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U.S. OPEN PREVIEW: Serena a heavy favorite despite age

Serena Williams is the favorite to win the U.S. Open title, which would make her the oldest woman champion since tennis turned professional in 1968. (Reuters News Service)

Serena Williams is the favorite to win the U.S. Open title, which would make her the oldest woman champion since tennis turned professional in 1968. (Reuters News Service)

NEW YORK — Serena Williams may be the overwhelming favorite, but the world No. 1 is anything but a sure bet to win a U.S. Open overflowing with intriguing possibilities.

As the greatest player of her generation, Williams is the obvious choice to win the women’s singles tournament, starting today, but faces challenges on several fronts including the calendar.

If she wins, the 31-year-old American will be the oldest woman champion since tennis turned professional in 1968 but time has not caught up with Williams just yet.

“I’m definitely prepared. I’m definitely ready for New York. I’m looking forward to it,” she said.

“I feel like I definitely had more matches than I could want, but I’m definitely prepared for the U.S. Open.”

The American is already the second oldest grand slam winner after she won last year’s U.S. Open and has captured eight titles this season, including the French Open. But not everything has gone her way.

A quarter-final loss to Sloane Stephens at the Australian Open and a fourth-round defeat to Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon were followed by her gut-wrenching loss to Victoria Azarenka at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati earlier this month.

Williams seemed to have the match under control when she cruised through the opening set only to lose in a third-set tie breaker, boosting Azarenka’s confidence heading into the year’s final grand slam.

The pair are seeded one and two and are drawn to meet in the final, just as they did last year. Williams beat Azarenka 7-5 in the final set 12 months ago but remains aware of the danger posed by the Belarusian.

“I’m a big Victoria fan,” Williams said. “I think she’s just the ultimate competitor on the court and just really nice.

“I really get along with her. She’s just a great person.”

The 24-year-old Azarenka won her second consecutive Australian Open this year and is perfectly suited to the unforgiving hardcourts at Flushing Meadows.

One of the few players who is unafraid of slugging it out with Williams in the cauldron-like atmosphere of Flushing Meadows, Azarenka looms as the obvious danger in what has all the makings of a great rivalry.

“Every time we play, I face a big challenge, my biggest opponent,” Azarenka said.

“Playing in the final of any tournament against the best player, that’s what you really strive for and to overcome and beat.”

“I’ve had tough losses before against her but I feel like I learned from those losses, and it helps me improve.”

The chances of the pair meeting in the final have increased since the withdrawal of Maria Sharapova, because of injury, and the shock retirement of Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli but there are plenty of other dangers lurking in the draw.

Australia’s Sam Stosur won the U.S. Open two years ago, upsetting Williams in the final, and won in California earlier this month.

Although she is yet to win a major, Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska has been a model of consistency. A finalist at Wimbledon last year, she made the quarter-finals at the Australian Open and the French Open this season and the semi-final at Wimbledon.

China’s Li Na has also been in great form this season, reaching the final in Australia and the last eight at Wimbledon.

The Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova, who won Wimbledon in 2011 but has failed to make a grand slam final since, remains an unknown quantity while the rapidly Stephens lurks as the danger card.

Usual suspects vying for men’s U.S. Open crown

NEW YORK — There is a familiar but deceiving look about the main contenders set to battle for the U.S. Open men’s singles title when the year’s final grand slam gets underway today.

If history and current form are any guide, only five men — Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and Juan Martin Del Potro — have any real chance of wearing the hardcourt crown.

Since the 2005 French Open, only five men have won grand slam singles titles but rarely have all five been in contention at the same event.

But this time they are and the U.S. Open is the one grand slam where they all believe they have a chance.

In the past five years, there have been five different winners at Flushing Meadows.

Unsurprisingly, they are the same familiar faces contending this year and the stakes could not be higher with all five desperate to prove a point.

For Federer, who won the title five times in a row from 2004-2008, it is looming as possibly one of his last chances to prove he is not a spent force.

The Swiss master may be the most prolific grand slam winner of all time but he has struggled in recent years, winning just one of the last 14 majors.

He still strikes the ball as sweetly as anyone but at age 32, he is not as nimble as his younger rivals and has started to slide down the rankings.

Federer is seeded seventh this year and facing a treacherous path to the final, including a possible quarter-final showdown with his old nemesis Nadal.

The Spaniard won the U.S. Open in 2010 to complete his collection of grand slam titles but the effort took a toll on his body.

Apart from the French Open, where he remains virtually unbeatable, Nadal has not won any other grand slam title since the 2010 U.S. Open, stalling his chances of overtaking Federer’s record of 17 grand slam title.

Nadal already has 12 grand slam titles but hardcourt looms as the key to his chances of overtaking Federer with two of the four majors played on the pavement.

Unlike clay, where he can slide around and wear down his opponents with his relentless pursuit of everything hit at him, Nadal has to change his game on hardcourt.

The 27-year-old has to play more aggressively and take more risks to shorten the points but it is a strategy he is becoming more comfortable with and finding success.

This year he captured three of the four Masters events played on the North America hardcourts, including this month’s tournaments at Montreal and Cincinnati, and heads into the U.S. Open as the slight favourite, just ahead of Djokovic and Murray, last year’s finalists.

Djokovic has played in four of the last six U.S. Open finals but the world number one can count only one title.

Forced to live in the shadows of Federer and Nadal for many years, the Serb has been making up for lost time, winning six grand slam titles, a feat which already ranks him among the greats.

Like Djokovic, Murray has also had to wait for his turn but the Scotsman is at the peak of his game. Twelve months ago, he beat Djokovic in a five-set thriller to win the U.S. Open, becoming the first British man to capture a grand slam in 76 years.

He reached his crowning glory in July when he won Wimbledon and although he hasn’t won a title since, he looms as a real threat to defend his title.

Del Potro won the U.S. Open in 2009 and was instantly hailed as the sport’s new star before his career was stalled by injuries.

But the towering Argentine is finally back to full fitness and steadily climbing up the rankings, adding another contender to the mix.