US Open 2019: All the contenders among the men and the women

Eighteen different women were crowned champions at the first 18 tournaments, a record streak to begin a WTA season. Equally surprising, the first three Grand Slam events produced three different queens. In the men’s section, however, the Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — have shared the past 11 Grand Slam titles and 11 of the past 15 US Opens.

Karolina Pliskova, who leads the WTA Tour in aces (346) and service games won percentage (80.8) as of August 5, thrives on hard courts, especially at the US Open.   -  AFP

“I believe in myself. I believe if I’m feeling well, I can be a big competitor in a sport that I love, and I’ve done so well at.” – Serena Williams

Is the legendary Serena Williams too old and slow to capture her 24th major and equal Margaret Court’s hallowed record? Will a 20-something, or even a teen prodigy, continue the transition to The Next Generation of champions?

The extreme parity in women’s tennis will likely provide the answers to these burning questions. Eighteen different women were crowned champions at the first 18 tournaments, a record streak to begin a WTA season. Equally surprising, the first three Grand Slam events produced three different queens — Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep — and three different finalists — Petra Kvitova, Marketa Vondrousova and Williams.

As a result, predicting women’s tennis has never been harder. But that makes it all the more challenging and fun. So let’s get started.

Karolina Pliskova — The best active player never to win a major is overdue at age 27. The 6’1” Czech has the ideal coach in 1990s star Conchita Martinez, a canny tactician, change of pace artist, and diehard competitor. Under Martinez’s guidance, power-hitter Pliskova has improved her movement, shot variety, and competitiveness.

Pliskova, who leads the WTA Tour in aces (346) and service games won percentage (80.8) as of August 5, thrives on hard courts, especially at the US Open. She made the quarterfinals the past two years but peaked in 2016 when she upset Serena Williams to make the final.

Her most important victory over the legendary Williams, however, may have come at the Australian Open in January. There she rallied from a 5-1 third-set deficit and escaped four match points to conjure a 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 quarterfinal upset. This newfound resiliency, as much as her explosive game, make Pliskova the best bet to win the US Open and her first Grand Slam title.

Odds: 2-1.

Coached by compatriot Danel Dobre and trained by fitness coach Teo Cerc, the more relaxed and mature Simona Halep has become more versatile and less predictable both offensively and defensively.   -  AP

 

Simona Halep — “I’m a different person. Everything changed. It’s a new year, new edition,” Halep proclaimed after she overcame a 4-1 first-set deficit to secure a 7-6 (4), 6-1 quarterfinal win over Shuai Zhang at Wimbledon. The new and different Halep proved it by outclassing Williams 6-2, 6-2 in the Wimbledon final for her second straight Grand Slam final victory. She had previously lost three-set heartbreakers in her first three major finals.

Coached by compatriot Danel Dobre and trained by fitness coach Teo Cerc, the more relaxed and mature Romanian has become more versatile and less predictable both offensively and defensively. Halep also credits former coach Darren Cahill, who “made me a better person and player on court.” Specifically, Cahill’s “tough love” approach transformed her from an occasional quitter into a tenacious competitor.

Odds: 3-1.

Ashleigh Barty’s Achilles heel is that she can be overpowered during baseline exchanges.   -  AFP

 

Ashleigh Barty — The 23-year-old Australian is often called a Swiss Army Knife because of her terrific shot versatility. That versatility is enhanced by her superb athleticism and clever tactics, which often sets up winning volleys. Despite her 5’5” stature, Barty belts serves up to 110 mph and usually out-aces her opponents, giving her yet another weapon.

Barty’s Achilles heel is that she can be overpowered during baseline exchanges. Alison Riske, at Wimbledon, and Sofia Kenin, at the Rogers Cup, sustained the groundstroke pressure to upset her. And quite a few other players hit harder than these two Americans.

The world No. 1 possesses an ace in the hole that all champions have: she lives and loves to compete.

Odds: 4-1.

When the 21-year-old Naomi Osaka followed up her 2018 US Open title by seizing the Australian Open in January, she looked, almost certainly, like The Next Great Champion.   -  AFP

 

Naomi Osaka — In the year’s shortest and most memorable post-match press conference, Osaka murmured, “Can I leave? I feel like I’m about to cry.” She had just suffered a shocking first-round defeat against Yulia Putintseva at Wimbledon.

When the 21-year-old Japanese followed up her 2018 US Open title by seizing the Australian Open in January, she looked, almost certainly, like The Next Great Champion. She possessed all the ingredients: athleticism, technique, physique and competitiveness. But the hyper-sensitive, introverted Osaka couldn’t handle the off-court pressures of great expectations and media scrutiny.

At the All Access Hour before the Rogers Cup in August, the slump-ridden Osaka got a few things off her chest. “When I lose it’s the end of the world because I’m supposed to be the best — I mean, I’m not anymore,” she said. “I thought (not being No.1) would take the pressure off, but it didn’t. So I took that break because I lost in the first round of Wimbledon, and I was just thinking about all the things I should be grateful for.

“Honestly, I didn’t want to be dark, but I thought I could die tomorrow, you know what I mean? Or I could be injured and watch people play tennis and not get the opportunity to play again. So I thought, man, I have to have fun doing the thing that I love. I got into tennis originally because I love it and I’m not going to change that now.”

Unburdened and happy, Osaka is a bonafide threat to win the year’s final major.

Odds: 5-1.

Highly athletic, versatile, and ultra-confident, rising star Bianca Andreescu has every shot in the book:   -  AFP

 

Bianca Andreescu — The smiling Canadian with the killer instinct burst on the scene so quickly in 2019 that she’s not even listed in the WTA Media Guide. At 18 years and 274 days, Andreescu became the fourth-youngest woman to win Indian Wells in March. A painful shoulder injury sidelined her since the French Open, but she rebounded with a vengeance at the Rogers Cup. There Andreescu upset No. 5 Kiki Bertens, No. 3 Karolina Pliskova, and Williams to improve to an astounding 7-0 against top 10 players this year. “When I step out on the court, I’m fearless. I show no mercy no matter who I play,” she said.

Highly athletic, versatile, and ultra-confident, this rising star has every shot in the book: kick serves, drop shots, acute angles, wicked topspin forehand, plus a two-handed topspin and one-handed slice backhand. A nightmare to play against, Andreescu confounds opponents with her creative repertoire.

Odds: 6-1.

Since capturing her last major at the 2017 Australian Open, Serena Williams has shown her age — she turns 38 on September 26.   -  AFP

 

Serena Williams — “As long as she’s playing, she’s going to be a threat to win anything,” 1980s superstar John McEnroe said before Wimbledon. “But it’s just now there’s more things that can go wrong, like more days where she might not have it and other days where players won’t give in as easily. So that just makes it more difficult.”

Since capturing her last major at the 2017 Australian Open, Serena has shown her age — she turns 38 on September 26. She hasn’t won a tournament and was trounced in three major finals. “I don’t know what is harder, playing after having a child or playing deep into your 30s,” all-time great Martina Navratilova said. Serena has to deal with both challenges. Slower afoot, often erratic from the baseline, inept at net, and plagued by nerves in finals, Serena looks increasingly quixotic in her quest for a 24th major title.

Odds: 8-1.

A forearm injury has sidelined Petra Kvitova since losing in the Wimbledon fourth round.   -  AFP

 

Petra Kvitova — Although Kvitova is always a threat on fast surfaces, the two-time Wimbledon champion ranked No. 6 has two minus points against her. A forearm injury has sidelined her since losing in the Wimbledon fourth round. And in 11 previous US Opens, the 29-year-old Czech has never advanced past the quarterfinals.

Odds: 20-1.

The 5’11” Amanda Anisimova, whose parents were born in Russia, is likened to Russian Maria Sharapova, who won Wimbledon at age 17.   -  Getty Images

 

Amanda Anisimova — At the French Open, Animisova became the first player born in the 2000s to reach a Grand Slam singles quarterfinal. The 17-year-old American then made the semifinals where she extended eventual champion Ashleigh Barty to three sets.

The 5’11” blonde prodigy, whose parents were born in Russia, is likened to Russian Maria Sharapova, who won Wimbledon at age 17. Both have elegant, powerful groundstrokes, slender physiques and composed demeanours. The ambitious 23rd-ranked Anisimova said, “Maria is definitely the player I have looked up to so much. She is an amazing athlete and a great person too. I want to be the next player after her to win a Slam as a teenager.”

Anisimova may well achieve her goal, but it won’t happen during the fortnight at Flushing Meadows.

Odds: 25-1.

Sofia Kenin stunned No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and No. 7 Elina Svitolina at the Rogers Cup.   -  AFP

 

Sofia Kenin — After upsetting Serena Williams 6-2, 7-5 at the French Open, the 20-year-old, Russian-born American said, “I think there was a ‘Wow’ moment when I went on the court against Serena. I love the crowd, I love playing on big stages. I knew I just had to show the crowd, like, ‘Listen, ‘Sonya’ Kenin is in the house.’”

Kenin backed up those confident words at another big stage a month later by stunning No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and No. 7 Elina Svitolina at the Rogers Cup.

“She plays every point for everything it’s worth. She’s a terrific competitor,” said Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo.

While Kenin has the intangibles of a champion, so far she lacks the firepower to be one.

Odds: 25-1.

The 27-year-old Kiki Bertens is enjoying a best career year, climbing to No. 5.   -  Getty Images

 

Kiki Bertens — The 27-year-old Dutchwoman is enjoying a best career year, climbing to No. 5. Bertens’s biggest title came at Madrid, where she whipped Grand Slam champions Halep, Kvitova, Stephens and Ostapenko. She also captured St. Petersburg and reached the finals at 'S-Hertogenbosch and Palermo. Disappointingly, however, her 4-3 record at the majors this season does not bode well at the US Open, where she’s an even worse 4-7.

Odds: 25-1.

In truth, while Cori Gauff is tactically precocious and extremely competitive, she needs to hone her groundstrokes and hit them more aggressively. And, of course, gain a lot more experience competing against elite players.   -  AP

 

Coco Gauff — After the 15-year-old whiz kid wowed the tennis world by reaching the Wimbledon fourth round, all-time great Martina Navratilova wrote in The Times (UK): “She proved once again that she is already close to the finished article. Indeed, she is already a more complete player than most on the women’s tour. Critically, as we saw, she never gives up, never stops trying to find the path to victory. Her tennis IQ is off the charts.”

In truth, while she is tactically precocious and extremely competitive, she needs to hone her groundstrokes and hit them more aggressively. And, of course, gain a lot more experience competing against elite players.

Odds: 100-1.

Can Anyone Dethrone Djokovic?

We’re able to be where we are because we love the game and we have big respect for this sport.” – Rafael Nadal, on why he and Roger Federer have reigned for so many years

Will Novak Djokovic continue his domination of the men’s game? Will ageless legends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal re-assert their greatness? Or will a Young Gun shock everyone as 19-year-old Pete Sampras did in 1990?

Considering that the Big Three have shared the past 11 Grand Slam titles and 11 of the past 15 US Opens, they remain the big favourites.

Let’s evaluate the contenders and give them odds to dethrone No. 1 Djokovic and win the US Open.

Tennis is a momentum sport, and Novak Djokovic abounds with momentum.   -  AFP

 

Novak Djokovic — The Djoker makes no bones about it. Surpassing Federer’s record 20 Grand Slam titles would ensure sports immortality and the GOAT recognition he craves. “That’s what I’m aiming for,” Djokovic said after winning his fifth Wimbledon and 16th major in July. “History is on the line. Grand Slams are a priority at this stage of my career without a doubt. And (I want to reach the) historic number (21) — one which is not so far away. I believe I can achieve it.”

Tennis is a momentum sport, and Djokovic abounds with momentum. The hyper-fit Serb, a young 32, has captured four of the past five majors and prevailed in 10 of his last 12 major finals. Another plus: 10 of his major titles have come on hard courts, including three at Flushing Meadows.

Defending champion Djokovic boasts a near-perfect technical game that helps him play the big points and games ultra-confidently. Aside from an overhead that doesn’t put enough lobs away and questionable drop shots at times, Djokovic has no weaknesses. It will take a super performance to dethrone him.

Odds: 8-5.

A kinder draw would certainly help the 33-year-old Rafael Nadal capture his 19th major, which would put him just one behind Roger Federer’s record 20.   -  AP

 

Rafael Nadal — Although Rafa complains that the Tour stages too many hard court tournaments, which exacerbate his many injuries, he’s captured three US Opens and the Beijing Olympics on the least forgiving surface. A year ago at Flushing Meadows, he pulled out gruelling four-set wins over Karen Khachanov and Nikoloz Basilashvili and a titanic fifth-set tiebreaker triumph over Thiem. But his chronic knee injury worsened, forcing him to retire in the semifinals against Juan Martin del Potro.

A kinder draw would certainly help the 33-year-old Spaniard capture his 19th major, which would put him just one behind Federer’s record 20. A bigger potential problem, though, is his nemesis Djokovic. The Serb has defeated Nadal the last six times on hard courts, including a 6-3, 6-2, 6-3 massacre in the 2019 Aussie Open final.

Odds: 3-1.

Roger Federer last claimed a major title at the 2018 Australian Open, but he’s still playing extraordinary tennis at — would you believe — 38.   -  AFP

 

Roger Federer — The Swiss legend last claimed a major title at the 2018 Australian Open, but he’s still playing extraordinary tennis at — would you believe — 38. His classic Wimbledon final against Djokovic in July reaffirmed his athletic genius. Yet, losing all three tiebreakers and squandering two championship points also reaffirmed his fragility on pressure points. For a shocking 22nd time in his brilliant career, Federer lost after holding one or more match points.

The sport’s GOAT has captured five of his 20 Grand Slam titles at Flushing Meadows, but the last came way back in 2008. Few elite athletes in any sport have defied Father Time as well and as long as The Mighty Fed. But Djokovic has his number, beating him in nine of their last 11 matches, and he’ll likely have to defeat Djoker to win this major.

Odds: 4-1.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, currently ranked No. 5, boasts the athleticism, high-powered game, and work ethic to create it, and should rebound strongly at the US Open.   -  AFP

 

Stefanos Tsitsipas — Don’t ask Tsitsipas to accept Rudyard Kipling’s famous poetic lines — “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same.” Following his stunning Wimbledon first-round loss to 108th-ranked Thomas Fabbiano, the distraught Tsitsipas holed up in his hotel room for three days.

Nicknamed ‘The Greek Freak,’ Tsitsipas peaked at the Australian Open when he upset Federer to make the semifinals and at the Madrid Open when he shocked Nadal on clay to reach the final. Since then, he’s gone a disappointing 10-7.

When John McEnroe predicted the handsome, 20-year-old Athenian is the Next Genner most likely to become No. 1, Tsitsipas said, “I will take my place and fight like hell to make the breakthrough. But I’m not waiting. You don’t wait for an opportunity, you create it.”

Tsitsipas, currently ranked No. 5, boasts the athleticism, high-powered game, and work ethic to create it, and should rebound strongly at the US Open.

Odds: 8-1.

Due for a breakthrough at the majors, Karen Khachanov has reached only one quarterfinal, at this year’s French Open.   -  AP

 

Karen Khachanov — The strapping 6’6” Russian rips groundstrokes and pounds first serves around 130 mph. At his breakthrough tournament last October, the Rolex Paris Masters, then-No. 18 Khachanov beat four top 10 opponents in a row, including No. 1 Djokovic in a straight-sets final.

Due for a breakthrough at the majors, Khachanov has reached only one quarterfinal, at this year’s French Open. There he defeated the estimable Del Potro before Thiem whacked him 6-2, 6-4, 6-2.

Coach Vedran Martic has urged Khachanov to change his extreme Western forehand grip in order to absorb opponents’ pace better, but his charge has refused. His relentless power game could also use more variety. Nonetheless, at 23, Khachanov, now ranked a career-high No. 8, has enough weapons and experience to beat anyone on a given day.

Odds: 10-1.

Daniil Medvedev has shot up from No. 61 to his current No. 9, won three titles, and beaten Djokovic at Monte Carlo.   -  AFP

 

Daniil Medvedev — Recalling a brutally honest conversation with his coach, Gilles Cervara, 18 months ago, Medvedev told ATP.com: “I was talking with him and I said, ‘Why should I take tennis seriously? Why should I do everything professionally? It takes so much dedication, so much mental strength. I feel like when I do it, nothing works.’ He was laughing at me, saying, ‘Okay, we’ll see. We’ll see. Maybe you’re right.’ Now he’s laughing about this saying, ‘Hey Daniil, do you remember what you said? What do you think about this right now?’”

The 23-year-old Russian rightly believes his decision “to dedicate my life to tennis” and “become much more professional” turned his career around. He shot up from No. 61 to his current No. 9, won three titles, and beat Djokovic at Monte Carlo.

The biggest sacrifice? Giving up sweets until a tournament is over for him. “Otherwise you’d probably see me jumping out of the balcony,” he said. “Because as soon as a tournament is finished, I’m happy about one thing, I can take a frickin’ dessert!”

Counterintuitively, the rail-thin, 6’6” Medvedev is a methodical counterpuncher. He needs more offence to become a top 5 player, as Nadal showed when he overpowered the Russian 6-3, 6-0 in the Rogers Cup final.

Odds: 15-1.

Nick Kyrgios occasionally tantalises us though with his jaw-dropping shot-making, such as when he won the Citi Open in July.   -  AFP

 

Nick Kyrgios — On any given tournament day, how will the volatile Australian play, behave, and react to adversity? These questions have metagrobolised the brains of top tennis analysts ever since the 19-year-old Kyrgios upset Nadal to reach the 2014 Wimbledon quarterfinals. Since then, he’s often wasted his vast talent by practising and training too little and showboating and tanking too often.

Kyrgios occasionally tantalises us though with his jaw-dropping shot-making, such as when he won the Citi Open in July. Afterward, he confided, “I just want to grow as a person, as a human, and if that comes along, the tennis player will come with it too.” Let’s hope that comes sooner rather than later.

Odds: 25-1.

Dominic Thiem, who turns 26 on September 3, has never made a Grand Slam semifinal on hard courts.   -  AFP

 

Dominic Thiem — The mild-mannered Austrian can play spectacular power tennis as he demonstrated with an epic 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 triumph over Djokovic in the French Open semifinals. Importantly, the No. 4-ranked Thiem transferred his wicked topspin from clay to hard courts when he overcame Federer 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the thrilling Indian Wells final.

Even so, Thiem, who turns 26 on September 3, has never made a Grand Slam semifinal on hard courts. Why? His one-handed backhand can be overpowered and out-steadied, and his ultra-deep positioning hampers his offence.

Odds: 30-1.

This season, the 6’6” Alexander Zverev has slid to No. 7 and has struggled with an abysmal 6-5 record at Masters tournaments.   -  AFP

 

Alexander Zverev — What’s wrong with The Big Z? Once projected as a surefire future winner of Grand Slam titles, he has yet to reach a major semifinal. On the plus side, Zverev has claimed three Masters 1000 crowns, scored 21 wins over top 10 players, captured 11 titles, and ranked as high as No. 3.

This season, though, the 6’6” German has slid to No. 7 and has struggled with an abysmal 6-5 record at Masters tournaments. “When you think back to the ATP Finals last November when he beat four top-10 players, including Djokovic,” recalled ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe, “it’s mind-boggling how poorly he’s played this year.”

A split with coach Ivan Lendl and a legal dispute with former manager Patricio Apey have undoubtedly distracted the 22-year-old Zverev. But he also needs to improve his net game, tactics, positioning, and on-court intensity to win a major.

Odds: 35-1.

This season, the 6’5” Hubert Hurkacz has notched impressive victories over top-tenners Thiem, Tsitsipas, and Kei Nishikori (twice) and also defeated Alex de Minaur, Denis Shapovalov, and Lucas Pouille (twice).   -  AFP

 

Hubert Hurkacz — The 22-year-old Pole’s ranking ascent accelerated when he hired highly regarded coach Craig Boynton in March. This season, the 6’5” power-hitter notched impressive victories over top-tenners Thiem, Tsitsipas, and Kei Nishikori (twice) and also defeated Alex de Minaur, Denis Shapovalov, and Lucas Pouille (twice).

“He’s not afraid to win, and that’s a very, very appealing quality. He wants to win, he’s very competitive, he’s a fighter, he’s very resilient,” Boynton told ATPTour.com. The fast, acrylic-topped Pro DecoTurf surface should suit his aggressive game.

Odds: 75-1.

Felix Auger-Aliassime shares an August 8 birthday with Roger Federer, and some tennis cognoscenti predict his career has Federeresque potential.   -  AFP

 

Felix Auger-Aliassime — The Canadian super-prospect shares an August 8 birthday with Roger Federer, and some tennis cognoscenti predict his career has Federeresque potential. This year, 19-year-old Auger-Aliassime has already shot up from No. 109 to No. 21 and scored significant wins over Tsitsipas (twice), Fabio Fognini, Borna Coric and Kyrgios.

“Pressure got to me, and it got to a point where it was a bit embarrassing,” admitted FAA, following his 6-4, 7-5, 6-3 third-round loss to Frenchman Ugo Humbert at Wimbledon. Nerves also plagued him when he double-faulted 12 times in his 6-7, 7-5, 6-3 loss to Khachanov at the Rogers Cup. Not to worry. The fast-learning FAA can handle pressure as his 19-10 tiebreaker record this year proves.

While this can’t-miss future star isn’t ready to win the US Open now, he’ll surely capture at least one in the 2020s.

Odds: 100-1.