New York: No matches have been played yet at the U.S. Open, which doesn't begin until Monday, but as the draw unfolded Thursday, Roger Federer must have felt as if he had already won something.
The withdrawal of the defending champion, Rafael Nadal, bumped Federer up to the second seed and guaranteed that he would not have to face No. 1 Novak Djokovic until the final, should they both make it.
The draw itself paved Federer an even smoother path. While Djokovic's half of the draw includes Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, the Big 4 member Andy Murray as well as No. 5 Milos Raonic and the frequent top-10 denizens John Isner and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer's half looks decidedly less onerous. (Also read: No Indian left in singles event of US Open)
Federer's speed bumps? No. 4 David Ferrer, a tireless player, and No. 7 Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, frequently hailed as a potential champion.
Going into the Open, it seemed like a prime opportunity for someone new to get around the quartet of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray that has won 36 of the past 38 majors and nine of the past 10 Opens. Now, it seems like a prime opportunity for Federer to reach his first Open final since 2009.
The women's draw wasn't nearly so momentous, mostly because the fate of No. 1 Serena Williams depends more on Williams' state of mind and less on the quality of her opponents. Williams has not won any of the three Grand Slams this year - ousted before the quarterfinals of each one - and left Wimbledon with a mysterious illness that left her nearly incoherent on the court, a strange twist in a season already full of them.
Even Williams nodded toward her odd year when asked if she was looking ahead to any dangerous matches in her draw. "The way my year has been going," she said, "I would be worried about every single match, not just the ones down the line."
If Williams plays the way she did in winning the Open last year, few of the women on tour can keep up. No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania has never beaten her. No. 5 Maria Sharapova has to get out of a tough section of the draw, which includes Halep as well as Venus Williams, just to get a chance at her.
Serena Williams' first-round match is intriguing, pitting her against the 18-year-old American Taylor Townsend, one of the players the U.S. Tennis Association hopes will rise to the top U.S. spots so long occupied by the Williams sisters.
While Townsend, ranked 103rd and awarded a wild card into the field, is all about tomorrow, Williams is all about today. She is trying to win her 18th Grand Slam title and sixth Open, milestones she said loom large in her career goals.
"I've been trying for No. 18 all year," she said. "It just hasn't happened."
Similarly, Federer has been stuck on 17 majors since he won his last at Wimbledon in 2012. He has built up some momentum this year, winning last week in the Open tuneup in Mason, Ohio, after reaching the final in the Rogers Cup in Toronto. That followed his impressive run to the Wimbledon final, where he lost to Djokovic in five dramatic sets.
Djokovic followed that victory with his wedding, and two desultory losses in the hardcourt tuneups to Tsonga and Tommy Robredo. He could meet Isner in the fourth round, although Isner just pulled out of a tournament in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with a foot injury, throwing his fitness for the Open into doubt. To reach the semifinals, Djokovic will most likely have to beat Murray or Tsonga in the quarterfinals.
© 2014 New York Times News Service