Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - When the final Grand Slam event of 2014 swings into action next week, will there be only two men who could possibly win the U.S. Open?
When Rafael Nadal pulled out this week, that disappointing move left world No. 1 Novak Djokovic and former top-ranked great Roger Federer as the men with the best chance of cashing-in in New York.
Nadal beat Djokovic in last year's final to capture a second U.S. Open title, but a bad right wrist has the Spanish superstar on the sidelines this time around. Rafa missed the big U.S. Open Series events leading up to the Open, so his announcement of a withdrawal didn't take too many by surprise.
Nadal also missed the Open two years ago because of injury and lost to his great rival Djokovic in the 2011 finale after beating the Serbian stud in the 2010 title match.
So, with no Nadal around to contend with, that pretty much leaves the one-time champion and top seed Djokovic and five-time winner and second seed Federer as the heavy faves to get through to the final.
Note: Federer beat Djokovic in the 2007 U.S. Open final.
Since capturing his second Wimbledon title and seventh overall major championship last month, Djokovic has struggled. He's gone just 2-2, with a pair of third-round exits in Masters events in Toronto (Jo-Willy Tsonga) and Cincinnati (Tommy Robredo).
And also since titling at the All England Club, Djokovic managed to get hitched to his long-time girlfriend, Jelena Ristic.
The dependable Djokovic has reached four straight and five of the last seven U.S. Open finals, managing, however, to prevail just once. He's expected to get back to the championship round and will also be expected to corral a second title in the Big Apple.
This past weekend, the 33-year-old Federer became just the third man in the Open Era to capture 80 titles after Jimmy Connors (109) and Ivan Lendl (94). The super Swiss titled at the Cincy Masters for a record sixth time by beating David Ferrer (for a 16th time in 16 tries lifetime) in the final.
Federer was a hard-luck loser against Djokovic in last month's outstanding five-set final at the All England Club.
At the U.S. Open, only the 17-time Grand Slam king Federer, Connors and Pete Sampras have won it five times in the Open Era, but Federer hasn't pulled through in Flushing since 2008, or six long years ago. And since '08, he's reached only one final at the National Tennis Center, losing to Juan Martin del Potro in five sets in 2009. For the record, the also oft-injured "DelPo" will join Nadal on the sideline.
Over the last five years, only the two-time winner Nadal has won more than one Open title, with Djokovic, del Potro and Andy Murray each snagging one apiece. And also in that time, Djokovic has been a frustrating three-time runner-up (2010, 2012 and 2013). He was also the runner-up there in 2007.
Djokovic and Federer won't be the only ones playing in Flushing, as some other possible contenders could be Aussie Open champ Stan Wawrinka, Canada's Milos Raonic, Bulgarian comer Grigor Dimitrov, and the aforementioned Murray.
The world No. 4 Wawrinka broke through with his first-ever major title back in January and landed in his first-ever U.S. Open semifinal a year ago.
The sixth-ranked Raonic excels on hardcourts and has reached at least the quarterfinals at the last two Grand Slam events, including a trip into his first-ever major semi at Wimbledon last month. The 6-foot-5 slugger reached the fourth round at the last two U.S. Opens. Expect him to go further this time around.
The world No. 8 Dimitrov has been steadily climbing in the rankings, thanks to a quarterfinal appearance at this year's Aussie and a trek into the semis at Wimbledon. Unfortunately for Maria Sharapova's boyfriend, he's 0-3 all-time in the main draw at the U.S. Open, which would be three straight opening-round losses.
He can only go up. And will.
As for Murray, the major semifinal machine is still trying to re-locate his once formidable game after shutting things down in September of last year due to back surgery and failing to reach a final anywhere since winning it all at Wimbledon more than 13 months ago.
The world No. 9 star captured his lone U.S. Open title two years ago, was a quarterfinalist last year, and appeared in the semis in 2011. He was also a finalist in 2008, losing to the mighty Fed.
This year at the Slams, Murray has reached a semifinal (French Open) and a pair of quarterfinals (Aussie and Wimbledon). which means he could be knockin' on the final door. But he'll probably have to get past Djokovic and/or Federer to do that.
I don't have any faith in a few other the Top-10 players, those guys being Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Tsonga.
Ferrer typically rolls into the second week, but he also typically never beats Djokovic, Federer, or anyone else ranked ahead of him.
Berdych is a former Wimbledon runner-up, but that was four years ago and he's only ever reached one U.S. Open quarterfinal, when he made it into the semis in New York two years ago.
Tsonga stunned the tennis world two weeks ago by capturing the Masters event in Toronto, where he somehow beat Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Dimitrov, including a victory over Federer in the final. But Jo doesn't play his best major tennis in Flushing, where he's only ever reached one quarterfinal (2011) and has missed two of the last four Opens, including last year, because of injury.
As for darkhorses in New York ... there aren't any. Certainly no Americans. Sorry, John Isner, Jack Sock, etc.
The only former champions in the field will be Djokovic, Federer, Murray and 2001 winner Lleyton Hewitt.
I like Djokovic to come through in two weeks, where I, of course, expect him to meet Federer in the final.
The '14 U.S. Open will get underway next Monday.