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The challenges facing Murray, Nadal and Djokovic

August 23, 2013
Nadal is the man to beat at Flushing Meadows © AP
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For a while there, you could see the US Open men's champion coming from, well, across the water.

For four consecutive years, from 2004 to 2007, Roger Federer won Wimbledon and the US Open, the last two grand slam singles titles of the season. In 2010, Rafael Nadal took the last two. A year later, Novak Djokovic achieved the Wimbledon-US Open double.

Last year, for the first time in nine years, there were four different major champions. This was because Andy Murray finally, truly joined the fraternity of the big four, winning his first grand slam singles title at the US Open. It felt a little like 2003, when Andre Agassi, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Federer and Andy Roddick all took home major trophies. It was the first for Federer and, as it turned out, the only one for Roddick and Ferrero.

The winner of this New York fortnight is almost certainly going to be one of the three who already have claimed a major this season - in order, Djokovic, Nadal or Murray. As if there wasn't already enough at stake, that would make the winner your 2013 Player of the Year.

And in contrast to recent history, there's no way of knowing who that will be.

Thursday's draw ceremony at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center provided some critical context.

Murray faces first major defence © PA Photos
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We now know that the No. 3-seeded Murray was placed in the upper half of the draw. This means he would face Djokovic in the semi-finals. That is a serious obstacle for Murray, who has reached the final of the past four majors in which he's appeared.

This time, though, Murray is experiencing his first career defence of a major.

"It's a new experience for me," he said at the ceremony. "I've never had to deal with that before. I just want the tournament to get started. I've been here since Friday. I love this tournament. I'll try to have a good run."

Djokovic has been idling along quietly (for him) with three titles and a 44-8 record. He and Nadal got into it in Montreal, with the Spaniard winning their spectacular semi-final in a third-set tie-break. A week later, Djokovic fell to John Isner in the quarter-finals at Cincinnati. Djokovic, for what it's worth, is the only man to reach the past three US Open finals.

The issue for Djokovic? No. 6 seed Juan Martin del Potro - whose terrific semi-final performance against Djokovic at Wimbledon might have been a factor in his sluggish finals loss - would be the opponent in the quarter-finals if the seeds hold. Del Potro won the US Open in 2009.

After flaming out in the first round at Wimbledon and taking a brief sabbatical, Nadal has been fantastic on the hard courts. He's 15-0 this year and won back-to-back ATP World Tour Masters 1000 titles in Montreal and Cincinnati. Based on momentum alone, he would be considered the favourite. As it turns out, Nadal would have to meet longtime rival Federer in the quarters - if both players get that far.

Murray is the true wild card here. It's hard to gauge his chances because after winning Wimbledon he's playing with house money. That US Open title a year ago had a profound effect on his confidence. "I didn't know if I was ever going to win one," Murray said. "The more finals you lose, the more you start to doubt yourself. Getting that off my shoulders was huge."

He was only 3-2 in those North American Masters events, but New York was the scene of his first major triumph and, perhaps not coincidentally, his only junior grand slam title as a 17-year-old. Coach Ivan Lendl is convinced he can win this thing, which would give Murray three of the past five majors - better than any of the Fab Four.

Some quick thoughts on the men's draw...

First quarter-final: Djokovic has some work to do to reach that anticipated semi-final against Murray. Grigor Dimitrov would be the third-round opponent. Earlier this year, Dimitrov beat Djokovic on clay. Del Potro could see No. 12 seed Tommy Haas in the fourth round.

Prediction: No. 1 Djokovic defeats No. 6 del Potro

Second quarter-final: Easy going for Murray early here, with Michael Llodra in the first round and the winner of Victor Hanescu - Leonardo Mayer in the second. No. 15 seed Nicolas Almagro would be the fourth-round opponent. Stanislas Wawrinka, Kevin Anderson are the biggest threats to No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych in the bottom half of this quarter.

Prediction: No. 3 Murray defeats No. 5 seed Tomas Berdych

Third quarter-final: Easily the weakest of the four sections. No. 4 seed David Ferrer, a US Open semi-finalist a year ago and in 2006, has a fairly easy path to the quarters. No. 1 seed Milos Raonic would meet No. 8 seed Richard Gasquet in the fourth round.

Prediction: No. 10 Milos Raonic defeats No.4 David Ferrer

Fourth quarter-final Nadal starts off with young American Ryan Harrison, which shouldn't be a problem, but there is another American lurking in his path. Isner, who has 200 aces more than the ATP's second-place Kevin Anderson, would be his opponent in the fourth round. Isner, who lost in the Cincinnati final to Nadal (in two tiebreakers), pulled out of Winston-Salem with a sore hip. His health will be a focus in the early days of the tournament. If Nadal gets by Isner, he may find an old friend in the quarters. That's if Federer can get past No. 26 seed Sam Querrey in a third-round match.

Prediction: No. 2 Nadal defeats No. 7 Federer

First semi-final: Djokovic defeats Murray

Second semi-final: Nadal defeats Raonic

Final: Nadal defeats Djokovic

Click here for ESPN's thoughts and predictions on the women's draw.

This article was originally posted on ESPN.com

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