When Rafael Nadal announced his withdrawal from the U.S. Open, tennis fans like me were deeply saddened, as the greatness of Nadal cannot be replaced. Seeing a great player miss out on a Grand Slam event is never good for the game. Nonetheless, there will be plenty of other players eager to fill the void, and Novak Djokovic will be looking to defend his crown.
A win at the U.S. Open would represent a Grand Slam title to one's resume, $1.9 million, and an almost guarantee of more sponsorships to come. But to each of the top three seeds, a win would mean vastly different things to them on an individual level.
Roger Federer: A win for the 31-year-old Federer would simply cement his status as the greatest tennis player of all time. During Djokovic's dominant 2011 season, in which Djokovic handed Federer multiple heartbreaks, it seemed as though Federer had one foot out the door; in a sport like tennis, 30 years of age is not the prime age to make any kind of a sporting comeback to revive one's career.
Fast-forward to today: Federer has won Wimbledon, regained the world #1 spot, broke Pete Sampras' record, won an Olympic silver, bagel-ed Djokovic en route to his fifth Cincinnati title (tying Nadal for most Masters 1000 titles), and reminded everyone that he is the greatest of all time -- no question about it.
We know the talent that exists in tennis today, the physical demands of the game, the difficulty of remaining on top, and to continue to dominate late into an athlete's career. Even Tiger Woods is no longer at the top of his sport, but here Federer is, world #1 and still dominating. A win should have everybody in awe, not at the fact that Federer managed to win, but in the manner that he is doing so. In a warped sense, Federer has the least at stake, and the least obvious motivation. Nobody is talking about Djokovic dominating him anymore, nor is there much left for him to achieve. He could try to put more distance in terms of Grand Slams between himself and Nadal, but, once again, this is just adding some icing on the cake; for fans, a win would only serve to remind us how lucky we are to witness Federer in action.
Novak Djokovic: Apologies on getting carried off with Federer, but let's focus on the defending champion who has much at stake. As I mentioned in an earlier piece, nobody quite fears Djokovic in the same way he was feared in 2011, and you can bet Djokovic isn't too happy about that. His form has taken a beating recently, failing to defend his Wimbledon crown and failing to medal at the Olympics. While his dominant showing in 2011 is enough to stop anyone from writing him off, he still desperately needs a win to regain his confidence -- and perhaps instill some fear in opponents.
Remember this shot at the U.S. Open last year? We need to see some of this Djokovic -- the ruthless, cold-hearted killer on court who could be described with the same adjectives as Kevin Spacey in "SE7EN." Sandwiched between the heart-warming story of Murray winning at home and Federer winning everything else, Djokovic needs to remind the world of what he is capable of.
Andy Murray: With each passing Grand Slam, the stakes get higher, and his Olympic gold may even have added to his pressure. No matter how much satisfaction there is to winning an Olympic medal (and perhaps even more difficult, considering Olympics come around once every four years?), it is still not a Grand Slam, and it won't change the fact that people will still be waiting for Murray to win one. Will his attitude be, "I've won a major tournament, the pressure is off" or "I've reached success in every tournament except for the Grand Slams -- when can I win?"
But a win here would finally give Murray the Grand Slam he deserves, and perhaps make things even more interesting when Nadal returns now that we have a legitimate grand-slam contender, and not one who is unbeatable up until the finals. A win would mean a meteoric rise in sponsorships and cash, although millions of dollars would be a mere footnote in the personal satisfaction and mental relieve it would bring. Don't believe for one second the expectations don't weigh him down -- Murray takes it to heart.
After second thought: If Murray won here, would that cap off the greatest year of Grand Slams ever? Djokovic wins the Australian Open, the Grand Slam he has had most success. Nadal, the greatest clay-court player ever, wins his French Open. The classy Federer fittingly wins Wimbledon, and Murray wins the U.S. Open, his favorite slam and the place where he won the 2004 Junior Title. Throw in the successful Olympics, and could you ask for a better year?
Brian has been a life-long fan of tennis and has written about it since 2009.