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US Open 2003: Previewing the Men

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Contributing Writer, USOpen.org

The highest level of men’s tennis competition on the planet will come together and compete in the largest sporting event in the world, as the 2003 US Open Tennis Championships will kick off on Monday morning, Aug. 25, and conclude with the decisive men’s final on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 7.

Last year the talk of the US Open was Pete Sampras. He looked close to retirement two months earlier when he lost in the first round at Wimbledon and didn’t seem fit to continue his career. However, winning his 5th US Open and 14th Grand Slam title over fellow American and long-time nemesis Andre Agassi not only proved the critics wrong, but made for unbelievable drama.

But with Sampras sitting out the tournament, who will be the talk of the 2003 US Open Tennis Championships? Only one of what many believe are the finest athletes in the world will emerge from the pack and hold the trophy up in the air, forever etching another Sunday afternoon moment tennis history.

128 men will walk into the USTA National Tennis Center hoping for that dream to come true, but just one will finish the two-week journey a winner. So who are the fittest and finest men on the ATP Tour heading into the US Open?

USOpen.org sizes up the title chances of the familiar names likely to take part in the 2003 US Open Tennis Championships.

The Frontrunners

Andre Agassi — Agassi’s career has seen it’s ups and downs, perhaps more dramatically so than any athlete in the history of sports, but one thing that was always evident even during the low points of Andre’s career was that the US Open was his most consistent Grand Slam tournament. Sure, in his most recent comeback he has owned the Australian Open, and he has been no slouch on the grass and clay over the years, but he always seems to save his best for Flushing.

There is another key for Andre — his nemesis Pete Sampras will not be competing this year. Why is this key? Andre has reached the final five times in his US Open career, and has lost three time — all to Sampras. Of the two times Agassi did win the crown, Sampras was eliminated early in the 1994 tournament, and in 1999 he was out with an injury. Maybe Sampars didn’t knock Agassi out every single year, but it certainly seems like he did, and it would surprise nobody if Andre himself felt a relief knowing Pete is home watching on television.

Lleyton Hewitt — After winning his first Grand Slam ever here in 2001 against Pete Sampras, and fresh off his second Slam title in Wimbledon last year, Hewitt returned to Flushing last year as the No. 1 player in the world. Hoping for a second straight showdown with Sampras, Hewitt was denied by Andre Agassi in the semifinal, and has been in a bit of a tailspin ever since. He fell in the fourth round in Australia, then in the third round in France, and finally was dethroned in the very first round at Wimbledon, a loss that also knocked him all the way down to No. 5 in the world.

Hewitt has a history of being inconsistent when playing with a head of steam, and with his recent woes on his mind — last year’s loss to Agassi in particular — revenge will be on his mind. He’ll likely have a decent draw with his low world ranking, so perhaps he’ll take the mindset of underdog and roll into another final.

Andy Roddick — Sooner or later it was bound to happen. Andy Roddick has everything it takes to be a top tier tennis star, and following in the footsteps of Pete Sampras, the hard serving, talented American is improving every year in every Grand Slam except for the French Open, where the clay surface seems to take a little bite out of his game. Sampras managed to win 14 Grand Slams without ever reaching a final in France, let alone a title.

Roddick followed up back-to-back trips to the quarterfinals here in Flushing with his first ever semifinal appearance, at the Australian Open in January. Then, following his hiccup in France, Roddick reached another semifinal at Wimbledon, losing to eventual champion Roger Federer.

Like Agassi, the US Open crowd seems to bring out the best in Roddick, and all indications are that he is all set to get over the hump and get to his first-ever final. Then, anything is possible.

The Contenders

Roger Federer — Everyone is jumping on the Roger Federer bandwagon. It seems as if all the hype revolving around Roger’s serve-and-volley game and all-around ability is finally being realized. In fact, if Federer can get to the final here, he has a legitimate shot at finishing the year ranked No. 1 in the world. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. While the Swiss Sensation has been red-hot, winning his first Grand Slam title last month at Wimbledon, he does not have a very strong history at the majors otherwise. In 16 career Grand Slam events going into Wimbledon, he won just 29 total matches and only advanced to the quarterfinals twice. Last month alone he won seven matches. A breakthrough, yes, but let’s see him gain a little consistency before we anoint him another title.

Juan Carlos Ferrero — “The Mosquito” had many people buzzing when he plowed through the field at Roland Garros and took home his first Grand Slam crown a few months ago. But it is beginning to look like Ferrero is a one-trick pony, unable to match his dominance off the clay. Ferrero was riding high after a huge run in Paris, where he followed up his semifinal appearance in 2001 with a trip to the final in 2002, and wrapped it up with the title in 2003. But unfortunately, he once again was dropped early at Wimbledon, and even though he’s likely to be a top seed here at the US Open, he will have a tough time getting to the quarterfinal, let alone the final.

Sjeng Schalken —The Dutchman made quite a name for himself a year ago, when going into Wimbledon he had a losing record in his seven year's worth of Grand Slam events, courtesy of 15 first round losses, five second round losses, and eight third round losses. Then he erupted — not only finally breaking past the third round, but advancing all the way to the quarterfinal, where he finally fell to eventual champ Hewitt.

Fluke? No. He came back and did one better at the US Open, reaching the semifinal where he once again fell to the eventual champ (Sampras). While he did seem to revert back to his early round ways in the Australian and French Opens, he did lose to decent opponents (Mario Ancic and Fernando Gonzalez, respectively), and then last month reached another quarterfinal at Wimbledon, where he lost to, you guessed it, eventual champ Federer. If the draw can set up so that the eventual champion is not in his side of the bracket, he may make the finals this year.

The Sleepers

Marat Safin — After beating Sampras in the final here three years ago, Safin was heralded the next great thing, and here and there has shown signs of what could be. But after losing in the finals at the Australian Open last year he fell apart completely, suffering through a horrible season in which he didn’t win a single title until December.

However, that was the first sign that he was finally putting all his extraordinary talent together. With the monkey off his back, he seemed to add some confidence to his monster serves and soft touch, and was suddenly a force again. Unfortunately, injuries hit just as he got hot, and he pulled out of Sydney and the Australian Open with a sore shoulder. Since then, he hasn’t played much at all.

Supposedly the time off is doing him well, and he plans to play here in August. If he can take advantage of his low seed (if he even gets one) and can shake off the rust with an easy draw, he might just surprise a few and make a dramatic return to the final, much the way Mark Philippoussis did at Wimbledon last month.

Fernando Gonzalez — The Chilean reached the quarterfinals last year, and is really one to watch. After titling at the World Team Championships in Germany on clay, Gonzalez lost to eventual champ Ferrero in the French Open quarterfinals, then has only played one match since (a first round loss on grass at Wimbledon). Clay is by far his best surface to play on, but last year was no fluke. Gonzalez has a propensity for the dramatic — he has a winning record against top 10 players, and this year alone has defeated Hewitt, Schalken, David Nalbandian, Felix Mantilla, Jiri Novak and Jan-Michael Gambill, with only one loss to a top player (Ferrero at the French Open). This could be the real sleeper of the group.

Mark Philippoussis — Questions of The Scud’s health were answered last month at Wimbledon, when Philippoussis nearly went all the way, falling in the final to Federer. The 1998 runner-up hasn’t been on his serve in about five years. If the heat index is high late August and early September on the sweltering courts of Flushing, so will Philippoussis’ chances to return to glory.

Note: The opinions expressed by the writer in this piece do not necessarily represent the opinions of the USTA Organization.

Posted 7:24 pm, October 10, 2011
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