If the tale of tennis at the Olympics is any prelude to the U.S. Open, which begins on Monday in New York, fans can be sure to expect the unexpected. The favorites, Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, remain the rest of the field’s toughest hurdles to the final Grand Slam trophy of 2016, but recent dips in performance could open chances for other players to make a mark. Here are six players who could pull of big upsets, make deep runs into the second week and contend for a title at Flushing Meadows.
Current ranking: No. 34
After Monica Puig’s flawless week at the Rio 2016 Olympics, few WTA players currently match her beaming confidence. The fiery 22-year-old Puerto Rican trail blazed through the tournament. She was mentally focused, moved exceptionally well on the court and made her opponents stretch from corner to corner. Puig capitalized on her best shot: the two-handed backhand, and picked the right moments to pummel winners. Her challenge will be to string these elements together again for two weeks at the U.S. Open, all while freshly drenched in media attention and having never made it past the fourth round of a Grand Slam. Although Puig gained no ranking points for winning a gold medal and will be unseeded in New York, she has already proven to herself and the world that her athletic capacity and chutzpah can take her to unimagined places.
Current ranking: No. 9
Madison Keys might have missed the Olympic podium by a tight three-set match but the flat-hitting, 21-year-old American has already shown she has the athleticism and fearlessness to go far in Grand Slams. With a powerful serve and an ability to belt winners from just about anywhere on the court, Keys stands a good chance on the hard courts provided that her consistency doesn’t falter under pressure.
Last year was a banner year for Keys, who broke into the top 20 ranking after reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. Since then, she parted ways with her coach Lindsay Davenport and is currently working with Thomas Hogstedt. Keys has improved her net game and court coverage in the last year which moved her into the top 10. With round of 16 appearances at all Grand Slams so far this year, a tournament victory in Birmingham and a finals birth at the Rogers Cup in Montreal, Keys is making consistent late-round appearances. The U.S. Open will mark her highest seeding in all of the majors she’s played. And if all the elements of her game come together, we could see her well into the second week.
Current ranking: No. 11
En route to winning the Western & Souther Open in Cincinnati last week, Karolina Pliskova dropped only one set the entire tournament and denied Angelique Kerber a chance to dethrone Serena Williams as World No. 1. With a tall, lean physique, the Czech can covers a lot of ground easily, controls points with her shotgun serve and hits deep, consistent groundstrokes into corners that are difficult to read. She doesn’t yet have the confidence to vary her game and step into the net more often which has made her game predictable, but if she maintains her consistency and is able to win easy points off her serve, she could continue to upset some big names.
Current ranking: No. 54
Taylor Fritz was last year’s U.S. Open junior champion and at 18, he is the youngest player in the top 100. The lanky, 6’4” San Diego-native turned pro in 2015 and became the second fastest American to reach a final of an ATP tournament. He’s a power player who has shown great prospects with his serve, crushing two-handed backhand and the ability to find openings on the court. Although he is still developing physically and will need to take more advantage of sitting forehands and become quicker on the court, Fritz has already shot through the rankings this year and has the raw talent and maturity that can soon land him in the upper echelons of the men’s game.
Current ranking: No. 29
Another tall teenager, 19-year-old Sasha Zverev is currently the youngest player in the ATP’s top 50. Nadal was forced to save a match point in the fourth round of the Indian Wells earlier this year to beat Zverev, later praising the young German as “amazingly talented” and a “possible future No. 1.” Coached by his father and older brother, also an ATP player, Zverev is one of the best movers of his cohort. He has great technique, creates both deep and sharp angles and has an effective two-handed backhand. His best results this year have come on hard and clay courts where he lost a few tight three-setters in late rounds partly due to his inability to last through physical matches, something he has acknowledged needs improvement. At 6’6”, he has a wide wingspan at the net and quick hands, which if used more often, can win him extra points. Tremendously gifted at the sport, and still growing both mentally and physically, Zverev could soon live up to Nadal’s expectation.
Current ranking: No. 6
This year’s Wimbledon runner-up skipped the Olympics over concerns of the Zika virus, but returned to action last week in Cincinnati, losing in the semifinals to Wimbledon champion and Olympic gold medalist Andy Murray. With his trademark booming serve and a blasting forehand, Raonic has improved his conditioning and steadily raised his net court game. Hard court is his favorite surface and at 6’6”, he has the size, strength and reach to threaten any of the big shots. The question will be whether he and his coach, John McEnroe—perhaps the game’s greatest serve and volleyer—have devised a formula to vary his shots, and win not only the cheap points off his serve but also the important points, which have cost him championships in the past. If he can raise his mental game to yet another level, he could find himself holding a Grand Slam trophy.