- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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With Serena Williams and Justine Henin missing in action, the women's side at the upcoming U.S. Open is completely and utterly open to suggestion. Between the two of them, they have won 20 Grand Slam singles titles, four more than all the other entrants combined.
There are seven women in the field who have reached a Grand Slam final, and this is as good a time as any to break through and win that first career major. Given recent results, top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki -- who reached the U.S. Open final a year ago -- probably has the best chance to do that. The 20-year-old Dane won last week in Montreal and has the second-highest win total on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour.
"This event," ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert said Thursday, "is as wide open as any I have ever seen. I think we're going to have a first-time winner, the Scream Queen, Victoria Azarenka."
And so, with that first volley of breathless punditry, some 96 hours before the first ball goes up at the National Tennis Center, the potential paths to the championship were revealed.
Truth be told, there is an unsettled atmosphere surrounding the last major tournament of 2010.
The defending men's champion, Juan Martin del Potro, still attempting to come back from wrist surgery, is absent. No. 1 seed Rafael Nadal is going for his third consecutive major victory, but the best he's ever done in New York is reach the semifinals each of the past two years. Roger Federer was bounced from the past two Grand Slam events in the quarterfinals, but after winning last week in Cincinnati -- his first title in seven months -- he seems to have as good a chance as anyone.
Given the circumstances, one of the leading points of intrigue was where Maria Sharapova, the No. 14 seed, would fall. She seems to be nearly recovered from last year's shoulder surgery and, in some minds, the 2006 U.S. Open champion is the under-the-radar favorite.
Sharapova was dropped into the top half of the draw and could advance to play Wozniacki in the fourth round. That said, she faces what might be the toughest first-round match on the board, against French Open quarterfinalist Jarmila Groth.
Kim Clijsters, the No. 2 seed, is probably the best pure hard-court player in the field, but she has been troubled by a hip injury. On Thursday, she said it felt much better.
"I know if I play good tennis, I can beat anyone out there," Clijsters said during ESPN's draw telecast. "People are going to automatically make me one of the favorites. Physically, I feel good. I'm just going to try and play my best tennis."
Something less might be enough to reach the quarterfinals, given that Clijsters' fourth-round opponent would most likely by Marion Bartoli or former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic. Venus Williams, troubled by a knee injury, hasn't played since Wimbledon. Still, if she can feel her way through the early rounds as she has in the past, she could meet No. 10 seed Azarenka in the quarters and, perhaps, Clijsters in the semifinals.
"I don't think [Clijsters'] game is quite where she would like it, but, now, the U.S. Open is certainly a different tournament," said Jimmy Connors, an eight-time major champion and a Tennis Channel analyst, in a Thursday conference call. "Last year, she just came back and she was hot to trot to win a U.S. Open and came in with no pressure, and now she's got the pressure."
Nadal, too, will be feeling that pressure with so many milestones on the line. He has pulled back his summer schedule and played only seven matches since Wimbledon. In years past, he has looked exhausted by the time he's gotten to New York, so this certainly gives him a better chance to complete a career Grand Slam.
That's the good news for Rafa. The bad news: No. 4 seed Andy Murray fell into his half of the draw; they could meet in the semifinals. Murray, 10-2 this summer, defeated Nadal and Federer recently in Toronto. That accomplishment alone could give him the confidence to win his first major. Murray's biggest early obstacle appears to be No. 7 seed Tomas Berdych, with whom he would collide in the quarters.
Federer made his life in New York a lot easier by winning nine of 10 matches in the recent ATP World Tour Masters 1000 events. If he had remained No. 3 in the rankings, he probably would have had a tougher draw. But by reaching the final in Toronto (losing to Murray) and winning last week in Cincinnati, he guaranteed himself the No. 2 seed, keeping him clear of Nadal at least until the finals.
Although Federer's early matches look like layups, Roland Garros nemesis No. 5 seed Robin Soderling lurks in his quarterfinal bracket.
Perhaps the hottest player on the men's side this summer is Mardy Fish, who has gone 16-2. After jumping 50 spots in the rankings with two titles and three finals, he's the No. 19 seed.
Fish, who has lost 30 pounds, said his confidence has increased in proportion to his fitness.
"I've always worked hard, but I've gone until I got tired," said Fish, a quarterfinalist here in 2008. "Now I keep going. This is the best I've ever played. I'd like to sort of step it up on a big stage."
Said Connors, "To be honest with you, I think Mardy has a good chance. If he can handle the three-out-of-five [sets] over a two-week period. He certainly has been playing the kind of tennis over the course of the summer to put him in as a contender."
Another dangerous floater, No. 31 seed David Nalbandian, who landed in Nadal's quarter section. Nalbandian, 11-2 this summer, would meet No. 8 seed Fernando Verdasco in the third round and might be the best bet to reach the quarterfinals opposite Nadal.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The names in the game now know what lies ahead in their paths to U.S. Open glory. For some, a cushy draw awaits, but for others (ahem, Caroline Wozniacki), no such luck.