Wednesday August 24th, 2016

When the U.S. Open begins on Monday, it will have been nearly two months since the narrative of the 2016 season changed completely.

Entering Wimbledon, the biggest storyline on the men’s tour was whether or not Novak Djokovic could win all four majors. His chance at the calendar-year Slam ended on July 2 when he was upset in the tournament’s third round. On the women’s tour, the biggest story was Serena Williams’s extended wait for Slam No. 22, which she won on July 9—ending a three-major “drought” (only a drought by Serena standards) and equalizing Steffi Graf’s career record.

After a busy August of lead-up tournaments and Olympic play, what does the U.S. Open have in store? Here are the top storylines to watch for when play begins next week.

Serena goes for No. 23

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Serena Williams entered last year’s U.S. Open as the talk of the tournament. On the cusp of a 22nd major title and the calendar-year Grand Slam, the pressure was huge—and she ultimately bowed out in the semifinals to heavy underdog Roberta Vinci.

This year, Williams arrives in Flushing with considerably less hype. After losing in the finals at the Australian Open and French Open, she finally broke through and won her 22nd major last month at Wimbledon. But after beating Angelique Kerber at the All England Club, her momentum slowed: She fell in the third round of the singles tournament at Rio 2016 and lost in the first round of the doubles draw. She hasn’t played in a tour event since Rome in May, before the French Open.

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But plenty is on the line for Williams in New York. Most significantly, she can pass Steffi Graf for most Slams won in the Open Era by winning her 23rd. She can also pass Chris Evert’s record mark of six U.S. Open titles in the Open Era. So much is at stake—but the huge pressure of 2015 has evaporated.

Kerber on the cusp of No. 1

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When Angelique Kerber won her first Grand Slam title at age 28 earlier this year, not many pegged her as the next world No. 1. But she’s extremely close: Had she won the Cincinnati final on Sunday, she would have knocked Serena Williams out of the top spot, which Williams has held for 184 consecutive weeks.

Outside of a poor clay court season—she fell in her opening match of three consecutive tournaments in May, including the French Open—Kerber has put together a strong 2016. Entering the U.S. Open, she’s 43-13 this season in singles, with two titles and nearly $5 million in prize money, by far the highest single-year total of her career. She also made the Wimbledon final and lost to Williams.

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It remains to be seen whether the German will catch Williams in the WTA rankings—right now, she trails by 190 points, and if Williams makes the semifinals of the U.S. Open, the World No. 1 will be guaranteed to keep her spot after the year’s final Slam. But Kerber’s emergence as one of the best players on tour has been one of the biggest surprises—and best stories— of 2016. After finals appearances in Rio and Cincinnati, she looks primed for a deep run at the U.S. Open.

The summer of Andy

The first six months of 2016 belonged to Novak Djokovic. The last two have belonged to Andy Murray. After Djokovic won the first two Slams of the year, he seemed to be heading toward a calendar-year Grand Slam. It wasn’t just plausible—based on Djokovic’s utter dominance, it seemed likely.

Everything changed when Sam Querrey upset Djokovic in the third round of Wimbledon. Suddenly, the invincible Djokovic seemed very beatable. And one player has benefitted more than anyone else: Andy Murray.

Murray, of course, went on to win Wimbledon to capture his third major title. He then won the Rio 2016 singles tournament, becoming the first man to win consecutive gold medals in singles. He made the final in Cincinnati, falling to Marin Cilic. And in New York, Murray has a great chance to take ownership of 2016: If he wins the U.S. Open, Murray’s ascendance will be the defining story of this year’s men’s tour, rather than Djokovic’s dominance.

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The key for Murray is to avoid meeting Djokovic in the final. The World No. 2 is 10-24 against his rival, including a 2-8 mark in Slams. In the first two major finals of the year, Djokovic beat Murray easily.

Despite Murray’s momentum, Djokovic is still the favorite to win the U.S. Open. A title would mark his third season with three major titles—something only Roger Federer has accomplished in the Open Era.

Rafa revitalized?

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Speaking of injuries, let’s talk about Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard had a pretty terrible 2015, and his 2016 basically started with a first-round loss in Melbourne. He seemed to be on the right track in clay court season, when he won titles in Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Challenging for the French Open even seemed like a possibility—but then, cruelly, he had to pull out of the tournament with a wrist injury, which also kept him out of Wimbledon.

He made his return at Rio 2016, where he won gold in doubles and fell in the singles bronze-medal match to Kei Nishikori after a tight semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro. Not bad at all.

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The World No. 5’s showing in Cincinnati was less impressive—he fell in his second match to Borna Coric. Was it a good idea to play Cincinnati immediately after Rio instead of getting some rest?

“I didn’t want to be back home. I spent enough time at home,” Nadal said, according to Tennis.com. “I needed to keep practicing, keep playing, and that’s why I am here and that’s why I’m not going to come back to Spain before the U.S. Open.”

Nadal has a great opportunity in New York to announce his return as a top player on tour. The question is whether his performance is Rio was an aberration or something more.

DelPos resurgence

Is Juan Martin del Potro’s forehand the most dominant shot in tennis? Our Jon Wertheim puts it on the same level as Serena’s serve, Djokovic’s return game and the serves of Milos Raonic, John Isner and Ivo Karlovic. The point is that when del Potro swats his forehand, it’s a joy for fans—and the exact opposite of joy for his opponent, as so many players found out in Rio.

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Del Potro’s improbable silver-medal run, which included a first-round upset of top-seeded Djokovic, is one of the highlights of the year so far for tennis. In an era dominated by a select group of players, DelPo’s success in Rio was a welcome change of pace. It was also a reminder of the Argentine’s talent—and what could have been in recent years had injuries not taken such a toll.

Del Potro was awarded a wild card spot in the U.S. Open. Pity the poor top player that draws DelPo in his section of the bracket—it’s not a matchup any top player wants early in the tournament. Just ask Djokovic.

Can Muguruza bounce back?

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Remember Garbine Muguruza? The French Open was less than three months ago, but it’s been a quiet summer for the Spaniard since winning at Roland Garros. She lost in the second round of Wimbledon, and was crushed by eventual gold medalist Monica Puig in the third round at Rio 2016.

After taking the French Open, Muguruza was declared the player with the best chance to unseat Serena Williams as the world No. 1. Maybe that’s still true, but right now Kerber is the player on the cusp of taking over the top spot, not Muguruza.

Her play in Cincinnati was encouraging—she reached the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Karolina Pliskova. Muguruza’s best finish at the U.S. Open was a second round appearance last year, but let’s not forget that she’s only 22 years old. She’s due for a deep run in Flushing.

Keys aims to continue strong 2016

Besides Serena Williams, the women’s field is pretty open. One player to watch is Madison Keys, who is having perhaps the best season of her career. After winning a title in Birmingham, she lost a three-setter to Simona Halep in the fourth round at Wimbledon. But she has bounced back nicely, making the Rogers Cup final and the Rio 2016 semifinals, ultimately losing in the bronze medal match.

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One thing is missing this season: a quarterfinals appearance at a Slam. After making the 2015 Australian Open semifinals and the 2015 Wimbledon quarterfinals, Keys has fallen in the fourth round of this year’s first three majors. She has never made it past the fourth round of the U.S. Open.

Keys is playing great tennis, but one area of concern could be her health. She withdrew from the Connecticut Open due to a neck injury, which she sustained in practice.

Deep womens draw

Serena Williams is the favorite, but the women’s draw is pretty wide open. As James Peeling notes, consider the fact that the following players are unseeded: Caroline Wozniacki, Lucie Safarova, Ekaterina Makarova, Kiki Mladenovic, Jelena Jankovic, Monica Puig, Andrea Petkovic, Camila Giorgi, Monica Niculescu and Eugenie Bouchard. That’s pretty remarkable. Would anyone be super surprised to see at least one of these players make a semifinals run?

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Can a young American man break through?

For last few years, the U.S. Open quarterfinals have been a foreign concept for American men. The last Americans to make the quarters in Flushing were John Isner and Andy Roddick in 2011.

It’s unlikely that any American man seriously challenges for this year’s title. But a few young players are worth keeping an eye on, namely Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe and Mackenzie McDonald.

Fritz in particular seems most likely to make an impact at this year’s tournament. After starting the year ranked No. 174, his singles ranking has shot up to No. 54 as his game has matured. The 18-year-old hung in with elite veterans like Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon and Roger Federer in Stuttgart. Another sign of his maturation: He married junior tennis player Raquel Pedraza in July after getting engaged in May, in front of the Eiffel Tower. Félicitations, Taylor—it’s been quite a year.

No Federer, but the tournament is apparently still on

The last U.S. Open without Roger Federer took place during the Bill Clinton administration. With another Clinton aiming to win the White House, Federer will sit out this year’s Open because of lingering knee issues.

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Victoria Azarenka and Tomas Berdych are also skipping the tournament due to pregnancy and appendicitis, respectively. But Federer’s absence in particular stings. His incredible popularity with U.S. Open fans sometimes makes him feel like the “home team” of the tournament. The crowd is always behind him, even against American opponents, and his trademark “RF” Nike hats are ubiquitous on the tournament grounds. It’s also a reminder that the current “Golden Era” of men’s tennis won’t last forever. So he’ll be missed. 

We’ll get through this together, everyone. I promise.

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