Novak Djokovic's formidable year of ball-busting performances and a resulting usurpation of the once dominant Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has seen the Serb take men's tennis by storm. Despite a disappointing end to the Cincinnati Open against Andy Murray, Djokovic is at the peak of his game and one of the best seasons in tennis history has seen him seeded No. 1 for the U.S. Open for the first time.
Djokovic will be looking to claim his first championship at Flushing Meadows, where in previous years he has finished runner up to Federer and Nadal on two occasions. Being overshadowed by the two former world number ones this year is not on the cards for the Serb, who will instead be intending to rub salt further into the wounds of the deteriorating Swiss and Spaniard.
The once dominant Federer and Nadal have more than just a stimulated Serb to worry about; their recent individual form has raised doubting eyebrows, and they have disappointed themselves with some uncharacteristic performances.
Both exited the Cincinnati Open somewhat prematurely at the quarter-final stage to Tomas Berdych and Mardy Fish respectively. With Czech Berdych having beaten Federer twice last year and Fish being a quality hard court player, it wasn't the defeat which was concerning, but more the manner in which they were defeated.
In fairness, throughout Cincinnati Federer showed glimpses of his old self; the fluency and confidence from his prime seemed at times within close reach, and the unique aura which the man carries with him was still very much present on the court and in the stands. He looked relaxed and revitalised after his third-round exit in Montreal, but fell victim to Berdych's powerful 6'5" serve.
Ahead of Flushing Meadows, Federer is "feeling good mentally" and claims that "physically I feel perfect". But if the Swiss is to recapture the form of old, which we as fans have come to expect, then he surely must be expecting to do better than a third-round in Canada and a quarter final in Cincinnati.
At the moment, Federer is giving off the image of a sort of tragic hero; like a once-dominant personality in the sport who is undergoing a slow recovery back to full health. He speaks like a veteran of tennis trying to find his feet again: "I feel better now than I did in Montreal…so at least I have three more matches under my belt". He seems tired and almost unkeen: "Last week wasn't very good. I thought it was okay."
Perhaps these are signs of a gradual decline, a poignant fall from grace for the Swiss hero. Regrettably, I don't believe that Federer will win another major, and a close eye will be kept on him in New York, a tournament which has the potential to determine the rest of his career.
Nadal on the other hand is still very much a player in his prime, no tennis fan can deny that. There is no age concern or doubts about his motivation or drive, but for the Spaniard it is the dreaded case of injury that is currently hindering his progress in reaching his full potential. As one of the most modest, genuine and sporting guys on the world tour, Rafa would be the last person to milk an injury or make excuses, but even he cannot put a drop in form down to anything less than physical discomfort.
A combination of ongoing foot troubles and some run of the mill blistering has caused him to lack the sharpness and pace which has always been a key component to his game. As a result, he has lost that dynamism on the court for which he is so loved. Rafa's trademark sprint to the baseline is now a withheld jog, and this reserved demeanourwas evident in his tennis in Cincinnati, full of unforced errors and uncharacteristic sluggishness. Granted, he has injury to blame, but if he intends to retain his title at Flushing Meadows then he needs to find his intensity again.
Nadal realises that he needs to play "more inside the court, more aggressively", and admits that he is in "far from perfect condition" for New York, but one thing is for certain, "I will try everything", as he always does.
Federer and Nadal will be well aware of the threat in the form of Novak Djokovic, but on a personal level, I will not be surprised if both former champions will be placing priority on rediscovering themselves and re-tuning their own games before dreaming of defeating the world number one.
It's make or break for the pair of them: will Feds find his form? Will Rafa be revitalised? Will their professionalism shine through, or will they begin that inevitable fall from grace like so many before them and give way to the fresh faces of men's tennis? Something's got to give, here's hoping it's not these two just yet.