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Who to Watch at the 2013 U.S. Open

Victoria Azarenka

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She’s got a bronze medal from the 2012 Summer Olympics and two Australian Open singles titles under her belt, but current World No. 2 Victoria Azarenka is just getting started. The Belarusian player was a standout at the 2012 U.S. Open, reaching the finals but losing to Serena Williams in three grueling sets. The 24-year-old will definitely be one to watch again this year, especially if she reunites head to head with her biggest rival.

“I don’t think you’ll ever make me favorite in U.S. Open when you have Serena. Right now it’s not going to happen unless I win one. For me, it’s not that important,” she says. “What’s important is how ready I am and what I’m going to do there. So being the favorite doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

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Andy Murray

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It’s safe to say current World No. 2 Andy Murray has had one incredible year. In a breakthrough 12-month stretch, the Scottish powerhouse counter-puncher has won Olympic gold, claimed the 2012 U.S. Open, and inspired an entire nation after winning Wimbledon (the first time a British man has taken home the top trophy in 77 years). Naturally this is sure to give him major confidence once he hits the hard courts at Flushing Meadows.

“The last year for me, most importantly, it has changed my perception of myself,” says Murray, 26. “When you lose a lot of big matches, even when being successful in other tournaments, and you’re still getting asked why you’re not winning the big matches, it makes you feel a bit like a loser. When I’m in those positions in the future, I should have a bit more confidence, and hopefully that’ll help me.”

Unfortunately, Murray did not continue his hot streak in Flushing Meadows. He lost to Stanislas Wawrinka on September 5.

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Sabine Ellerbrock

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Germany’s Sabine Ellerbrock has an incredibly inspirational story. The athlete spent 25 years as a talented tennis player and coach before she picked up a foot infection following a 2007 operation. The surgery caused compartment syndrome, a loss of blood to her muscles and nerves that caused her to lose use of her entire right foot. Thinking she would be forced to quit playing tennis forever, the determined 37-year-old instead picked up a wheelchair and learned how to play on wheels.

Wheelchair tennis is a fixture at the Paralympics and each Grand Slam tournament, in addition to its stand-alone matches throughout the year. Currently ranked the new World No. 1 after her first big win at the French Open, Ellerbrock has inspired thousands across the globe with her perseverance and positive attitude. She’s even trying to raise awareness of the game by reaching out to German tennis players and officials, encouraging more televised matches. No question, she’ll be on a mission to win at the U.S. Open—on and off the court.

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Novak Djokovic

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No question, Novak “Djoker” Djokovic is one of the best in the game, winning six of his seven Grand Slam tournament championships since 2010. Known for being one of the most extroverted players on the men’s circuit who likes to joke around on court, the top-ranked Serbian says he owes all his recent success to a change of diet. Djokovic is even dishing all about his new gluten-free lifestyle in a book to be released just before this year's U.S. Open titled Serve to Win. And speaking of wining, the current World No. 1 will be the one to beat in New York, especially given his strong mental game.

“In terms of playing ability, there is nothing to choose between number one and 100. Instead, it's a question of who believes and who wants it more. Which player is mentally stronger? Which player is going to fight the hardest in the big points? These are the things that determine who is the champion,” he says.

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Serena Williams

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Arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time, World No. 1 Serena Williams has come a long way since growing up in Compton (her neighborhood was so dangerous, her sister was fatally shot by a gang member while riding with her boyfriend in his SUV). The 31-year-old tennis dynamo currently holds the record for the most Major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles, and just so happens to be the only player to have achieved two Career Golden Slams. But the 2012 U.S. Open defending champion insists it’s not as easy as she makes it look.

“No tournament is ever easy, especially being in the position I am in. The tournament starts and they expect you to win,” she says. “For me it’s always about constantly improving and never saying ‘I did great and I can be satisfied.’ I did great today, but what can I do better? What can I improve on? That’s what I always strive for.”

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Roger Federer

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Despite the fact that World No. 5 Roger Federer suffered his worst loss at a Grand Slam in more than 10 years at Wimbledon (losing to 116th ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round), he’s still one hell of a tennis player. The 32-year-old sexy Swiss is so good, the legendary Jimmy Connors once said, “In an era of specialists, you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist… or you’re Roger Federer.”

The 17-time Grand Slam champion is more motivated than ever to have a strong finish in New York this year, especially since he says he’s finally recovered from the back spasms that contributed to his unfortunate summer losses. And while he may be the old man in the Big 4, don’t expect that to hold him back one bit. “You always want to win. That is why you play tennis, because you love the sport and try to be the best you can at it,” he says.

In a surprising twist, Federer lost in the fourth round of this year's tournament.

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Samantha Stosur

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After her recent win at the Southern California Open (beating top-seeded Victoria Azarenka in two short sets) 29-year-old Samantha Stosur has finally broken through. The current World No. 11 has only won one Major in the singles category (at the 2011 U.S. Open, where she slaughtered Serena Williams in the final), but it’s that champion experience that just might bring her back to the top when the Australian ace competes at Flushing Meadows this year.

"It's been a little bit up and down,'' she says. "This year has certainly been a little tough. I'm very, very happy now to get another win and hopefully that can mean some good things in the future."

After a surprising loss in the first round against 17-year-old Victoria Duval, Stosur remained a good sport. “I feel like credit to her,” Stosur said. “I’m not going to be a sore loser and say she didn’t do anything. But I think I certainly helped her out, that’s for sure.”

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Milos Raonic

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Milos Raonic is on a roll. Not only did he recently make history as the first Canadian men’s singles player in the world top 10 after reaching the final of the Rogers Cup, he also gave Roger Federer a run for his money at the 2013 Australian Open. In a nutshell: The 22-year-old is proving he can keep up with the best of them.

“Stepping out on the court against those guys [Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal], it sort of stays there for the first five minutes, but then it fizzles away as soon as you realize it’s your job out there, and you just have to do anything you can to win,” he says. “I feel like these guys are great players, and they’re very well respected, but facing them is where I want to be, and that’s who I want to be competing against and who I want to be beating.”

In a dramatic turn, Raonic lost to Richard Gasquet on September 2.

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Maria Sharapova

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Despite her disappointing loss in the second round at Wimbledon, Maria Sharapova is poised to step things up a notch at the 2013 U.S. Open. “It’s my favorite place to play—the energy, the people in the crowds, the excitement. It’s one of the biggest stages for the tennis world,” the 26-year-old says. In the last month, the September SHAPE cover girl parted ways with long-time coach Thomas Hogstedt to work with legendary Jimmy Connors, and then severed ties with Connors as a coach after just one match, leaving her without a coach going into the U.S. Open.

With 29 WTA singles titles, four Grand Slam singles titles, a career Grand Slam, an Olympic silver medal, and more than $26 million in prize money on her resume, the blonde beauty with the signature scream-grunt is no stranger to success. “I have had lots of luck in my career but there has also been a lot of hard work,” she’s said. “You have your bad moments in your career and your good moments. And it's been a good ride so far, but it's not over yet.”

UPDATE: Maria Sharapova withdrew from the 2013 U.S. Open on Wednesday, August 21 because of bursitis in her right shoulder. We wish her a speedy recovery and look forward to her return to Flushing Meadows next year.

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Rafael Nadal

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At 27 years old, World No. 3 Rafael Nadal has clocked in an impressive 12 Grand Slam titles, a record-breaking Career Grand Slam, and an Olympic gold medal. The “King of Clay” also just clinched the 2013 Rogers Cup, a big warning to his rivals Djokovic and Murray that he’ll be bringing some major game to the U.S. Open this year. While he missed the tournament in 2012 due to knee issues, the sexy Spaniard reached the finals in 2011 and totally dominated in 2010. We fully expect him to bring back those impressive skills this time around, especially since the seriously strong athlete knows how to keep it cool under pressure.

“The thing, when you're down two sets to love, is to stay calm, even though it's hard, because people are freaking out, people are worried for you,” he says. “You just try to play tough and focus point for point. Sounds so boring, but it's the right thing to do out there.”

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Venus Williams

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The 33-year-old tenacious tennis talent may currently be in the shadow of her former great self, but we’d say the World No. 36 is poised for a comeback. Even though the powerful player hasn’t won the tournament since she went back to back in 2000 and 2001, she did prove to be extremely competitive in 2010. Plus, we can’t forget Venus Williams has a whopping seven Grand Slam titles and four Olympic gold medals to her credit. In a nutshell, the girl can win, and she’s been through a whole lot to prove it. At the 2011 U.S. Open, Williams announced to the world her troubles with the autoimmune disease Sjorden’s Syndrome and had a series of near career-ending injuries, but the dedicated athlete still hasn’t given up. And win or lose, that’s something to be admired.

“Coming back from injury, you have to build the confidence to just realize that you can come back and play without pain,” she says. “So I feel like I’m in that threshold of building confidence, and I really want to be able to play matches before the U.S. Open. That’s a lot of what happened to me at the French too. I played an intense and a really fun, exciting match, but I hadn’t played any matches. So it was like just a tough situation to be in. Do you play or don’t you play?”

After a tough 3-hour match on August 28, Williams lost to Jie Zheng in the singles tournament, but she has made it to the doubles semifinals with sister Serena.

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Alisa Kleybanova

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Just a few years ago, Alisa Kleybanova was climbing up the world tennis ladder. After good results at several big tournaments, she was moving fast through the rankings and achieved a personal best of World No. 20. But that all came to a halt in 2011, when the Russian athlete started getting sick and was forced to withdraw from matches. That’s when she found out she had been playing with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. After more than a year of treatment, she’s finally won the biggest fight of her career: her life. The 24-year-old made her official comeback at the 2013 Western & Southern Open, making it to the third round. While it looks like she won’t be playing in this year’s U.S. Open, expect her to be a major force in years to come.

"I know that right now I need to be even stronger than before, because to come back it's going to take a while. It's going to take maybe some not great matches, but I need to go through this, I need to get this experience, and sometimes it's not going to be very positive experience,” she says. “I just have to get ready for that, because I know that my path won't be easy and I need to go for it and believe that I can do it." Unfortunately, she didn't move past the second round in this year's tournament after a tough loss to Jelena Jankovic.

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