When New York lifts the curtain on the 2011 U.S. Open, a brilliant rivalry among an uncommonly gifted generation of men's tennis players will take center stage.
The chief protagonists: Roger Federer, at 30, fighting time and more physical foes in pursuit of a 17th major title; Rafael Nadal, whose victory last year completed a career Grand Slam; and Novak Djokovic, on track, with a 57-2 record, for the best season in the history of the men's game.
Only one name matters on the women's side: Serena Williams, the three-time champion who returns to Flushing Meadows, N.Y., for the first time since her profane outburst led to her default from the 2009 tournament's semifinals. Seeded a lowly 28th, Williams is the clear favorite nonetheless, having stormed back from a near yearlong hiatus forced by injury and illness to dominate the hard-court season.
But first comes a more daunting name: Hurricane Irene, whose strong winds and torrential rains are due to hit Long Island today, the day before the U.S. Open is scheduled to begin.
Tournament officials took the unprecedented step of canceling Arthur Ashe Kids' Day on Saturday and announced they'll shutter the Billie Jean King Tennis Center altogether today, scuttling the customary pre-event practice sessions and interviews.
It's an ominous beginning for the season's final major, which is scheduled to conclude on a somber note, with the men's championship to be contested on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But New Yorkers have a proud record of soldiering on. And when the courts are dried and the debris carted off in Irene's wake, the U.S. Open will get under way.
No doubt, its spotlight will shine most intently on Williams -- particularly with two-time defending champion Kim Clijsters sidelined by injury.
Williams has played in only five tournaments in the last 14 months. And her return to form -- reaching Wimbledon's fourth round and winning back-to-back hard-court tournaments this summer -- has been jaw-dropping.
"That's unbelievable; it's incredible," says Chris Evert, who won 18 majors before retiring in 1989 and has returned to the sport as an ESPN analyst.
None of her rivals seized the opportunity presented by Williams's hiatus to assert themselves as the world's best player.
Caroline Wozniacki ascended to the No. 1 ranking more by effort than excellence, competing in so many tournaments that she accumulated enough points to vault ahead of everyone else. But the Dane has yet to win a major, shrinking rather than thriving at important moments.
She did tune up for the Open on Saturday, when she won her fourth consecutive New Haven tennis title. Wozniacki defeated Czech qualifier Petra Cetkovska, 6-4, 6-1, in the finals.
On the men's side, when last seen on a tennis court, Djokovic was a shell of the player who has been all but unbeatable this season. Physically spent and scarcely able to raise his right shoulder well enough to serve, he retired in the second set of his final against Andy Murray at Cincinnati, with Murray leading 6-4, 3-0.
That was one week ago. And there's little reason to think that the 24-year-old Djokovic, whose fitness and movement have been integral to his rise to No. 1, won't be ready for the U.S. Open.
Federer, in fact, is the only player to have beaten Djokovic in a match that went the distance this season. But it's unclear, at 30, if Federer can deliver another major. It's not that his skills have diminished; it's more that younger men have raised the bar for power and physicality.