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Possible Thrillers Await at US Open

When the 2008 US Open commences play Monday morning in Gotham, tennis fans will likely be reveling in the most narrative-worthy, and deepest, men's field in quite some time. While the electrifying, already legendary Wimbledon final won by Rafael Nadal will most certainly remain the centerpiece to this year's tennis campaign, several storylines have emerged since that incandescent match which should make the year's final Grand Slam a thrilling event - and possibly provide the US Open with its first five-set final in a decade.

Five-set finals are indeed rare in Flushing - not since Andre Agassi defeated Todd Martin in the 1999 final has a US Open championships gone the distance (and before that, it was Mats Wilander's 1988 victory over Ivan Lendl). But with the depth in men's tennis expanding with such alacrity this summer, there is a great chance we could be witness to a thrilling final, worthy of the setting.

Of course we start with Nadal, the undisputed No. 1 player on the planet. He is undoubtedly the favorite for the tournament, especially with the burnishing of his hard court credentials. The Man from Mallorca arrived here in the Big Apple as the gold medal winner in Beijing. He also won the Masters Series event in Canada in July. Both of those events were contested on a court surface similar to that at the Open - so any questions about his ability to win big events on hard courts have vanished.

If Rafa were to emerge victorious in New York, all of a sudden many will be declaring his 2008 as perhaps the finest men's year in the Open Era. Who would have expected this at the start of the year? After all, Nadal didn't win his first tournament until late April.

Roger Federer's immutable stranglehold on No. 1 ranking finally ended a week ago as Nadal usurped the Swiss master (and if Federer has a poor showing at the Open, he'll likely finish the year ranked third). This has been a deeply disappointing season for the graceful and brilliant Federer as he seeks to surpass Pete Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles (Fed is currently stuck on 12).

But the signs were there last year, of an imminent decline, if one looked carefully - Roger barely escaped defeat in the 2007 Wimbledon final when Nadal failed to take advantage of break points in the fifth set and then Novak Djokovic practically gave the first two sets away at last year's US Open final.

Federer is a proud champion, though, and he is utterly driven to end the year on an up note. But with players gaining confidence when playing The Roger - even those he's dominated throughout his career - it would command a nearly flawless fortnight for Federer to win an extraordinary fifth consecutive US Open championship.

And then there were three. Such were the declarations of tennis observers when Djokovic, the 21-year-old Serb and current third-ranked player, won his first major title at the Australian Open back in January. Suddenly, Grand Slam titles were not the sole province of Federer and Nadal - similar to the way John McEnroe stepped in and threatened the reign of Borg and Connors in 1979. The outgoing Djokovic may well get a chance to make amends for his tense showing in last year's final against Federer as the two are slated to meet in the semifinals. If Djokovic wins the US Open, he'll have a chance to end 2008 as the No. 1 player in the world.

While the Big Three of Nadal, Federer and Djokovic are the heavy favorites to take the US Open title, a couple of much heralded players have made significant, if not stunning, progress this summer to materialize as perils to the aforementioned. Both Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro have been touted by the most prescient tennis observers as two possible future No. 1 players. But, in the obscenely youth-obsessed sport of tennis, the 21-year-old Murray and almost-20 Del Potro had been considered "slow developers" - that is until this year.

Murray's all-court acumen has finally been bolstered by a stronger resolve this year and the results are coming fast. Earlier this summer, the moody Scotsman won the first significant title of his career, claiming the Masters event in Cincinnati. If Murray can remain focused and maintain his improved stamina, he should advance far in the draw.

Del Potro is the hottest player in the world without the surname of Nadal. The imposing 6-foot-6, 19-year-old Argentine possesses lethal groundstrokes off both sides and an increasingly powerful serve. His biggest flaw up to now had been a raging inconsistency that would baffle many. However, any questions on that have been answered in resolute fashion as the exciting Del Potro has won four consecutive tournaments heading into the Open.

Whatever transpires at Arthur Ashe stadium on the final Sunday, Sept. 7, this much is clear - the 2008 US Open will surely determine who ends up the No. 1 player in the world. And that person will not be Roger Federer.

Here, in brief, is a summary of the 2008 US Open draw, with predictions:

TOP QUARTER

Rafael Nadal, finally the #1 seed in a Grand Slam event, has a few roadblocks in his view but should reach the semifinals. First, though, he may have to take on the biggest server in the game, 6-10 Ivo Karlovic in the fourth round. The inconsistent and mercurial David Nalbandian and Gael Monfils also lurk but James Blake would likely be Rafa's quarterfinal foil. Nadal has a losing record against Blake and has lost to the talented American at the US Open previously. If they were to meet - this will not be a matinee - they'll battle it out under the lights.

Prediction: Nadal

SECOND QUARTER

Without question this quarter of the draw is the most interesting and clearly the most competitive. Residing in this portion are the two young stars, Andy Murray and Juan martin Del Potro. In addition, another player coming of age, Frenchman Gilles Simon, could cause some havoc - he and Del Potro are slated to meet in the third round. But it's the possible quarterfinal showdown between Murray and Del Potro that could be one of the best matches of the tournament.

Prediction: Del Potro

THIRD QUARTER

Novak Djokovic, reigning Australian Open champion, has had a relatively disappointing summer season. But he is the beneficiary of the weakest portion of the draw with only a possible third-round match against up-and-comer Croatian Marin Cilic a possible obstacle. Djokovic should meet Andy Roddick, the eighth seed in the quarters. Roddick has also had a disappointing year and would love nothing more than to shine in his favorite tournament.

Prediction: Djokovic

FOURTH QUARTER

No. 2 Roger Federer, like Djokovic, gets the benefit of a relatively easy draw. Federer should reach the semifinals with little difficulty with only the talented but inconsistent Richard Gasquet or No. 5 Nikolay Davydenko posing any difficulty for the Swiss stylist. It's usually not wise to look too far ahead of your next opponent, but in this case Federer may have to - he'll most likely face DJokovic in the semifinals. And that is where Federer's tournament will likely end.

Prediction: Federer

SEMIFINALS

Nadal defeats Del Potro

Djokovic defeats Federer

FINAL

Nadal defeats Djokovic in five sets, the first of perhaps several Grand Slam final meetings between these two.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports on Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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