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Andre (Agassi) vs. Andrei (Pavel) in first round

8/29/2006 - Tennis

Just about all the big names have RSVP'd for this party. How long some of the honored guests are able to stay at the U.S. Open is another matter.

Andre Agassi, playing his final pro tournament just one year removed from his last appearance in the Open final, will have a hard time playing his way that deep in this year's draw even if his aching back behaves. Agassi enters as an unseeded player for the first time since 1997, when he was No. 63 and clawing his way back up the rankings. He'll play Romania's Andrei Pavel in the first round and then most likely have to get by eighth-seeded Cypriot sensation Marcos Baghdatis in the second round to advance.

The man who beat Agassi in the 2005 final, No. 1 Roger Federer, is favored to make it three straight. But young Scot Andy Murray -- who has one of five wins against Federer this season -- looks poised to make a good run, and 2003 champion Andy Roddick will be looking to carry over the energy from his first title of 2006.

On the women's side, there's one notable absence, one certain exit and one player few expect to stick around much longer.

Defending women's champ Kim Clijsters won't be in Flushing Meadows to defend her title, and Martina Navratilova will bring the second chapter of her epic career to a close after playing in the doubles draw. After nursing a back injury for much of the season, 1998 champ Lindsay Davenport will try to make the most of her relatively favorable draw.

Smart money says the women's final will be a predictable clash of the top two women, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin-Hardenne, who between them have captured the first three Grand Slam events this season.

Here's a breakdown of the brackets, with a few predictions:

Men's draw, top half
Two-time defending champion Federer should march to a quarterfinal showdown with No. 5 James Blake, unless Blake trips over Dmitry Tursunov in the previous round. The 23rd-seeded Russian has played well on U.S. hard courts this summer. Blake, who is 0-4 against Federer, is 3-4 and has yet to win back-to-back matches since beating Roddick in the RCA Championships last month.

Murray, the 17th seed, has had a hot hand since hiring coach Brad Gilbert, and he'll need that momentum to defeat probable opponents Fernando Gonzalez of Chile in the third round and seventh seed Nikolay Davydenko in the round of 16.

Robby Ginepri and Germany's Tommy Haas could meet in the third round as they did at last year's Open. If Ginepri wins, he'd likely face fourth seed David Nalbandian in the round of 16 for the first time in his career.

Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski will square off in a first-round Battle of Britain, and Nalbandian and unseeded 2000 Open champ Marat Safin of Russia should meet in the second round.

Men's draw, bottom half
While most eyes will be on Agassi, Spanish slugger Rafael Nadal should stroll through the early rounds until he meets countryman Tommy Robredo in the quarterfinals. The sixth seed has never beaten Nadal, but I'm picking the pesky Robredo to break through here and earn a meeting with Roddick or Ivan Ljubicic in the semis.

If Agassi can get by Baghdatis, his likely third-round opponent would be Sebastien Grosjean. Agassi is 4-3 lifetime against the 30th-seeded Frenchman but has won four of their five hardcourt matches. The prize for surviving that match: Roddick in the round of 16, presuming that he turned the corner last week with his first tournament win of the season. Roddick has beaten Agassi only once in six tries, but they haven't played since 2004, when Agassi bested him in the semifinals at Cincinnati. Ljubicic should lurk in the quarterfinals, though he might have to fend off Lleyton Hewitt or a dogged Mardy Fish -- who's logged a solid comeback season -- to get there.

U.S. junior champion Donald Young (0-9 in ATP Tour events), paired against 20th seed Novak Djokovic, is unlikely to get his first pro win here.

Women's draw, top half
Despite Nadia Petrova's recent rotten streak (winless in her last five matches dating to a first-round loss at the French Open), I see the fifth-seeded Russian working her way through her half of the bracket, though she'll have a surprise quarterfinal opponent -- the inspired Li Na of China, fresh off an upset of third seed Maria Sharapova in the round of 16.

The other side is a bit harder to call despite the presence of Mauresmo. The French star likely will have to play Serena Williams and eighth seed Martina Hingis on her way to the semis. Williams has a 9-1 lifetime record over Mauresmo, though that probably means little given the unseeded Williams' truncated season. Mauresmo has prevailed over Hingis in the two matches they've played since Hingis' return to the WTA circuit, but the Swiss Miss has improved steadily all year and comes into this tournament in the top 10 for the first time in 2006.

Williams probably will take on U.S. Open Series winner Ana Ivanovic of Serbia in the third round, and Ivanovic will have the small extra motivation of a $1 million bonus if she wins her first Slam.

Women's draw, bottom half
Adrenaline and heart might be enough to take Davenport to the quarterfinals against second-seeded Henin-Hardenne. Davenport would have to beat the enigmatic Patty Schnyder to get there -- but it's hard to see her getting around the feisty Belgian at that point.

Svetlana Kuznetsova's sixth seed is somewhat misleading. She hasn't played well this summer, and I'm picking ninth-seeded Czech teen Nicole Vaidisova to oust her in the round of 16.

Meanwhile, Russia's Elena Dementieva will knock off Venus Williams in the third round and swat her way to a semifinal collision with Henin-Hardenne.

Men's Final Four
Federer over Murray, Ljubicic over Robredo
Winner: Federer

Women's Final Four
Hingis over Petrova, Henin-Hardenne over Dementieva
Winner: Henin-Hardenne

Frequent contributor Bonnie DeSimone is covering the U.S. Open for ESPN.com.