The last Grand Slam tennis tournament of the season began Monday in Flushing Meadows, with several predictable victories and a few surprises.
Here are some players and headlines to keep an eye out for:
1.) Serena Williams looks to continue her dominance.
World No. 1 Serena Williams, 31, has managed to dominate the women’s tour that is populated with much younger players. One of the few that can withstand her powerful serves and groundstrokes is 24-year-old Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.
[Williams] has found her latest motivation in a player seven years her junior, Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who has emerged over the past year as the American’s most formidable rival, though their lopsided career record, which Williams leads 12-3, suggests otherwise.
But Azarenka, who was just 6 when Williams turned pro, has won two of their three meetings this year, including a 2-6, 6-2, 7-6 (8-6) battle-of-wills earlier this month in Cincinnati.
Speaking to reporters over the weekend, Williams all but thanked Azarenka for the rare defeat, intimating that the Belarusian could expect a tougher fight if the two meet in the U.S. Open’s final for a second consecutive year, as their No. 1 and 2 seeds suggest.
“Every time I lose, I get so pumped afterwards,” Williams said of her Aug. 18 loss to Azarenka, which snapped her 14-match winning streak. “I just feel like now I’m ready; now I’m prepared. I almost needed that to take my game to a new level.”
Williams begins her quest for major No. 17 on Monday night at 7 p.m. against Italy’s Francesca Schiavone, the 2010 French Open champion and a former world No. 4.
Azarenka, who is on the other side of the draw, will play Germany’s Dinah Pfizenmaier in the first round.
2.) Novak Djokovic is the man to beat.
On the men’s side, top-seed Novak Djokovic of Serbia is favorited to end the Grand Slam season the same way he started — by hoisting the champion’s trophy.
The 26-year-old Djokovic won the 2013 Australian Open, his sixth major title, but lost to the eventual winners at the French Open — to Spain’s Rafael Nadal in the semifinals — and Wimbledon — to Britain’s Andy Murray in the final.
He enters the U.S. Open with a loss to American John Isner in the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati earlier this month.
Djokovic is placed in the opposite half as 17-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer of Switzerland, who is ranked seventh in the world — the lowest he has been since 2002. Djokovic is likely to face third-seed Murray in the semifinals.
3.) Can Roger Federer win No. 18?
The Swiss maestro has shown a level of vulnerability that was rare during his era of dominance.
Roger Federer’s near-decade-long reign atop tennis was marked by an ethereal quality, his skill and grace on court almost too perfect for the world. But like gravity, it was certain to come down.
Entering the U.S. Open, the Swiss champion’s venerable name doesn’t strike the same fear in opponents that it once did.
In a calamitous eight-week stretch that started in June with his second-round ouster at Wimbledon, where he was a seven-time winner and defending champion, Federer slipped from No. 3 in the world to No. 7, his lowest ranking since October 2002.
While he insisted he wouldn’t panic after the loss to then-No. 116 Sergiy Stakhovsky, Federer proceeded to switch to a bigger racket and enter two low-profile tournaments he normally skips, presumably seeking a boost in confidence.
Instead, he was bounced from both of those events by players ranked outside the top 50. Two weeks later he abandoned the larger racket, saying it was time, with the season’s final major looming, “to simplify everything” and revert to the equipment he knew best.
That raises the question, as the 2013 U.S. Open gets under way Monday in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., of whether the tournament will feature a resurgence of Federer’s brilliant career at age 32 or serve as its eulogy.
Can Federer add No. 18 to his resume at Flushing Meadows or will he struggle to keep pace with players who have taken over the top of the game?
He begins his U.S. Open campaign against Slovenia’s Grega Zemlja on Monday night at 9 p.m.
4.) Agnieszka Radwanska looks to reach new heights.
The 24-year-old Radwanska has come close winning her first maiden Grand Slam, losing to Serena Williams in three sets in the 2012 Wimbledon final, but has failed to reach past the fourth round at the U.S. Open.
However, there is reason to believe the fourth-ranked Pole can make a push into the late rounds this year.
After the withdrawal of world No. 3 Maria Sharapova due to bursitis in her right shoulder, Radwanska was bumped up a seed. She is the player to beat in her quarter of the draw, but would likely face Serena Williams, a player she has never beaten in six tries, in the semifinals.
Radwanska made easy work of her first round opponent, Spain’s Silvia Soler-Espinosa, winning 6-1, 6-2.
5.) Andy Murray no longer has the burden of being Britain’s Slam-less wonder.
Arthur Ashe Stadium was the site of Murray’s breakthrough, when he became the first British man to win a Grand Slam final since Fred Perry in 1936 with his U.S. Open victory last year.
He followed up that victory this year by winning Wimbledon, which certainly unloaded some of the pressure he has had to carry as his nation’s best player.
With his victory, Murray snapped a 77-year drought of British male champions at Wimbledon. He fell to his knees upon beating Djokovic, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, to claim the sport’s most prestigious title after finishing a tearful runner-up to Roger Federer last year.
Murray has borne the weight of expectation for years, hailed as the youngster capable of reclaiming Britain’s tennis prominence on its grandest stage.
Murray, 26, hasn’t played great since winning his historic title, losing to Ernest Gulbis in the third round at the Rogers Cup and to Tomas Berdych at the Western & Southern Open in the quarterfinals, but he has performed well on the big stage this year and no longer has the extra weight of being a Slam-less wonder.
6.) James Blake’s farewell tournament.
On Monday Blake announced his plans to retire after the U.S. Open. The 33-year-old reached as high as No. 4 in the world in 2006 and reached the quarterfinals at the 2008 Australian Open and at the 2005 and 2006 U.S. Open tournaments.
“This is my last tournament,” Blake told reporters. “I have had 14 pretty darn good years on tour, loved every minute of it, and I definitely couldn’t have asked for a better career. For me to think of matches I should have won and to make those as regrets for me has always just seemed greedy.
“… I don’t want to be dragged out of this game. I want to leave on my own terms.”
Blake has been a fan favorite in New York (he was born in Yonkers) and was emotional during his news conference while talking about his retirement.
He will play Ivo Karlovic in the first round. Regardless of when he loses, it’s likely that Blake will receive a loud and long ovation as he exits.
The results have been mostly predictable so far, with world No. 2 Nadal earning a straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, 6-2, victory over American Ryan Harrison.