— What a difference one year makes for Roger Federer.
We have come to expect such great things from the perennial champion that when he came to New York in 2008 with runner-up finishes at the French Open and Wimbledon, a semifinal finish at the Australian Open and two tour titles, many wondered if his career was in its decline.
His U.S. Open victory salvaged that season and gave him momentum for what has turned into a spectacular 2009 campaign.
Not only is Federer now married and the proud father of healthy twin girls, but he also claimed the French Open title that previously had eluded him so painfully, became just the sixth man ever with a career Grand Slam and earned his record-setting 15th major title.
Going for his sixth straight U.S. Open title and enjoying a fairly advantageous draw, Federer undeniably is the force to be reckoned with this time around. That's especially true considering the amount of time Rafael Nadal has missed this season due to lingering knee injuries.
Tennis has benefited from the lively contests between the Swiss star and Majorcan master, competitors who couldn't be more different in playing style and dress but who share the same desire to be the best and the talent to get there. Although they are in different halves of the draw, it's unlikely that the U.S. Open will be the stage for the next chapter of their rivalry.
The No. 3 seed in New York, Nadal will be challenged from the very first round with a matchup against unseeded Richard Gasquet. His quarter of the draw also contains two other talented Frenchmen, No. 7 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 13 Gael Monfils, each of whom have the athleticism and talent to give Nadal a tough time on the court.
Nadal can clinch his own career Grand Slam with a U.S. Open championship, but it will be difficult for him to accomplish that feat this year. Not only are his injury woes major concerns, but he's also on the same side of the draw as the talented No. 2 Andy Murray.
Beating Nadal in the semifinals of last year's U.S. Open was a major turning point in Murray's career. One year later, he no longer has the mentality that making it to the finals is achievement enough; winning a major title is his primary motivation. Mentally, emotionally and physically, he's kicked himself and his tennis game into a higher gear.
Murray is looking stronger and stronger, and his confidence is growing all the time. He's worked extremely hard to improve his strength and endurance, a focus that has paid off with five titles so far this season, including one in Rogers Cup action in Montreal. Murray's hard court record this season is one of the best on the ATP Tour.
Since hiring Larry Stefanki as his coach at the end of last season, Andy Roddick has resurrected his tennis career. Losing weight and rededicating himself to the game, the American came up just short against Federer at Wimbledon in a classic battle. The Roddick who played at the U.S. Open last year wouldn't have had a real shot at beating either Federer or Novak Djokovic in his half of the draw. This year, if he can move as well and play at the level he showed at Wimbledon, Roddick can topple either one.
His heartbreak at London showed just how much Roddick wants to win another Grand Slam title. In fact, he might be feeling more pressure to win the U.S. Open than Federer.
With a 14-4 record and two finals appearances since the French Open, Novak Djokovic has sent a message that he's back at the top of his game. In two hard court tournaments, Djokovic picked up a win against Nadal and hung tough in losses to Federer and Roddick. Although his stretch of 81 weeks as the third-ranked player in the world ended earlier this year, Djokovic should be a lock for a quarterfinal battle with Roddick and potentially a semifinal matchup with Federer.
While the big games of No. 21 James Blake and No. 25 Mardy Fish obviously make them very dangerous opponents, Sam Querrey has the most momentum heading into the U.S. Open.
Querrey's trajectory is going in the right direction. In addition to winning his first title this season in Los Angeles, Querrey reached the final in Indianapolis and just recently beat Andy Roddick in two tiebreaks in Cincinnati. That hard court success has propelled Querrey to a career-best ranking of 23rd in the world. He's seeded 22nd at the U.S. Open and could face Federer in the fourth round.
Boasting a huge serve, Juan Martin del Potro has come into his own as a major threat over the past year. After reaching a career-high ranking of fifth earlier this season, he's now sixth in the world and the No. 6 seed at the U.S. Open. Del Potro is surging at the right time this season, beating Roddick for the Legg Mason title and pushing Andy Murray to three sets in the championship match in Montreal. The Argentine player may get a rematch against the Scot, as both are in the same quarter of the draw.
A lingering hip injury in 2008 posed a major threat to Lleyton Hewitt's game. A player who relies on speed and mobility, the Aussie found his strengths compromised and was forced to have surgery. This season he's done a great job of getting himself back into the mix. Hewitt's gritty perseverance keeps him in many matches, something he'll need to draw upon in New York. The 31st seed, Hewitt could run up against Federer in the third round.
Which Marat Safin will show up? A tall, hard-hitting player who moves well for his size, Safin is a joy to watch when he's on. But his frustrations often get the best of him and have kept him from consistently displaying the exceptional tennis of which he's capable. Safin has said he will retire at the end of the year, so this is his last chance to win his second U.S. Open title and third major overall.
At no other major tournament are the fans as expressively vocal as they are at the U.S. Open, particularly during the evening matches. With the amount of talent in this year's men's draw, they're bound to have plenty to cheer.