Federer aims to put out New York's Bush fires

For once, when the US Open kicks off in New York tomorrow it won't be the biggest show in town. The Republican convention, with its threatened attendant demonstrations, will take top news billing, at least for most of the opening week.

After that, though, things should settle, with Andy and Andre and four leading ladies vying to ensure that Old Glory takes top place on the flagpole of success, just as George Bush would wish, though there are one or two Europeans scheming to upset the apple-pie order of those plans.

For a start, Roger Federer is understandably keen to become the first man to hold three Grand Slams in one year since Mats Wilander in 1988, while the Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne, who put four months of viral problems behind her in golden fashion at the Olympics, is equally determined to repeat her 2003 triumph and pick up the $1 million on offer to both men and women for doing so.

With Wimbledon and the Australian Open already corralled, as well as six other titles this year to underline his unassailability in the rankings, Federer should progress further than in his four previous tilts at the US crown, in none of which has he got beyond the fourth round.

As Federer cruised through the early months, swatting aside all opposition, there had been predictions from some quarters, this one included, that he was in line to sweep all four Slams. Gustavo Kuerten's clay-court wiles put an end to that at the French Open, but the Swiss, who turned 23 earlier this month, will assume, reasonably enough, that three out of four is a decent haul.

Certainly the draw has not thrown anyone of detectable threat into his path until the quarter-finals. Then he may face Andre Agassi, twice a champion (1994 and 1999) and making his 19th, and possibly final, appearance at his home Slam. A hat-trick of US Opens and what would be a ninth Grand Slam title provide enough incentive for Steffi Graf's other half, but at 34 the days are dwindling.

It is in the defending champion, Andy Roddick, that Americans detect more possibilities of glory. Roddick will clock up his 22nd birthday tomorrow, so what better fashion to mark it than by getting under way a repeat of an unforgettable 2003, which brought his first Grand Slam on the way to ending the year top of the rankings?

That No 1 spot was rapidly seized by Federer, who underlined his current ability to take care of his closest rival in the Wimbledon final. The Swiss superiority was emphasised by Roddick after that Centre Court occasion: "I threw the kitchen sink at Roger, but he went and got a tub." Should it get that far, a repeat is likely; but the ability of a New York audience to lift one of their own should never be underestimated, and Roddick won this title in style 12 months back, straight sets over Juan Carlos Ferrero.

Of the rest, Argentina will be formidably represented once more, while the in-form Lleyton Hewitt is in with a shout following his recent win in Washington, his third title of the year. Britain's interest is surprisingly boosted to three by the qualification of Alex Bogdanovic while the familiar duo, Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski, are on course to meet in the fourth round. Henman has never gone beyond the fourth round, unlike Rusedski, who will be revisiting the scene of his best Grand Slam showing, runner-up in 1997. They face demanding first rounds, with the fifth-seeded Henman up against the 6ft 10in Croat Ivo Karlovic, while Rusedski plays France's Cyril Saulnier.

Such is his enduring genius that Marat Safin, the 2000 champion, has to be accorded a chance, but he is the lone Russian men's threat, whereas in the women's event five Russians are seeded in the top 10 and two of them, Anastasia Myskina and Maria Sharapova, won the last two majors.

Those statistics notwithstanding, it is Americans who are best positioned to reclaim a title they won five years in a row until Henin intervened last September. Her compatriot and opponent in that final, Kim Clijsters, is still out with wrist problems, but otherwise the field is at full strength.

The form bet among the US contenders is Lindsay Daven-port, who has known lean times and suffered assorted injuries since winning here in 1998 and finishing runner-up two years later. Right now the Californian six-footer is on a roll, having won her last four tournaments and clocked up a run of 17 victories. She is seeded fifth, and in the fourth round should meet Venus Williams, should the 11th-seeded and out-of-sorts older Williams sister reach that far.

The eclipse of the Williamses, a process exacerbated by serious injuries to both women, was completed at Wimbledon when Serena lost her title in such sensational fashion to Sharapova. The 17-year-old US-based Russian has not uprooted so much as a sapling since, so the best chance of continuing the exclusion of Americans from Grand Slam honours for the fifth straight tournament would appear to rest with Henin, the toughest of cookies. Foreigner or not, that is the sort New Yorkers appreciate.

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