U.S. Open Picks/Draw

Men’s Singles:

Winner: Andy Murray   

Finalist: Roger Federer

Yes, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have divided up Slams for years, including 20 of the last 22 majors, and left the field few spoils. Both have good reason to add another: Nadal is on top of his game and seemingly healthy for once heading into NYC; Federer is rounding into late season form. They aren’t my picks. I gave the nod to Andy Murray a year ago and I’m going with the Scot again. He’s shaken off his mid-season slump. He has a maturing repertoire of weapons. Plus, he’s eager to cast the GS monkey on his back. I think he’s ready and hungry to finally bag his first major.

I believe Nadal will someday capture the USO, just not this year. The No. 1 Spaniard at least has no nagging physical issues, but didn’t show his best stuff in Toronto, where he fell to Murray in the semis, or at Cincinnati, where he slouched out to Marcos Baghdatis in the quarterfinals. The reigning Wimbledon and French Open champ has a rough quarter with the likes of Philipp Kohlschreiber and Ivan Ljubicic and then in the quarters either David Ferrer (who beat him here in ’07), resurgent David Nalbandian or No. 8 Fernando Verdasco. The 24-year-old Nadal is desperate to win here, and that sense of urgency will carry him past Nalbandian into his third straight semifinal in New York.

Murray’s path to the last four includes No. 25 seed Stanislas Wawrinka and then a possible matchup in the fourth round with No. 20 seed Sam Querrey (who has yet to shine at a major), but his biggest test will be hard-swinging Tomas Berdych in the quarterfinals. The Wimbledon finalist from the Czech Republic beat Murray at Roland Garros this year and also won their only meeting on hard courts at Adelaide back in 2006. The 23-year-old Scot, who slumped out in the fourth round to Marin Cilic last year, loves New York and has too much to prove. His cagey, all-around game will be too much and he will prevail to face Nadal.

No. 3 seed Novak Djokovic is the big name in the third quarter but the Serb has done little to mark him as a sure thing to live up to his seeding. I’m taking No. 19 seed Mardy Fish, who’s become a paragon of fitness and is playing some of his best ball, to knock the Djoker in the fourth round. Meantime, the draw has broken well for No. 9 seed Andy Roddick, whose main threats are streaky No. 17 seed Gael Monfils of France in the third round and No. 6 Nikolay Davydenko in the fourth, who is still playing into form after missing much of the season with injuries.

It’s tough to gauge where the American’s game and health are. He hasn’t played near the level he hit in the spring at Indian Wells (finalist) or Miami (winner). The effects of his mild mononucleosis diagnosis are unclear, though he said Saturday he felt almost 100%. Roddick showed his heart – never in question with big-serving Texan – in beating two top-5 players and reaching the Cincy semis two weeks ago. His loss to Mardy Fish up a set and 5-2 was dismal, but he’s flying under the radar and I like him to face Fish again in the quarterfinals. Roddick, who turns 28 Monday, is the better big-match player, and he will come out on top of the rematch and advance to semi in New York.

Second-ranked Federer leads the charge in the final quarter and there doesn’t appear to be anyone among the veterans in his quadrant that can derail the six-time finalist from Switzerland. No. 32 Lleyton Hewitt could put up some resistance in the third round, as could No. 13 Jurgen Melzer or former USO finalist Juan Carlos Ferrero. Croatia’s Cilic has been a big disappointment since reaching the Australian Open semis, and he won’t have enough to power past No. 5 seed Robin Soderling, who has had an excellent season after reaching a second-straight Roland Garros final. Federer, however, is finding his range and the slick hard courts at Flushing Meadows play into his strengths – serving, movement, and backhand slice. He will outgun Soderling and then put another beating on Roddick to reach his seventh consecutive final.

In the final, Murray will show he’s learned from two timid showings in previous Slam appearances (both losses to Federer). This time, he will rise to the occasion, play aggressive when he needs to, and let the artistry of his shotmaking and defense propel him to the first Grand Slam title for Great Britain since Fred Perry in 1936.

Interesting first-round matchups:

1. Donald Young vs. Gilles Simon: One-time U.S. star-in-the-making gets another wild card and takes on former top-10 player from France.
2. John Isner vs. Frederico Gil: Is the big guy’s ankle healed enough for him to win?
3. Michael Llodra vs. Tomas Berdych: Tricky left-handed net charger could cause problems for Czech.
4. Djokovic vs. Troicki: All-Serbian rematch from Cincy, where Djokovic improved to 4-1 over his compatriot.

Women’s Singles:

Winner: Kim Clijsters

Finalist: Maria Sharapova

Without Serena Williams and Justine Henin, the women’s draw feels flimsy and wide open. Any number of established pros with Grand Slam credentials – Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Venus Williams – or an eager upstart like Caroline Wozniacki or Victoria Azarenka could emerge with the spoils. The defending champ and mother of 2 1/2-year-old Jada, Kim Clijsters, is my slight favorite, presuming the hip she tweaked in Montreal is feeling OK.

Top-seed Caroline Wozniacki is playing solid ball again, witnessed by her titles at Montreal New Haven the last two weeks. Last year’s finalist is a great mover and fighter but will be hard-pressed to live up to her seeding. Her serve remains attackable and she will have to manage the pressure of top female dog in New York. The Dane is in a loaded quarter that includes 2006 USO champ Sharapova and 2004 winner Kuznetsova, along with the dangerous Na Li of China. Sharapova hasn’t hit on all cylinders since shoulder surgery, but the 23-year-old Russian has been moving in the right direction for months. With Serena out, she is the strongest player mentally and if she serves well and avoids the occasional lapse – such as the match points she gave up in the loss to Clijsters in the Cincy final – she can do serious damage. I like the No. 14 seed to take out Wozniacki in the fourth round and then upend her Russian counterpart Kuznetsova, who has also shown signs of a revival after a miserable season.

The second quarter is a toss up among the flagging former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, last year’s semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer, the erratic Nadia Petrova and Wimbledon finalist Vera Zvonareva. On paper, No. 4 Jankovic is the favorite, but the Serb and 2008 USO finalist has given little indication she’s prepared to break out of her months-long slump and go deep at a major. She has the tools and desire to do so, but unless she returns to the relentless baseline play she’s capable of and stops complaining about her niggling injuries, she will struggle. If she looks locked in early, I give her the nod to outwit Wickmayer in the last 16 and then battle No. 17 Petrova in the quarters. Depending on which side of the bed the big-serving but scatterbrained Petrova wakes up on, it could be a long or short day for Jankovic. I’ll take Jankovic, but she’ll be no match for Sharapova in the semifinals, who will feast on the Serb’s serve.

No. 3 Venus Williams is the highest seed in the third quarter, but she is no lock to reach the semifinals. The American hasn’t played since Wimbledon (capped by a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Tsvetana Pironkova), has lost a half step at 30 and hasn’t played her best in Queens since her title run nearly a decade ago. She’s capable and unpredictable, but recent history suggests she won’t last much past Labor Day. That will leave it up to French Open champion and No. 6 seed Francesca Schiavone, hard-hitting No. 10 Victoria Azarenka or perhaps plucky Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 19, the youngest player in the top 40. Italy’s Schiavone has done nothing since Paris, which means she’ll be rolled out of the tournament by either Azarenka or the fast improving Pavlyuchenkova, who should meet in an enticing third-round clash. The No. 20 seed from Russia is due and will out hustle Azarenka, then dismantle shaky Schiavone (if she makes it that far) and out-steady Williams (who, by the way, has a possible rematch with Pironkova in the third round) to reach her first Grand Slam semi.

That takes us to the final quarter, populated by No. 2 Clijsters, French Open finalist and No. 5 Sam Stosur, perennial hopeful Elena Dementieva and occasional world-beaters Marion Bartoli and Jie Zheng. Two possibly dangerous floaters also lurk – former No. 1s Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic – in this quadrant. The unseeded Russian and Serb could cause problems and both have shown glimpses of restored confidence this summer, but neither has dialed in enough to get past the fourth round. I like Stosur, bad arm and all, to keep her fine season alive and reach the quarters over Dementieva, who at 28 seems a bit depleted and hasn’t found her form since her calf injury at Roland Garros.
The fifth-seeded Australian won’t have enough to get past Clijsters, however, who has always excelled on U.S. hardcourts and has too much power and athleticism.

That’s basically the same formula – great defense, opportune offense, dictating play from the baseline and solid serving – that will push the 27-year-old Belgian  past Pavlyuchenkova in the semis and Sharapova in the final for a third USO crown. What will Jada think this year?

Interesting first-round matchups:
1. Dinara Safina vs. No. 24 seed Daniela Hantuchova: Slovakia’s Hantuchova gets a second straight crack at Safina, who beat her in New Haven this week.
2. No. 11 Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Kimiko Date Krumm: Ageless Krumm is the kind of player that can cause big hitters like Sveta headaches.
3. Melanie Oudin vs. qualifier Olga Savchuk: Can last year’s Comeback Kid get off to a decent start? Oudin hasn’t won two matches in a row since April.
4. Vania King vs. Christina McHale: Two young Americans face off. 113th-ranked McHale, 18, is improving fast; King reached second round as a 16-year-old qualifier in 2005 and the third round a year ago.


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