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Five early predictions ahead of the US Open

LONDON -- The grass season may have only just closed but the North American hard-court swing that centres on the US Open is on the minds of players already.

As the big names exited Wimbledon, fitness and preparations for Flushing Meadows were high on the agenda, and another compelling major is in prospect at the end of August.

Last time, we had two first-time US Open champions in Stan Wawrinka and Angelique Kerber. Calling their 2017 successors from two fascinating fields is tough, but try these five early predictions for size:

Rafa rises

The safest bet for the men's champion right now is Roger Federer, fresh from his Wimbledon triumph and with a glittering record in New York. He will take a lot of beating, but Rafael Nadal was a wounded man as he left London after a last-16 exit at SW19. When the Spaniard has fire in his belly he is a formidable prospect; the sort who will claw his way to a third US Open triumph.

The fast Flushing Meadows hard courts may not be Nadal's favourites, so don't expect a smooth ride, but the Australian Open surfaces weren't exactly slow at the beginning of the year and he did well in his runner-up run there. Federer's bound to hit a bump at some stage and players such as Nadal and Wawrinka -- another with something to prove after Wimbledon -- are ready to pounce.

Murray slips away

Even if Andy Murray is fit enough to play the tournament -- and he dearly wants to -- his hip problem is bound to make maintaining his ranking points from last year's quarterfinals run difficult. It was painful just to watch his inhibited movement as he went out to Sam Querrey at Wimbledon and it seems unlikely the problem will clear up sufficiently to make him a real threat in New York.

Novak Djokovic's fitness is even more questionable after he admitted to suffering considerable pain from his long-standing elbow injury. The absence or weakened state of two of the big four should give others chances.

Vibrant Vandeweghe

CoCo Vandeweghe has had a tough time at the US Open since she first entered the main draw in 2008, never progressing beyond the second round. But her improved on-court mentality (which has come largely thanks to new coach Pat Cash) should finally fix that and see her go deep into the tournament.

She's not a title contender yet but, like Jelena Ostapenko, is moving in the right direction and ready to cause a few ripples. Looking for a winner? Garbine Muguruza's confidence is up and her aggressive game has been tightened following her work with Conchita Martinez at Wimbledon, making her one of the favourites.

Injuries increase

The number of main-draw retirements came under the spotlight again at Wimbledon as 10 men dropped out after taking to the courts in singles, but the US Open has long been seen as the toughest of the majors. The hard courts, heat, humidity and its place toward the end of the tennis calendar are all factors, and the tournament set a first-round withdrawals record of 12 two years ago. That might not be beaten this year but expect another rash of dropouts as the sport continues to wrestle with key issues relating to relentless tours and first-round prize money problems.

Wild for Maria

It could be third time lucky for Maria Sharapova in her quest to compete in a 2017 Grand Slam. The French Open denied her a wild card after her suspension for using banned substance meldonium and injury kept her out of Wimbledon.

She was prepared to go through qualifying to make the main draw in London, perhaps afraid of another wild card rejection, but if she is fit again, the more commercially minded US Open may offer the 2006 champion, now ranked world No. 180, a way back in. Sharapova was due to play two matches in World Team Tennis this month, and the WTA's Stanford Classic, which begins on July 31. The Russian seems likely to be seen as having served her time for the majors before her ranking hits the requisite level -- and ticket sales would be a key consideration.