NEW YORK -- Without suspense, the top three seeds -- Roger Federer, Andy Murray and defending champion Novak Djokovic -- are through to the second round, but for the first time in years the inevitability of the men's draw is not a given, courtesy of the enormous void created by Rafael Nadal's absence.
Where the Rafa Void will be felt is in the quarter of the draw that plays its first matches Wednesday, in which David Ferrer -- instead of Murray -- is now the fourth seed. Ferrer, the undersized player with the big forehand, is not to be underestimated.
Ferrer reached the semifinals at Roland Garros this year before losing to eventual champion Nadal and the semifinals at the Australian Open last year before losing to Murray. Ferrer's best showing at the U.S. Open came in 2007, when he ousted Nadal early on only to fall to Djokovic in the semifinals. He is a terrific all-court player who stretched eventual finalist Murray at Wimbledon and is the world No. 5.
While respected, Ferrer does not instill fear in his opponents. He is relentless, with excellent fundamentals, but plays at one speed without great shot variety. He is 5-foot-9, but doesn't possess the weapons of John Isner, Juan Martin del Potro or the 6-8 Kevin Anderson, whom Ferrer plays first. Ferrer can be overpowered on fast, hard courts as Stan Wawrinka beat him 6-4, 6-1 in Cincinnati, and Andy Roddick destroyed Ferrer here in four sets last year.
But it was also Ferrer who crushed hard servers Roddick (four sets) and del Potro (6-3, 6-2, 6-3) in the third and fourth rounds at Wimbledon and beat Murray at the French Open, proof that while there is no clear favorite in this quarter, Ferrer is also no charity case.
Nevertheless, the loss of Nadal leaves a huge opportunity for someone in the draw to make a star turn. The most accomplished player in this quarter of the draw happens to be a wild-card entry: former U.S. Open and Wimbledon champion Lleyton Hewitt, who is currently ranked 125th. The rest of the draw is waiting for this moment.
It is a prime opportunity for No. 9 seed Isner, who plays Xavier Malisse in Arthur Ashe Stadium, or eighth-seeded Janko Tipsarevic, who plays wild card Guillaume Rufin of France. If ever an open draw existed in the age of Federer and Nadal, it is this quarter. In fact, it was Isner, he of the huge serve and predilection for tiebreaks, who sounded most aware of the opportunity.
"I don't know. I'm playing well," he said. "I believe I can beat anyone, but I also know anybody can beat anybody out here. I'm not looking past anyone. I'm not good enough to do that."
The statistics deserve awe and celebration, and the Rafa void underscores what's been accomplished over the last decade. Since Nadal won his first major at Roland Garros in 2005, 29 of the past 30 majors have been won by Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Since Federer won his first major at Wimbledon in 2003, 32 of the past 36 majors have been won by three players. The only players to break through other than those three are Roddick and del Potro here in 2003 and 2009, respectively, Gaston Gaudio at Roland Garros in 2004 and Marat Safin in Melbourne in 2005. The big boys deserve their accolades.
The underside of the coronation, however, is an indictment of the rest of the field, not only for the inability of any challenger not named del Potro to put together that one special tournament, that magical fortnight that had been the staple of major tournaments for years to get to a final or win it, but for the apparent comfort the field has with the feudal lords of tennis who just don't share.
Murray hasn't won a major, but he is clearly closer to the elite than the rest of the pack. Even this year, when it is clear that the fourth space in the semifinals, a presumed date with Djokovic, has no clear favorite, deference is still the reflex.
Take, for example, the comments of Tomas Berdych after he subdued a game David Goffin at Louis Armstrong Stadium in the first round. Just two years ago, Berdych lost to Nadal in the 2010 Wimbledon final, but either Berdych plays a terrific possum or has conceded he doesn't believe he has much chance to win this tournament.
"On one hand it's very far. On the other one, it's quite close," Berdych said when he was asked how close he felt he was to the Inner Circle. "It's really tough. If someone knew it, he would be the guy that everyone would be coming to him and asking him what to do and what's the best thing. I'm doing what I think is best. I'm trying to do it every day, work hard. The majors are not for everyone. This time it's just probably three guys. Yeah, it's how it is. We're probably in the best era of our sport. That's how it is.
"Probably it would be close enough if I would be playing with them in more finals or something," Berdych said. "But I don't know what Andy's saying. He played so many finals and didn't win one yet, so probably maybe that's even worse that he's really close and still couldn't make one."
Berdych would face Federer in the quarterfinals, so perhaps he is realistic that Nadal's absence does not affect him, but, oddly and suddenly, something of a road map appears. Nadal is gone for the moment, and it should be remembered that not only did del Potro win here in 2009 but he also beat Djokovic in London in the bronze-medal match. The door is slightly ajar. The question is whether a new leading man is willing to emerge.