Good morning, ugly Americans, and welcome to the U.S. Open, which is a sporty yearly event that will tide you over nicely until the NFL starts playing real games and college football gets out of early-season cupcake tilts. Think of this Queens-based tournament as the Super Bowl of tennis, which would make Wimbledon the World Cup, which is appropriate, only with a reverse allocation of knowledgeable hooligans and the toleration thereof. Only the arrangement is more like March Madness, although the gambling isn't as much fun. Anyway.
The following is an occasionally irresponsibly hyperbolic preview of 20-odd players whose names you'll hear a lot over the next couple weeks, arranged from most to least likable to the uninitiated fan based on a complicated metric of actual win probability, recent Grand Slam play and ease of pithy talking points to drop to make you sound fancier at parties.
1. Andy Roddick (USA)
U.S. History: Winner, 2003; finalist, 2006; ignominious third-round exit last year
The Case For: U-S-A! U-S-A!'s current top cat. Prolific Twitterer. Hot wife. Not in Federer or Nadal's immediate paths. A little bit cray-cray, and generally good-humored about it. Likes to mix it up with various officiating types, if you're into that sort of thing.
The Case Against: Had a bad go of it at Wimbledon. And honestly, that's the worst we are prepared to say about him right now. This is the U.S. Open. This is our guy. Haters make way.
2. Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark)
U.S. History: Finals, 2009
The Case For: In terms of actual, y'know, tennis, there's a lot to like here. Wozniacki has shown steady, incremental improvement in finishes at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and stateside since her first Grand Slam appearance in '07. She's also fresh off a U.S. Open Series title thanks to wins in Montreal and New Haven.
The Case Against: You'll have to struggle to make one, but if you must play the contrarian, SB Nation's Daily Forehand has spotted a few cracks, albeit tiny ones:
She won it playing aggressive tennis than she had in most of her career, forcing the issue instead of the relatively passive style she sometimes drifted into. That said, if Wozniacki comes up against a big hitter who is playing well, she is not immune from being blown off the court.
If you're the type to eschew the obvious pick because it's Just Too Trendy To Bear, keep looking. But Wozniacki's the flavor of the month for a reason.
3. Roger Federer (Switzerland)
U.S. History: Has won FIVE of these suckers, in a fine sequence from 2004 to 2008. If that sounds familiar, it's because he had a similar five-year run of Wimbledon titles from '03 to '07.
The Case For: This is very much like picking the Yankees, only the bristling arrogance isn't a turnoff. The story of the blazer really tells you all you need to know. If that kind of completely founded smugness turns you off, look elsewhere. Is battling a recent "slump" by being proactive in the personnel department.
The Case Against: Fed-Fed, for all his qualities, does not appear immune to viral marketing. He won the Aussie Open this year, then finished in France and England as a mere quarterfinalist, which is clearly due to his hot wife and infant twins making him hate tennis, an argument that reminds us of nothing so much as the trope that women deserve lesser pay when they choose to start a family. My, that's a lofty glass ceiling.
4. Kim Clijsters (Belgium)
U.S. History: Winner, 2005 & 2009.
The Case For: A classy pick, and a sentimental favorite, if you can call a furriner a sentimental favorite in an Amurrrican tournament. Her only Grand Slam wins have come here. Great comeback-from-retirement story, she took two years off and is apparently still at the top of her game. Married to a former Villanova basketball player, and well-versed in American customs, if that helps your nationalistic sensibilities.
The Case Against: At some point, one assumes she'll have to face Wozniacki, who's on all kinds of fire right now.
5. Venus Williams (USA)
U.S. History: Winner, 2000 & 2001; Doubles winner, 1999 & 2009
The Case For: She's Venus Williams. She's a fashion icon. She needs all her fingers and toes to count her major titles. Seven singles Grand Slam victories and twelve in doubles.
The Case Against: Will good play be overshadowed by constant yammering in the punditry about the absence of her sister?
6. Melanie Oudin (USA)
U.S. History: Quarterfinalist, 2009
The Case For: America's (young) ladies' choice. Keyuuuute! With cute shoes! Turned pro in '08 and took the world's teenybopper class by storm on account of an improbable run to the fourth round at Wimbledon last year, and being blonde and American and perky. Followed her British turn up with a quarters berth at last year's U.S. Open.
The Case Against: Can win, but spottily so far. Will probably lose, quickly. From Marietta, Georgia, where she is probably called "OODEN" by everyone she meets. Sorry about that.
7. Lleyton Hewitt (Australia)
U.S. History: Winner, 2001; doubles winner, 2000
The Case For: Totally authentic choice A for discerning hipster bros. Twenty-nine years old but grizzled. Followed up a stateside win with a Wimbledon victory in 2002, and not much since apart from a memorable run to the semis in three of four Grand Slams in 2005. Brings boisterous Aussie cheering section.
The Case Against: Bizarro tendency to end up in Federer's draw time after time after time. Less-bizarro tendency to be left drifting in Federer's wake after.
8. Gael Monfils (France)
U.S. History: Two straight losses in the fourth round, 2008 & 2009
The Case For: Fantastic hair. Crazy eyes. Uncanny tendency to make us like him even when he's taking long swings at our own American idols. Hipster choice B.
The Case Against: One crowded-ass draw.
9. Novak Djokovic (Serbia)
U.S. History: Finalist, 2007; semifinalist, 2008 & 2009
The Case For: A recent history of fine performances at Flushing Meadows. Legendary court celebrity impersonator and bon vivant. Can play underwater.
The Case Against: Cannot sing. Lives in Monte Carlo, is multimillionaire. Must hate. Cannot, but must.
10. Robin Söderling (Sweden)
U.S. History: Quarterfinalist, 2009
The Case For: The rugged selection. If you enjoy the yeehaw craziness of an oil man but find Jerry Jones too effete for your tastes, look no further. Has a marked habit of showing up to major tournaments looking like a homeless, Viking Grizzly Adams. Name has an umlaut. In a separate draw from Andy Roddick, who just beat him last week. Once pointedly pulled his underwear out of his ass during Wimbledon just to mock Rafa Nadal.
The Case Against: No, seriously, I'm pretty sure he lives in a tree somewhere, or on a boat he made himself, which must make for grand conditioning, but how can he focus seriously on tennis while being constantly pursued by bears?
11. John Isner (USA)
U.S. History: Crashed out in the fourth round last year
The Case For: Sure to be a crowd-pleaser thanks to his record-obliterating Wimbledon-and-on-and-on match this summer. Is 6'9", if you're into watching Skeleton Jack attempt sports.
The Case Against: There won't be an Isner-Mahut rematch -- his opponent, France's Nicolas Mahut, didn't get a wild card, because nobody cares about ratings I THOUGHT THIS WAS AMERICA.
12. Andy Murray (Great Britain)
U.S. History: Finalist, 2008
The Case For: The hangdog choice, ideal for lifelong fans of the Detroit Lions or Baltimore Orioles, Murray bears a weary load of destiny as the best active British tennisperson and a nation's only hope for winning the Wimbledon name back from nasty outlanders. Unfortunately, he has the misfortune of playing in the same era as folks like Rafael Nadal, which continues to cause him some problems. Here, the pressure's off to show the Queen what's what, so he's a good bet to pick up at least a few rounds of victory. Also: He raps!
The Case Against: Lost in the Farmers Classic finals to Sam Querrey, permitting the SoCal local to secure a second consecutive Los Angeles title.
13. Sam Querrey (USA)
U.S. History: Fourth round, 2008
The Case For: This is a tough one. Querrey's won five tournaments this year, and just beat Murray last week, but the Brit has a more solid history of play on larger stages. Feel quite free to swap these two slots in the name of your country.
The Case Against: Has never made it even to the quarters of a Grand Slam.
14. Francesca Schiavone (Italy)
U.S. History: Quarterfinalist, 2003
The Case For: Schiavone is best known for having a weird facial resemblance to Rafael Nadal, and had made the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam three times in the last ten years before coming quite literally out of nowhere to win a very strange French Open in 2010.
The Case Against: ... which she followed up with a first-round loss at Wimbledon. Still, a high-appeal dark horse pick.
15. Maria Sharapova (Russia)
U.S. History: Winner, 2006
The Case For: On the scene since age 17, she makes a lot of American commercials and is thus the logical Eastern Bloc choice for the not particularly discerning American layperson. And she's into Mad Men, a factoid which can easily be worked into your fancy water cooler discussion thanks to this tournament's proximity to the Emmys.
The Case Against: Since her '06 victory, hasn't climbed higher than the third round at the US Open. Possesses that divinely uninspired Eastern European grunt, and knows how to use it.
16. Dinara Safina (Russia)
U.S. History: Has never finished higher than the semis here, but that's not ancient history (last time was 2008).
The Case For: Three Grand Slam finals berths in her pro career.
The Case Against: Here begins a three-part series of Russian and confused-with-Russian ladies who will be indistinguishable from one another to the average American thanks in large part to their not being Maria Sharapova. Useful mainly as names to casually drop mid-list in conversations about players to watch, to make you look cultured.
17. Jelena Jankovic (Serbia)
U.S. History: Finalist, 2008
The Case For: The strongest player in the Iron Curtain draw, her closest brush with Grand Slam glory came right here in the States.
The Case Against: See (15).
18. Elena Dementieva (Russia)
U.S. History: Finalist, 2004
The Case For: A two-time Grand Slam finalist, Dementieva's other near-miss title run came in 2004's French Open.
The Case Against: See (15).
19. James Blake (USA)
U.S. History: Quarterfinalist, 2005 & 2006
The Case For: Is American. Not a Russian lady. Wears a headband, which we as a nation seem to like. Has vague action-hero looks that could lend well to a movie career, which would be nice for him since he's not very good at tennis anymore.
The Case Against: Has made it to the quarters of a major on only one other occasion in the last ten years, although he cracked the semis in doubles last year at Wimbledon.
20. Rafael Nadal (Spain)
U.S. History: Never got out of the semis, because this is America, hermano.
The Case For: It's possible but distasteful to cheer for Nadal and Federer when both are appearing in the same tournament. Equate it to a rooting interest in the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys and you're on the right track. But if Fed-Fed doesn't crank your tractor, Real America, you can just as well reverse their positions here and be on solid ground.
The Case Against: Me, I send him to the cellar on account of his frequent and well-documented affinity for the wearing of manpris and thongs. You make your choice. But again, he's a grown-ass man wearing ladies' pants on international television. Either way, basic bracket math and a dozen droning pundits will remind you he's favored to meet Federer in the final.
21. Serena Williams (USA)
Seed: Really N/A
The Case Against: Williams The Younger is sort of like tennis' answer to Brett favre, in terms of ubiquity if not unlikability. Be prepared to hear a lot about her absence thanks to a glassware-related mishap. Do not be fooled into thinking you can name-drop her chances. I promise, she's not here.
JURY PRIZE: Awarded to sixth-seeded Nikolay Davydenko (Russia), who inspires a sort of morbid fascination thanks to looking like a malnourished baby bird and continuing to play successful tennis anyway, and to Kimiko Date Krumm of Japan, who popped back onto our radar with her French Open defeat of Safina, and who is OLDER THAN MICHAEL CHANG, a fact it is difficult to move past without pangs of sympathetic horror. Never has made it past the quarters here, but God love her, she went pro in 1989.
HONORARY ALL-NAME TEAM CHAMPS: Julie Coin (France), because "coin" means "quack" in France, so hey, Julie Quack! And 19th-seeded Mardy Fish (USA), who is perpetually confused for a Brit thanks to being named "Mardy Fish," which cannot help his crowd appeal here on his home soil.
NON-BINDING SOON-TO-LOOK-EXTREMELY FOOLISH PREDICTION: Tennis is chancey, but this isn't March Madness, and picking a 12-seed is dumb more often than it's not. Federer to reclaim the men's title and Wozniacki to break through at last.
Follow along with the US Open at SB Nation's The Daily Forehand.