A little of the usual excitement was missing at draw day at Flushing Meadows. It didn't feel quite the same wondering which of the Top 3 would end up in David Ferrer's half, rather than Rafael Nadal's. But that's the way it has to be in 2012, and the tournament, now that it's officially in brackets, will slowly take on a life of its own. It's still the U.S. Open, and winning it still means just as much to every player, no matter who's missing.
The big early news is that top seed Roger Federer and third seed Andy Murray are scheduled to play each other in the semifinals. If all goes according to form, Novak Djokovic will get Ferrer. With all due respect to the Spaniard, though, the players in his section have to view this as a rare opportunity to reach a Grand Slam semifinal. They don't come around often these days.
Just what Donald Young needed after losing 17 straight: A first-round night match against Roger Federer, in front of the world. A loss would - OK, will - send Young, who reached the fourth round here in 2011, tumbling out of the Top 100.
From there, Federer's draw to the semis looks straightforward. The first seed he could play would be Fernando Verdasco, and the next would be either Mardy Fish or Gilles Simon. I'd look for Fish, who has had his usual strong summer hard-court season, and who pushed Federer in Cincinnati, to make something of a run.
The top seed on the other side here is Tomas Berdych. He has four career wins over Federer, and nearly beat him in Madrid in May. But the big Czech has been acting a little burned out lately - since the French Open, he's 3-5, and he went out in the first round at Wimbledon and the Olympics. This might be good news for Sam Querrey, who is near Berdych in the draw. The 27th seed has been surging this summer with help from Brad Gilbert.
Also here: Nicolas Almagro, Nikolay Davydenko, and Florian Mayer, who opens against American Jack Sock
Best names: Jack Sock, Jurgen Zopp, Go Soeda
First-round match to watch: Berdych vs. David Goffin
If Andy Murray is going to make his Slam breakthrough this time, he'll earn it. In addition to Federer in the semis, he might also have to go through Milos Raonic in the fourth round and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarters.
First things first, though. Murray starts with Alex Bogomolov, Jr., who beat him in Key Biscayne in March. Don't expect a repeat of that result; last year Murray lost to Donald Young in Indian Wells and thrashed him here. Also near Murray: big-hitting lefties Feliciano Lopez and Thomaz Bellucci. It's hard to know where Murray stands at the moment. His summer hard-court season has mostly been a prolonged Wimbledon-Olympics hangover. Whether he'll retain any of that gold-medal confidence on a different surface in New York remains to be seen.
Also here: James Blake, who opens against Lukas Lacko of Slovakia. With Marcel Grannollers the highest seed near him, Blake has some daylight in the draw.
Sleeper: Nishikori. He beat Tsonga in Australia, and reached the quarters at the Olympics
Call this the land of opportunity: Ferrer is the top seed, Janko Tipsarevic is second. Who could take advantage of a Big 4-less quarter?
There's Brian Baker, who opens against Jan Hajek and could play Tipsy second. Baker hasn't exactly been lighting it up lately-he's 1-5 since Wimbledon and says he's been putting too much pressure on himself. But he's performed well at the majors so far this year.
The three players with the best chances of making a surprise run to Super Saturday, though, are John Isner, a quarterfinalist at the Open last year; Richard Gasquet, finalist in Toronto two weeks ago; and Tommy Haas, who is in the middle of a late-career Indian Summer at age 34.
Then there's Ferrer himself, who obviously shouldn't be underestimated. He's reached the quarters or better at all three majors in 2012, and won a title on all three surfaces. He also made the semis at Flushing Meadows in 2007. Rafa's absence gives him an opportunity as well. For once he won't run into one of the Big 4 until the final four.
Also here: Lleyton Hewitt, Ernests Gulbis (opens against Haas), Xavier Malisse (opens against Isner)
First-round match with "epic debacle" written all over it: Benoit Paire vs. Grigor Dimitrov
Things start with a bang at the top of this section: Juan Martin del Potro has drawn his countryman and sometime antagonist David Nalbandian in the first round. Del Potro had something of a scare with his wrist last week, but he appears to be ready to go. He also seemed to get over his own Olympic hangover when he made the semis in Cincy. Nalbandian leads their head to head 3-1, but they haven't played since 2008.
The top seed in the section is Djokovic. Like Murray, it's hard to know exactly where the Serb's game and confidence are. Since Paris, he's had brilliant streaks that have been punctuated by poor performances. He was solid at Wimbledon until the semis. At the Olympics he played a bad match to lose the bronze medal to del Potro, an opponent he has mostly owned. And he ended a vintage run in Toronto and Cincy with a straight-set loss to Federer. But Djokovic is coming back to a place he likes, on a surface where he thrives - he hasn't lost before the final at the Open since 2009, and hasn't gone out before the semis since '06.
Djokovic's draw shouldn't hurt his confidence, either. Lorenzi, Dutra Silva, Janowicz, Novikov, Rochus, Benneteau: These are the players he has to get past to reach the round of 16.
Also here: Juan Monaco; Stan Wawrinka, who made the quarters at the Open in 2010; Alex Dolgopolov, who played a classic first set against Djokovic last year; Ryan Harrison, who plays Lukas Kubot in the first round and would get the winner of del Potro/Nalbandian; and Andy Roddick, who has a qualifier first, and might play Bernard Tomic after that.
Player on a hot streak: Jerzy Janowicz - the Pole, who won two rounds at Wimbledon, is coming off two Challenger titles
First-round match to watch: Del Potro vs. Naldandian
Semfiinals: Federer defeats Murray; Djokovic handles Isner. If these are the semis, they'll be tough to call. Federer and Murray split finals on Centre Court this summer, and Isner edged Djokovic in a third-set tiebreaker in Indian Wells.
But judging by their form on hard courts this summer, I'll take Federer and Djokovic. It wouldn't be the Open without a match between them - they've played each other here the past five years. Djokovic has won the last two after saving match points, which should only make Federer more motivated to finish the job this time around.
Final: Federer beats Djokovic