The year's final major, the U.S. Open, gets going in Flushing, N.Y., this week, and with it comes the usual bevy of questions.
Is Roger Federer, after a relative dry spell, on the downslope of his career? Can Rafael Nadal finally win this tournament and complete his career Grand Slam? And on the women's side, is Serena Williams recovered from a nontennis-related foot injury she suffered after winning Wimbledon?
These questions and more will be answered when the U.S. Open gets going Monday, Aug. 30, from the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. ESPN2, CBS and the Tennis Channel will offer coverage for the next fortnight through the men's final on Sept. 12.
Federer, a 16-time Grand Slam champ, has hit some relatively hard times of late, taking quarterfinal exits in both the French Open and Wimbledon, thus giving rise to talk that at the advanced tennis age of 29, his best days may be behind him. Toward that end, he's hired Pete Sampras' former coach Paul Annacone to help him fine-tune his game and hopefully propel him to the top one more time.
But Jim Courier, a four-time Grand Slam champ who now works for CBS as a tennis analyst, thinks Federer's woes may be as much mental as physical.
"To me it certainly shows an indication of him needing some change of energy," he says, "and it'll be interesting to see how that plays out because a coaching relationship is an intimate relationship. It certainly can alter your chemistry in the locker room, and when you go out onto the court it's another thing to think about.
"So we'll see how quickly those guys jell," Courier says. "Paul is a great coach with a great track record of working with players like Roger and taking him to greater heights. So it's a good choice from that standpoint, but it's something else for Roger to think about. We'll see if that helps him or not. I think the jury's still out as to whether it'll be a plus or a minus at this point.
"I'm not a doubter of Roger's talent," Courier continues. "His talent is intact. Physically, at the Australian Open this year, he was as good as I'd seen him. He moved unbelievably well and dominated the guys down there. It's a confidence play for him. If he gets confident and rolling, I like him against everybody except Nadal."
Speaking of Nadal, the eight-time Grand Slam champ needs only a title here to complete his career Grand Slam (championships at Wimbledon and the Australian, French and U.S. Opens). But he has some baggage as well, namely knee and ankle injuries that have hampered him in recent years, problems that won't be helped by the synthetic hardcourt surface in Flushing. He's also admitted to a disdain for hardcourts.
Still, Courier likes the 24-year-old Spaniard's chances."For the first time, I think he's the favorite coming into the Open," he says. "And the reason I would say that is even though he won the Olympic Games two years ago after he'd won Wimbledon and the French, he was also coming in pretty fatigued, and I didn't feel like, physically, he was a favorite. Now, he's coming in well rested so he'll have had a four- to five-week rest off the road. He'll get these two tournaments in Canada and Cincinnati and another week off of rest before the Open, and that's really the key for him. He's proven he can play exceptionally well on all surfaces. He's won in Australia, which is a similar surface to the U.S. Open, so he's my favorite at this point."
But will his knees stand up to the pounding?
"He certainly had some indications of pain at Wimbledon," Courier says, "but he got through those. And it was my understanding coming out of Wimbledon that he was going to get a little more treatment on one of his knees that should get him through the summer hardcourt season unscathed. Obviously, like everyone else in the world, he's listed as day to day; he could wake up and have a problem. But assuming health, which I think his schedule should promote, he's on the court right now, and he's the favorite -- if he's healthy."
Health is also an issue for three-time U.S. Open champ and current World No. 1 Serena Williams. Back in July, she suffered a deep cut on her foot after stepping on glass at a restaurant, which required stitches to close. She's been avoiding hardcourt tournaments since, so even if she's not completely healed, she will be coming into Flushing well rested.
"I think Serena, depending on her injury, she hurt her foot right after Wimbledon. Assuming she's healthy, she's your favorite." Courier says. "I like the way that Serena handles her schedule as far as picking her spots and making sure she gets rest. It's what Rafa is now trying to emulate. It's what Federer has been doing for years -- make sure you're ready to play your best tennis at the moments that count most, which are the majors. So I think Serena's your favorite."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun