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Tennis returns to its proper place on one of its most pre-eminent stages on Monday after its somewhat embarrassing appearance at the Olympic Games.
The US Open begins at Flushing Meadows, New York, and will hopefully restore the sport's reputation after the below-par performance in Athens.
Many leading players chose to miss the Olympics and some of those that entered appeared to lack motivation. Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Tim Henman and Marat Safin all went out early, and the fact that Chile's Nicolas Massu, hardly one of the game's big guns, won gold in both singles and doubles indicates how the tennis world ranks the Olympics in importance. Thankfully, commitment will not be lacking at the US Open, which in terms of the players entering both the men and women's events, is probably the strongest of this year's four majors.
The injuries that have plagued many leading players this year have mostly healed, with the notable exceptions of Argentina's Guillermo Coria, out for the rest of the year with a shoulder injury, and Belgium's Kim Clijsters, whose long-standing wrist injury keeps her on the sidelines.
The tournament's most compelling story looks to be a renewal of the rivalry between Roger Federer and defending US champion Andy Roddick. They are seeded one and two for a final showdown, and Roddick will be desperate not to lose again to the Swiss maestro and to surrender his sole major crown.
But their head-to-head record stands at 7-1 in Federer's favour, and now that he has added resolute consistency to his natural brilliance, the world number one has to be favoured for every tournament he enters. If he prevails, he will be the first man to win three majors in a year since Mats Wilander in 1988.
If either of this pair slip up, one who has the pedigree and form to take advantage is Lleyton Hewitt. The Australian, who won his first major at Flushing Meadow in 2001, has shown more of his old prowess this year. He recently won the Washington tournament and reached the final of the Masters Series event in Cincinnati.
The man who beat him at Cincinnati was the game's Peter Pan, Andre Agassi, and no one will receive greater support, both patriotic and sentimental, than the 34-year-old Las Vegan. Agassi keeps brushing off talk of retirement, but fans will take the view that this could be his last shot at a tournament he has won twice, in 1994 and 1999.
Criticism of the Olympic tennis cannot so easily be aimed at the women. Athens was notable for the return of world number one Justine Henin-Hardenne, who had not played since the French Open because of a lingering viral illness and what a return it proved to be. She not only came back from 1-5 down in the third set to win her semi-final against Russia's Anastasia Myskina, who took her French title in June, but then defeated world number two Amélie Mauresmo to take gold.
The US Open seeding committee has noted this and made her top seed and favourite to retain her title. Apart from seeing whether Henin really is back to her best, the most intriguing player to watch will be surprise Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova. For the first time the weight of expectation will be on the Russian's 17-year-old shoulders, and a contest between her and Henin, which is drawn to occur in the quarter-finals, would be particularly relished. The emotional support reserved for Agassi will switch to Lindsey Davenport in the women's event. This is likely to be the 28-year-old's last US Open, and she enters it exhibiting the best current form in the world. Bowing out with a second triumph at her national championships would be the perfect end to an outstanding career.
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