- Joel Drucker
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With three Grand Slams completed, players over these next six weeks are exceptionally compulsive about getting themselves in the proper fighting mood for the U.S. Open. "The way I see it," Serena Williams says, "is that New York is your last big chance. Call it the showdown."
But as a look at the leading men and women reveals, pacing and scheduling during this summer's U.S. Open Series varies greatly. American men, for example, have grown up on hard courts and seek as much match play as their bodies can take. Besides, after spending most of the past three months struggling even to make phone calls in Europe, the sight of a Marriott or a McDonald's is downright comforting.
Europeans, such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, approach North America the way a child views vegetables: necessary, but they don't go overboard. Don't expect to see these two competing anywhere but the mandatory ATP Masters Series events in Montreal and Cincinnati.
Matters get rather confusing on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, where tons of last-minute withdrawals often leave fans, sponsors and viewers frustrated. As much as the tour is seeking to address these problems by 2009, the disparities between promotional posters and playing fields are rather unsettling.
Nonetheless, the U.S. Open Series is unquestionably the time of year when the greatest number of Americans are likely to get excited about tennis. Here's a snapshot of some of the major contenders.
Andy Roddick: This could very well be the most important two-month stretch of Roddick's career. Since he turned pro in 2000, Roddick's been expected to be America's next great champion. Though he put many doubts to rest when he won the U.S. Open in 2003, in tennis, four years is a long time. Under Jimmy Connors' tutelage, Roddick has improved greatly, seeking ways to improve his backhand and overall court management. But just how high can his skills take him? No one knows the answer, but what is certain is that this summer Roddick will compete with exceptional passion, particularly as he tries to shake off the ill effects of losing a two sets to love and 4-2 lead in the Wimbledon quarterfinals versus Richard Gasquet -- likely the most vexing defeat of his career.
Twenty-five years old this coming August, Roddick is young enough to have good days ahead, but old enough to value their importance. As he said following his Wimbledon loss, "When you put your blood, sweat and tears, everything you have into something, and it doesn't work out, it's not easy. But that's what makes you addicted to the competition, you know, is the feeling when you do win. That's what gets you back on the horse."
Rafael Nadal: Last year, Nadal took all of July off. When he returned to competition in August, he showed rare rust in Toronto and Cincinnati, losing early in both events. The lack of match play hurt him in New York, where he was upset in the quarters. This year, Nadal's taking a new approach, competing this week at a clay-court tournament in Stuttgart, Germany, -- a confidence-building appetizer, if you will. Having added more zip to his serve and an increased aptitude for volleying, Nadal -- still a mere 21 years old -- should be keen this year for a solid summer run and his first strong New York showing.
Roger Federer: The man knows all about pacing. No doubt this month he's laying low, recovering from the exhausting Paris-London effort. He'll surface in August for his two events and then make his way to New York. For all the talk about ways he must enhance his game if he's to win the French Open, dare one dispute his massive success? Still, it will be interesting to see how hard he's pressed this summer.
Novak Djokovic: Clearly the world's third-best player in 2007, he's shown great skill and better yet, the hunger to improve. At age 20, does he have the physical stamina to fight hard this summer? A victory at a U.S. Open Series could give him tremendous confidence headed into New York.
James Blake: Hopes to salvage a disappointing '07 -- merely 5-3 at the Slams, and without a title since January -- with good results on his favorite surface. It's still rather staggering to see how hard Blake worked to make himself a top-10 player. This is the time to prove he's got the goods to stay there.
Venus Williams: On the way to winning her fourth Wimbledon title, what was even more impressive than her trademark resolve were her upgrades on the forehand and smart mix of defense and offense. But the history of both sisters has often been a big win followed by an exile. One hopes this year proves an exception and that Venus remains healthy and hungry.
Serena Williams: Victories in Australia and Miami showed exceptional commitment and fortitude, however, she played tepidly at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. Are injuries merely bad luck or a sign of indifferent training? Tough call, but even more than Venus, it's tough to use any pre-Slam results as a meaningful gauge.
Justine Henin: Like one of those sleek cars that requires proper tuning, Henin is very careful about calibrating her mix of competition, off-court fitness and downtime. It's a shame that this results in this great stylist -- as close as a woman comes to playing like Roger Federer -- probably playing just one tournament between now and the U.S. Open.
Maria Sharapova: Enduring her first significant hiccup. Even if you excuse the shoulder injury that's dragged down the velocity on her serve, what's most disturbing is the way her power-baseline game and poor movement has been unmasked. Her three Slam losses have all been big-time whuppings. Much like Roddick, she's a gritty competitor in search of better skills. Raw firepower from the baseline may not be enough once a new crop can absorb the blows and cover the court far better.
Jelena Jankovic: The ascending darling of 2007, graced with baseline heat and fine movement. She has played the daylights out of the circuit, racking up a 54-13 record by the end of Wimbledon. Hopefully, she'll pace herself wisely this summer so she doesn't arrive in New York burnt out.