Focus firmly on Big Four

No 1 seed Djokovic aims to ward off Nadal, Federer and Murray

Steady showers courtesy Hurricane Irene hampered the last-minute preparations at the US Open, beginning on Monday , on Sunday. AFP

Just four players from a field of 128 professionals might seem like slim pickings, but after what has transpired over most of the last decade, the August 29 to September 11 tournament is looming as one of the most open Grand Slams in years.

For most of that time, just two players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, have been given any real hope of lifting the major trophies, with Federer winning a record 16 Grand Slam titles and Nadal 10. Between the 2005 French Open and last year's US Open, they won 19 of the 21 grand slam finals.

But things have changed this year and their domination has ended, at least temporarily. Novak Djokovic is now the number one player in the world and chasing his third major title of the season, while Andy Murray has hit form at the perfect time.

For all four players, this year's US Open looms as an opportunity to prove their greatness. Federer has already won the tournament five times but has not won a Grand Slam since last year's Australian Open. At 30, he is starting to show signs of slowing down and his best days appear to be behind him. But the Swiss master has not given up on adding to his collection of titles and the US Open. Nadal has traditionally struggled to produce his best at the US Open, often succumbing to injury as his body gives up on him, mostly because of the enormous physical strain he puts on himself.

He worked on his serve and adjusted his game enough to win the US Open for the first time last year to complete his collection of Grand Slam titles, but there are questions about his fitness again this year.  Djokovic has never won the US Open but was a finalist in 2007 and again last year, which marked the start of his climb to the top of the rankings. The Serbian broke the Federer-Nadal strangehold on majors when he won the 2008 Australian Open, but he was danger of being remembered as a one-slam wonder until he dramatically turned things around this year.

Murray is the youngest of the big four and the only one not to have won a Grand Slam, although he made the US Open final in 2008 and the Australian Open each of the past two years.  If there was an outsider with a chance, the most likely candidates would be towering Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro, who surprisngly won the US Open two years ago but could not defend his title 12 months ago because of injury, and in-form American Mardy Fish, though both face the prospect of having to beat three of the big four to take the title.

Wide open

The return from injury of Serena Williams and the return to form of Maria Sharapova has added a sense of predictability to a women's tournament overflowing with uncertainty.
World number one Caroline Wozniacki has still not won a Grand Slam and the Dane has played in just one final, at the US Open two years ago.

The world number two, Russia's Vera Zvonareva, is also chasing her first Grand Slam title after making the finals at Wimbledon and the US Open last year.  Sharapova, who won Wimbledon in 2004, the US Open in 2006 and the Australian Open in 2008 is also looks good.  The 24-year-old has been plagued with health problems in recent years but returned to near her best this year, reaching the Wimbledon final and winning last week's Cincinnati Open. Williams, the most dominant player of her generation, missed last year's US Open as part of an 11-month lay-off caused by injury and health problems.  The American returned to the courts in June and captured back-to-back tournaments in California and Toronto to climb back to 29th in the rankings.

She was bumped up one place to 28th seed after last year's U.S. Open champion and current world number three Kim Clijsters withdrew because of a stomach muscle injury, and remains a master of peaking for the big events.

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