at Wimbledon.

The free-swinging Dementieva is capable of reaching any major final, but I think her nerves will get in the way of her ever hoisting a big one (Grand Slam trophy, that is).

Dementieva wound up winning the title in Toronto last week, with the championship match victory coming over fellow Russian star, Maria Sharapova.

Maria Sharapova is a three-time Grand Slam event winner, including a U.S. Open title in 2006.
The drama queen that is Jankovic had been slipping in the rankings this year, which has certainly been an off one for the Serb, but she did break through with a surprising title in Cincinnati two weeks ago. And her last trip to the U.S. Open did result in a trip to the final as well.

The women's field will also feature intriguing stars like former champions Sharapova and Kim Clijsters. Sharapova is a three-time major champ, including a U.S. Open championship three years ago, but she's been in anything but top form since returning to action this season after being sidelined for several months following some 2008 shoulder surgery, which forced her to miss last year's Open.

The popular Clijsters, meanwhile, retired from the WTA Tour in 2007, but returned to the circuit just this month, with her eye set on a return trip to New York. Kimmy won it all in Flushing back in 2005 and was the runner-up there to her great rival Justine Henin in 2003.

Clijsters skipped the '06 Open due to an injury, and was "retired" the last two years, so the sturdy Belgian will compete in Flushing for the first time in four years next week.

Can she regain her former No. 1 form?

The women's field will also feature French Open champion and 2004 U.S. Open winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, but Kuznetsova has been anything but her best since running the table in Paris this past spring.

Kuznetsova reached another U.S. Open final in 2007, but bowed out against the indomitable Henin.

Kim Clijsters, who captured a U.S. Open title in 2005, will play in her first major tournament in more than two years.
Other men's contenders could be the former Aussie Open titlist Djokovic and tall Argentine Juan Martin del Potro. Djokovic is a clear top-five-type player, but he really hasn't figured into the Grand Slam champion equation since capturing the Aussie Open at the beginning of last year. Meanwhile, the 6-foot-6 del Potro hasn't made it into a Grand Slam final yet, but he could be knocking on the door and is still only 20 years old. Watch out for the imposing South American if he can stay fresh over the two-week span.

Are youngsters like Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki among the contenders on the women's side? Azarenka, I would have to say, is a yes, while Wozniacki might have to qualify as a no at this particular moment. The hard- nosed Azarenka was a big winner in Miami earlier this season, while Wozniacki got off to a hot start this year, but has cooled off during the North American hardcourt season and is 3-4 in her last seven matches (at the time of this column).

Picks: Federer and Serena to repeat (in the case of Federer, a six-peat).

Sorry, but I really don't see any dark horses shaking up the world at America's Open.

The '09 Open will commence Monday at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. And don't look for that late-night coverage on USA Network this year, as ESPN will begin its coverage of this great sporting event starting next week.

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


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