As the players gear up for the start of the final Grand Slam of the season at the U.S. Open on Monday, SI's tennis experts and writers Jon Wertheim, Richard Deitsch, S.L. Price, Elizabeth Newman, Stanley Kay and Jamie Lisanti discuss this year’s top storylines and predict the winners.
What did you learn from the hard-court lead ups?
Richard Deitsch: You mean other than Nick Kyrgios is beloved in the locker room? What I learned is that Roger Federer continues to redefine my expectations heading into a Grand Slam tournament. He looked sensational in Cincinnati and he’s my favorite to win the Open, even though Djokovic remains the safer pick. It’s a bummer but I’m not sure Rafa Nadal makes the second week of the Open. His comments coming out of Cincinnati showed a hint of optimism about the future but not about the present. On the women’s side, Serena looks ready. She wasn’t at her best in Cincinnati and still handled Simona Halep in two competitive sets. I know Victoria Azarenka retired in Cincinnati but her ballstriking was really solid. If she’s healthy, watch out. Obviously Belinda Bencic has to be considered a deep second week threat after her win in Toronto.
S.L. Price: I've learned that while the economy roils with a new earthquake each week and even sluggish politics can manage a Trumpist surprise, tennis at the top remains the world's one constant. Yes, Rafael Nadal has become a huge question mark but, then, he usually gets iffy this time of year. So again, as always, Roger Federer and Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic chug into New York as prohibitive favorites and Serena Williams has no one to fear but herself. Stan Wawrinka? His recent rise into The Big Four (Five?) will, I suspect, stall some as he tries to regain balance after the bizarre Nick Kyrgios drama. Federer's inventive, fresh, aggressive form in Cincinnati provides a new twist—and a lift to FedNation—but he hasn't won a Slam in three years and the five-set mountain looms yet again. Get ready for another round of appreciate-him-while-you-can, folk stories, and, no, it doesn't matter that we've been here before. It's actually a wonder.
Stanley Kay: On the men’s side, I learned that Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray are on a different level entering the U.S. Open. Djokovic is still the overall favorite, but Federer is more in-form than anyone on the men’s side right now. Murray clinched the U.S. Open Series title and put together an impressive run at the Rogers Cup, capped by a victory over Djokovic in the final. Despite an early exit in Washington, D.C., Murray looks primed for his best run in Flushing since 2012, when he won the tournament.
On the women’s side, Serena Williams continues to find new ways to impress me with her resilience in difficult matches. Against Flavia Pennetta and Ana Ivanovic in Toronto and Cincinnati, respectively, Serena lost the first set before roaring back to claim victory. That uncanny ability to fight through adversity is what will make Serena so difficult to beat at the U.S. Open (or really anywhere). Credit to Belinda Bencic for knocking off Serena in the Rogers Cup semifinals despite losing the first set.
Jon Wertheim: Serena Williams is a very strong player, capable of generating great pace and playing well when the situation most calls for it. Roger Federer is still capable of playing top-shelf tennis, especially on hardcourts. Same for Andy Murray. Also Novak Djokovic is beatable especially when he is even slightly physically compromised. That Rafael Nadal isn’t the player he once was. That Nick Kyrgios has plenty of growing up left to do. That this corps of young American players—male and female—tantalize and frustrate in equal measure. In other words, we didn't learn so much as we had assumptions confirmed. Two sub-points:
1) This isn’t necessarily a problem, it just…is. But the reality of tennis today: the Slams are so loaded with importance—reflect most obviously in prize money but also in exposure, commercial incentives, the way we assess careers—that the other can events feel like preseason games. When Serena Williams loses to Belinda Bencic is it predictive? Or is it because she played cautiously, hoping to arrive in New York in optimal condition?
2) On the men’s side, there are profound differences between best-of-three set matches (which were obviously played in the lead-ups) and the best-of-five matches played at Slams. Federer’s defeat of Novak Djokovic in Cincy was a brilliant performance and Federer’s new tactics of essentially chipping and charging second serves worked masterfully. For Federer to replicate this result in New York, he’ll need to play more tennis, spend more time on the court and do so knowing that Djokovic’s fitness takes a backseat to no one. Doesn't mean it can't be done. But it’s a different exercise from what he pulled off in Ohio.
Elizabeth Newman: That Nick Kyrgios has become more pain in the tennis arse than he has rising tennis star. The 20-year-old Aussie is a mere 18-14 this season, ranked 37th in the world and has yet to win an ATP title. You would think he would be a bit more humble in his approach to the game. Yet, his hubris and petulant child syndrome suggest that he thinks he is the man on the court, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. His antics against Stan Wawrinka in Montreal made him the talk of the tournament for all of the wrong reasons. Between the outbursts, tanking games and the bad attitude, it’s almost as if tennis is now an afterthought and he is just aiming to become the next big international reality star.
Kyrgios aside, The Big Three—Djokovic, Federer and Murray—seemed to have distanced themselves even more from the pack during the hard court season. Three’s Company for sure.
Jamie Lisanti: On the men's side, Federer showed us that he's still at the top of his game and capable of winning yet another title at the age of 34—but we already knew that. After an early exit at the Citi Open, Andy Murray quietly had a nice showing in the lead up tournaments, with a win over Djokovic for the title in Montreal and a loss to eventual-champion Federer in the semis in Cincinnati. If I'm Murray, I'm confident in my form and my ability to make a deep run in New York.
And of course, how could we forget Nick Kyrgios? Though his game has been as awful as his antics in the past few weeks, I think that if he can get his mind focused on tennis, he has a good shot at the second week. However, I do think that his success will be closely related to how the New York crowd treats him when he takes the court. His matches will surely draw a large audience, but will they cheer or boo the young Aussie?
It was interesting to see Simona Halep return to form since losing to No. 106 Jana Cepelova in the first round at Wimbledon. Halep started her season strong but put up disappointing performances in Paris and London, so it's encouraging to see her make the final in both Toronto and Cincinnati (losses to Bencic and Serena, respectively). Did her four week break back home in Romania rejuvenate her enough for a U.S. Open run? She has to be riding a wave of confidence and I think we'll see the player we saw at the beginning of the season in Indian Wells and Miami. The second seeding also bodes well for the Romanian.
What player do you see being a dark horse or making a breakthrough in New York this year?
Deitsch: Can I still vote for Bencic? She plays beyond her years—the Melanie Molitor effect—and will be in the Top 10 for years to come. But one to really watch is Slovak Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, whose results post-Wimbledon have been really impressive. David Goffin is one to watch on the men’s side.
Price: I say this with all caution: Grigor Dimitrov. I mean, his meltdown against Murray in Cincinnati (blowing a 5-2, third set lead) was horrendous, a confidence-killer that could well derail him for a year. No one would be shocked to see Dimitrov exiting Flushing Meadows early. Little has gone right this season for the oh-so-gifted 24-year old—fell out of the top ten, split with coach and girlfriend. So, yes, contrary and extremely wishful thinking here: Dimitrov does the absolute unexpected, just because sports do that sometimes. He recovers in a way no one thinks likely, gets his head and guts together, puts his prodigious gifts to work in a way he never has, and bulls well into the second week.
Wertheim: Five women to watch:
1) Belinda Bencic—your Flavor o’ the Month. And with good reason.
2) Camila Giorgi—might hit the biggest ball on tour, when controlled for body weight.
3) Karolina Pliskova—a top-ten player who can now cement her ascent with a strong Slam showing.
4) Sloane Stephens—recommitted, relaxed and her results show it.
5) Ajla Tomljanovic—when her mental game catches up to her ballstriking, she will rise.
Five men to watch:
1) Borna Coric—the top ten appearance is question of when, not if.
2) Jack Sock—his nation of origin aside, he’s just a really good player and an improving competitor.
3) Benoit Paire—disappointing and injury-addled over the last few years, but has been generally gangbusters recently.
4) Ivo Karlovic—36 years old and still pounding away.
5) Hyeon Chung—Korean doesn't turn 20 until May and is already in the top 75.
Kay: Since he turned pro earlier this year, Frances Tiafoe has had quite a run: Ranked No. 520 in singles on the day he turned pro, the 17-year-old American has surged to No. 275 in the rankings. (He reached a career-best No. 271 on Aug. 17.) Tiafoe’s summer included a wild card berth in the French Open main draw, which saw him fall to Martin Klizan in the first round.
His recent form has been even more impressive. Tiafoe won a five-set marathon against Stefan Kozlov to win the USTA Boys’ 18 National Championship at Kalamazoo, which earned him a U.S. Open main draw wild card. At this week’s Winston-Salem Open, Tiafoe defeated fellow American Ryan Harrison 1–6, 6–3, 6–3 in a qualifier and then topped No. 92 James Duckworth in the opening round 3–6, 7–6 (4), 7–6 (3), before losing to Thomaz Bellucci. Tiafoe is only 17, and he’s not yet a serious contender. But if he receives a favorable draw, his current form suggests that he could surprise an established player or two in the opening rounds of the tournament.
Newman: On the women’s side Belinda Bencic. Dubbed by many as “The Next Martina Hingis,” the 12th ranked 18-year-old Swiss (who’s coached by Hingis’s mom Melanie Molitor) has won two tournaments this year, including wins over Serena and No. 2 ranked Simona Halep in Montreal earlier this month. Like Hingis, Bencic is less power and more of a thinking player on the court, a tactician rather than a ball striker. Expect Bencic to make a deep run into the tournament. And if she runs into Serena, why wouldn’t she expect to have at least a slight advantage?
As for the men… Eh? I just don’t see anyone outside of the new Big Three winning in Queens—OK, Big Four if you include Stan Wawrinka. I guess for the sake of argument I’ll offer a latte instead of dark horse and say Rafa Nadal. Rafa has won three menial titles this season—Hamburg, Stuttgart and Buenos Aires—and couldn’t even muster up his mojo to win his beloved French Open. A win at the U.S. Open would be shocking indeed.
Lisanti: Will Belinda Bencic continue her recent form? Yes. We'll be saying her name a lot throughout the U.S. Open and here on out. But look out for CoCo Vandeweghe. She hasn't been impressive in the lead ups, but something tells me the magic of New York will ignite her serve and her swag.
Denis Kudla took the title of the last American man standing at Wimbledon this year and his play since then has been pretty solid. With a decent draw and an early upset of a top seed in his half of the draw, I think we could see him make the second week at a Slam for the second time in a row.
How will defending men's champion Marin Cilic fare?
Deitsch: His recent results project a quarterfinal or so exit. Can’t see the magic happening again this year.
Price: Dodgy shoulder, choppy year and all, I expect him to win two matches. Would love to be wrong.
Kay: Cilic’s remarkable run at the 2014 U.S. Open hasn’t translated to a strong 2015. Hampered by a lingering shoulder injury, Cilic has struggled throughout the season. The Croatia native has failed to win a singles title, and he’s in danger of missing out on a title for the first time since 2007, his debut pro season. Cilic’s struggles have been particularly acute against top competition. Cilic has played three matches in 2015 against players currently in the top ten, and he has failed to win a single set: He fell to Novak Djokovic, David Ferrer and Kei Nishikori at Monte Carlo, Roland Garros and Washington, D.C., respectively. That doesn’t bode well for a deep run at Flushing Meadows.
Cilic’s 2014 Open title was also a shock, but a similar run would likely be an even greater surprise considering his disappointing year. At No. 9, Cilic is one of the highest-ranked players who could be headed for an early exit.
Wertheim: Meh. If you built your, say, kitchen addition the way Cilic has built on his 2014 title, you’d fire the contractor. He has won zero tournaments in 2015 and hasn’t come close to replicating the fearless, offensive ballstriking that enabled to win his only major. Some of it is due to injury but still….Results like this only ennoble the Big Four, the guys who have not merely won majors, but then spent years making deep runs with consistency. Cilic ought to make it through the middle weekend. But the notion of his winning seems fanciful. (Of course we all would have said the same thing at this point last year.)
Newman: Talk about one of the least memorable U.S. Open champions of all time. Cilic has not reached the final of any tournament since last year’s Open. I expect him to go down quietly around the round of 16.
Lisanti: Oh, is that who won the men's title last year? It's easy to forget given Cilic's mediocre performance in the past year since his Slam title. With the recent form of the Big Four, it's hard to put any stock in the 26-year-old Croatian. But then again—he certainly wasn't on our radar last year.
How will defending women's champion Serena Williams fare—and what is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the calendar Grand Slam?
Deitsch: The biggest obstacle to the calendar Grand Slam is Serena herself: How will she handle the attention and expectations come the second week of the tournament? I don’t think there is a player outside of a healthy Azarenka who can knock her off here.
Price: I think she wins it here and becomes the first women since Steffi Graf in 1988 to complete a calendar year Grand Slam. The biggest obstacle—no stunner—is Williams' own hype-rattled nerves at the outset and her history of sketchy form in early rounds. But once she finds her footing and starts to revel in the moment, I expect Serena to pull a full Serena.
Wertheim: Part of what makes this run at history both so impressive and, well, weird, is the absence of an obvious challenger. If you have to drink every time you hear the phrase “Serena Williams is the one player who can beat Serena Williams” during this tournament, you will be sloppy by noon on the first Monday.
Kay: She’ll win. It’s hard to see anything getting in Serena’s way, but her biggest obstacle is the pressure associated with such an incredible achievement. This year’s U.S. Open will be the most high-stakes tournament Serena has ever played: She has a shot at the calendar Grand Slam and a fourth-straight U.S. Open title, but perhaps even more significantly she can make a strong claim as the greatest female athlete of all-time. She can already make that case, but a title at Flushing Meadows would strongly bolster her résumé.
Newman: Even Serena admits that her biggest obstacle is…Serena Williams, telling SI in this week’s issue, “I’m always one of my biggest competitors. I can stop myself.” That is what worries me about Serena’s run for history here. Her ability to stay focused (by focused I mean leaving Drizzy Drake alone!) and keep her eyes on the court. With the bright lights, high temperatures and New York headlines always threatening and ready to pounce, some of Serena’s biggest meltdowns have been at Flushing Meadows. If she can tune everything out, stop giving away the first set against lesser than opponents and steady her monstrous serve, the glory is all hers.
Lisanti: After yet another Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, it was hard to imagine anyone other than Serena dominating the summer hard court season and lifting the trophy in New York. Even now, after the fog of the Wimbledon hangover has passed, this still remains true. But Serena's recent loss to Bencic—and her overall demeanor on the court in her past few weeks—make me second guess my instincts just a little bit.
But let's think back to this time last year: Serena was coming off two consecutive early exits at Grand Slams and a slightly more encouraging performance on U.S. hard courts. The bottom line? The World No. 1 came into New York last year with something to prove. If everything was rainbows and butterflies heading into this year's U.S. Open, I don't think Serena comes in with the same mentality in her quest for the calendar Grand Slam. She needed the loss to Bencic. She needed some tough three-setters. She needed some near-tears moments on court. She also needed that title in Cincinnati. Don't worry—everything is going according to Serena's Grand (Slam) Plan.
Who will win the men's title?
Deitsch: Federer. I believe.
Price: Andy Murray. He looks decidedly on-form, loves New York and the hardcourts.
Wertheim: Federer is the hot pick, and not without just cause. Andy Murray—the 2012 winner—“won” the U.S. Open Series title, whatever that means. But we’re going chalk. Despite the minor hiccup in Montreal (a defeat in the final to Murray) and a sluggish loss to Federer in Cincy, it’s hard to pick against Novak Djokovic. He won the previous major. He won the previous hardcourt major. He is No. 1. The best-of-five format is to his benefit. He has taken so many variables and turned them into advantages.
Kay: Djokovic is the deserved consensus favorite to win the U.S. Open despite two lead up finals losses to Murray and Federer in Montreal and Cincinnati, respectively. At risk of reading too much into his masterful performance against Djokovic in the Cincinnati final, I’m picking Federer to claim the title. He hasn’t won the U.S. Open since 2008 and he hasn’t been to the final since 2009, but his recent form has been superb. The tweaks he has made to his game—befuddling his opponents with a new return strategy at Cincinnati, for instance—make Federer the most formidable U.S. Open challenger to top-seeded Djokovic.
Newman: In an attempt not to beat a dead horse (Djokovic, Djokovic, Djokovic), I’m going to go out on a limb and say Andy Murray. The Scotsman just snapped an eight-match losing streak to the Djoker a couple of weeks ago to win the Rogers Cup title. So maybe he’ll have his own jokes up his sleeve in Queens.
Lisanti: Baby fever has hit the Murray camp and the Scotsman's form of late has been top notch. With this combo, look out for a 2012 repeat.
Who will win the women's title?
Deitsch: The future SI Sportswoman of the Year—Serena Williams.
Price: Serena Williams, 7-6, 6-4 in the final.
Wertheim: Now, really. Serena Williams’s winning the Grand Slam is hardly a foregone conclusion. Fine a job as she has done of minimizing expectation, the closer she comes to this formidable feat, the more she will feel pressure. Her mortal performances since Wimbledon (and the nagging arm injury that caused her to pull out in Sweden and Stanford) have fired the field with hope, if not confidence. The notion that this is “hers to lose” insults 127 players, mocks probability and diminishes what Serena needs to accomplish. Still, if we’re picking winners, how do we tip anyone else?
Kay: Hold on, we’re going home: Serena is returning to Flushing Meadows, where she’s already won six titles. How about now? The legend will win a seventh U.S. Open championship this year to complete the calendar Grand Slam, and the headlines will proclaim her as the best (we) ever had. If you pick against Serena, you’re doing it wrong. That’s the motto. Thank me later.
Newman: Nervous as I may be, there's no way I'm picking against Serena. At least not out loud.
Lisanti: Serena Williams will have a history-making, drama-filled, unforgettable run to the U.S. Open final. And she will win.