We’ve come to the last leg of the 2018 Grand Slam season, with only a fortnight in Flushing Meadows remaining on the docket.
With the US Open main draw set to kick off Monday, here are five storylines to keep an eye on at the year’s final major.
Serena takes another crack at No. 24
Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles doesn’t really matter. She won 13 of them before professionals were allowed to compete at the Slams, and, as the sage Chrissie Evert recently pointed out, she won 11 of them at the Australian Open “when nobody was going down there, because it was during Christmas.” Serena Williams is already the undisputed GOAT, and her cultural imprint on women’s tennis already dwarfs anyone’s, save perhaps Billie Jean King. And yet, insignificant though the distinction may be, that number – 24 – is still out there.
As she runs out of milestones to chase, records to break, and things to prove, that number gives her something to keep striving for. Williams herself has said as much. When she won her 23rd Slam to surpass Steffi Graf for the Open-era record at the 2017 Australian Open, it seemed a foregone conclusion that she’d eventually eclipse Court’s tally. But Williams’ pregnancy, the recurrence of pulmonary emboli that followed her complicated delivery, her subsequent battle with postpartum depression, and everything else motherhood has thrown her way in the past year has made the path to that goal a little less straightforward.
Still, six weeks ago, she was playing in the Wimbledon final, two sets from No. 24. She lost a spirited bout to an on-point Petra Kvitova in Cincinnati last week, but that loss spoke as highly of Williams’ form as just about any of the wins she’s notched since returning to the tour. In an ever-crowded women’s field, she still feels like the safest bet.
But, where so many would-be threats in her Wimbledon draw scattered before her like a flock of pigeons, her US Open draw seems unlikely to be so forgiving. Serena got bumped up to the 17th seed in Flushing Meadows, and all it earned her was a potential third-round date with sister Venus, a potential fourth-round tilt with world No. 1 Simona Halep, and, if she makes it through, a possible quarterfinal against Garbine Muguruza or Karolina Pliskova, who have accounted for two of her last three Slam losses.
As anyone who glommed onto Roger Federer’s five-year pursuit of an 18th major title can attest, there is nothing quite like the high-wire suspense of watching an athlete race against time to complete a historic quest. Even if the feat would feel significant mainly because we could drop the clunky and superfluous “Open era” qualifier (or just so we could start talking and thinking way less about Court), no player at this US Open will inspire a greater sense of vicarious urgency than Serena Williams.
Youngbloods go mainstream
On the men’s tour, so many players are comfortably settled into their roles – the unconquerable ruling party, the stagnating middle class, the aging-but-hopeful aspirants, the resigned journeymen. Meanwhile, the college-aged firebrands who showcase unharnessed ability and immeasurable promise have become a feature attraction – the rare variables at men’s tournaments that remain wholly indecipherable.
Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, Andrey Rublev, Hyeon Chung, Alex de Minaur, Karen Khachanov, and, most recently, Stefanos Tsitsipas, have stormed into the spotlight at various points in the past year. But we still don’t have enough data points to say with any degree of certainty what they are capable of.
Unlike at previous majors, a bunch of them are seeded at the US Open, increasing their chances of playing deep into the first week (at least) and taking swings at the top guys. Khachanov could face Rafael Nadal in a Round 3 rematch of their competitive Toronto semifinal earlier in August. De Minaur and Tiafoe could see each other in Round 2, with the winner likely getting Marin Cilic. Tsitsipas and Borna Coric could meet in a super-fun third-rounder, with the winner potentially getting a crack at Juan Martin del Potro or Andy Murray. Reigning finalist Kevin Anderson may have to wrangle with Rublev in the second round and Shapovalov in the third. Chung has a pretty uncomplicated path to a fourth-round clash with Federer, who trounced him in the Aussie Open semis early this year.
There’s also Alexander Zverev, who’s close to the aforementioned NextGen-ers in age but has elevated himself into a different stratum with his early tour-level success. He’s just 21, but he is comparatively old news. Still, Zverev hasn’t outpaced his contemporaries at the majors; his quarterfinal berth at this year’s French Open is his best-ever result. Bringing former Murray whisperer Ivan Lendl onto his coaching team may help Zverev with some of the mental roadblocks that tripped him up at Slams past. His summer hardcourt swing has been disappointing, but with a cupcake draw, and Lendl in his corner, he could be poised to make a deep run in Queens.
Stability vs. chaos
Halep has been an absolute rock this year – a world No. 1 as much in deed as in title.
She’s reached the finals at four of the past five events she’s played. She won the French Open and Montreal, and she came within a point of pulling off the rare August hardcourt double in Cincinnati. Of the 12 events she’s played this year, she’s reached 11 quarterfinals, eight semis, and six finals. She leads the Race to Singapore by nearly 2,000 points.
No one else has provided the same level of consistent excellence, but a few other top players have helped form a relatively sturdy power structure. Angelique Kerber has been in form for most of the year. Kvitova has been a force everywhere but at the Slams. Sloane Stephens has been sporadically (but increasingly regularly) brilliant.
But the depth of the women’s field imperils that power structure. For all the talent at the top, the number of threats beneath makes this US Open impossible to predict. Is this when young powerhouse Naomi Osaka cashes in on the promise she showed in the spring? Will breakout 20-year-old Aryna Sabalenka keep her incredible summer run rolling? Is this that one annual major when Muguruza puts it all together? And what of Caroline Wozniacki, or Elina Svitolina, or Karolina Pliskova, or Maria Sharapova, or Julia Goerges, or Daria Kasatkina? What of Venus, who’s just a year removed from leading the tour in Slam match wins; or onetime clay specialist Kiki Bertens, who’s won eight straight matches against top-10 players on grass and hardcourts; or Madison Keys or Jelena Ostapenko, who can get red-hot at any time and blast any fool off the court? And we haven’t given up on Victoria Azarenka yet, have we?
Even if WTA volatility has been a bit overstated – the five women who have contested Grand Slam finals this year are the four top-ranked players in the world and Serena – there are easily a dozen women who can win the US Open. In the most recent major, zero top-10 seeds reached the quarterfinals for the first time in the Open era. “Chaos” can feel like a pejorative, but in this era of women’s tennis, it speaks to top-down quality.
Meanwhile, Halep, Serena, Venus, Muguruza, and Pliskova are all in the same quarter of the US Open draw. Halep and Serena are the runaway title favorites, and yet one of them will go no further than the fourth round. Might as well embrace the chaos. It’s pretty damn fun.
A Big 3, once again
In contrast to the perennial openness of the women’s field, the men’s game remains top-heavy, and their US Open feels like a three-horse race. Novak Djokovic is resurgent, Nadal is as imperious as ever, and Federer, despite showing some of the same cracks that appeared during the latter stages of last season, is still the best hardcourt player in the world.
While they’ve all experienced physical struggles and dips in form in the recent past, they’ve combined to win each of the last seven majors. For a long time, Djokovic dominated while Federer and Nadal seemed to be tailing off. Then Federer and Nadal came roaring back while Djokovic mysteriously cratered. And now here comes Djokovic, fresh off a Wimbledon title and his first-ever Cincinnati crown (which completed an unprecedented career Masters sweep), and we have ourselves a Big Three again (godspeed, Andy).
If Wimbledon didn’t make it clear enough that Djokovic was back – if his hiccup in Toronto or his uneven play in the early rounds in Cincinnati left any doubts – the 13-time major champ laid them to rest with his vintage, Federer-smothering performance in last week’s final. The two are on a quarterfinal collision course in Flushing Meadows. That should give a leg up to Nadal, whose quarter is pure cake, but it’s hard to pick a favorite from the three.
It’s way harder to pick the field over any of them. Is anyone else really closing the gap? Anderson got washed by Nadal and Djokovic in six straight sets in his two major finals, the mid-generation hasn’t fared much better (Cilic has lost twice to Federer in Slam finals, Thiem just got rinsed by Nadal at the French, Del Potro’s been beaten by Nadal at three of the past four majors), and the NextGen players, undaunted and gifted as they are, still have much to learn. The oligarchical structure isn’t as sturdy as it used to be, but the road to a Grand Slam title still runs through the triumvirate that’s captured 46 of the last 54.
The dangerous floaters
That said, six of those other eight Slams were won by a pair of men who lurk as dangerous unseeded landmines in New York. It’s been a long, slow climb for Stan Wawrinka since undergoing knee surgery last year, but he pushed Nadal in Toronto, he pushed Federer even harder in Cincinnati, and he’s already played the role of disruptive floater this summer by beating Grigor Dimitrov in the opening round at Wimbledon. He drew Dimitrov in the first round again at the US Open.
Murray has looked a long way from peak fitness since returning from hip surgery, but as Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have all proved over the past 20-odd months, you can never predict when the wounded greats will rediscover their confidence and vigor. Murray has a comfortable first-round match against James Duckworth, followed by a trickier but winnable second-rounder against either Fernando Verdasco or Feliciano Lopez, before things get really real with a prospective meeting with Del Potro. We’ll find out in short order how close he is to getting back.
Sam Querrey and Gael Monfils are also worth keeping an eye on. They haven’t had particularly good seasons, but both have top-15 ability and workable US Open draws. Querrey, a quarterfinalist at this tournament last year, could get Shapovalov in Round 2, and Anderson in Round 3. With his potent serve-forehand combination, Querrey is always a threat on quick surfaces, and he can upend anyone on the right day. (Just ask Djokovic and Murray, who lost to him at Wimbledon in back-to-back years and immediately sunk into despair.) Though Monfils, as ever, can’t seem to stay healthy, he’s enjoyed a lot of previous success in Flushing Meadows, including a semifinal run in 2016. He’ll play a qualifier in the first round, which means he should advance to set up a fascinating second-rounder against Kei Nishikori. The sun may be setting on Monfils’ prime, but he’s still box office.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)