For two weeks every year, hardened New Yorkers become prissy tennis fans, and Queens—not the Bronx—becomes the sports capital of the Big Apple. You could argue that the U.S. Open is, perennially, the biggest sporting event in New York, with the possible exceptions of the '94 Rangers-Knicks run and 2000 Subway Series. It's the Super Bowl of American tennis. And this year's tournament (more than in recent years anyway) is wide open. All of the favorites (Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, Serena and Sharapova) are flawed, and that's what's going to make it exciting.
Below, I've compiled 11 things to look for during the Flushing fortnight.
As usual, there's an "ova" overload on the women's side: 20 of the 112 players (not including qualifiers, where there are at least four more) have surnames ending in "ova." They start and end with Maria Sharapova, who is coming into this year's U.S. Open with her best chance since a shoulder surgery that's taken close to three years to recover from. She reached the French Open semis and the Wimbledon final, and a won a bitterly contested final in Cincinnati against Jelena Jankovic, whose coach spent the bulk of the match in the front row barking over Sharapova's right shoulder. She's by far the toughest competitor on the women's tour, a trait that makes her wildly lucrative off-court career (latest brand extension: a candy line called "Sugarpova") seem the way it should be: secondary. And in the quarters, Sugarpova could exact a little revenge on Petra Kvitova, who dominated her in the Wimbledon final.
They are: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. The top three seeds have big games. But, at least this year, each have big flaws. Djokovic, the top-ranked player in the world, is 57-2 in 2011, with his two losses coming to Federer at the French Open, which ended his magical 43-match winning streak, and Andy Murray, the fourth seed, in Cincinnati last week. Despite what the New York Times might have you believe, the problem for Djovokic isn't marketing—he's by far the funniest, most charismatic and outspoken player on tour (see his impromptu post-match exhibition against Johnny Mac in 2009, or his on-air comparison of the feeling of shade after winning a five-set match in 100-degree-heat to "sleeping with my girlfriend"). It's his shoulder, which gave out against Murray, forcing him to retire. There's talk that the stringy Serb may be too stringy, and an exhausting career year may be finally catching up with his Gumby-like frame.
"I think he's probably too skinny," McEnroe said of Djokovic a few years ago—and that was before he went gluten-free.
Federer has faded in fatherhood, however subtly. And I predicted that Nadal, after winning the 2010 U.S. Open to complete his career grand slam, would never win another one.
The halcyon days of McEnroe and Agassi and rock-n-roll tennis are long gone. Mardy Fish, the only American in the top 10, is virtually the only hope for the United States to claim a men's title on its home turf. Andy Roddick, the last American man to win the Open, has been having a dismal hardcourt season—leading the U.S. David Cup team to a loss to a Nadal-less Spain in his hometown of Austin in July—and punctuated by a first round meltdown in Cincinnati.
"What the hell is going on with American tennis?" John McEnroe, he of 17 Grand Slam titles, told Real Sports recently. "We've done just about everything wrong. We haven't been proactive in trying to get people into the sport. We've got to figure out a way to make this game more sexy for kids growing up to make them want to do this, as opposed to playing football or basketball."
That's not to say there aren't sexy players in the States. "Mardy Fish, if he were living in Serbia," Patrick McEnroe, head of player development at the USTA added. "He would be a superstar."
The brutally honest elder McEnroe is still the best sports commentator on television. Bar-none. And after a bit of a sibling scuffle surrounding the opening of John's USTA-rival tennis academy, the Brothers McEnroe seemed to have reconciled their differences, at least enough to share an ESPN booth.
"Here's the bottom line," P. Mac said. "We love tennis."
It's no secret that Deadspin's Dropper of Deuces is not a fan of Serena Williams, whose forced "G Moments" and QVC tweet-bombing are as shallow as her ESPYs dress. But had Williams not pulled out of the U.S. Open warm-up in Cincy with a toe injury, she'd be the favorite here, regardless of her 28th seed.
"Poor, poor, poor Victoria Azarenka," John McEnroe said at Thursday's announcement of draw, which could see have Williams and Azarenka, the fourth seed, meet in the third round.
There's a reason why Anna Wintour attends every single Roger Federer match, even during Fashion Week: she's in love with him. But Wintour also loves to gawk at the quasi-couture outfits, just like the rest of us. And while it appears—based on early previews—that the kits may be slightly toned down this year, don't worry. There's always a Venus-like wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen. You can practically set your $500,000 watch to it.
It's hard to call Andy Murray a sleeper. But the video game enthusiast and top-ranked Brit is due to win what he calls his favorite Slam. He won the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati last week—but only after Djokovic's shoulder gave out. And John McEnroe, who can be something of a sage in handicapping these events, picked Murray to win this year's tournament two years ago. Juan Martin Del Porto, who shocked Federer in the 2009 final, is working his way back from injury, and has a relatively easy path to a potential showdown with Murray.
On the women's side, you could do worse than Julia Georges, who should eventually have a game to match her young-Sandra Bullock looks.
Wintour and Gwen Stefani in Federer's box are givens. But plenty of other tennis-loving stars—like New York mayoral hopeful Alec Baldwin—are bound to turn up on the Jumbotron. Just don't ask Alec about his tennis crush. That would be Kim Clijsters.
"Because she's tough and indefatigable," he told the Times. "And I like fit, sweaty women."
He'll be sad to hear that Clijsters, the two-time defending Open champion, is out with an injury.
Sharapova and Azarenka are the most prone to have you reach for the mute button. But, admit it: you kind of like it, too.
• American Ryan Harrison (mostly known for closely resembling that dude from The O.C.) is currently a trendy pick over Marin Cilic.
• Marcos Baghdatis (still trying to rediscover his game since his 2006 loss in a cramp-classic five-setter to Andre Agassi) over John Isner, who's been having the best summer of his young career.
• Alona Bondrenko (one-half of the saucy Bondarenko sisters) over 22nd seeded Sabine Lisicki of Germany.
• Christina McHale (everybody's neighbor's daughter from New Jersey) over sixth-seeded Marion Bartoli in the second round.
• James Blake, who gets a qualifier in the first round, over the winner fifth-seeded David Ferrer in round two.
• "Qualifier" over America's brief sweetheart, Melanie Oudin, who has fallen from grace—and out of the top 100—since her improbable quarterfinal run in 2009.
• And anyone over Caroline Wozniacki, who appears to have finally succumbed to the "soft no. 1" criticism. She may eventually win a Grand Slam, but it won't be this one.
Outside of Brooklyn Decker, the player's boxes haven't been as intriguing of late—with the exception, that is, of Sharapova's. Her fiancé, Nets guard Sasha Vujacic, has been a constant presence in Sharapova's box, offering endlessly positive, slightly effeminate support. But since he's come on the scene, she's had at least a modicum of success—though she's yet to win a major.
At his age, he'll "Oh my!" anything.
Here are just a few of the good ones to follow during the Open: @PatrickEnroe, @Darren_Cahill, @cbfowler, @BGTennisNation, @FortyDeuceTwits, @tennis, @onthegotennis, @SI_BTBaseline, @tennischannel, @tennisviewmag, @tennistv, @tennisreporters, @tennisromi, @tsftennis, @thedoublebagel, @linzsports, @bobbychin, @jon_wertheim, @RacquetRequired @christophclarey, @kaufsports, @r_ubha, @DjokerNole, @MardyFish, @AndyRoddick, @USOpen and, of course, @stableford.