The final Grand Slam event of 2011 will get underway next week in New York, where Rafael Nadal will be on hand to defend his U.S. Open title, while his fellow former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters will not.

Rafa finally broke through for his first-ever U.S. Open championship last year, as he beat current world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in the final in Flushing, while Clijsters captured a second straight, and third overall, U.S. Open title by handling Russian Vera Zvonareva in the women's finale.

The Australian Open champion Clijsters will miss this year's edition of the U.S. Open as she continues to nurse an abdominal injury. It will mark the fifth U.S. Open in eight years that the Belgian star will miss because of injury or retirement. She actually hasn't lost in Flushing since coming up short against fellow Belgian Justine Henin in the 2003 final. In only three trips back to NYC since then, she's gone 21-0 with a trio of titles.

Maybe next year, Kimmy.

Nadal, meanwhile, will seek his third major title in five tries, having won last year's U.S. and this year's French Open (his sixth French Open title). When the 10-time Grand Slam champ titled at the National Tennis Center last year, he became only the seventh man to capture the career Grand Slam, joining, among others, his long-time rival Roger Federer.

The 25-year-old Nadal was last month's Wimbledon runner-up to the 2011 stalwart Djokovic.

Over on the women's side, Clijsters won't be on hand in New York, but several other talented ladies will be, spearheaded by three-time champ and former runner-up Serena Williams.

Serena was forced to pull out of an event in Cincinnati last week because of a foot problem, but she is expected to compete in the Big Apple, seeking her first title there since 2008. She missed last year's Open while recovering from surgery on said foot.

The 29-year-old Serena is a 13-time major titlist and probably a favorite to extend that number to 14 next month. She's been installed as only the 28th seed in Flushing...but we know better.

Back over on the men's side, the world No. 2 Rafa will not be the favorite in New York, as that nod has to go to the current top-ranked star Djokovic, he of the career-changing gluten-free diet. The super Serb has lost only twice all year (57-2), piling up nine titles along the way. In addition to five ATP Masters shields, Nole already owns a pair of Grand Slam titles this year -- Wimbledon and the Australian Open. His victory at the Big W marked the first one of his still-blossoming career and gave him three major titles to his credit.

The Djoker has never won it all in New York, but he is a two-time runner-up there, including last year when Nadal got the best of him at Ashe Stadium. He also has a runner-up finish there at the hands of the once-mighty Federer.

Roger the Dodger has arrived in the Apple seeking a sixth title there in eight tries. But most probably expect him not do to so at this point.

After dominating the majors scene for so many years, it would appear as though the pack has caught up to the, dare I say it, aging star. The French Open runner-up, who turned 30 earlier this month, hasn't won a major event since capturing last year's Aussie Open, which is only a drought of six Slams, but that's an eternity for the Swiss artist, who had been accustomed to capturing two, if not three, majors a season for a half-dozen years.

Federer lost to Djokovic in the U.S. Open semis last year, this after being upset by Juan Martin del Potro in the title match a year earlier.

Are his days of winning majors over? Can he sneak out one more U.S. Open title this year, or in the next couple of years? It's hard to say, but I'm guessing he won't be the favorite again any time soon.

For the record, Federer is the men's all-time leader with 16 major championships, and over $63 million in prize money.

So don't feel to sorry for him.

Well, Serena won't be the only woman in New York, where Caroline Wozniacki will be your top seed and Maria Sharapova has to be a co-favorite alongside the powerful American.

Wozniacki is the reigning women's world No. 1, but the likeable star has yet to breakthrough with a major title. As a matter of fact, she's only reached one Grand Slam final in her career, and that resulted in a loss at the hands of Clijsters at the 2009 U.S. Open.

The 21-year-old Dane may be No. 1...but she's certainly not heading in as the favorite. What does that say about the women's rankings?

Sharapova, of course, is a former No. 1 and owns three major titles, including a U.S. Open one back in 2006. Unfortunately for "Shaza," she hasn't gotten past the fourth round in New York since the '06 run.

The Russian glamour girl is fresh off her hardcourt title in Cincinnati last week and finished as the runner-up at the last Grand Slam event, at Wimbledon.

She heads to New York with a head of steam, and if Serena slips, expect Maria to be there.

Note: Serena whipped Maria in a quarterfinal in Stanford last month.

The women's draw will also feature last year's U.S. Open and Wimbledon runner- up Zvonareva, Miami champion Victoria Azarenka, Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, French Open winner and Aussie Open runner-up Li Na, Roland Garros finalist and former French Open champ Francesca Schiavone, and former U.S. Open winner Venus Williams.

I don't expect Zvonareva to make a return trip to the final in Flushing, but I do like the chances for Azarenka, the Belarusian slugger who landed in her first career Grand Slam semifinal last month and titled at the "Fifth Slam" in Miami earlier this season. I just think she's ready for her close-up.

Back over to the men.

Djokovic, Rafa and Federer can expect challenges from former runner-up Andy Murray, perhaps surging American Mardy Fish, and the former U.S. Open champ del Potro.

Murray is a three-time Grand Slam runner-up, including this year's Aussie Open, where he lost to Djokovic, and the 2008 U.S. Open, where he gave way to the all-time great Federer. Yes, I know Murray has yet to even win a set in a major final (0-9), but he's going to win a Slam sooner or later, and I think sooner may just be around the corner.

Scotland's Murray was last week's big winner in Cincy, where he was leading Djokovic in the final when the Serbian star retired with a right shoulder injury. Djokovic better hope that shoulder is healthy, or he will not capture that elusive first-ever U.S. Open title.

Murray, on the other hand, is healthy and hungrier than ever for that maiden major title.

The 29-year-old Fish appears to be the best American hope at the Open. The Minnesota native just captured the U.S. Open Series title for the summer North American hardcourt season, reached the Wimbledon quarters last month, and was a Masters runner-up to Djokovic in Montreal two weeks ago.

As far as Andy Roddick's chances are concerned, I'd have to say they're not too good. The former world No. 1 2003 U.S. Open champ and 2006 runner-up has played poorly, when he has played, this summer, and has failed to reach the quarterfinals in New York since '08.

A-Rod's major results so far this season are a fourth-round loss in Melbourne, no French Open due to injury, and a third-round setback at Wimbledon.

It doesn't sound like he's primed for a run in Flushing, does it?

Roddick, who will turn 29 next week, appears to be on the decline, but you never know. If he has that big serve working anything could be possible on a fast surface for him.

FYI: Roddick is the last American man to win the U.S. Open, and that was eight lone years ago, or the longest-ever American men's drought at the event.

Some other women to keep your eyes on are Wimbledon semifinalist Marion Bartoli, rising German Andrea Petkovic, former world No. 1 Jelena Jankovic, and Serena's big sister Venus. Bartoli has appeared in four finals this season (1-3); "Petko" has gone deep into several draws in recent months; Jankovic was the U.S. Open runner-up three years ago and is fresh off her runner-up finish to Sharapova in Cincinnati; and the seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus, who has played sparingly this season due to injury, is always a threat, even though she hasn't titled in New York in nine years. The two-time U.S. Open champ and two-time runner-up did, however, soar all the way into the semis a year ago and has reached the final four in Flushing two out of the last four years.

Some other men to consider could be Wimbledon semifinalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and the 6-foot-7 del Potro. Jo-Willy has been playing some quality ball in recent months, including a Wimbledon semi and a trip into the final four in Montreal, while "DelPo" is always a threat, a big threat, on a hardcourt, especially one that he titled on two years ago before a wrist injury set him back almost a year.

Note: World No. 6 and two-time French Open finalist Robin Soderling could miss the Open due to a hand injury.

This year's U.S. Open singles champs will pocket at least $1.8 million apiece, and the U.S. Open Series winners, Americans both, Serena and Fish, have a shot at earning a record $2.8 million in New York.

Time again to make some picks.

I do like Djokovic (even though it seemed like I was hinting towards Murray) to come out with his first-ever U.S. Open title and Serena to secure a fourth such championship at the sprawling USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Who do you like?