The U.S. Open Series began this week in Atlanta, where Andy Roddick is making a surprise visit. As the summer hard-court season gets into full swing, here's what's on my mind.
Rafa's best shot
First things first: Rafael Nadal can win in Flushing, N.Y., and this is his best chance to capture the U.S. Open. He was playing well enough to take the title in 2008, but the added burden of the Olympics (he won the gold medal in Beijing) wore him down. I don't put too much stock in the other barriers often discussed: The courts are too fast for him and the surface is too hard on his body. Nonsense, I say -- he can win on anything. Nadal hasn't won the U.S. Open because of its place at the end of the tennis calendar. This year, he should be in good health, as he won't have to worry about the Olympics, and he has a better understanding of his knee tendinitis and how to treat it. He'll also have weaker competition: Juan Martin del Potro, the defending champion, isn't going to play and Roger Federer hasn't played well since the Australian Open (though I wouldn't count him out, either). If Nadal is healthy when he arrives in Flushing, he'll be the favorite.
Comebacks: Not so easy after all
Kim Clijsters made her tennis comeback look easy at last year's U.S. Open. In 2010, we've seen that it's not. Clijsters hasn't followed up her major title with anything close to a command performance, and Justine Henin -- after a quick start at the Australian Open, where she reached the final -- has struggled and will now miss the U.S. Open because of an elbow injury. Martina Hingis, take note.
Serena isn't faking
Tennis fans were understandably upset to learn that Serena Williams won't play until the U.S. Open (she cut her foot on broken glass at a restaurant and needs surgery). For sure, Serena sometimes has had a cavalier attitude toward tournaments that are not Grand Slams. But we're talking about surgery here. Can you cut your foot on glass and still walk, and still maintain a (very active) social calendar? Yes. Could you play an exhibition to see how bad the injury is? Yes. But that doesn't mean you can play professional tennis. I don't see a ruse here, especially now that there's a suggestion, by the WTA Tour, that Serena might not recover in time for the Open. Let's hope she does bounce back so that she can make up for last year's less-than-perfect ending, when she lost in the semifinals to Clijsters.
Summer of Sharapova
Now that Serena and Henin are on the sidelines, Maria Sharapova should clean up this summer. She plays her best tennis on the hard courts, and her chief challenger will be (the recently erratic) Clijsters.
The Czechs are for real
Here's one reason Nadal might not win the U.S. Open this September: Tomas Berdych. Berdych couldn't even salvage a set against Nadal in the Wimbledon final, and he has lost seven consecutive matches to the Spaniard (without winning a set). Streaks like that have to end eventually, and Berdych has the firepower to end it on a big stage. If del Potro can win the U.S. Open, so can Berdych -- he's that talented. I wouldn't say that his fellow Czech, Petra Kvitova, has a shot at the U.S. Open title, but she can make herself known this summer. Her powerful serve and forehand will play well on the hard courts - well enough to perhaps win her a small title.