21 Burning Questions about the US Open

The final Grand Slam event of the year will climax a season full of surprises and could determine the year-end No. 1 men’s and women’s rankings. Even more exciting is the real possibility the US Open could also unveil new Next Gen champions.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer... these superstars have never crossed swords at the US Open. Yet another reason why a Sunday showdown would likely smash TV ratings records worldwide.   -  Getty Images

The final Grand Slam event of the year will climax a season full of surprises and could determine the year-end No. 1 men’s and women’s rankings. Even more exciting is the real possibility the US Open could also unveil new Next Gen champions.

The door opened wider for rising men stars when injuries forced 2016 champion Stan Wawrinka and runner-up Novak Djokovic to withdraw. Slumping Andy Murray’s serious hip flexor injury makes the 2016 No. 1 a longshot rather than a contender. But youth won’t be served if the fascinating comebacks of Roger Federer, 36, and Rafael Nadal, 31, continue. These living legends have combined to win all three majors this season.

With 23-time major titlist Serena Williams, the Australian Open champion, expecting a baby in September, the women’s field is more wide open than ever. Filling the vast void, Jelena Ostapenko grabbed the French Open and Garbine Muguruza took Wimbledon. Yet another rising star could shine in the tennis firmament of Flushing Meadows.

Here are some questions and answers that may help us divine all these delightful uncertainties.

What are the chances of a dream final between superstars Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal?

The stars are aligned for a blockbuster duel between the ageless archrivals if they are placed in different halves of the draw and both stave off hungry, younger contenders. Federer trailed 23-11 in their career matches entering 2017, but outplayed Nadal at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami to turn their rivalry completely around. Believe it or not, these superstars have never crossed swords at the US Open. Yet another reason why a Sunday showdown would likely smash TV ratings records worldwide.

Who has the better chance of reaching the final, Roger or Rafa?

If Federer’s back is healthy, after tweaking it in his loss to Alexander Zverev in the Rogers Cup final, then he has the slight edge. Besides winning the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami on hard courts this season, Fed has won four US Opens and reached two more finals. Ladbrokes oddsmakers have made him as an early 6/4 favourite with Nadal at 5/2.

Nadal, who regained the No. 1 ranking on August 14 for the first time since July 6, 2014, owns two Open titles. But he’s been eliminated in the fourth and third rounds in the previous two years, and he hasn’t won a Masters 1000 title on hard courts in four years.

Besides avenging his head-to-head losses this season, Nadal has a long-term incentive. Although the GOAT title is not on the line because Roger leads Rafa 19-15 in major titles, time is on the much-younger Rafa’s side. A U.S. Open title would narrow this gap for the Spaniard, who, unlike the Swiss, also captured an Olympic gold medal.

Read:  Federer and Nadal in same half of draw at Flushing Meadows

Which Nick Kyrgios — Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde — will show up at the US Open?

Unpredictable. That’s the best and most commonly used adjective to describe the 21-year-old Australian. When asked at the Rogers Cup what coaches scouting him would most likely report, Kyrgios replied, “Expect the unexpected.” That’s the understatement of the year.

Whether it’s his shot selection — like 130 mph second serves or trick shots on set points — his volatile temperament, his effort level, or his brutally frank comments to the media, you’ll be surprised, entertained, and occasionally disappointed or even outraged. But never bored.

After upsetting Nadal 6-2, 7-5 at Cincinnati, Kyrgios admitted, “You see me tank ridiculous amounts of matches against [low-ranked opponents], like, on back courts and stuff, and you never see me doing anything silly in a match like this. It’s easy to get up for these matches.” So easy that he boasts a terrific 5-3 combined record against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Immensely talented and a dynamic shot-maker, Kyrgios could lose to a non-entity in the first round or rampage through the draw to reach his first major final. The raucous New York spectators, especially those inebriated at night matches, will likely bring out the best — or worst — in him. Expect the unexpected!

What are the odds that surprise 2014 champion Marin Cilic will win his second major title at the US Open?

Three years ago, Marin Cilic didn’t lose a set while winning his last three matches at the US Open against No. 6 Tomas Berdych, No. 2 Federer and No. 10 Kei Nishikori. The 28-year-old Croat hadn’t come close to matching that until this season when he reached the French Open quarterfinals and Wimbledon final, both career-best results. Afterwards, Cilic offered, “These last three months were the most consistent tennis on a high level that I played ever in my career.”

Cilic has improved his movement, second serve and serve returns. At Wimbledon, he used his 6’6” height and great reach so effectively that he blocked back only 6% of his serve returns and averaged an aggressive 74 mph on his returns. More confident than ever, Cilic should get to the semis.

Can Dominic Thiem adapt his clay-court game to hard courts?

Nicknamed “Dominator,” Thiem hasn’t exactly dominated at Flushing Meadows where he has never advanced past the fourth round. The 23-year-old Austrian power hitter recently told Yahoo that, despite his wins over Nadal and Djokovic this year, he’s not optimistic that he, Zverev, or Kyrgios will replace the Big Four or win majors anytime soon.

“We still have to win a lot of matches to deserve to be called the next big things in tennis,” said No. 8-ranked Thiem. “It’s nice to hear that, but I think it’s still a pretty long way for us. They are really special. In the Grand Slams, you would have to beat two or three [of them] in a run. That’s why other players haven’t won the big titles.”

Given Thiem’s ultra-long backswings and defensive positioning, major disadvantages on fast courts, his lack of confidence is justified.

What about the “middle generation” of Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov once touted as potential stars?

Nishikori, the most successful of the trio, reached the 2014 US Open final and rose to a career-high No. 4 six months later. But at 5’10’, Nishikori proved too small to chop down the tall trees in men’s tennis today. Also injury prone, the 27-year-old Japanese tore a tendon in his right wrist during practice in Cincinnati and withdrew from all 2017 tournaments.

Raonic peaked when he upset an injured Federer in the 2016 Wimbledon semis to gain his only major final and briefly ranked a career-high No. 3 in November. Since reaching the 2017 Australian quarterfinals, however, the 26-year-old, rocket-serving Canadian hasn’t defeated a top-10 opponent and has slid down to No. 10.

Dimitrov, once dubbed “Baby Fed” for his Federer-like athleticism and one-handed backhand, has never lived up to that impossibly high expectation. The handsome 26-year-old Bulgarian copped as much media coverage for being Sharapova’s boyfriend for a couple years as for making the semis at the 2014 Wimbledon and 2017 Australian Open.

Both Raonic and Dimitrov have weak links in their games, particularly their backhands, which will prevent them from ever winning a major.

Can Alexander Zverev become the youngest US Open champion since 20-year-old Juan Martin del Potro shocked Federer in the 2009 final?

Absolutely! Zverev’s upset over Federer in the Rogers Cup final and his victory over Novak Djokovic in the Rome final made him the first player outside the Big Four to win multiple Masters 1000 titles in a season since David Nalbandian in 2007. In addition, the 20-year-old German is just the second active player other than the Big Four to capture more than one career Masters 1000 crown, joining Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Alexander Zverev... The Big Z with the big game could well be the first Next Gen man to win a major — at this US Open.   -  AP

 

Reflecting his fast progress, the 6’6” Zverev ranks No. 3 in the ATP Under Pressure Standings. Most impressive are his 44.8% of break points converted and his 70% of tiebreakers won. Winning tiebreakers often results in winning close matches, especially at the US Open, the only Grand Slam event that employs tiebreakers in the fifth set of a match.

During Wimbledon, John McEnroe predicted, “Zverev will be No. 1 in the world in a couple years — if the Big Four ever retires.” With both Djokovic and 2016 champion Stan Wawrinka sidelined with injuries and Murray questionable with a painful hip injury, The Big Z with the big game will be the first Next Gen man to win a major — at this US Open.

Who are the dangerous dark horses?

Daniil Medvedev, a 21-year-old Russian, picked up momentum during the summer to raise his ranking to No. 51. “This kid has huge potential,” said Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone. “He’s a dangerous player.” The rail-thin, 6’6” Medvedev displayed his budding talent and potent forehand in wins over Dimitrov, Sam Querrey and Steve Johnson. After Frances Tiafoe, a 19-year-old American, upset Zverev in Cincinnati, Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo predicted, “Get used to this name and this face and all of this energy.” Also eye-catching are Tiafoe’s tremendous athleticism, terrific forehand, and fighting spirit. Karen Khachanov, another 21-year-old Russian, has steadily climbed in the rankings to No. 32. A huge serve and Western forehand produced wins over Tomas Berdych, David Goffin and John Isner, and the best is yet to come.

The Women

Will Karolina Pliskova, the US Open runner-up a year ago, finally harness her explosive shots to seize her first major title?

In a year in which no woman has dominated, Karolina Pliskova currently has the No. 1 ranking. But something more prestigious, a Grand Slam title, has eluded her. She overpowered Serena in the 2016 US Open semis before Kerber outlasted her in a three-set final.

The tattooed, 6’1” Czech relies heavily on her big first serve and flat, booming groundstrokes. But inconsistency and poor defence have held her back. All-time great Martina Navratilova believes her poker-face persona is another weakness.

“I’d like to see more emotion from Pliskova. You have to get fired up sometimes,” the Czech-born and -raised Navratilova pointed out after Pliskova was upset by 87th ranked Magdalena Rybarikova at Wimbledon. “Pliskova played meekly in the last set.”

Karolina Pliskova... in a year in which no woman has dominated, the Czech currently has the No. 1 ranking   -  AP

 

Unless the 25-year-old Pliskova takes Navratilova’s advice, adds some topspin to her groundstrokes, and plays better percentage tennis, she’ll never win a major.

Read:  Sharapova to face Halep in US Open first round

Will Garbine Muguruza respond better after winning her second major at Wimbledon last month than after winning her first major at the 2016 French Open?

Muguruza, who went into a funk a year ago, explained how that happened and why it won’t happen this time. “[At the] French Open I was more shocked and it was more emotional,” she confided. “Being the first, it was a little bit more emotional. I had to play right away on grass and it was very different. I don’t think I could really realise it until a couple of weeks later. This one caught me in a more experienced moment. I know where I stand a little bit more. I’m not that surprised. So I look forward to just keep playing. It was very hard always to keep winning every week. I know it’s going to be hard again now. But this time I’m not worried because I know it’s more normal. I’m going to be less frustrated.”

Her post-Wimbledon results are quite favourable. Mugu reached the semis at Stanford and the quarters at Toronto. At Cincinnati, the slender 6-footer staved off three match points to outlast a resurgent Madison Keys 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 and then demolished Pliskova and Halep. A proven big-match player now, the 23-year-old Spaniard should advance deep into the second week of the US Open. Ladbrokes, in fact, made Muguruza the early 9/2 betting favourite.

How will No. 7-ranked Johanna Konta’s mental game hold up at Flushing Meadows?

Just fine, if Wimbledon is any guide, where she carried the weight of Britain on her shoulders. There the 26-year-old late-bloomer pulled out three grueling marathons: 7-6, 4-6, 10-8 over Donna Vekic, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 over 21st seeded Caroline Garcia, and 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 over 2nd seed Simona Halep in a quarterfinal classic. Then the far more experienced Venus overpowered her 6-4, 6-2.

One of the most introspective and intense top-10 players this century, Konta told The Guardian (UK) about the late Juan Coto, her former mind coach: “He did a tremendous job with me in working on my happiness as a person, as a human being, dealing with life in general. He looked to help me enjoy something that I’ve loved since I was a little girl.” This year she hired a life coach, Elena Sosa, who has told her to stay in the moment and not get negative.

Konta’s aggressive game can blow hot and cold. The more she heeds all this advice, the better she can win the mental battles she’ll inevitably face.

Can CoCo Vandeweghe, an Australian Open semifinalist and Wimbledon quarterfinalist, get hot enough to go all the way?

Pat Cash, the 1987 Wimbledon champion and her coach since June, says, “We’ve focused on her technical, mental and physical games. CoCo has worked hard to improve her serve consistency and variety, serve returns and defensive skills. She hired a world-renowned mental coach to deal better with setbacks and other stressful situations. Physically, we’ve worked longer and more intensely on the court.”

CoCo, a 6’1” power player, reaffirmed her hard-court prowess by making the Stanford final with good wins over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and fast-rising teenager Catherine Bellis. Cash sees significant improvement throughout her game. “These areas are starting to gel,” says Cash. “But for her to win the US Open, she needs this all to come together and have some luck. Don’t underestimate the importance of a lucky break in winning Grand Slam titles.”

What are the keys for hard-hitting Madison Keys to go far?

“Madison has to improve her shot selection and learn how to construct points better,” notes Tennis Channel analyst Tracy Austin. Another question is her left wrist, which is still not 100% following wrist surgery in June, her second in seven months.

Leaner and fitter, the 22-year-old American has worked hard on her movement, a longtime weakness. Her forehand averages a booming 80 mph, and her serve can hit 120 mph. She recently reunited with coach Lindsay Davenport, who also played first-strike tennis.

Keys quickly and emphatically turned around a sub-par, injury-riddled year by winning Stanford, where she whipped Muguruza 6-3, 6-2 in the semis and Vandeweghe 7-6, 6-4 in the final.

Whatever happened to Angelique Kerber?

In case you’ve forgotten, the 29-year-old German dethroned Serena Williams and dominated women’s tennis last year. Kerber won the Australian and US Opens, reached the finals at Wimbledon, the Olympics, and the WTA Championships, and finished No. 1.

This year, shockingly, Kerber hasn’t won a tournament or even beaten a top-20 player. “Her serve has lost that pop, and she’s not creating those [groundstroke] angles this year,” explained ESPN analyst Chris Evert, a 1970s-’80s superstar. Despite her misleading No. 3 ranking, the defending champion has lost her confidence and will undoubtedly also lose her title, probably in the first week.

Can world No. 4 Simona Halep handle the pressure when the going gets tough?

So far, the answer is no — except for her French Open quarterfinal victory over Elina Svitolina. Halep fought valiantly to overcome a huge 6-3, 5-1 deficit and prevail 3-6, 7-6, 6-0. Against Jelena Ostapenko in the final, Halep led 6-4, 3-0 before she strangely became negative after missing a routine shot. “It was startling to see Halep unravel after that,” recalled former world No. 1 Davenport, now a Tennis Channel analyst. Ostapenko capitalised on the mental lapse and reversed the momentum for a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 triumph.

Garbine Muguruza... a proven big-match player now, the 23-year-old Spaniard should advance deep into the second week of the US Open.   -  AP

 

Halep has been knocking on the Grand Slam title door ever since she nearly beat Sharapova in the 2014 French final. Unfortunately, the speedy, stylish Romanian lacks a knockout punch, a vital asset to close out close matches.

How will Jelena Ostapenko’s go-for-broke style fare on Flushing Meadow’s hard courts?

The quick answer is that if Ostapenko can overpower opponents on the slow French Open clay, where she became the shock champion, she can do the same on faster courts. A closer look, though, reveals that she was lucky not to face a power player in the last three rounds at Roland Garros. There the baby-faced Latvian defeated middleweight veterans Caroline Wozniacki, Timea Bacsinszky, and finally, Halep, two days after Ostapenko’s 20th birthday.

With multi-major winners Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova gradually regaining their form after lengthy absences, Ostapenko could face them, or other heavyweight hitters, should she make the second week. That could easily happen because this fearless, albeit sometimes erratic, shot-maker showed that her French Open tour de force was no fluke by reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

As John McEnroe said, “She’s tall, she’s athletic, and she has a big upside. You’ve got to think there are multiple Grand Slams in her.” But winning a second major in her breakthrough year is a bridge too far.

Can Venus Williams continue to defy Father Time?

A month ago, the 37-year-old marvel reached her first Wimbledon final since 2009. Recalling her mind-set before that memorable final, the always-inspirational Venus said, “I’m definitely forward-looking. As soon as that match was over, I was looking forward to playing better. I want to be as flawless as possible.”

True to her word, Venus, who also made the Australian Open final in January, has noticeably improved her forehand, adding topspin to increase consistency. And she added speed to her once-weak second serve. Her powerful shots will be rewarded on the Pro DecoTurf courts, rated the fastest surface among the four majors.

But Venus can be overpowered as Muguruza showed in the second set of the Wimbledon final and out-steadied as Svitolina demonstrated in Toronto. The debilitating New York heat and humidity may also beat Venus, who suffers from Sjogren’s syndrome. It’s asking far too much for her to reach yet another major final this year.

What motivates 2006 champion Maria Sharapova, a businesswoman extraordinaire with passions in other fields, to come back at age 30?

Before answering this question, let’s credit the US Open for doing what unduly punitive Wimbledon didn’t do: award Sharapova a main draw wild card. The appreciative Russian thus will make her first Grand Slam appearance since returning from a 15-month doping ban in April. Sharapova, known for her social conscience and longtime philanthropy, has volunteered to speak to young tennis players at the USTA National Center about the importance of the tennis anti-doping program and their personal responsibility to comply with the program’s requirements.

Sharapova revealed in an interview with Hamptons that her (16th consecutive) loss to nemesis Serena at the 2015 Australian Open made her consider retirement after the 2016 Rio Olympics. “It’s funny, what I play for is so different now than what I played for when I was younger,” she said. “When you’re away from something for a long time, you realise what you really miss and why. There are so many things in tennis that I don’t really get in other parts in my life: I play for the competition; I play for the victories that I can earn with my team, who also help me be the player that I am, who work with me on a daily basis.”

The highly competitive but rusty Sharapova has played only four tournaments this season, winning just six matches. So any chance of adding to her five major titles will have to wait ’til next year.

Elina Svitolina, the youngest woman in the top 10, said, “It’s a big motivation for me, a big goal to be No. 1.” Does Svitolina have what it takes to become the best?

For sure! Last year the 22-year-old Ukrainian was the only player to defeat both world No. 1s — Serena Williams at the Rio Olympics and Angelique Kerber in Beijing. This year Svitolina has accelerated her dominance over elite foes, whipping Kerber thrice, Muguruza twice, Halep twice, Caroline Wozniacki twice, Pliskova, and Venus Williams. Equally important, her WTA Tour-leading five titles have come in five finals, proving she possesses the physical and mental toughness to close the deal. She’s more than living up to the “Carpe Diem” tattoo on her right hand.

Svitolina, a 5’9” blonde, is also peaking at the right time to capture her first Grand Slam title. Her Rogers Cup title in August featured four top-10 wins, while she dropped only one set. “Svitolina combines variety with power. She has all the shots,” praised Chris Evert. “Her serve and her attitude have improved,” noted former doubles standout Rennae Stubbs. “Everything about her is so much better.”

This rising star will transition from Next Gen contender to New Gen champion with a spectacular performance to win the US Open.

Which dark horses will score big upsets?

Australia’s 21-year-old Ashley Barty, who returned to pro tennis after playing semi-pro cricket for 17 months, says, “Tennis is definitely my calling.” After recently cracking the top 50, Barty upset Venus at Cincinnati. This athlete par excellence will knock off a seeded player or two at Flushing Meadows. Also, keep an eye on Camilla Giorgi, a 5’6” pocket rocket from Italy, who bangs winners galore when she’s in the zone. She upset Svitolina on grass at Birmingham and Pliskova on clay at Prague. Her favourite surface is hard courts, so she’s due for a shocker there, too. Finally, Donna Vekic, Wawrinka’s gal pal, is starting to fulfill her considerable potential. The hard-hitting, 21-year-old Croat stunned Konta to win the Nottingham title and also has defeated Ostapenko and Grand Slam finalists Lucie Safarova, and Eugenie Bouchard this year.

What about the future of women’s tennis?

“When the cat’s away, the mice will play.” This describes the women’s tour in 2017 after a pregnant Serena Williams, the Australian Open champ, left it in February. The younger set then had their fun and games. But hyper-competitive Serena, the 21st century queen of tennis, could restore order next year. “I used to think I’d want to retire when I have kids, but no. I’m definitely coming back,” she told Vogue. “Walking out there and hearing the crowd, it may seem like nothing. But there’s no better feeling in the world.”