While tennis takes the equivalent of its All-Star break, we look ahead to the last leg of the season, the bruising American hard-court season. Here are five players who have a lot on the line the next two months.
Just when things couldn't get worse for Blake, along comes the Davis Cup. Blake hasn't been as consistent in the Cup as Andy Roddick, but he has come through on plenty of occasions. This past weekend in Croatia, though, marked the lowest point of his time with the team and the lowest point of his season so far. Blake blew a two-sets-to-love lead against Ivo Karlovic on clay, not exactly the best surface for the 6-foot-10 serving machine. Granted, Blake is getting older (he will turn 30 this year), but his recent troubles don't seem related to slow feet or a loss of power. No, Blake lacks confidence at the moment, and so it might be time for him to experiment. In the past, several critics have suggested that Blake change coaches; I've never supported that idea, since he and Brian Barker have been together since Blake was 11 years old. Barker isn't the problem, but maybe Blake needs to call in reinforcements to work on his tactics and his confidence. Blake has the talent to put together a few more very good seasons, and it would be a shame to see him fade away this soon. My vote for an outside consultant? Andre Agassi. If Blake had more of Agassi's steadiness and patience, he'd be a far more dangerous player.
2009 Grade: D-
What he needs most: To reach his first major final
The 19-year-old Wozniacki, in her fourth season, continues to climb the rankings and build her reputation as a true contender on the sport's biggest stages. I have one concern: Why was she playing in Bastad, Sweden -- on clay -- the week after Wimbledon? Wozniacki, ranked No. 9, has played more matches (63) than anyone else in the top 10 (her record is 49-14). Yes, she's young and needs ranking points. But she doesn't need to compete with Jelena Jankovic for the tour's Iron Woman title. Better to play the tournaments that are required, and count the most, and take a pass on the Bastads of the world.
2009 Grade: B
What she needs most: To escape the fourth round at the U.S. Open
A year ago at this time, del Potro went on a tear that let everyone know he was a future star. Can he do one better this year and contend for the title at the U.S. Open? I don't see del Potro's second-round loss at Wimbledon as a step in the wrong direction: The guy's obscenely long strokes (and strides) are not made for grass. So far, del Potro seems like the type who learns and improves at a steady pace, and he should have more energy heading into the Open this year, since he isn't scheduled to play as often. Last year, he lost in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. Can he win a few more rounds this year?
2009 Grade: B+
What he needs most: A win over a top-five player at a major tournament
When she defeated an ailing Serena Williams in Miami, Azarenka became the "next big thing" on the women's tour. Now, not so much. It's not her fault. Azarenka has worked incredibly hard the past few years, both on her fitness and her attitude (her temper isn't as much of a liability these days). The Williams sisters are just better than her, at least at the moment. No better place than the U.S. Open to announce yourself to the world.
2009 Grade: A-
What she needs most: A stronger weapon against the Williams sisters
Nadal kicked off the year by winning his first hard-court major and making us all wonder if the Roger Federer era was officially over. Then Nadal's love for the game got the best of him. The 23-year-old Spaniard played too much tennis between the Australian Open and the French Open, and suffered the consequences: A loss at the French Open (his first ever), a withdrawal at Wimbledon (he was the defending champion), and the loss of his No. 1 ranking (which he had held for just under a year). Thankfully, Nadal doesn't have to play for Olympic gold this year and has time to rest before the summer hard-court season begins. Let's be frank about his injury: He has tendinitis, something from which many an athlete has recovered. He's going to play again, and play well. Nadal plans to be back at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, which begins on Aug. 10. Will his confidence be shaken? Can he get his game together in time to make a run at the U.S. Open, the only major he hasn't won?
2009 Grade: B+
What he needs most: To beat Federer in the U.S. Open final and reignite the greatest-of-all-time debate