It has been a fun year for tennis fans. On the men's side, we have seen two more fantastic slam finals between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, we have seen Roger Federer win his seventh Wimbledon and reassume his No. 1 ranking, and we have seen the long-awaited breakthrough of one Mr. Andy Murray. And even with Rafael Nadal out with a lingering knee injury, we have more than enough shorelines to carry us through two weeks in Queens.
With the U.S. Open starting this week, let's take a look at each "region" (each region equals one-quarter of the bracket) of the tournament, its most interesting matches, and its most fascinating story lines. Up now, The Federer Region, which begins play Monday morning. (See also: The Murray Region preview.)
Top Five Seeds
No. 1 Roger Federer
No. 6 Tomas Berdych
No. 11 Nicolas Almagro
No. 16 Gilles Simon
No. 22 Florian Mayer
Top Four First-Round Matches
No. 6 Tomas Berdych vs. David Goffin. Goffin was ranked 241st this time last year, but the Belgian made a nice run to the fourth round at the French Open (he even took a set off of Roger Federer in his fourth-round loss), made the third round at Wimbledon, and just last week pulled off a couple of upsets to reach the quarterfinals in Winston-Salem. Berdych, meanwhile, suffered tough upset losses, both at Wimbledon and in the Olympics, and has looked far from unbeatable in hard-court season. Berdych typically fares pretty well on the hard courts, but he is struggling to maintain his ranking this year.
No. 11 Nicolas Almagro vs. Radek Stepanek. You see that Almagro is from Spain, and you almost automatically assume that he is a clay-court specialist. But his offense-friendly game and general aggression tend to reflect just as well on the hard courts as the clay. But to make a nice run at the U.S. Open, he must first get past a player he's never beaten; grizzled old (33) Radek Stepanek is 2-0 versus Almagro and made the fourth round of the U.S. Open just three years ago. He could be an incredibly tough out.
No. 16 Gilles Simon vs. Michael Russell. Speaking of grizzled … American Michael Russell has been around forever. He's 34, he made the fourth round of the French Open IN 2001, and he is a likable, if quite limited player overall. He stands just 5'8 and counterpunches at all times, and while Gilles Simon probably won't have a problem with him, it bears mentioning that Russell did take a set off of Simon both times the two met.
No. 22 Florian Mayer vs. Jack Sock. Jack Sock is still establishing himself. The wonderfully-named 19-year-old from Lincoln is ranked 248th in the world and is basically still in the "full of sound and fury (big serve, capable of wicked ground strokes) signifying nothing (doesn't really know how to consistently craft points)" stage of his career. He held is own somewhat against Andy Roddick last year in the second round of the U.S. Open, and he upset world No. 73 Alex Bogomolov, Jr., in making the quarterfinals in Atlanta in July (he eventually fell to John Isner). It is a lot to ask of him to beat Mayer, but it will be interesting to see how his game is developing.
Top Three Story Lines
The American Region. Six Americans are among the 32 players in this "region," from a youngster like Sock, to journeymen like Robby Ginepri and Michael Russell, to the struggling Donald Young (who unfortunately drew Roger Federer in the first round). But in Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey, U.S. Tennis has two players capable of making a decent run. Fish was playing the best ball of his career before getting sidelined for a couple of months with a heart condition and losing a ton of points in the process (he fell from Top 10 to No. 24). Querrey, meanwhile, was as high as 17th in early-2011 before falling victim to injury issues as well. He has rebounded to 28th after falling to 106th as late as April. If an American makes an exciting run at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in the coming two weeks, the odds are good that it will come from this region.
Can Berdych Bounce Back? It's been a while since Tomas Berdych was at the top of his game. Not too long ago, I used him as an example of why men's tennis is so deep -- he is incredibly powerful, smart and athletic enough to take advantage of his skill set, but he has basically peaked around fifth or sixth in the world because of the quality above him. But it's been a semi-awful summer for the Czech. He faces a tough draw -- Goffin in the first round, potentially No. 34 Denis Istomin in the second, Sam Querrey in the third -- but he has the talent to coast through these matches if he finds his game.
Who Challenges Federer? This is a rather easy draw for Roger Federer, not that this really matters -- it's not like he loses early, tough draw or not. But could Fish or Simon give him a tough run in the fourth round? Or could someone like Berdych (a respectable 4-11 versus Federer, all-time), Almagro or Querrey in the quarterfinals?
Top Two Potential Later-Round Matches
Third Round: Tomas Berdych vs. Sam Querrey
Third Round: Gilles Simon vs. Mardy Fish
Top Player (i.e. the one making the semifinals)
Roger Federer. Of course. He's the best, and he has a lovely draw. You never know when upsets will strike -- just ask Rafael Nadal -- but odds favor Federer significantly.