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Preview | 2020 US Open
A look at possible winners of the first grand slam of the Covid-19 era
By Stephen Higgins | 29 August 2020
At the virtual Democratic National Convention last week, former President Barack Obama started his speech with these simple but apt words: “As you've seen by now, this isn't a normal convention. It's not a normal time.”
In that sentence, he was referencing everything from the effects of Covid-19 to the drive for racial justice in the US and beyond. Professional tennis in 2020 has mirrored, and in the latter case, buttressed these issues.
Since the cancellation of Indian Wells on March 9th, we have seen the tour shut down with Roland Garros rescheduled and Wimbledon scrapped. Players have filled their time with training, exhibitions and far too much social media. Though on that last point, some athletes have been more productive than others.
In response to the killing of George Floyd and widespread calls for racial equity, Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff have been at the forefront of the debate while Nick Kyrgios has been a beacon of logic on the coronavirus.
The most recent development on Friday saw the announcement of a union for male players, against the wishes of the ATP. It is to be led by Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil.
So in this maelstrom, we get the second grand slam of the season in New York.
Despite all the concerns and challenges, the USTA will go ahead with the 140th edition of the US Open on Monday. Players will reside in a strict bubble in Queens through the event and there will be no spectators on site. In unprecedented times, credit must go to organisers for creating a secure environment and maintaining prize money at 95% of the 2019 level.
For the first time in 21 years, neither Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal will be in a grand slam draw.
Federer has taken the rest of the season off to recuperate from two knee operations. Nadal, the defending champion, has decided to skip the tournament due to the “complicated” situation around Covid-19.
Other top players absent from the fortnight include 2016 champion Stan Wawrinka, 2009 winner Juan Martin del Potro, 2014 finalist Kei Nishikori, Gael Monfils, Fabio Fognini, Nick Kyrgios and Fernando Verdasco.
With his nemeses absent, Novak Djokovic is an even clearer favourite than usual for a tennis tournament. The world no.1 has had an interesting year to say the least.
The 33-year-old entered the season lockdown unbeaten after winning the ATP Cup, Australian Open and Dubai. The break saw him embroiled in the disastrous Adria Tour and contract Covid-19. He returned to play at Cincinnati (held in New York this year).
A three-time US Open champion, Djokovic will be pleased with his potential route to the final. He could meet Kyle Edmund, Jan-Lennard Struff, John Isner and David Goffin en route to the last four but they won’t phase him. From there, it could be a ninth final appearance for the Serb.
If for some reason Djokovic falls short of claiming an 18th major, the winner could well be Dominic Thiem or Danniil Medvedev.
The Austrian took Djokovic to five sets in the Melbourne final and has played an outrageous amount of exhibition matches of late. While he did crash out of Cincinnati, there’s no doubt that Thiem is the most consistent major threat beyond the towering trio. His draw is far from easy though as Marin Cilic, Andy Murray, Milos Raonic and Medvedev may all block a route to the final.
Meanwhile, Medvedev has a reasonable journey to the second week. If the 2019 finalist can find some decent form, he should be able to make the last eight where his explosive compatriot Andrey Rublev may wait. If the 24-year-old gets to the semis, we may get that enticing clash with Thiem.
While I don’t think there’s an outstanding case for a champion beyond those three, the unique situation will of course spring shocks. Players to watch include Cincinnati finalist Milos Raonic, the tireless Roberto Bautista Agut, and possibly even Andy Murray if the body holds up.
While the men’s field has retained a lot of its lustre, six of the women’s top 10 are not in Flushing Meadows including both the defending champion and world no.1.
Sadly for organisers and viewers, the 2020 US Open will be without 2019 winner Bianca Andreescu, world no.1 Ash Barty, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Belinda Bencic.
That leaves six former champions left in the mix: Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Angie Kerber, Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters. This is an opportune moment to point out that Serena, Venus and Kim all competed in the 1999 US Open. Now that’s longevity!
Given her previous strength in New York and recent form, I’ll go for Naomi Osaka as favourite for the fortnight. If the Japanese plays to a high level, she should manage her way to the second week though Coco Gauff could be a serious obstacle in round three. From there, the former world no.1 could face serious players like Petra Kvitova, Elena Rybakina or Anett Kontaveit. However, on form, Osaka is probably the best in the world. Let’s see what game she finds in Queens.
As for Serena, the 38-year-old is still chasing that 24th singles major, 21 years after claiming her first in New York. Williams has played four finals since the last grand slam but came up short at Wimbledon (2018, 19) and the US Open (2018, 19). Once again, I think it will be a real challenge for her despite the withdrawals.
While still a fierce competitor, Serena hasn’t shown us the playing level of three years ago. In those finals with Kerber, Osaka, Halep and Andreescu, the American icon struggled to find her best form. The draw this fortnight will not help her cause. While the first three rounds are manageable, she could very well be halted by Amanda Anisimova or Maria Sakkari in the fourth. The rejuvenated Garbine Muguruza might also lie in wait for her in the last eight. To reach the final, she will require some of that old brilliance.
Elsewhere around the draw, there's likely be a number of upsets given the nature of the situation and general openness on women’s side.
Top seed Karolina Pliskova looks especially vulnerable in a section with Kerber, Alison Riske, Lexington champion Jennifer Brady and the streaky Caroline Garcia. The big-serving Czech has exited the last four majors before the quarter-final stage.
Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin will also be wary. The no.2 seed lost her opening match in Cincinnati to Alizé Cornet. In New York, she’s in a quarter with several in-form players including Cincinnati finalist Victoria Azarenka, Cincy semi-finalists Jo Konta & Elise Mertens, Aryna Sabalenka and Ons Jabeur.
To conclude, it wouldn’t shock me if one of a dozen ladies finishes as champion. The question on the men’s side is: can anyone stop Novak?