NEW YORK -- This year, tennis fans have watched three major tournaments, seen six different champions in the men's and women's singles, and known full well that was just the warmup.
Monday, the U.S. Open begins its 14-day run of terror, torture and testosterone. And we're not just talking about the male players.
The U.S. Open is New York's answer to the civility of the sport. You spit on the grass at Wimbledon, it is a major headline. You spit on a court at Flushing Meadow and the crowd lines up to high-five you.
It is the last major hurrah of the year. It is also the toughest to win. It is as hard-charging and fast-moving as the city that hosts it. It is played on hard courts. The weather varies from monsoon to Mojave Desert. Fans and players can look forward to great tennis. Also, drowning or baking.
The Australian is the first major of the year. It is summer in Melbourne, everybody is happy, rested, friendly.
Then comes the French in Paris. So you lose. So you can't get a ticket. So what? There is the Eiffel Tower, and a five-star restaurant on every corner.
Wimbledon is strawberries and cream and decorum. Always decorum.
The U.S. Open is an angry taxi driver, 2 million people who are 10 minutes late and half of Wall Street in full voice at the night matches, winding down from a day of failed cold-calling. Only in New York do the players sometimes provide the sideshow.
Those players, however, present many story possibilities.
Serena Williams is seeded No. 1 and has won the women's singles five times, including last year. She is a month from turning 33 and is looking for an 18th major title. She has been looking for that all year, and has yet to make it to a quarterfinal. She even lost to sister Venus a few weeks ago. Expect drama of some kind from Serena, right from the first toss.
Her main challengers seem to be Simona Halep, seeded second and an eight-time winner this season; Petra Kvitova, seeded third and stunningly impressive in her rout of Eugenie Bouchard in the Wimbledon final; and grinder Agnieszka Radwanska, the fourth-seeded player, who wins a lot but has yet to close the deal in a major.
Lurking nearby will be the ever-determined Maria Sharapova, who won the French this year, is seeded No. 5, and would win every match if the outcome were based on the tightest fist clench. Also a possibility is Bouchard, who has been to the semifinals or final of each of the preceding three majors.
On the men's side, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is a reprise of the Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer Wimbledon final. It had it all, including the best player winning and one of the most successful, beloved and durable players of the era giving his all. For Djokovic, seeded first here, it was a gutty seventh Grand Slam title. For Federer, it was a gutty near miss for No. 18.
Federer, whom broadcaster and former player Brad Gilbert calls "the Cal Ripken of tennis," is seeded No. 2. That makes a prime-time Djokovic-Federer rematch final a possibility.
This will be Federer's 60th straight appearance in a Grand Slam event. He turned 33 two weeks ago and is the father of four, two sets of twins.
Stan Wawrinka, Australian champion, is seeded third. David Ferrer, the baseline backboard, has yet to wear out an opponent in a major final. He is seeded fourth.
Andy Murray of Britain, who won here in 2012 and boosted an entire country's sports self-esteem by winning at Wimbledon last year, has slipped recently and is seeded eighth. He would have to get past Djokovic to get to the final.
Other than Serena Williams, U.S. title hopes in this U.S. tournament are slim, probably none.
John Isner would top the men. He is ranked No. 13 and has a serve that breaks speed guns. But he doesn't appear to have the all-around game needed for a breakthrough. He also has an ankle injury that may slow him.
For the women, Sloane Stephens did no worse than the fourth round of all the Slams last year, but has struggled to maintain that level this season.
Two of this year's six major champions won't even play in New York. Last year's U.S. Open champion Rafael Nadal (this year's French) and Li Na (Australian) are sitting it out with injuries.
That means Wawrinka (Australian) or Djokovic (Wimbledon) could emerge as player of the year with a second major. Same thing on the women's side. Sharapova has her French title and Kvitova her Wimbledon.
For the final time, wrapping up 47 consecutive years, CBS will be handling all the high-profile telecasts. ESPN will be the main network starting next year. ESPN also has a huge piece of the action this year, spreading it out over its main network and ESPN2, ESPN3 and ESPN Classic. The Tennis Channel will also carry matches and highlight shows.
The winners of the men's and women's singles will each pocket $3 million. If a winner also had the most points in the lead-in U.S. Open series, the prize will be $4 million.
Monday night, the U.S. Tennis Association will hold its annual on-court gala. Longtime broadcaster and former player Mary Carillo will be among the honorees.
Also featured will be John McEnroe, who will listen, along with a crowd of more than 21,000, to the aptly named musical group, Fitz and the Tantrums.
Yes, they are serious.
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