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US Open 2008

Roger FedererAFP/Getty ImagesRoger Federer will hope to salvage a poor season by his standards at the US Open, where he is four-time defending champion.

THE SPRINT TO THE FINISH

For the first time since 2003, the top line of the US Open draw will not bear the name 'R. Federer (SUI).' It will be reserved for the top-seeded Spaniard, Rafael Nadal, who in the past three months has captured his fourth successive Roland Garros title, his first Wimbledon crown and a singles gold medal at the Beijing Olympics. Oh yes, and the World No. 1 South African Airways ATP Ranking as of August 18, snapping Federer's unbroken 237-week reign dating back to February 2, 2004.

Nadal enters the final Grand Slam of the year hoping to join Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Mats Wilander and Federer as the only players in the Open Era to capture three majors in the same season. But the 22-year-old will have his work cut out in the pressure cooker atmosphere of Flushing Meadows, which injected potency and gusto in Connors' game but not into Bjorn Borg's.

Four-time defending champion Federer will want to salvage a lean year by his high standards. After near misses in Paris and London, the 27-year-old is staring at his first Slam-less campaign for six years. Two wins behind Pete Sampras's record haul of 14 Grand Slam titles, Federer will first of all attempt to break Ivan Lendl's US Open record of 27 consecutive match wins then work hard to emulate the Open Era record five titles won by Connors and Sampras.

While Nadal, Federer, Australian Open winner Novak Djokovic of Serbia and doubles teams Daniel Nestor and Nenad Zimonjic and Bob and Mike Bryan have already booked their flights to the ATP circuit finale Tennis Masters Cup Shanghai in November, the Race to Shanghai for the five remaining singles and six vacant doubles spots starts to simmer in New York.

Players will compete at 15 tour stops in North America, Asia and Europe between now and the conclusion of the regular ATP season, in a bid to secure a berth at the elite championships. The Race to the Tennis Masters Cup will conclude at the BNP Paribas Masters, an ATP Masters Series event in Paris, from October 26 to November 2.

THE MARCH TO THE TOP

If the first quarter of the 2008 ATP season could be characterized by unpredictability, the next told a tale of dominance by three central characters – Nadal and the Canadian-Serbian duo of Nestor and Zimonjic – who shared near parallel journeys to reach the pinnacle of the sport.

Clay king Nadal produced a devastating display of athleticism, power and strength en route to capturing his fourth successive Roland Garros crown in May. For the third year running, he defeated Federer in the final. The 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 score-line was the second-most lopsided Roland Garros final in the Open Era.

Nadal was hungrier than ever. The battle for No. 1 was starting to boil, when Nadal became the first Spaniard to capture a grass-court title since Andres Gimeno in 1972. As Nadal captured the Queen's Club title (d. Djokovic), 500-odd miles away Federer secured his fifth Halle crown (d. Kohlschreiber). But on the eve of The Championships at Wimbledon, many experts were questioning just how badly Federer had been affected by his Roland Garros loss.

Federer progressed to his sixth straight Wimbledon final where, for the third successive year, he met Nadal. In an epic final, twice interrupted by rain and which also was the longest in Wimbledon history at four hours and 48 minutes, Nadal held two of his four championship points in the fourth set tie-break before going on to dethrone the five-time defending champion 6-4, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-7(8), 9-7. Federer, who had not lost on grass since the first round at 2002 Wimbledon, saw his all-time 65 match winning streak, including 40 in a row at Wimbledon, come to an end.

Days after the final, declared the 'greatest match ever' by Sports Illustrated, the asteroid formerly known as '128036' had a new name, in honor of the first man since Bjorn Borg in 1980 to clinch the Roland Garros-Wimbledon double.

Now, Nadal's ascent to No. 1 ranking was simply a question of when, not if. By capturing his 30th career ATP title and 12th ATP Masters Series shield in Toronto (d. Kiefer), when Federer made an opening round exit (l. to Simon), the gap between the pair closed further. The following week in Cincinnati, Federer lost to Ivo Karlovic in the third round despite not dropping serve and Nadal ensured he would be the new No. 1 by reaching the semifinals, before his 32-match winning streak was ended by Djokovic.

Nine of the world's Top 10 then travelled to Beijing for the Olympic Games, which saw Federer carry the Swiss flag on his 27th birthday and Fernando Gonzalez carry the Chilean flag during the opening ceremony. While Federer made a quarterfinal exit (l. to Blake), Nadal beat Djokovic in the semifinals and won the gold medal over Gonzalez the day before he ascended to the No. 1 position in the South African Airways ATP Rankings. His record of 160 consecutive weeks at No. 2 was at an end. Match Report: Golden Boy Nadal Takes Olympic Glory

From the king of the ATP singles circuit, to the masters of the Stanford ATP Doubles Race: Nestor and Zimonjic may have suffered early teething problems in the first four months of the season, but since ATP Masters Series Rome in May the duo have been in a rich vein of form capturing four titles from six finals in seven tournaments.

The Canadian-Serbian alliance would, like Nadal, reach the final at Roland Garros, but came up short as they fell to South Americans Pablo Cuevas and Luis Horna. Undeterred, the pair crossed the English Channel to clinch the Queen's Club title (d. Melo-Sa) and went on to celebrate their first Grand Slam title together at the All England Club (d. Bjorkman-Ullyett). It was a first major doubles title for Zimonjic, while the triumph gave Nestor the career Golden Grand Slam and helped the 35-year-old secure the No. 1 position in the Stanford ATP Doubles Rankings. Match Report: Nestor & Zimonjic Win Wimbledon Title

Hungry for more silverware, Zimonjic and Nestor then won the Rogers Cup title in Toronto, and took their winning streak to 16 matches as they reached the Cincinnati semifinals (l. to Erlich-Ram).

OTHER SEASON HIGHLIGHTS

As crushed brick of continental Europe made way for mowed lawns in England, Germany and the Netherlands, Nadal was not the only Spaniard making headlines. Two grass-court successes came along at once for the sun-kissed country. David Ferrer followed up Nadal's Queen's Club victory by winning the 's-Hertogenbosch title (d. Gicquel), while Fernando Verdasco was runner-up to Karlovic in Nottingham prior to The Championships at Wimbledon.

If the world hoped for a Federer-Nadal final at Wimbledon, Rainer Schuettler and Marat Safin were aiming for another outcome. Former World No. 5 Schuettler reached the semifinals with the kind of tennis that carried him to the 2003 Australian Open final. As a result he rose from No. 94 back into the Top 40 for the first time since April 2005. Former World No. 1 Safin hoped his first Wimbledon semifinal would propel him back into the sport's elite.

The ATP circuit witnessed further breakthroughs during the North American hard-court season in July and August, including Simon beating defending champion Dmitry Tursunov in Indianapolis before taking out Federer en route to the Toronto semifinals the following week, when Nicolas Kiefer reached his first ATP Masters Series final (l. to Nadal) and Andy Murray won his first ATP Masters Series shield in Cincinnati (d. Djokovic). The Scot bettered the performance of Tim Henman, who was runner-up in 2000, and 1977 finalist Mark Cox.

At the Beijing Olympics, Federer – a veteran of three summer Games – won the doubles gold medal with countryman Stanislas Wawrinka (d. Aspelin-Johansson) as the Bryan brothers won the bronze medal. Match Report: Federer Wins Gold At Last!

FIRST TIME WINNERS

Juan Martin del Potro had been threatening to make a breakthrough on the ATP circuit for the past 18 months, but it wasn't until Stuttgart in July that the Argentine started to compile a remarkable unbeaten run. Del Potro became the first player in history to win his first four career ATP titles (Stuttgart, Kitzbuhel, Los Angeles, Washington) in as many tournaments. The 19-year-old enters the US Open as a dark horse with a 19-match winning streak.

In addition to del Potro, two other players became first-time ATP titlists, including 26-year-old Victor Hanescu and 27-year-old Albert Montanes. Hanescu had won only five ATP matches this season coming into Gstaad, but became the first Romanian to win an ATP title in seven years after defeating Igor Andreev 6-3, 6-4 in the final. He also saved three match points against Karlovic in the second round. Montanes dethroned defending Amersfoort champion Steve Darcis to win a title in his fifth career ATP final. He is the oldest first-time ATP winner this year.

STAT ATTACK

Big-serving American John Isner set an ATP record (since 1991) by winning all 39 first serve points in his first round win over Andrea Stoppini at the ATP Masters Series tournament in Cincinnati. The previous mark was 35 by Goran Ivanisevic and Andy Ram in 1996 and 2003, respectively.

RETIREMENTS

Brazilian wild card Gustavo Kuerten made an emotional exit in his first Roland Garros appearance in three years. The three-time former champion retired from professional tennis after losing to No. 18 seed Paul-Henri Mathieu of France 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 in the first round. Kuerten received a standing ovation when he stepped onto, and left, Philippe Chatrier Court. One month later at Wimbledon, former World No. 4 Jonas Bjorkman also announced he would retire this year.

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