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Nadal faces few obstacles en route to semifinals

8/21/2008 - Tennis

Tournament: U.S. Open
Surface: Hard
Draw: 128
Top seeds: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer

In 2004, the last time Roger Federer was the second seed at a Grand Slam, he won the Australian Open. Surely he's hoping for the same outcome in New York.

Federer is trying to become the first man to capture five straight U.S. Opens since Bill Tilden won six in a row starting in 1920.

Standing in his way are the usual suspects, surging new No. 1 Rafael Nadal and third-ranked Novak Djokovic, who landed in Federer's half.

First quarter: Gentle for Rafa
Nadal has a tame quarter, so he'll get a chance to ease his way into the event following a grueling three months. Nadal begins with a qualifier, then might face sagging Belgian Olivier Rochus in the second round and explosive German Philipp Kohlschreiber, the 25th seed, in the third.

In the past, Kohlschreiber has tested Nadal, and he generally raises his game against the big boys. His high-risk game won't cut it over five sets, though -- at least not against Nadal.

Ivo Karlovic, the 14th seed, is slated to be Nadal's fourth-round foe. For all his big serving, the Croat, a tight loser to Nadal at the Artois Championships in June, has made it to the round of 16 in a major only once.

The bottom of the section features ninth-seeded James Blake, who's fresh off his upset win over Federer at the Olympics.

Cheered on by the J-Block, Blake has an intriguing opener against fellow American Donald Young, who's still struggling at the top level.

Remember David Nalbandian? He brushed off an arm injury to compete at the Olympics, but lost early. Thanks to the injury, his lack of match practice and his general form, the Argentina native is no threat.

Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, who thrashed Nalbandian at the Australian Open, Robin Soderling or Gael Monfils figures to oust Nalbandian before the second week.

A Nadal-Blake quarterfinal, a likely night match, would entice. Nadal has won their past two encounters, both on hard courts.

Prediction: Nadal

Second quarter: Murray's for the taking
Carrying the hopes of a nation (kingdom?), Andy Murray suffered a hugely embarrassing first-round exit to virtual unknown Yen-Hsun Lu in Beijing. That was all the more surprising considering he reached the semifinals at the Toronto Masters and won in Cincinnati the next week for his maiden Masters title. He blamed the defeat on a lack of preparation and vowed it wouldn't happen again.

The sixth seed, a fan of the Open and former junior winner, may get his first serious test in the third round against flashy Spaniard Feliciano Lopez. Murray usually eats up big servers -- he demolished Karlovic in Cincinnati.

He'll probably face 10th-seeded Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka, his good friend, in the fourth round. Five of their six meetings have gone the distance.

Juan Martin Del Potro, riding a 19-match winning streak, has an interesting start against fellow Argentine Guillermo Canas, who has been bothered by a wrist injury this season. Del Potro's potential third-round opponent is Frenchman Gilles Simon -- who's also semi-hot.

Former college standout John Isner, who made a splash at last year's tournament by taking a set off Federer, is favored to meet No. 4 seed and 2007 semifinalist David Ferrer in Round 2. Given Ferrer's form, Isner has more than a chance.

Prediction: Murray

Third quarter: Does Roddick have the magic?
Talk about an awkward opener for Andy Roddick, whose summer has been hindered by a neck injury: The eighth seed meets French magician Fabrice Santoro. Santoro, who stretched Blake to five sets in New York last year in a memorable match under the lights, won their last tussle in 2007. This could be the 35-year-old's last appearance at a Grand Slam.

If Roddick advances, Latvian Ernests Gulbis presents more danger in the second round. That one could go either way.

Djokovic, last year's runner-up, faces a possible rematch with former U.S. Open semifinalist Robby Ginepri in the third round. (The Serb prevailed in a tight contest in Beijing.) Ginepri probably will have to overcome quickly rising Croat Marin Cilic, seeded 30th, in the second.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga pops up in this section, though it remains to be seen whether he'll actually show up. The dynamic Australian Open finalist pulled out of this week's Pilot Pen event because he has not yet recovered from knee surgery.

Prediction: Djokovic

Fourth quarter: Roger's quest
Like Nadal, Federer eases into the fortnight, starting against Argentine journeyman Maximo Gonzalez and meeting a qualifier in the second round if he progresses.

If Czech Radek Stepanek reaches the third round, an exciting match beckons. Stepanek is a game competitor who beat Federer the last time they battled. He's also no stranger to New York thrillers, as he lost to Djokovic in five enthralling sets in 2007. But improving Floridian Jesse Levine might put up a strong fight against Stepanek, assuming the lefty navigates past big-serving Aussie Chris Guccione.

Federer is scheduled to face fifth-seeded Nikolay Davydenko, a two-time U.S. Open semifinalist, in the last eight. Davydenko, though, is slumping and struggling with motivation.

The dangerous Richard Gasquet and Fernando Verdasco also are potential opposition for Federer. In one of the first-round matches to focus on, Gasquet battles German veteran Tommy Haas.

Prediction: Federer

Semifinals
Djokovic has toppled Federer in two of their past three hard-court matches, and the latter's form has waned since he lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open semis. Djokovic took bronze in Beijing, realistically deprived of a gold only by Nadal.

Murray continues to play Nadal tough on hard courts, but he can't seem to win the big points. Understandably, Nadal isn't lacking in confidence, either.

Prediction: Nadal, Djokovic to advance

Final
It could be the first of many battles between Nadal and Djokovic in a Grand Slam final. It's a 50-50 call. Djokovic routed Nadal in the semifinals of the Cincinnati Masters and Nadal gained revenge at the Olympics, even though Djokovic dominated in stretches. Will Djokovic be able to maintain the level needed throughout five sets?

Prediction: Nadal

Ravi Ubha is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.