The US Open will begin from tonight and the fourth Grand Slam of the year will see all of the big names returning to action. Scotland's Andy Murray, who won the event at Flushing Meadows in 2012, will return from a year-long lay-off. Joining him will be 2016 champions Stanislas Wawrinka, who was given a wildcard by organisers after his comeback from knee surgery. Other former champions feature Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro while this is also the stage where 'Next-Gen' superstar Alexander Zverev will be hoping to become a 'Current-Gen' champion. However, as has been the case in Grand Slams for years now, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer remain favourites.
FEDERER COUNTED OUT
For the first time since 2015, five-time US Open men's singles champion Roger Federer enters the tournamnet with a clean bill of health. After sitting out the 2016 event with a knee injury, Federer willed his way to last year's quarterfinals despite a back injury that hampered his preparation and play.
This year, he has long had the year's final Slam circled on his calendar.
"It's even bigger of a priority this year -- not that it wasn't last year," Federer said Friday. "I'm really excited and happy to be back here healthy again and feeling good and, you know, take it one match at a time and see what happens.”
However, he still heads to Flushing Meadows as third favourite behind longtime rivals Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal after a season that has nose-dived since he won the Australian Open at the start of the year.
Federer was defeated in the Wimbledon quarterfinals last month before floundering against Djokovic in the Cincinnati Masters final last week.
“I'm not the favourite, they are - Rafa and Novak, in my opinion," the 37-year-old said after losing in Cincinnati.
CONFIDENCE KEY FOR NADAL
Rafael Nadal is full of confidence and ready to defend his US Open title, having enjoyed a blockbuster 2017 by claiming the French and US majors.
The World No. 1 told reporters on Friday that his strong performances this season -- including clinching yet another Roland Garros title in June -- have given him momentum.
"That's important for the feelings, the confidence," Nadal said. "I am here just trying to improve every day."
For Nadal, whose record 11 French Open titles have earned himself the moniker King of Clay, trophies on the U.S. Open's hard courts have been relatively harder to come by. Before 2017, Nadal had won the tournament twice, in 2010 and 2013.
Despite a semifinal exit at Wimbledon last month, the Spaniard is relying on memories of last year's win at Flushing Meadows to spur him on.
“Last year was a very special year. 2015 was not a positive year in terms of tennis," Nadal said, referring to the period when he struggled for form. "To win on hard court again is something that means a lot to me, especially here in New York."
From the pits of despair in Paris, record-setting Novak Djokovic now eyes a third US Open title where for the first time since Wimbledon last year, the sport's 'Big Four' will reunite.
Champion in 2011 and 2015, and a five-time runner-up, Djokovic sat out the 2017 US Open to nurse an elbow injury. His physical limitations were still evident when he slumped away from Roland Garros in June after a shock quarterfinal loss to journeyman Marco Cecchinato, threatening to skip Wimbledon to mend his shattered confidence.
Fast forward three months and, buoyed by an against-the-odds win at Wimbledon and his recent defeat of Federer in the Cincinnati Masters, Djokovic is again the man to beat.
"It's a wonderful feeling. It's been a couple of tough months for me with an injury but then winning Wimbledon and Cincinnati," Djokovic said.
Djokovic's Wimbledon triumph took his Grand Slam title collection to 13, just one behind Pete Sampras. He also has 31 Masters. He will head for New York buoyed by his dominance over his three major rivals as well -- he leads Nadal 27-25, Federer 24-22 and Andy Murray 25-11.
Serena Williams, riding an emotional rollercoaster as she adapts to juggling tennis and motherhood, seeks to end 2018 on a high with a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title at the US Open.
The US great counts six US Open victories among her 23 Slams and with one more would match Australian Margaret Court's record for most major singles titles. However, since an impressive run to the Wimbledon final, Williams has endured a lackluster buildup to the hardcourt showpiece.
"I'm still at the very beginning, this is a long comeback," she told reporters after a second-round loss to Petra Kvitova at Cincinnati. "I just began, I just started. I'm definitely at the very, very beginning."
She had shrugged off an even bigger disappointment two weeks earlier -- a 6-1, 6-0 loss to Johanna Konta in San Jose that was the most lopsided defeat of her career.
“I have been through a lot of stuff in my life, but I have never been through this," Williams said. "Having a baby and feeling with the emotions and the ups and downs and the fears and the excitement. Basically, my whole game needs to improve."
HALEP OVER THE HUMP
Simona Halep, her number one ranking secure and a Grand Slam title on her resume, is riding high heading into the US Open but that doesn't mean she's taking anything for granted.
"I don't feel the pressure," said the 26-year-old Romanian.
A victory in the French Open -- after disappointments in three Grand Slam finals -- confirmed for Halep that she had truly arrived at the top.
"Inside myself something changed," she said. "I'm more relaxed. These two were my dreams -- to be number one in the world and to win a Grand Slam. Always I say number one in the world without a Grand Slam, you are not a real number one. After the French Open, I really started to believe that I'm a real number one.
"I can say I have a big chance for this tournament, but it's tough to say that I'm the favorite even if I'm No. 1," she said. "Everyone is playing at maybe the highest level. Every match, every round is difficult."
"I'm just looking forward to playing my first one. If I win it, I will focus on the next one, just like that."
STEPHENS FEELING THE HEAT
Sloane Stephens has a new swagger in her step since winning last year's US Open but now faces the challenge of showing it in the New York spotlight as she gets set to defend a grand slam title for the first time in her career.
"I think there is a lot of pressure. I've never done it before. A lot of other people have. First go around sometimes isn't that great," said the 25-year-old American baseliner.
"I'm going to do whatever I can to make sure that I'm prepared, in the best shape possible, hopefully playing some good tennis by the time the U.S. Open comes around."
Stephens's triumph over friend and compatriot Madison Keys in last year's final capped one of the most remarkable comebacks in recent memory but she suffered eight straight losses afterwards until February this year. She has since picked up a title in Miami, reached the French Open final and is a career-high third in the world rankings.
"I'm playing good tennis. There's nothing to complain about. I hope that it keeps getting better. I hope it keeps improving," said Stephens. “But the way that I'm playing, I mean, I hope to continue, yeah, just kind of continue on this path and I think I'll be okay."