MEN'S TOP HALF
27-MARIN CILIC VS. RYAN HARRISON
The tall and agile Croatian looked like he was going to be a sure-fire top-5 player back in 2010 when he reached the Aussie Open semis as a 21-year-old, but he's regressed significantly since then, somewhat due to injuries, somewhat due to a lack of technical improvements but also because he is not comfortable in the spotlight. He's played a little better this year but hasn't produced any results that would knock your socks off. He does have a huge serve and can whack it off the ground but is pretty inconsistent and no longer seems to know what his go-to shots are.
That's why he is ripe for an upset against the 19-year-old Harrison, who to date is the best-looking male prospect the United States has had since Andy Roddick in 2001. Harrison is a fine all-around player who is lacking a little pop off his backhand side and who needs to do a better job getting more returns back in play, but he has a big serve, a good volley, a weapon of a forehand and the ability to mix up his attack. He's a temperamental sort, but like Roddick, he loves to fight and does not take losses easily. This summer, he's reached two ATP semifinals and should end the year in the top 50. But taking a reasonable defeat to Cilic is not where the Louisiana native wants to be. Harrison thinks he has second-week possibilities, and if he gets on a hot streak, so do I. He'll take this contest in four stirring sets.
7-MARDY FISH VS. TOBIAS KAMKE
Mardy Fish is proud to enter the US Open as the top American men's seed for the first time, and he's certainly deserved it: He's been a force on hard courts all year long and this summer won Atlanta, reached the final of Los Angeles, the semifinals of Montreal and the final of Cincinnati. Clearly, he is now a player to be reckoned with. Fish has never reached the semifinals of a major before, and at the age of 29, he realizes there is no better time than now. He is not in an easy quarter with Jo Tsonga and Roger Federer, but at least he won't have to stare the dominant Novak Djokovic in the face until at least the semis, and as great as Federer has been and as very good as Tsonga can be, the serve-and-volleying Fish can stay with them and on a great day could take them both down.
But first things first for Fish against Kamke, an up-and-down player who last year came out of the wilderness at the age of 24 and earned himself the accolade of being named the ATP Newcomer of the Year, climbing from No. 254 to No. 67. He's a good ball striker, but he hasn't had great results this year, and as long as Fish keeps his forehand under control, dictates with his backhand and returns well, he'll take the contest in straight sets.
The contest between the gradually improving GAEL MONFILS and the young man some call “Baby Federer,” GRIGOR DIMITROV, is very intriguing, but unlike some analysts who are totally enamored with the Bulgarian, I find him fun to watch but erratic, sort of like Monfils was five years ago. Take a more mature Frenchman in four. I really like watching the young and creative ALEX DOLGOPOLOV play, too, and he should give Portuguese veteran FREDIRICO GIL fits, but if Dolgo is going to go much further, he must develop a more consistent game plan. Two veteran matches should be a heck of lot of fun to watch when FERNANDO VERDASCO faces JARKKO NIEMINEN and RADEK STEPANEK plays PHILIPP KOHLSCHREIBER. I'm seeing them both go five, with “Nando" winning the all-lefty match-up and the “The Worm” slithering past Kohlschreiber and his wondrous one-handed backhand. I'm also feeling wins from NIKOLAY DAVYDENKO over IVAN DODIG and from JO-WILFRIED TSONGA over YEN-HSUN LU.
WOMEN'S BOTTOM HALF
3-MARIA SHARAPOVA VS. HEATHER WATSON
Thus begins yet another long trek for Sharapova to try to win her first major since she took the 2008 Australian Open, which occurred just two months before she first seriously injured her right shoulder and had to undergo surgery in October of that year. She has taken baby steps back to the top and has not reached her inner goal yet, which is to regain the No. 1 ranking and win another Slam. Yes, she'll say publicly that she is just happy to be healthy again and playing highly competitive matches, but anyone who knows her realizes that she believes that her true place in the sport is at or very close to the top, and to her, that means winning majors.
Sharapova had by far her most impressive win at a Slam in July at Wimbledon, when she reached the final before being stopped by the red-hot Petra Kvitova. Two weeks ago, she won her biggest title since returning from surgery by outlasting Jelena Jankovic in Cincinnati. The only player out there right now who looks better on hard courts is the great Serena Williams, who bullied her at Stanford in late July, but Serena is on the other side of the draw, so Sharapova won't have to worry about trying to calm her nerves against her until if and when they meet in the final.
Sharapova has the tour's most consistently devastating return of serve when her feet are set and she can crush the ball off both wings from the ground. She is not a great mover but is better than she once was. The question for her throughout the tournament is whether she can actually serve consistently well, which has been a huge challenge for her during the past two years. If she does, she can win the tournament. If she doesn't, she will be stopped in her quest once again.
Watson is a scrappy British teenager with a lot of heart and moxy and is making the most of her game. She does not have huge strokes off the ground but is a smart player who understands her limitations. If Sharapova starts slowly, Watson has a chance to extend the match to three sets, but that's improbable, given that the Russian has been itching to play since she left Cincy. Sharapova in straight sets.
5- PETRA KVITOVA VS. ALEXANDRA DULGHERU
From the first time I saw her play at Roland Garros a few years back, I was hooked on Kvitova's game, so it was very nice to see her grow physically and mentally and win Wimbledon. She's the only player on tour right now who can match Serena's power stroke for stroke, and as a left-hander with a wicked slice serve, she's a tough out for all the righties. However, she has not performed well since she left the All England Club, and her head just isn't into her tennis quite yet. Perhaps that's a natural hangover after a Slam win, but the same thing occurred with her last year after she reached the Wimbledon semis and she went on a hard-court tailspin. This month, she's lost twice to her good friend Andrea Petkovic. It's not as if she cannot play on the surface, so much of the Czech's tournament will be about her convincing herself that she can aim for the lines and actually brush a piece of them.
Kvitova can be had when she's on the run, which is what former top-30 player Dulgheru's task will be. The Romanian has a fair amount of variety and does not fear top players, but she'll have to be on the ball quickly because once Kvitova starts dictating she's deadly. The two have played once, earlier this spring in Madrid, which was a rapid win for the Czech. Kvitova will be vulnerable during the first week, so this is a great opportunity for the Romanian to make herself known again. She will for a set, but the Wimbledon champ will come through behind a barrage of fierce forehands and triumph in three.
What's not to like about the match between 37-year-old American JILL CRAYBAS and 16-year-old MADISON KEYS. It's not often when you can say that a singles player is old enough to be another's mother, but you can here. Keys packs a lot of power but is not as savvy as Craybas yet. Still, I see her wearing a hearty teenage smile at the end of the match. Another U.S. teen, this one the quick LAUREN DAVIS, faces German ANGELIQUE KERBER, who has too much game for her at this point. I will pick an upset here, as SHUAI PENG has been hurt and new American VARVARA LEPCHENKO is due for a moment in the NYC sun. I'd love to say that BETHANIE MATTEK-SANDS will be healthy enough to best POLONA HERCOG, but her shoulder isn't quite right yet, and she'll fall in three. No one has any idea how former champ VENUS WILLIAMS will perform, given that she hasn't played since Wimbledon, but even if she doesn't play well, she has too much big-court experience for Russian VESNA DOLONTS. I'm a big fan of COCO VANDEWEGHE'S game when she is under control, and she better be against the competent Italian ALBERTA BRIANTI, who can slice her up. I'm seeing CoCo serve through her in three. I'd like to say that MELANIE OUDIN is going to rediscover her 2009 magic and have a nice run here because she really is a terrific kid, but her only win post the grass-court season was a retirement victory, and she's in a freefall, which is why she will go down to qualifier ROMINA OPANDRI, even though it's a very winnable match for Oudin if she's on. How about this: AGA RADWANSKA, one of my dark-horse picks to win it all, will face her temperamental little sister, URSZULA, who will leave the court screaming in frustration.