The US Open has arrived
And everything has changed…
It’s the last slam of the year, and the narratives heading into New York couldn’t be more starkly different from the ones that began forming down under in January.
Here’s a look at what the storylines were seven months ago and what to expect heading into New York.
Start of the year: Novak Djokovic’s form continues to plummet after completing the career grand slam two years ago.
Now: Fresh off a Wimbledon title, Novak Djokovic is the favorite to win the US Open.
How the tides turn. Coming off an elbow injury, Djokovic started the year continuing a downward spiral, looking listless in matches and unwilling to impose his will point in and point out.
That began to change during the clay season and accelarated on grass when Djokovic lost a single match (Queen’s Club final vs. Cilic, in which he held a championship point). He went on to win Wimbledon, cutting down Rafael Nadal in a spectacular semifinal along the way.
About a month later, he took out Roger Federer in the final of Cincinatti, allowing Djokovic to become a champion of every Masters 1000 tournament, an accomplishment his peers are unlikely to achieve.
The achievement highlights Djokovic’s unmatched versatility, and, as Federer and Nadal’s 2017 dominance has faded, Djokovic looks poised to take advantage at the slams with his renewed confidence.
Start of the year: It might never happen for Simona Halep.
Now: It happened for Simona Halep, and she’s still going strong.
Beware the unburdened Romanian.
After going an exceptional run in Australia only to come up short in winning a major for a third time, the weight of the world was on Halep’s shoulders.
But Halep delivered on her best surface, coming back from a set and a break down to defeat Sloane Stephens in the French Open final.
Losses have been rare for Halep since then. She lost to Su-Wei Hsieh at Wimbledon (after holding a match point), and, fresh off an impressive title in Montreal, she was worn down by Kiki Bertens in Cincinatti (again, after holding a match point).
The №1 ranking has looked better on Halep the longer she’s worn it. She’s in a tough quarter of the draw featuring both Williams sisters, but Halep has shown impressive resolve this year.
Start of the year: Was Sloane Stephens’ victory in New York a fluke?
Now: Um, no.
After failing to win a match in 2017 after her US Open run, Sloane Stephens dropped her opening round match of the Australian Open, and the questions mounted.
Stephens has spent the rest of the year answering them convincingly.
It can be boom-or-bust with Stephens, but you have to watch out for the boom. Stephens dispatched tough competition to reach the finals of Miami (d. Ostapenko), the French Open (l. Halep) and Montreal (l. Halep).
When your biggest foe is the №1 player in the world, you’re doing something right. The Montreal final built on the high-quality, physical nature of the Stephens-Halep rivalry.
Start popping the popcorn if they end up clashing in New York.
Start of the year: This will be the year Sascha Zverev makes an impact at the slams.
Now: Not yet at least.
Sure, Zverev won some 5-set matches, something he struggled with prior to this year. And sure, he reached his first quarterfinal at the French Open.
Still, the 21-year-old German’s results at slams seem to belie his immense talent, showcased the best in Masters 1000 tournaments.
This year, Zverev reached the finals of Miami (l. Isner), Madrid (d. Thiem) and Rome (l. Nadal) before defending his 500-level Washington title at the Citi Open in August.
You would think, with that kind of success at such a young age, the majors shouldn’t be such a struggle for Zverev. He has a nice-looking draw to go deep at the US Open, but nothing is a given in this sport.
Start of the year: Serena Williams will dominate women’s tennis when she returns.
Now: The field is putting up some resistance.
Serena’s results since coming back to the game after giving birth (not to mention a life-threatening post-pregnancy) are less indicative of her play and more a result of how deep the women’s field is right now.
There are far more threats in every sector of a draw than there were when Serena last played in January 2017.
Serena has looked better and better with each match in her comeback, especially at the slams. She made the second week of the French Open before withdrawing due to an injury, and she reached the final of Wimbledon, where she was unable to bring her best against former №1 Angelique Kerber.
With losses to her sister, Kerber and Petra Kvitova in Cincinatti, Serena has yet to beat a top 10 player since her return.
But it would be bad for the game if it was easy for Serena. Kvitova is having a fantastic season, winning five titles and at least one on every surface.
If Serena decimated Kvitova, which she has in the past, what would that say about the state of women’s tennis?
Serena is the GOAT, but, at 36 years old, she’s re-entering the game when the sport is as competitive as ever and every woman in a draw poses a threat.
That said, I would not bet against Serena Williams in front of a New York crowd. She has not fallen before the semifinals in New York since 2007, which is absurd.
A potential matchup against Halep in the fourth round would be worthy of a final.
Start of the year: Denis Shapovalov is the best young player with a one-handed backhand.
Now: Not so fast… or Tsitsifast.
It’s been a solid but unspectacular year for the Canadian sensation Denis Shapovalov.
He reached as high as 23 in the world and became the №1 Canadian player. He has since relinquished that to Milos Raonic and fell to 28 after his points from his breakthrough at last year’s Rogers Cup fell off with a loss to Robin Haase in the Round of 16.
At that same tournament, Stefanos Tsitsipas spent his last days as a teenager taking out top players (Dominic Thiem, Djokovic, Zverev, Kevin Anderson) left and right. On his 20th birthday, he lost the final in straight sets to Nadal.
No shame in that.
With powerful groundstrokes and great speed around the court for 6-foot-4 (not to mention a penchant for dive volleys), Tsitsipas’ raw talent puts him on the verge of a breakout.
It would come as no surprise if it happened in New York.
Start of the year: Jack Sock is the future of American men’s tennis.
Now: Well, um, Isner can still hit huge serves.
At the end of a so-so 2017, Jack Sock caught fire, winning a Masters 1000 tournament in Paris, which made him the last man to qualify for the World Tour Finals.
There he beat Marin Cilic and Sascha Zverev to make the semifinals, losing in a tight match to Grigor Dimitrov.
That Jack Sock has yet to emerge in 2018. Sporting a miserable record and riding an 8-match losing streak, it’s difficult to give Sock much of a chance at the year’s last slam.
The same can’t be said for John Isner.
After a rocky start to the season, Isner had the tournament of his life at the Miami Open, where he defeated Marin Cilic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Zverev to win the title.
Isner reached the second week of the French Open and his first Wimbledon semifinal, where, in Isner fashion, battled in an extended fifth set before falling 26–24 to Anderson.
Isner captured another title in Atlanta before all that match play caught up with him, and the rest of his summer results suffered.
If Isner is well rested for New York, it would be hard not to see the American doing well in front of the home crowd. He has a nice draw with a potential match against Dimitrov or Wawrinka in the fourth round.
If an American man makes an impact, it will likely be Isner.
For the young Americans, look for Frances Tiafoe amid his breakout season. He faces Adrian Mannarino in the first round, a more winnable match for Tiafoe than his opener last year (where he took Federer to five sets).
Start of the year: Who is Aryna Sabalenka?
Now: How many slams will Aryna Sabalenka win?
Of course, I’m making a huge leap here, but with the tools the 20-year-old Belarusian has in her arsenal, it would be difficult to imagine that she won’t have some chances.
Standing at 6 feet tall, Sabalenka possesses a huge serve, which she wields aggressively, and huge power off both wings, plus some skills at the net.
She’s had a breakthrough summer, beating world №2 Caroline Wozniacki in Canada, taking out top players to reach the semifinals in Cincinatti and earning her first title in New Haven.
It would be a big ask for Sabalenka to continue her dominance in New York, especially with a potential match vs. Kvitova in the 3rd round.
However, it won’t be long before this powerhouse is playing on the sport’s biggest stages.
My crappy predictions
Men’s final: Nadal d. Djokovic
Women’s final: Halep d. Kasatkina