The U.S. Open main draw starts next week, and it's more "open" than it has been in years. Last year's champion, Juan Martin del Potro, is out recovering from wrist injury while the top two men's players are unusually vulnerable. On the women's side, all it takes is an injured Serena Williams to throw the whole bracket into chaos. With numerous trophy-hungry competitors eager to capitalize on the weaknesses of the top players, some great drama — and a potential Slam winner not named Roger, Rafa, or Serena — could be on the horizon.
Here's a look at the main hopefuls on the men's and women's side. The tournament begins Monday; you can even fill out a bracket.
Roger Federer: There were major reasons to doubt Federer's dominance this year — he was ousted from the No. 1 ranking and lost in the quarterfinals at his beloved Wimbledon — but the GOAT has found some inspiration through a new relationship with Pete Sampras's former coach. As a result, he spent the summer repaying the players who served him embarrassing losses this season, and he defended his title at Cincinnati, the last major tournament before the U.S. Open. Although he's still not at the top of his transcendental game (unable to break his opponents, he's endured a lot of tiebreaks lately), only a fool would dismiss Roger Federer.
Andy Murray: After a horrid beginning to the season and a disappointing loss at Wimbledon, Murray is finally finding his best form on hard courts. Often criticized for playing too defensive a style with endless counter-punching, Murray has tapped his aggressive side. During his victory over both Nadal and Federer in Toronto, Murray charged the net when he saw his opponent in a weak position and, instead of just hitting low-risk shots to keep the ball in play, he unleashed breathtaking winners at opportune times. With the win in Toronto, Murray snapped his final-round losing streak to Federer, and he joined an elite handful of players who can claim they've ousted both the GOAT and Nadal in a single tournament. Everyone always says this, but: This could finally be Murray's time to claim a Slam. If he does, he'll be the first British man to do so since Fred Perry in the thirties.
Rafael Nadal: Ordinarily, Nadal comes to the U.S. Open in terrible condition; after a full season of his defensive, baseline style of play, his knees (among other things) are torn up, and the pavement courts of Flushing do his joints no favors. However, learning from last year's massive tendinitis scare that threatened to end his career, Nadal pruned his summer schedule and comes into this year's Open in the best condition ever. Still, Nadal has always struggled on fast hard courts, as his topspin-heavy groundstrokes don't get as wicked a kick as they do on his beloved clay. Nadal has tweaked his game to include flatter ball striking and better serving, both of which are necessary weapons on Flushing's pavement courts, but his hesitant execution this summer suggests his game isn't quite ready.
Andy Roddick: Over the past year, Roddick has proven he's more than just a forehand and a massive serve by mixing his game up and employing actual strategy. He baffled Nadal on the hard courts of Miami and nearly made it to a grudge-match final with Federer in Cincinnati before he fell to Mardy Fish. The biggest obstacle for Roddick could be the mild case of mono he contracted this summer; that, and his wretched head-to-head record against Federer, whom he could meet in the semifinals. Look for the Roddick-heavy support in New York to enliven his game.
Kim Clijsters: Despite an erratic level of play since her win here last year, Clijsters is looking primed to defend her title. She defeated Sharapova in Cincinnati after facing several match points, and when Clijsters is on, her clean ball striking, wicked groundstrokes, and experience are tough to beat -- especially on her favorite surface.
Maria Sharapova: Sharapova spent the summer rediscovering her form; her serve and groundstrokes--which were long hampered by her shoulder surgery--are back with a vengeance, as is her confidence. It's unlikely she'll go out this year to another upstart like Melanie Oudin, but she still suffers from a ranking that doesn't reflect her current level of play. That means she'll be encountering heftier opponents earlier in the tournament. (See: Caroline Wozniacki.) Despite an unfavorable draw, it seems likely she'll be meeting Clijsters on center court two weeks from now.
Venus Williams: A giant question mark hovers over Venus this year, as she's been sidelined with injury since Wimbledon. She claims to be healthy enough to compete, but she may suffer from lack of proper match preparation. However, the Williams sisters have never depended on lead-up tournaments as much as others, often opting out for personal reasons. Though Williams is practically a granny on the tour at 30, she was ranked as high as No. 2 this year, proving she can still slug it out with the youngsters with her formidable serve, angles, and net game.
Caroline Wozniacki: Since Serena Williams withdrew, Wozniacki has emerged as the top seed, despite having never won a Slam herself. It's the sort of rarity that the press likes to tear apart (just ask the suffering Dinara Safina), and Wozniacki's chances depend on how she handles the pressure. Her health and energy is also an issue, as she questionably chose to play in New Haven this week. Still, she's the US Open Series champion and won the most points during the North American tour, and she was a finalist here last year. In order to once again be one of the last two standing, she'll likely need to take out Maria Sharapova in the Round of 16--a tough assignment for so early in the tournament.
To win: Andy Murray for the men, and Kim Clijsters for the women. Of course, if you don't trust our predictions, you can always try Lil Wayne.