Sunday, August 27, 2006

U.S. Open Set To Kick Off Monday, Federer Aims For Three-Peat While Sharapova Goes For First

In a year where Andre Agassi will finally call it a career, the storylines for the 2006 U.S. Open couldn't be more different for the two fields.

While Agassi will try to give New Yorkers one last thrill, men's world number one Roger Federer is aiming for a three-peat. The recently turned 25 year-old Swiss Maestro has continued to be the most dominant player in the game- having captured two more slams (Australian, Wimbledon) and fallen to Rafael Nadal at the French Open final.

That's now eight for his career which is starting to rival career slam holder Pete Sampras. If Federer can capture his third U.S. Open in a row, he'll be only five short of Sampras' record 14. The last man to win three straight in New York was Ivan Lendl (1985-87).

Standing in his path could be a familiar rival in Andy Roddick. After struggling for much of the season, the ninth seeded American has hit his stride by making one final this summer and winning in Cincinnati recently to capture his first title of the year. Coached by his brother John, Roddick has also been working with former U.S. Open favorite Jimmy Connors. There has been a marked improvement in his game.

"They've only been working together this summer, but I've already seen huge strides in Andy's game," CBS analyst Patrick McEnroe recently said.

"His first tournament in Indianapolis he made the final there, lost in a great match to James Blake, and then Andy was injured for a couple of weeks and came back in Cincinnati and after a first round scare he played as well as I've seen him play in a while. He seems to be playing more aggressively. He's stepping into the court a lot more, trying to return a little bigger off second serves, come into net a lot more. His mindset is very positive, and I think Jimmy has had a huge impact there, sort of positive reinforcement."

If Roddick could go on and win here, it would be similar to his run three years ago which resulted in his only slam with a straight set conquest over Juan Carlos Ferrero.

While familiar names are expected to compete for the men's title, the women's field will be without defending champion Kim Clijsters. The second ranked Belgian suffered a wrist injury at a tournament in Montreal which forced her to withdraw.

With her absent from the field, it leaves a wide open draw with a potential new winner about to emerge. The question becomes who will step up? Maria Sharapova certainly could add a second major if she plays to form. Her draw isn't too tough and it could be a perfect opportunity for the 19 year-old Russian to capture her first slam since a surprising 2004 Wimbledon at the age of 17.

"Sharapova, on form," CBS analyst Mary Joe Fernandez pointed out. "Has played really, really well. Looking at her draw, she's on the top half. I expect her to get through that."

Maybe Czech riser Nicole Vaidisova comes to forefront and makes a push for her first slam. Former finalist Elena Dementieva is always a threat on the hard court but it all depends on if her serve holds up.

Can Australian Open and Wimbledon winner Amelie Mauresmo continue her breakthrough year by adding a third slam as the top seed? If so, she could face comebacking Serena Williams in the Round of 16.

"Serena has played nine matches in her comeback, been in two semis," Fernandez noted. "I like the way she was playing. I think she was still a little rusty, a little match-shy, but I think she was playing, serving well, and she's gonna be a threat."

"She actually looked a lot fitter than the last time I saw her which was in Australia. She was running a lot of balls down. She was actually pretty patient, which was a good sign for me...She's playing a lot better than when we saw her in Australia."

Former winner Lindsay Davenport will also be attempting a comeback but might not come in 100 percent. So it's unclear how far the 10th seed can go.

Or does a former champion from the past a la Svetlana Kuznetsova, Justine Henin-Hardenne or Martina Hingis rise up to add another slam?

That remains to be seen.

Let's pick the final four for each field and see who we like to capture the trophies:

Women's Final Four

(1) Amelie Mauresmo vs (3) Maria Sharapova
(9) Nicole Vaidisova vs (2) Justine Henin-Hardenne

Final: Sharapova vs Henin-Hardenne

2006 Winner: Sharapova

Men's Final Four

(1) Roger Federer vs (17) Andy Murray
(9) Andy Roddick vs (2) Rafael Nadal

Final: Federer vs Roddick

2006 Winner: Federer

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