When the 2013 U.S. Open gets underway next week ... who the heck will be the favorite on the men's side?
How 'bout Novak Djokovic?
It would seem like Djokovic is an obvious-type choice, considering he's a former champion in New York; played in the final there a year ago; has been the runner-up there on two other occasions; is the reigning Australian Open champ; reached last month's Wimbledon finale; and, oh yeah, is the No. 1 player in the world!
But not so fast.
What about Andy Murray?
The high-soaring Scot is the reigning U.S. Open champ; broke through with his first-ever Wimbledon title last month; is the reigning Olympic gold medalist; appeared in this year's Aussie Open finale; and also appeared in the U.S. Open final back in 2008.
How 'bout five-time U.S. Open legend Roger Federer?
True, the former world No. 1 does own an Open-Era-record-equaling five men's championships in the Big Apple (joining Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras) -- a record five straight from 2004-08 -- but hasn't captured America's Open since 2008. And when he last reached the final at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2009, Fed lost to big Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, blowing a two-sets-to-one lead in the process.
Perhaps the Federer U.S. Open ship has sailed (or even sunk at this point). He's now all the way down to No. 7 in the world as he battles back problems and continues to flip-flop on his racquet size.
It would appear as though French Open king Rafael Nadal is being penciled in as the fave in Flushing right now. And why not?
When healthy, Rafa has been nothing short of remarkable this year. The super Spaniard is an amazing 48-3 in 2013, including a perfect 15-0 record on his "least favorite" surface, hardcourt.
The former world No. 1 is fresh off his surprising back-to-back hardcourt Masters 1000 titles in Montreal and Cincinnati, respectively. Two weeks ago, he spanked formidable Canadian Milos Raonic in the title match at the Canadian Masters event, and then this past weekend, straight-setted wicked-tall American John Isner in a pair of tiebreaks in the final at the Cincy Masters for his first-ever title there. It also gave Rafa an overflowing/record 26th ATP Masters shield.
The eight-time French Open champ is also a former U.S. Open winner (2010) and was a runner-up in Queens in 2011.
Did You Know?: By capturing this year's French Open, Nadal became the first man to win a single Grand Slam event eight times and the first to win at least one major tournament in nine consecutive years, breaking the previous record of eight shared by Bjorn Borg, Sampras, and Federer.
This is supposed to be the time of year when the 27-year-old Nadal runs out of gas and his troublesome knees are sore from yet another long year of battle. But Rafa hasn't played a ton of tennis in 2013, a season in which he didn't start swingin' until February after being sidelined with a knee injury for seven months.
The mighty Mallorcan has played in only 12 tournaments in 2013, piling up an ATP-best nine titles along the way, and has appeared in the final at all but one of his tourneys, Wimbledon, where he suffered one of the biggest upsets in the history of tennis when he lost to Belgian Steve Darcis in the opening round. His only loss to a fellow "Big Four" member this season came against Djokovic at the Monte Carlo Masters back in April. Nadal's 2-1 versus Djokovic, hasn't met Murray yet, and is a flawless 3-0 against his great rival Federer, including a come-from-behind victory against the aging Swiss in a quarterfinal just last week in Ohio.
Amazingly, Nadal and Federer have never met at the U.S. Open. Never.
Did You Know?: One of the Big Four (Djokovic, Nadal, Murray, Federer) has won the last eight Aussie Opens, the last nine French Opens, the last 11 Wimbledons, and eight of the last nine U.S. Opens.
Surely there must be someone aside from Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer ready to contend for the big prize in Gotham, right?
David Ferrer is No. 4 in the world and reached his first-ever Grand Slam final at this year's French Open, but he's really not in the mix for a U.S. Open crown at this time (or any time).
Then, there's really just Tomas Berdych, the aforementioned del Potro, Raonic, and Isner to talk about. And outside of Delpo, there just isn't much to say.
Berdych is a former Wimbledon runner-up who reached his first-ever U.S. Open semifinal a year ago, but I just don't see him getting past the Big Four, ever. Raonic and Isner have big games that can produce a lot of wins on hardcourts, thanks to their massive serves, but outdueling all those top guys over a two-week span is just not in the cards for the 6-foot-5 Canadian (Raonic) or 6-foot-9 American (Isner).
That leaves the 6-foot-7 del Potro as the only true contender outside the Big Four. Delpo captured his lone major title at the '09 Open and can win against anybody, on any surface (with the exception of perhaps Nadal on clay). The menacing Argentine was a hardcourt titlist in D.C. a few weeks ago (beating Isner in an all-tall final) before losing to Raonic in the third round at the Montreal Masters two weeks ago and Isner in a Cincy semi last week.
Note: The best men's match of the year thus far involved del Potro and Djokovic, as the two warriors performed in an epic five-set semifinal at Wimbledon last month, with the super Serb prevailing there in just under five hours.
If I have to pick a darkhorse in New York, I'd go with 6-foot-8 Pole Jerzy Janowicz. He reached his first-ever Grand Slam semi at Wimby last month, only to lose to the magnificent Murray in four sets. If JJ's big serve and groundstrokes are landing in, he could beat just about anybody, especially on a hardcourt. And he's a respectable 4-9 lifetime against Top-10 players.
American men boast an Open Era-record 19 singles titles at the Open, but they're pretty well backloaded at this point. The last American man to run the table in New York was Andy Roddick in 2003, which doesn't bode well for Isner, does it?
Note: Djokovic and Murray have squared off in three of the last four major finals, with Murray going 2-1.
The first-ever U.S. Championships were held on grass in Newport, Rhode Island, way, way back in 1881. As a matter of fact, the tournament was staged on grass from 1881 all the way up until 1974. It was then played on clay from 1975-77 before shifting to its current surface, hardcourt, in 1978.
So, who is actually gonna win this thing? Current trends would suggest that Nadal will capture a second career U.S. Open title, but I'm gonna go with Murray to nail down his first major repeat.
This year's U.S. Open champ will pocket a record $1.9 million.