After the Rogers Cup leaned heavily on Djokovic to support its credibility as it limped through a week low on star power, Cincinnati hopes to avoid a similar fate in the wake of the Olympics.  In one critical category, at least, the most important segment of the US Open Series actually in the United States can feel secure in its superiority to its northern neighbor.  Federer is back.  Who can stop him? 

First quarter:  Across from the future of American tennis, Ryan Harrison, stands the future of Australian tennis, Bernard Tomic, in a match that might unfold on the second Sunday rather than the first.  Chastened by his behavioral lapse at the Olympics, Harrison should benefit from returning to home soil as he attempts to solve a far more complicated player with similar concerns regarding maturity and attitude.  Also in this section is one of the year’s most surprising narratives in Brian Baker, who must seek to reverse his Wimbledon loss to Kohlschreiber before facing one of the rising stars.  But looming above all of these intriguing characters is the Olympic silver medalist, likely regretful to have fallen a victory short of a career Golden Slam.  Regularly a champion in Cincinnati even when he struggled elsewhere, however, Federer always shines on a fast court that increasingly suits him as he ages and in torrid conditions that reward his exceptional fitness.  Once he strangles the hopes of a Harrison or a Baker, he might face another American in a quarterfinal against Fish.  On the rise again with a semifinal in Washington and a quarterfinal in Toronto, the man who finished runner-up to Federer here in 2010 after three suspenseful sets could face Juan Monaco for the second straight week.  Able to overcome the Argentine in a protracted affair at the Rogers Cup, Fish cannot look too far ahead past an intriguing opening duel with Feliciano Lopez.  A doubles semifinalist at the Olympics with Ferrer, the aquiline Spanish lefty defeated Fish on American soil in a Davis Cup thriller last year.

Semifinalist:  Federer

Second quarter:  Just when Ferrer seemed primed to snatch a bronze at the Olympics after an outstanding spring campaign, the perennial doorman to the ATP penthouse fell flat in an early loss to Nishikori during a generally unimpressive Olympics for Spanish tennis.  A fierce competitor who stays professional despite his feistiness, he can seek revenge against the Japanese star in the third round if Toronto quarterfinalist Granollers does not intercept the latter.  Meanwhile, Ferrer perhaps can sympathize with potential second-round opponent Wawrinka, who has spent his career as Federer’s understudy just as the Spaniard has spent most of his career in the shadow of Nadal.  On the opposite side of the section lies the frustrating Berdych, currently in one of his feckless spells after dropping five of his last seven matches.  An unexpected Roland Garros setback at the hands of Del Potro appears to have cast the Czech adrift from the purposeful demeanor with which he marched through most of the clay season.  Stepping into the void, perhaps, is a man whose serve should sizzle on this slick court more than it did at his home tournament in Toronto.  Halted by his fellow ace machine Isner there, Raonic has suffered a series of narrow losses over the last few months but has maintained his uplifting spirit nonetheless.  A quarterfinal against Ferrer would pit one of the sport’s most intimidating servers against one of its most efficient returners in a fascinating contrast of styles.  Not to be neglected is Toronto finalist Gasquet, who defused Isner last week, although the Frenchman rarely has plowed deep into consecutive Masters 1000 tournaments.

Semifinalist:  Ferrer

Third quarter:  Exiting Toronto prematurely, both of this section’s anchoring seeds expressed uncertainty over whether they would play Cincinnati amidst their post-Olympics fatigue.  Toppled by Stepanek just three days after he secured the bronze medal in London, Del Potro can anticipate an even sterner challenge from a veteran of a similar pedigree.  In a strange twist of déjà vu, Haas starts the week against Nalbandian just as he did at the Rogers Cup, where the form that he displayed in extending Djokovic to a final set should suffice to discomfit a tottering Tower of Tandil.  Somewhat more tranquil is Murray’s early draw, although Los Angeles champion Querrey could exploit a mediocre effort from the gold medalist before his home fans.  In a parallel position is third-round opponent Roddick, whose monochromatic, predictable style has proved an excellent foil for the Scot’s brilliance in returning and passing shots.  A titlist twice this summer, the former US Open champion has not conquered one of the sport’s central figures at a tournament of note for years.  A handful  of eccentric or charismatic veterans also populates this section, from the volatile lefty Melzer to the waning Hewitt and Wimbledon quarterfinalist Youzhny to Wimbledon almost-Federer-killer Benneteau.  While it’s almost impossible to predict who might come out of this section, it’s easy to guess that whoever does won’t go much further.  When in doubt, take the defending champion, whose celebrated conditioning should enable him to withstand the heat if his knee can withstand the asphalt.

Semifinalist:  Murray

Fourth quarter:  After his exploits in Canada last year, Djokovic labored through Cincinnati to the final before retiring against Murray.  Never has he won at a tournament that can expose the slender Serb’s fragility, although he has claimed the runner-up trophy no fewer than three times.  Gifted with arguably the weakest section of the draw, he cannot face any opponent more intimidating than his countryman Tipsarevic before the semifinals.  Although the two Serbs played plenty of scintillating, court-stretching rallies in their Rogers Cup semifinal, Djokovic firmly reasserted his national supremacy despite failing to sustain his finest form for extended stretches.  Others in his immediate vicinity look equally unlikely to force the world #2 to produce a level higher than his (admittedly excellent) average.  Befuddling him for a lively set at the US Open, Dolgopolov lacks the competitive stamina to deliver the upset except on one of the Serb’s most desultory days.  Another two-time titlist this summer, like Roddick, Cilic fell surprisingly flat in Toronto during a period of the season when one might expect him to ambush some higher-ranked but wearier foes on his favorite surface.  In a curious subtext to an otherwise unremarkable quarter, Donald Young aims to snap his 16-match losing streak against a qualifier.  This epitome of talent squandered came within a tiebreak of victory in Toronto, only to melt away in a third-set bagel.  When does the pressure shift away from this former prodigy, desperately seeking to snap his skid, and to an opponent who desperately does not want to fail where all before him have succeeded? 

Semifinalist:  Djokovic

Final:  Federer vs. Djokovic

Champion:  Roger Federer