Who will win the US Open?

Which players will capitalise on the diluted US Open field? Who will rebound best after the six-month layoff and to the eerily quiet atmosphere to prevail at the plague’s first Grand Slam tournament? Let’s size up the leading contenders and find out.

Novak Djokovic, now 33, harbours a burning ambition to break Roger Federer’s record of 20 major titles and is clearly the man to beat at the U. S. Open.   -  AP

It won’t be the same without the fans. And no major tournament has fans as passionate, and often raucous, as the US Open. But in this historic, mostly sports-less year of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, just staging what’s normally the last Grand Slam represents a victory for normalcy. Wimbledon was cancelled for the first time since World War II, and the French Open, an early-June fixture since the 1920s, was rescheduled and will follow the US Open in this topsy-turvy year.

It also won’t be the same without several of the game’s biggest stars. Fearing the dreaded coronavirus in densely populated New York City, Rafael Nadal won’t defend his title. The US Open also lost its defending women champion, Bianca Andreescu. Plagued by a serious knee injury, the 20-year-old Canadian, who rocketed from No. 178 to No. 5 last year, hadn’t played a tour match this year. On Instagram, Andreescu wrote, “I realise that the unforeseen challenges, including the Covid pandemic, have compromised my ability to prepare and compete to the degree necessary to play at my highest level.”

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Stan Wawrinka, the 2016 US Open winner, told RTS Sport, “I don’t want to go to the United States under these conditions. There is a health situation that is particular in New York.” Echoing the sentiments of many players, three-time major champion Angelique Kerber said, “I don’t think anyone wants to get in a plane and fly to New York.”

Not world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and No. 2 Simona Halep, who withdrew from the Open which starts August 31. Both noted the health risks outweighed the potential rewards. Europeans not making the trip include No. 9 Gael Monfils and his girlfriend, No. 6 Elina Svitolina, No. 7 Kiki Bertens and No. 8 Belinda Bencic. Bertens announced she won’t be competing because the mandatory 14-day quarantine upon return to Europe from the U.S. would hamper her clay preparation for the French Open.

Roger Federer, the sport’s greatest and most beloved superstar, will also miss the Open, but for a different reason. Federer, who turned 39 on August 8, is rehabbing from a double procedure to his right knee. The Swiss legend did have some fun recently when he made a surprise visit to Barilla, Italy, in order to play two girls, Carola and Vittoria. The girls became famous when a widely circulated video showed them rallying flawlessly over two rooftops during the strict lockdown in Italy. A jolly Roger replayed the “rooftop tennis match” with the thrilled and appreciative girls.

READ | US Open organisers pleased with lineup despite dropouts

Which players will capitalise on the diluted US Open field? Who will respond strongly after the six-month layoff and deal best with the eerily quiet atmosphere to prevail at the plague’s first Grand Slam tournament?

Let’s size up the leading contenders and find out.

Novak Djokovic — Despite playing third fiddle in the popularity stakes to Federer and Nadal in New York, Djokovic has used visualization techniques to “transmute” the chants for Fed and Rafa to his advantage. The slender Serb has captured three of his 17 major titles at Flushing Meadows and has reached five more finals. And no one plays the big points better, as he proved by twice overcoming Federer there after surviving two match points.

“It’s like being on the edge of a cliff,” confided Djokovic, who holds the tour record by winning seven tournaments after saving at least one match point. “You know there is no way back so you have to jump over and try to find a way to survive I guess and pray for the best and believe that you can make it.”

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The world No. 1 won’t bring the momentum his perfect 18-0 won-lost record and eighth Australian Open title created before the pandemic shut down the tour in March. But The Djoker has the most solid game, his favourite surface (hard courts), superb physical and mental stamina, and a wealth of experience.

Most of all, Djokovic, now 33, harbours a burning ambition to break Federer’s record of 20 major titles. “I believe that I can win the most Slams and break the record for most weeks at No.1,” he said. “Those are definitely my clear goals. I don’t believe in limits.”

Djokovic is clearly the player to beat.

Alexander Zverev — Coaching stints by former No. 1 players Ivan Lendl and Juan Carlos Ferrero brought Zverev limited success and ended in controversy. His new coach, former No. 3 David Ferrer, should provide exactly the upbeat approach and tactical acumen the underachieving German needs.

“The break is more of an advantage for the older ones,” argued Zverev in April. “They have more experience and know exactly what they have to do. They will be fresher after the break.”

Alexander Zverev, a 6’6” power player, needs to improve his volley, play the big points much better to close out matches efficiently and not get deflated when losing.   -  AFP

 

But Zverev, a 23-year-old German, also explained how he could benefit from the pause in competition. “Right now is the moment when I can improve,” he said. “You cannot improve during the season. You travel from city to city, playing one match after another. Now you can work on certain things. I have three months to completely take my game apart. I can see exactly what I need.”

The 6’6” power player needs to improve his volley, play the big points much better to close out matches efficiently, and not get deflated when losing. Zverev is steadily learning how to win close matches when it matters most, as his first semifinal in his 19th major event at the Australian Open showed. Ferrer will help accelerate his progress.

Daniil Medvedev — Last year, after the best stretch in his career — he reached six straight finals, including the US Open — Medvedev recalled a career-changing conversation with his coach, Gilles Cervara.

“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?’”

Last year’s runner-up Daniil Medvedev is a disappointing 0-5 in career five-set matches, and that will have to improve for him to capture a Grand Slam title.   -  AP

 

The 6’6” Russian extended Nadal to five engrossing sets in the US Open final with a blend of opportunistic attacking and terrific defence. He should have learned from that match that sustained attack will win more high-stakes matches than defensive consistency. Medvedev is a disappointing 0-5 in career five-set matches, and that will have to improve for him to capture a Grand Slam title.

Stefanos Tsitsipas — “Tsitsipas is the most likely Next Gen player to win a major, no doubt,” ESPN analyst and former No. 1 John McEnroe predicted. “I’ll be amazed if he doesn’t win numerous Grand Slams.”

It’s easy to see why McEnroe touts “The Greek Freak” of tennis. Tsitsipas, like McEnroe, is a dynamic, athletic, crowd-pleasing volleyer. Though not as combustible as the 1980s champion, Tsitsipas is still learning to control his emotions. “I found more balance within me,” he said in January. “Before I was very inconsistent with my emotions. I could become in a few of the matches suddenly angry and frustrated…. I think balance is important for someone to grow. If you are just one day on, one day off with your emotions, they can cost you.”

The handsome 22-year-old shot up to a career-high No. 5 a year ago. Tsitsipas unquestionably boasts the talent to capture a major. But can his one-handed backhand handle today’s power players, especially explosive servers?

Matteo Berrettini — Although overshadowed by other Next Genner standouts Dominic Thiem, Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas, the 24-year-old Berrettini has zoomed up in the year-end rankings from 433 to 136 to 54 to 8. He looks like the best Italian since Adriano Panatta, the 1976 French Open champion.

For sheer serve and forehand power, the rugged 6’5” Berrettini stacks up with anyone. Unfortunately, his backhand is vulnerable and he lacks the speed and defensive skills of the other top 10 players.

Even so, he remains highly dangerous. His 3-0 record in five-set matches attests to his physical and mental toughness.

Dominic Thiem — By far the oldest of the Next Gen, Thiem turns 27 on September 3. He’s also the most successful, reaching three Grand Slam finals, losing twice to 12th-time champion Nadal at Roland Garros and once to eight-time champion Djokovic at the 2020 Australian Open.

“I improved my whole game a lot in the past year,” Thiem told Tennis magazine. “My volleys, my serve, [serve] return, which are very important, especially for the faster surfaces.” His wicked groundstroke topspin and powerful serve can overwhelm opponents, but his one-handed backhand can misfire when his game is off.

A quarterfinalist only once in six Open appearances, the unassuming but ambitious Austrian is due for a breakthrough tournament there.

A quarterfinalist only once in six U.S. Open appearances, the unassuming but ambitious Dominic Thiem of Austria is due for a breakthrough tournament there.   -  AP

 

Felix Auger-Aliassime — Tabbed as a can’t-miss future champion, Auger-Aliassime just turned 20 and ranks No. 20. The fast-rising Canadian has reached five ATP finals, but lost them all.

“He’s the most difficult opponent I’ve ever faced,” said Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has lost three times to FAA. “He has one of the best returns on the tour. He has a really powerful, accurate serve, which is tough to read. He’s really quick and fast, which is rare to find all of that combinations together, combined. Big forehand, big backhand. He can create a lot of opportunities from his backhand, but also, at the same time, he can be very aggressive from the forehand side. There’s not much to come up with when you play against him. He’s pretty much solid from everywhere.”

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FAA has another strong suit that’s critical in any endeavor: dedication. “I’m the type of player that just leaves his soul on the court,” he told ATP.com.

“I try to engage myself fully in what I’m doing every time I step on court.”

This rising star could pull a major upset or two, but he still needs more seasoning to win a major title this year.

Darkhorses — Reilly Opelka, Karen Khachanov, Jannik Sinner, Andrey Rublev.

Conclusion: The ageless Big Three have grabbed the last 13 Grand Slam titles, and this astounding streak will continue even with Federer and Nadal missing. Equally amazing: the youngest active player to have won a major is Marin Cilic, who turns 32 on September 28.

Prediction: Champion — Djokovic; runner-up — Thiem; semifinalists — Medvedev and Zverev.

The women contenders

Coco Gauff — During the pandemic, the 16-year-old American prodigy stayed in the news with her civil rights activism. On Twitter, Gauff declared, “I promise to always use my platform to help make the world a better place.” After Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a suspected criminal, by crushing his neck, Gauff tweeted, “I am in tears watching this video. Everyday innocent people are dying because of our skin colour. No one deserves to die like that. I just can’t believe this. This needs to stop.”

Gauff earned that platform last year by becoming the first 15-year-old to reach the Wimbledon round of 16 since Martina Hingis in 1996. She also made the US Open third round, and then won her first WTA title at Linz, where she upset top-tenner Bertens. At the 2020 Aussie Open, Gauff shocked No. 3 seed Naomi Osaka 6-3, 6-4 to make the fourth round.

Coco Gauff, of the United States, boasts the athleticism, confidence, and power — she can hit 120 mph serves — to beat anyone on a given day.   -  AP

 

“Coco pulls herself out of holes like a champion would do,” said all-time great Chris Evert. “She keeps being fearless and aggressive. I’m really impressed.”

Besides this attribute, Coco boasts the athleticism, confidence and power — she can hit 120 mph serves — to beat anyone on a given day. Even so, she isn’t quite ready to win seven matches over a fortnight.

Sofia Kenin — The only Grand Slam queen crowned so far in 2020, Kenin surprised almost everyone, except herself and her father-coach Alex, by winning the Australian Open way back in January.

After upsetting Ash Barty in the Aussie Open semis, she reflected, “I feel like [in] 2019 I started off great with first WTA title for me in Hobart. After that things just took off. I had a great run in Paris. Played my idol, Serena. Lost to Ash there. Got the revenge here. All the confidence has come with all the matches that I’ve had, the success I've had in 2019…. I’ve always had that belief.”

The only Grand Slam queen crowned so far in 2020, Sofia Kenin surprised almost everyone, except herself and her father-coach Alex, by winning the Australian Open way back in January. Perhaps competing with a chip on her shoulder has fuelled her trademark intensity.   -  AFP

 

Perhaps competing with a chip on her shoulder has fuelled her trademark intensity. “I just feel like some people didn’t believe in me, they turned me down and said some things like I wouldn’t be there, I’m too small, just a lot of different things,” recalled Sofia, the WTA Most Improved Player of the year in 2019. "But my dad and I never took it seriously, we knew we had a goal, I had a dream, and we achieved it.”

Sofia calls her father, a self-taught coach, “crazy smart.” Like father, like daughter — she’s a smart, high-percentage player. Kenin has another huge asset: an indomitable will to win. “She plays every point for everything it’s worth. She’s a terrific competitor,” praised Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo.

Naomi Osaka — At the past two US Opens, Osaka displayed a remarkable compassion for adversaries in distress. After the 2018 final in which Serena Williams behaved so badly in defeat she was fined $17,500, Osaka gave a gracious, poignant speech, praising her idol. A year ago, in another memorable post-match episode, she hugged a sobbing Coco Gauff after she demolished the 15-year-old phenom.

The 22-year-old Japanese-Haitian also has endeared herself to her legion of worldwide fans when she bares her soul in press conferences and in social media. Osaka talked about suffering from depression, her shyness, her admiration for other players, and trying to become more mature and articulate. She’s also expressed her empathy for victims of racial injustice and her racial diversity goal “to represent people that might not think that they could be represented.”

Naomi Osaka’s booming power game resembles Serena Williams’, and when she doesn’t overwhelm opponents, she can outlast them.   -  AFP

 

Osaka is still learning to cope with the pressure that stardom brings so her periodic slumps might be less prolonged. In the best match of 2019, she overcame a spring-summer slump to stop red-hot Andreescu 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 at the China Open.

Osaka’s booming power game resembles Serena’s, and when she doesn’t overwhelm opponents, she can outlast them. Her .850 winning percentage (17-3) in three-setters led all ten players with 15 or more three-set wins in 2019.

Look for Osaka to win quite a few more Grand Slam titles. She’ll come very close at Flushing Meadows.

Serena Williams — For more than two decades, the conventional wisdom was “Never count Serena out!” — no matter how injured, rusty, or poorly she was playing. Despite the odds, she sometimes silenced naysayers by winning Grand Slam titles or at least making finals. That the GOAT made four major finals in 2018–19 after giving birth to her first child is undeniably a testament to her greatness and longevity.

But even The Great Ones — from Muhammad Ali to Willie Mays to Michael Jordan to Wayne Gretzky — eventually slow down and decline. At nearly 39, Serena has lost serving power and running speed. All too often, she looks clumsy. She gets nervous on big points. The most recent manifestation of Serena’s ordinariness came at the Australian Open in January. Wang Qiang, whom Serena demolished at the 2019 US Open, upset her 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 in the third round, marking Serena’s first defeat in the opening week of a hard-court major since 2006.

There’s yet another reason Serena won’t tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles at Flushing Meadows. As if the pressure is not already sky-high, she fears exposure to COVID-19 because her lung capacity has been affected by a history of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms. “It’s cool to play tennis, but this is my life and this is my health,” she told the AP. “I’ve been a little neurotic to an extent, but that’s just what I have to be right now.”

Serena’s downward trajectory will continue at the US Open.

Karolina Pliskova — The towering 6’1” Czech peaked when she reached the 2016 US Open final and then ranked No. 1 for two months in 2017.

Now 28, Pliskova has generally underperformed at Grand Slam events, though, reaching only two other semifinals in 31 major appearances. After a disappointing third-round loss to No. 30 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at the 2020 Australian Open, she said, “The biggest difference [at the majors] is you have much more matches here than you have at the normal tournaments and it just goes on for much longer. Somehow I’m not able to find that game for a week or two. And of course it’s more pressure here, so I think everybody can feel it.”

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No. 3-ranked Pliskova’s booming serve led the Tour in aces in four of the past five years, but Conchita Martinez, one of her coaches, has tried to make her more versatile and less predictable. “The essence of her game has to remain. She has to be a very aggressive player,” Martinez told The New York Times. “But we’re working on things like putting topspin [on her groundstrokes], going a little higher over the net, playing deeper, the movement, of course. But still being aggressive, with little changes here and there and improvements here and there.”

Unfortunately, Pliskova lacks the defensive skills and the hyper-competitiveness to win a Grand Slam title.

Garbine Muguruza — During her ascent to the top, Muguruza upset Serena Williams in the 2016 French Open final and defeated Venus Williams in the 2017 Wimbledon final. Those straight-set victories gave her a unique distinction: she’s the only player to ever beat both legendary sisters in a Grand Slam final.

With a devastating power game, the lithe, 6’ Spaniard looked ready to take over the women’s game. Instead, Muguruza couldn’t stand prosperity. Opponents found chinks in her one-dimensional style, she couldn’t recover in matches after losing several games in a row, and she didn’t improve, which even champions must do to stay on top. As her confidence waned, Muguruza looked confused and unhappy on the court; she advanced past the fourth round at majors just once during 2018-19.

To find herself and reverse her descent, Mugu climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. What she described as “a life-changing experience” revitalised her career. With savvy Conchita Martinez coaching her again at the 2020 Aussie Open, a more relaxed Muguruza went on a rampage to knock off Svitolina, Bertens and Halep. Though she fell to rock-solid Kenin in the final, Muguruza was back!

The US Open has proved her least-successful major despite its fast courts which reward her potent shots. This year the resurgent Muguruza will reverse that trend and make the quarterfinals.

Petra Kvitova — Twenty-five months after a home burglar stabbed her dominant left hand, severely damaging her ligaments and tendons, Kvitova reached the 2019 Australian Open final. Her inspiring comeback from the career-threatening attack — reminiscent of Monica Seles’ on-court stabbing in 1993 — became the feel-good story of the past decade. “It’s amazing. I didn’t know if I was going to hold the racquet again,” Kvitova told the crowd afterwards. “I wanted to be back on my greatest level probably as I played before. I knew it will be very, very difficult because my hand, it’s not 100 percent and never will be.”

All things considered, the WTA Tour’s most popular player — she’s won the peer-voted Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship Award the past seven years — Petra Kvitova brings the firepower, experience and poise to capture her third Grand Slam title.   -  AFP

 

The 6’ Czech lefty hasn’t quite regained the form that produced Wimbledon titles in 2011 and 2014, but her all-court aggression makes her a major threat to win on fast surfaces, such as the US Open’s new Laykold courts. Furthermore, the 30-year-old Kvitova may be the only world-class player with three favorite shots: serve, forehand and backhand. Yet it’s understandable because all three are potent weapons. She also boasts a solid volley on both sides. And, crucially, at the majors, which require winning seven matches, Kvitova can close the deal. She owns an outstanding 27-10 career record in tournament finals.

Kvitova also fares well in critical head-to-head matchups against several leading contenders. She’s 3-1 vs. Pliskova, 2-0 vs. Kenin, 4-1 vs. Muguruza, and 2-0 vs. Serena in their last two matches.

All things considered, the WTA Tour’s most popular player — she’s won the peer-voted Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship Award the past seven years — brings the firepower, experience and poise to capture her third Grand Slam title.

Darkhorses — Eugenie Bouchard, Dayana Yastremska, Amanda Anisimova, Elena Rybakina.

Conclusion: With 11 different champions at the past 13 majors and dark horse Sofia Kenin winning the 2020 Australian Open, there are no big favourites at Flushing Meadows. So expect plenty of upsets. As many as 10 players could take the coveted title at this wide-open Open.

Prediction: Champion — Petra Kvitova; runner-up — Naomi Osaka; semifinalists — Sofia Kenin and Coco Gauff.