The stars come out in New York City for the U.S. Open, where they hope to shine brightest on the court. Seven of the past eight U.S. Open men's champions have been seeded first or second. And though No. 9 seed Samantha Stosur's sweep of Serena Williams in the 2011 final was certainly surprising and came two years after Kim Clijsters captured the crown as a wild card, five of the past seven women's winners have been among the top four seeds.
You know the favorites, so let's preview the outsiders -- players ranked outside the top 15 -- who are dark horses capable of making runs beneath the bright lights in Flushing Meadows. Before you start snickering that a long shot going deep in the draw in New York happens about as often as a tourist finding a parking space in Times Square on New Year's Eve, consider some recent U.S. Open results.
Four years ago, 130th-ranked Gilles Muller won seven matches (including qualifying) to reach the quarterfinals before bowing to Roger Federer. Other recent surprise men's quarterfinalists include No. 57 Jarkko Nieminen (2005), No. 54 Mikhail Youzhny (a semifinalist in 2006) and No. 22 Juan Ignacio Chela (2007). Angelique Kerber was ranked No. 92 when she reached the final four last year. That run came after other low-ranked women -- Melanie Oudin was a 70th-ranked quarterfinalist in 2009, Kateryna Bondarenko was No. 52 when she reached the 2009 quarters and Yanina Wickmayer was ranked 50th when she reached the 2009 semifinals -- went deep into the second week.
We're not suggesting these players will be raising the silverware on the final weekend, but we are saying these are players outside the top 15 capable of gaining traction in the tournament.
Men's Dark Horses
No. 16 Milos Raonic
Strengths: A wrecking-ball serve -- Raonic leads the ATP in service games won (93 percent) and first-serve points won (83 percent) and is second to John Isner in aces (733) and break points saved (75 percent) -- a lethal forehand and a tendency to get up for playing elite players (he is 4-5 versus top 10 opponents this year, including tight losses to Federer at Indian Wells, Madrid and Halle). Raonic is 21-5 on hard courts this season.
Question Marks: His return game is not an asset, and the 6-foot-5 Canadian is sometimes too passive in allowing himself to be dragged into longer rallies against speedier players rather than imposing his power game. He has yet to surpass the fourth round of a major.
Outlook: If he can play points on his terms and dictate play with his serve and forehand and find a way to scrape out some breaks, Raonic is a second-week threat.
No. 18 Kei Nishikori
Strengths: Forehand, return game, quickness and court sense. A calm competitor, Nishikori is capable of summoning some of his best tennis under pressure: He is 11-2 this year in matches decided in decisive sets and owns a 5-1 career record in five-set matches, and hard court is his best surface.
Question Marks: Listed at 5-10, 150 pounds, he faces a substantial size and strength disparity to some heavy hitters, and his second serve can be vulnerable.
Outlook: Though he's just 6-16 lifetime against top 10 opponents, Nishikori beat No. 5 David Ferrer at the Olympics and can match his best Open result -- a 2008 fourth-round appearance -- if he serves effectively.
No. 21 Andy Roddick
Strengths: An imposing serve and a combative competitive instinct. He is a hustling player with a love of a good fight and the experience and confidence gained from more than a decade of U.S. Open success: The 2003 U.S. Open champion has reached at least the quarterfinals in eight of his past 11 appearances in New York.
Question Marks: He breaks serve about as often as traffic clears on the Grand Central Parkway. He can become a bit predictable with the inside-out forehand and chip backhand, and under pressure sometimes he retreats into defensive court positioning. He has one top-10 win this year.
Outlook: He's struggled with nagging injuries and celebrates his 30th birthday next Thursday, but Roddick is still capable of a run. He has been a standout tiebreak player throughout his career but is just 8-7 in breakers this year, and that mark must improve. A fast start is critical: Roddick is 15-3 when winning the first set and 4-11 when losing the opening set in 2012.
No. 29 Mikhail Youzhny
Strengths: The two-time semifinalist's flat shots play well on Flushing Meadows' hard courts, the fastest of the four major surfaces. Youzhny is an experienced player who can play all-court tennis with a penetrating one-handed backhand. He is coming off the Wimbledon quarterfinals and knows he can make a leap in the rankings by improving on his first-round exit last year.
Question Marks: Because he plays flat shots, if his timing is slightly off, the 30-year-old Russian can get streaky. Although Youzhny has a winning career record in five-setters, he hasn't exactly been a comeback player this year: He's 22-1 when winning the first set but has won just two matches after losing the first set.
Outlook: Following his run to the last eight at Wimbledon, Youzhny staggered to a 1-4 record through the end of Cincinnati, which may leave him short on confidence. But he has a knack for turning it up in majors: Youzhny has reached at least the quarterfinals of each Grand Slam event, including a run to the 2010 U.S. Open final four.
Women's Dark Horses
No. 20 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Strengths: Plenty of power, which can be a major asset on the accelerated surface. She has posted a 9-4 record since Wimbledon, with seven of those wins coming in straight sets. The 2011 U.S. Open quarterfinalist is an explosive player who can pose problems for just about anyone if she's taking and making the first strike in rallies.
Question Marks: She can be highly erratic (see her six opening-round exits between the Australian and French Opens). Her serve can go AWOL under pressure, and at 21 years old, she's still learning to construct points and is prone to playing grip it-and-rip it tennis.
Outlook: There is no question the 2006 Australian Open and U.S. Open junior champion has ability and a big game, but putting sound points together and tempering her prodigious power with patient point construction continues to be a challenge. Still, if she's landing her serve and connecting on her kill shot -- the forehand down the line -- she can be a dangerous player.
No. 37 Mona Barthel
Strengths: Her serve and forehand are both kill shots. When Barthel is on her game, she hits with such force that she can take the racket out of opponents' hands by dictating off both serve and return.
Question Marks: Inconsistency. When her fast, flat shots aren't falling between the lines, Barthel sometimes struggles to gear down her game, regain her rhythm and gradually go for more. Her ambition sometimes exceeds her accuracy.
Outlook: Who is Mona Barthel, you might be wondering. She ended 2010 ranked No. 208 and is a top-20 talent if she can play with more control and thoughtfulness. Barthel pushed No. 1 Victoria Azarenka to a 7-6 third set at Indian Wells, and though she did not win a match at the French Open, Wimbledon or the Olympic Games, if she can find the consistency that can elude her, she's a threat.
No. 46 Sloane Stephens
Strengths: Well-balanced off her topspin forehand and backhand, she has margin on her shots, and because she hits with more spin than other American women, she can create sharp angles. Stephens is blessed with a live arm and serves bigger than her 5-7 size suggests. She's quick around the court and has produced good results on all surfaces. She seems to enjoy the spotlight of Grand Slam play. She reached the round of 16 at Roland Garros and pushed Wimbledon semifinalist Sabine Lisicki to three sets at SW19.
Question Marks: Inexperience: Stephens has played five majors. Although she's a quick player, Stephens' footwork sometimes gets sloppy, and when it does, she's reaching for the ball. She must improve her point-to-point concentration and place premium value on every point.
Outlook: Since she's unseeded, her prospects will be impacted by the draw. If Stephens can avoid top seeds in the early rounds, she can build confidence. She's a rhythm player whose shot selection is crucial. If she trusts her shots and doesn't pull the trigger prematurely, Stephens can continue to string together some wins. Though she's only 19, Stephens seems to rise on the biggest stages, which is encouraging.
No. 47 Venus Williams
Strengths: A Grand Slam champion whose first serve remains one of the most formidable weapons in the game, Venus enters her 14th U.S. Open fresh off her first semifinal in two years at Cincinnati. At 32, she remains one of the fastest women in tennis. She's a terrific leaper and has an expansive wingspan, and when she's on her game she can be an explosive, attacking player.
Question Marks: She's waging an ongoing battle with energy-sapping Sjogren's syndrome, which can leave her listless and prevent her from full practice sessions. Her flat forehand can go awry under pressure and become a target for opponents. She is often averse to changing the spin and location of her second serve.
Outlook: If Venus is willing to open it up, attack more and make use of the volley skills she showed in partnering with Serena to capture their third Olympic doubles gold medal, she can get on a roll. Though her illness makes every match a question mark, don't forget that two years ago Venus was a few points away from reaching the U.S. Open final before bowing to Clijsters.