NEW YORK - Silly as it sounds nowadays, there was a time when some in the tennis world wondered whether Roger Federer was equipped to handle the U.S. Open.

Even Federer himself harbored doubts. It took him longer, after all, to get past the fourth round at this Grand Slam tournament than any other.

"Hey, New York is a crazy place," he said. "There's the night. There's the humidity. There's the heat. There's the city. There's the wind. . . . If you can win the U.S. Open, you can win anything."

Federer, of course, overcame all of those factors to take the last three championships at Flushing Meadows, part of his haul of 11 Grand Slam titles - three shy of Pete Sampras' record. When play begins tomorrow at the year's last major, Federer will be trying to become the first man since Bill Tilden in the 1920s to win the American Slam four times in a row.

Now it's another top player's turn to prove he can deal with all of the challenges the U.S. Open presents: Rafael Nadal. His career record of 8-4 in New York is his worst at any major.

Last year, the Spaniard reached the Open's quarterfinals for the first time, yet here was his assessment then: "I cannot say I am very happy with my tournament."

"I want to play the final in every tournament," Nadal said. "I know that's impossible, but I'm going to try, no?"

After No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdowns at the French Open and Wimbledon, Federer and Nadal can become the first pair of men to contest three consecutive Grand Slam finals since Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle in 1964-65.

Asked to guess who might lift the U.S. Open trophy on Sept. 9 if he doesn't, Federer said, "I would pick Rafael Nadal."

There is a lot more parity in the women's game, with five players divvying up the past five majors. Four - No. 1 Justine Henin, No. 2 Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams and Venus Williams - already have won the U.S. Open at least once and are the top contenders this year, although each has had recent injuries. The fifth, Amelie Mauresmo, withdrew because of health concerns.

Two other players, both from Serbia, appear on the verge of a first major title: Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic.

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