New York: If the experts are right, only four men have a realistic chance of winning this year`s U.S. Open, but that alone is cause for celebration.
Just four players from a field of 128 professionals might seem like slim pickings, but after what has transpired over most of the last decade, the Aug. 29-Sept. 11 tournament is looming as one of the most open grand slams in years.
For most of that time, just two players, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal, have been given any real hope of lifting the major trophies, with Federer winning a record 16 grand slam titles and Nadal 10. Between the 2005 French Open and last year`s U.S. Open, they won 19 of the 21 grand slam finals.
But things have changed this year and their domination has ended, at least temporarily.
Novak Djokovic is now the number one player in the world and chasing his third major title of the season while Andy Murray has hit form at the perfect time.
So the big two has become the big four and together they have set the stage for an intriguing fortnight at Flushing Meadows that seems certain to culminate with an emotional finish on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11.
For all four players, this year`s U.S. Open looms as an opportunity to prove their greatness.
Federer has already won the tournament five times but has not won a grand slam since last year`s Australian Open. At 30, he is starting to show signs of slowing down and his best days appear to be behind him.
But the Swiss master has not given up on adding to his collection of titles and the U.S. Open, a battle of fitness as much of skill given the vagaries of playing in baking heat on the American hardcourts, represents one of his best chances.
Nadal has traditionally struggled to produce his best at the U.S. Open, often succumbing to injury as his body gives up on him, mostly because of the enormous physical strain he puts on himself.
He worked on his serve and adjusted his game enough to win the U.S. Open for the first time last year to complete his collection of grand slam titles but there are questions about his fitness again this year.
Djokovic has never won the U.S. Open but was a finalist in 2007 and again last year, which marked the start of his climb to the top of the rankings.
The Serbian broke the Federer-Nadal strangehold on majors when he won the 2008 Australian Open but he was danger of being remembered as a one-slam wonder until he dramatically turned things around this year.
He won the Australian Open for a second time then won Wimbledon in July and is on one of the hottest runs ever seen in men`s tennis.
Djokovic has won a record five Masters titles this year and lost just two matches all season, a semi-final at the French Open to Federer and last week`s Masters final in Cincinnati, when he retired with a shoulder injury.
Murray is the youngest of the big four and the only one not to have won a grand slam, although he made the U.S. Open final in 2008 and the Australian Open each of the past two years.
Most experts believe it is only a matter of time before Murray ends Britain`s long grand slam drought and with question marks about the fitness of his three main rivals, this could be the year.
If there was an outsider with a chance, the most likely candidates would be towering Argentine Juan Martin Del Potro, who surprisngly won the U.S. Open two years ago but could not defend his title 12 months ago because of injury, and in-form American Mardy Fish, though both face the prospect of having to beat three of the big four to take the title.