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Stepanek among those pesky players

This U.S. Open Series has produced at least two surprise winners in Ernests Gulbis and Radek Stepanek. And though they're certainly not expected to challenge for the U.S. Open title, they'll make for tricky early foes for the elite.

Call them, as well as these other four players, dangerous floaters in New York.

Men

Ernests Gulbis
Best U.S. Open Series result: W (Los Angeles)

Anyone who beats Mardy Fish nowadays must be playing pretty well. Gulbis not only did it, but took out Fish with the crowd against him in the Los Angeles final. As unpredictable as Gulbis is, few could have seen the result coming given the Latvian -- who manages to be an entertaining mix of laid-back and temperamental personalities -- lost five in a row prior to the tournament. Taking a set off Fish in Montreal was further progress.

He blamed illness for much of his slide this year, but says he's now feeling better. A relatively new coach is in place, with one Argentine (Guillermo Canas) coming in for another (Hernan Gumy).

Is all of it enough to put some faith in him? Who knows.

But the current signs are promising.

Radek Stepanek
Best U.S. Open Series result: W (Washington)

Not everyone, or even many, likes Stepanek, which is a shame. He's an atypical character on the tennis tour, unafraid of showing his emotions. So he stares down opponents once in a while and celebrates in their faces here and there -- that sort of behavior is commonplace, and encouraged, in other sports. He's tame in comparison.

Stepanek possesses a lovely game, and who doesn't like his celebratory dance, the worm?

He's certainly at the age of a sentimental favorite, winning in Washington as a 32-year-old.

"Until my body falls apart, I'll be trying to stay competitive at this level," he said afterward.

It's a shame Stepanek didn't fully apply himself earlier in his career.
Take note, Ernie.

Ryan Harrison
Best U.S. Open Series result: SF (Los Angeles, Atlanta)

Say what you want about Harrison's brash comments and grumpy on-court demeanor. Indeed, this year alone Harrison has given his critics much fodder.

But Harrison is backing up his swagger.

Here's an example of the 19-year-old's progression: After losing comfortably to Fish in the Atlanta semifinals and getting bageled by his older compatriot in the first set of the Los Angeles semis, Harrison eventually stretched Fish to a third-set tiebreaker. He troubled dominant No. 1 Novak Djokovic in spurts in Cincinnati, too. There's no doubt he'll be a good one.

Harrison's ranking has shot up 100 spots in 2011, and the crowd at Flushing Meadows is sure to spur him on. His second-round match against Sergiy Stakhovsky at the 2010 U.S. Open was one of the best of the fortnight.

Women

Sabine Lisicki
Best U.S. Open Series result: SF (Stanford)

Lisicki, whose muscular thighs are the foundation for her whopping serve, continued to play well after her surprising run to the Wimbledon semifinals. It took Serena Williams to stop her in the Stanford semifinals, and top seed Vera Zvonareva, who owns a good record against the German, eliminated Lisicki in the Carlsbad quarterfinals.

The momentum was halted in Cincinnati, where an error-strewn performance meant a first-round exit against the steady Shahar Peer.

And therein lies the problem for Lisicki. Even though she's healthy and having a fine -- mostly -- past two months, she's susceptible to throwing in stinkers. Her shot selection can let her down, and if the serve isn't working, her task becomes much more difficult. Take away Wimbledon and Lisicki has advanced to only one Grand Slam third round -- in her debut in 2008 in Melbourne.

Bottom line: She'll get to the third round this time.

Tamira Paszek
Best U.S. Open Series result: SF (Washington)

Paszek, who first made a name for herself as a 15-year-old, would seem to be tailor-made for New York: She's a big-hearted scrapper who can linger on the baseline.

At Wimbledon, Paszek outdid marathon woman Francesca Schiavone in nearly four hours, then came back to oust stylish lefty Ksenia Pervak in nearly 2½.
But it didn't stop at the All England Club. The Austrian was victorious in 3:42 against Stephanie Dubois in Washington before returning the next day and pushing Peer to three sets and 3:07.

Paszek has rebuilt her ranking following a serious back injury. Her preparations for the U.S. Open, however, were dented by an abdominal injury that forced a retirement in Carlsbad and a withdrawal from Cincinnati.

Zheng Jie
Best U.S. Open Series result: 3R (Toronto, Carlsbad)

With Li Na winning the French Open and Peng Shuai giving China two players in the top 15 for the first time this month, no wonder Zheng has been forgotten.

The diminutive baseliner with the good return game is on her way back from a wrist injury that curtailed her 2010 season and contributed to her ranking slipping outside the top 80. Like Li, injuries have been ever present: A dodgy ankle set her back three years earlier.

Zheng won consecutive main-draw matches in Carlsbad -- a first in 2011 -- and handed Serena Williams her toughest test in Toronto, manufacturing 10 break points in a narrow three-set defeat. She knows how to perform at majors, twice a Grand Slam semifinalist.


London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter.