The U.S. Open is just around the corner, so SI.com's tennis experts Richard Deitsch, Courtney Nguyen and Jon Wertheim break down some of the biggest storylines, predict the winners and more.
What did we learn from the U.S. Open hard-court tuneups?
DEITSCH: Serena Williams has firmly placed Wimbledon in her rearview mirror. She’s lost one match (to sister Venus, at the Rogers Cup in Montreal) since her surreal exit at the All England Club and won titles at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif., and the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. We also learned that it’s going to take Eugenie Bouchard a little more time before winning her first Grand Slam title; she crashed and burned in the opening rounds of the Rogers Cup in Montreal and Cincinnati.
On the men’s side, we learned that Roger Federer continues to defy Father Time. He looked great winning Cincinnati and reached the final of the Rogers Cup in Toronto before losing to the erratic funhouse that is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, whom I might finally take seriously as a U.S. Open threat. On his way to winning in Toronto, the Frenchman defeated Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Grigor Dimitrov and Federer in succession.
NGUYEN: First, Serena decided to erase all of those embarrassing images of her fumbling around at Wimbledon by simply winning matches and playing great tennis. She plays her best when she feels like she has something to prove, and that's precisely what she did, first by winning Stanford and then rounding into form in Cincinnati. Williams can be an unreliable narrator at times, but she wears her emotions on her sleeve. After winning Cincinnati, she was genuinely happy and excited about her performance. That's saying something.
Second, something is very wrong with the system when Milos Raonic wins the U.S. Open Series title even though Federer won Cincinnati and made the Toronto final. Sorry, Milos, but you did not have the best summer -- that would be 33-year-old Federer, who rightfully earns the tag of pre-tournament favorite after a near-perfect run since Wimbledon.
WERTHEIM: What was it Mark Twain said? Oh, right. “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.” Our prospecting for prospects didn’t yield much. Bouchard has regressed since Wimbledon. Neither Raonic nor Dimitrov appears ready to win Grand Slams. You know who looks ready? Serena Williams. Roger Federer. And to top it off, Venus Williams is playing her best tennis in a good half-decade.
Which player has the best chance at ruining a Djokovic-Federer final?
DEITSCH: I’ll take a flyer on Murray. Yes, he’s off-form and has a tough draw (the 2012 champion potentially faces Tsonga in the fourth round), but I have a feeling he’s going to have a good tournament. He's also played tough against possible quarterfinal opponent Djokovic, splitting the last 16 meetings. I’d also watch out for sixth-seeded Tomas Berdych, who is in Federer’s half of the draw.
NGUYEN: Given how well Federer is playing and how soft the bottom half of the draw is, I don't see a strong alternative there. So the surprise would have to come in the loaded top half. First, Djokovic comes into New York playing poorly. With all due respect to Tommy Robredo, Djokovic shouldn't be losing to him in straight sets at a Masters tournament, as he did in Cincinnati. So the Serb is definitely vulnerable. I give Guillermo Garcia-Lopez a shot at the upset in the third round, and then either Murray or Stan Wawrinka can spoil the party.
WERTHEIM: Well … Murray -- who did win this event in 2012 -- warrants consideration. Same for Wawrinka, winner of the previous major played on hard courts. And Tsonga beat both Federer and Djokovic earlier this month. And sure, some Nick Kyrgios could get hot on any given afternoon. But it is -- to use the voguish term -- a big ask. Given the day off between matches, the best-of-five format and the surface that is free of the quirk of clay and grass and generally rewards the better player, I like the odds of the top two players surviving at a level commensurate to their seeding.
Who (or what) could take down Serena Williams?
DEITSCH: The weather? The flu? Actually, the correct answer is only Serena herself. She’s won 12 of her last 13 matches, and the field is weak. I see Grand Slam singles title No. 18.
NGUYEN: Serena Williams. It's easy to be seduced by Williams' fine summer form, but let's not forget: We've been here before. Winning tuneup tournaments has not led to success this year. She won Brisbane and then lost to Ana Ivanovic at the Australian Open. She won Rome and then lost to Garbine Muguruza at the French Open. She still has not made it past the fourth round of a major this season, with either her body or her psyche letting her down. She spent the summer downplaying the pressure of the U.S. Open, saying she was more relaxed than ever and that she had nothing to prove. But when her game came together as it did in the Cincinnati final, her language changed. She openly discussed the prospect of winning in New York. She said she was finally playing well enough to win in New York. She's going to feel pressure in New York.
WERTHEIM: A year ago, we would have groped for answers. Sadly, this year, the answers are plentiful. Serena Williams, of course, remains the great rival of Serena Williams. And over the past half decade or so, she is -- counterintuitively -- more vulnerable early than late. Look at her recent record at majors, and she’s been off in the first week. If she makes it to Labor Day, look out.
What are Eugenie Bouchard's chances of making a fourth straight Grand Slam semifinal?
DEITSCH: She’s a gamer and a future champion, but given the miserable summer season she’s had, I can’t see a long run here.
NGUYEN: If she plays as well as she did in the other three Grand Slams, she's a virtual lock for the semifinals with her softish draw. Then again, she's 1-3 since making the Wimbledon final in July and she comes into New York with far more attention than confidence.
WERTHEIM: Whether it’s fatigue, a nagging injury or the build-up of pressure and expectation, Bouchard struggled woefully on the summer hard courts. She’s the No. 7 seed, but given her form (and the presence of Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in her quarter), I don't see her reaching the semis.
What are you most looking forward to in the draw?
DEITSCH: I love Serena vs. American Taylor Townsend in the opening round. These are the kind of matches Townsend, 18, needs as she grows into her talent. I’m also curious about Victoria Azarenka as a No. 16 seed, and the health of her knee. Can she turn around a nightmare year? But mostly I’m looking forward to Federer's having a real shot to win another title. At Wimbledon he fulfilled my prediction that he’d make a major final in 2014, and I think he’ll get to the finish line in Flushing Meadows too.
NGUYEN: Serena vs. Taylor. First round. Under the lights. On Arthur Ashe Stadium. It's going to happen.
WERTHEIM: A theme of this U.S. Open is “year-salvaging.” Can Serena rescue this year from the scrap heap by winning the final major? Can Bob and Mike Bryan -- aiming for a calendar Grand Slam in doubles a year ago -- win their first major of 2014, thereby preserving the season? Can Sloane Stephens make some noise, so that this year won’t be a total exercise in stagnation? The other great storyline is Federer. We -- and by “we” I mean, the entire tennis community in its wishful thinking -- have said for years that “a lot has to go right for Federer to win a Slam.” Heading into this event, a lot appears to breaking for him, some of it his own doing, some of it the doings of the fates (see: Nadal’s absence.) At 33, can the 17-time Slam champion add a nostalgic title to the compendium?
Which player might break through on the women's side?
DEITSCH: Someone you might have heard of: Venus Williams. The two-time champ has heavyweights on her side of the draw (Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep), but she looked great at Wimbledon despite a third-round loss to Petra Kvitova and followed that up with a beautiful finals run at Montreal (including a win over Serena) before falling to Aga Radwanska. Venus is as dangerous as a No. 19 seed gets at the U.S. Open.
NGUYEN: On a limb: No. 27 seed Madison Keys makes the fourth round; No. 25 seed Garbine Muguruza (who beat Serena at the French Open) makes the semifinals.
WERTHEIM: Townsend will not beat Serena, but it will be interesting to see how she handles a monster occasion like this. I would consider Kvitova's backing up her Wimbledon title with a strong showing at the U.S. Open to be a breakthrough of sorts, given that she's never been past the fourth round. And we all wait eagerly for Keys to marry power with accuracy, court craft and health.
Which player might break through on the men's side?
DEITSCH: Marin Cilic. He’s jumped up the rankings this year (seeded No. 14 here), and keep in mind he led Djokovic two sets to one in the Wimbledon quarterfinals before losing in five. David Ferrer and Berdych are the high seeds in his quarter and both can be had on this surface. One big caveat: Cilic could face Jerzy Janowicz in the third round, and Janowicz is another longshot I could see making a nice run.
NGUYEN: With their draws, Donald Young and Jack Sock have a great chance to make the fourth round or better.
WERTHEIM: It will be interesting to see if Nick Kyrgios can build on his smashing Wimbledon. Otherwise, the men’s draw will echo with a theme of experience, not youth.
Who will win the women's tournament?
DEITSCH: Serena Williams. She's fit and her form is on point. I can't see anyone taking out Serena, especially with the added motivation of not winning a major this year.
NGUYEN: Serena Williams. If Serena plays as well as she did in Cincinnati, it doesn't matter who is on the other side of the net. But if things get shaky and she implodes, look for Ana Ivanovic to take advantage.
WERTHEIM: Serena Williams. She will win her first major of the year, keeping with the rhythms of her career.
Who will win the men's tournament?
DEITSCH: Novak Djokovic. I want very much to pick Federer and the storybook ending, but I can't see a loss by Novak to Rog in a final, especially if they split sets early. The Djoker is a legit favorite, but his draw is tricky.
NGUYEN: Roger Federer. It's hard to bet against Djokovic's finding his form and making the final because his hard-court résumé (including four consecutive appearances in the U.S. Open final) is so impressive. But he's going to spend far more energy to get there than Federer because of a tougher draw. Everything is lining up for a fresh Federer to win No. 18 just a few week after turning 33.
WERTHEIM: Novak Djokovic. The Serb is only a month and a half removed from winning Wimbledon, and the hard courts accentuate his fitness. The heart says Federer, but the head says Djokovic.