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The 2005 u.s. open is billing itself as the two-week culmination of a seasonlong reality show. As marketing campaigns go, it's not half bad. Never mind the coed twentysomething cast, competing elimination-style for a big prize--a record $1.1 million to the winner of each singles draw. No sport trucks in feuds, egomania and sudsy subplots quite as enthusiastically as tennis does.
Scenes from recent episodes include the sport's ultimate diva, Russia's Maria Sharapova, achieving the WTA's top ranking, which not only makes her the player to beat in New York City but also endorses her endorsements--$20 million worth by most counts; Andy Roddick, the 2003 Open champ, reaching the Cincinnati final last weekend but losing early in two other tune-up events (even his American Express ad asks, have you seen andy's mojo?); and Marat Safin, the spectacularly talented, spectacularly erratic Russian, winning this year's Australian Open but spending the summer locked in combat with self-doubt.
1 Will Agassi win one for the memory banks?
Earlier this summer it looked as though the U.S. Open would double as a valedictory for Andre Agassi. At an age (35) at which some players compete on the senior tour, he was losing his match against the assault of time. A chronic back injury contributed to his first-round defeat at the French Open and his withdrawal from Wimbledon. Agassi rested his back, got cortisone injections and returned to go 10--1 on hard courts this summer, sustaining his Top 10 ranking. His inspired play, coupled with a new endorsement deal with Adidas, has doused retirement speculation. "I'm using my experience right now to prepare myself the best I can," says Agassi. "You won't see me on the court if I'm not 100 percent." It's asking a lot of a middle-aged man to play a string of best-of-five-set matches in the late summer heat, particularly against today's studs. But if Agassi--"The most popular player in the history of tennis," says Roddick--can survive the early rounds, he will hijack the Open as no player has done since 39-year-old Jimmy Connors in 1991.
2 Can Rafael Nadal triumph on hard courts?
Nadal, a Spanish teenager who smacks the ball as if it owed him money, is unquestionably the sport's breakout star. He's won more matches this year than any other player and has triumphed at nine tournaments, including the French Open. So long as his titles came exclusively on clay, his appeal--like that of David Hasselhoff--was largely confined to Europe. But when Nadal beat Agassi on a hard court to win the Rogers Cup in Montreal on Aug. 14, his status skyrocketed on this side of the pond. If he can make a deep run in Queens, "El Biceps"will be well on his way to global-celebrity status.
3 Can Serena pull a Venus?
Once the unrivaled leading lady of the tennis reality series, Serena Williams has turned into the brooding, inscrutable supporting character whose antics confuse and vex viewers, to say nothing of the rest of the cast. After heroically taking the 2005 Australian Open, Williams the Younger hasn't won another tournament. Injury and apathy have conspired against her. Slowed by a sprained left ankle and--how to put this delicately?--a bulk in significant excess of her listed playing weight of 135 pounds, Williams was upset in the third round of Wimbledon. And she has played just one match since, hardly ideal preparation for the U.S. Open, a tournament played under famously harsh conditions. (As SI went to press, Serena was still entered in the draw.) On the other hand, she need only look to her sister Venus's command performance at Wimbledon for proof that top-tier players can shake off the doldrums in a hurry.
4 Whom will Lleyton Hewitt offend?