Ahead of the 2018 U.S. Open, SI experts make their bold predictions, review the top storylines and pick winners.
With the U.S. Open set to kick off Monday at Flushing Meadows, SI's tennis experts and writers Jon Wertheim, Stanley Kay, Jamie Lisanti and Daniel Rapaport discuss this year’s top storylines and predict the winners.
What did you learn from the hard court lead-up tournaments?
Jon Wertheim: The Nadal/Djokovic/Federer troika is solid as ever. This is almost comical, given their ages (32, 31 and 37), but here we are. They have split the year’s first three majors. They went 16-1 this summer (and the one loss was interplay, with Djokovic beating Federer in the Cincy final). I'd say the odds are 80-20 that one of the three wins the U.S. Open.
Other learnings? Stefanos Tsitsipas is the real deal, both as a player and a magnetic and different personality. Nick Kyrgios is a lost soul. Andy Murray isn’t close to 100 percent while Stan Wawrinka is getting there. Simona Halep is a clear cut No.1. Sloane Stephens can still turn it on. Serena remains a question mark; but she remains Serena.
Stanley Kay: Simona Halep is playing like the weight of the world is off her shoulders. Sloane Stephens continues to prove last year's U.S. Open title was no fluke. Novak Djokovic is back, and the Big Three is looms larger than ever. Can Andy Murray or perhaps Stan Wawrinka become the next thirtysomething to find new life after injury woes? Also: Alexander Zverev—Stefanos Tsitsipas looks like the great tennis rivalry of tomorrow.
Jamie Lisanti: Novak Djokovic’s return to the top of the game at Wimbledon was no fluke—the Serb is back and surging, winning the Cincinnati Masters title with a win over Roger Federer (after falling in the final there five times prior) to become the first man to win all nine Masters 1000 events since the series began in 1990.
Caroline Wozniacki has only played one full match since losing in the second round at Wimbledon—it doesn’t look like a second Slam in 2018 is in the cards for her. Despite her wrist woes and light schedule in the lead-up tournaments, Madison Keys seems like she’s in a better place mentally than last year’s U.S. Open and she could be a contender here once again. And besides Simona Halep, there’s another Romanian woman you should be paying attention to: Mihaela Buzarnescu.
Daniel Rapaport: Djokovic is back at his best, and it's wonderful to watch. His combination of consistency, fitness and sheer relentlessness serves as a change-of-pace from Federer's artistry and Nadal's fiery passion. Stanislas Wawinka is making his comeback and I wouldn't be surprised to see him make some noise in New York. Stefanos Tsitsipas has surpassed Denis Shapovalov as the leader of the next generation (not including Alexander Zverev). Simona Halep may be the woman to finally put a stranglehold on the world No. 1 ranking after years of players playing hot potato with that spot.
Which player do you see as a potential dark horse?
JW: Bandwagoning: Tsitsipas and Aryna Sabalenka. Is Denis Shapovalov sufficiently off the radar? What about Kiki Bertens? Okay pencils down after these final answers: Karen Khachanov and Victoria Azarenka.
SK: Tsitsipas is an obvious answer after his performance in Toronto. How about Stan Wawrinka? The Stanimal saves his best for Grand Slams, and after a tough year marred by injury, his performances in Toronto and Cincinnati were encouraging. If he gets by Grigor Dimitrov in the first round, look out.
On the women's side, I should mention Kiki Bertens after her stunning victory over Simona Halep last week. Ashleigh Barty seems due for a deep run at a major. There's also this other player shooting up the rankings—I think she's seeded No. 17. Whoever she is, watch out for her.
JL: Watch out for Kiki “Not Just a Clay Court Specialist” Bertens in the wide-open bottom quarter of the women’s draw. There are a bunch of young Americans in the mix that you should keep an eye on at the U.S. Open, including 19-year-old Caroline Dolehide and 16-year-old Amanda Anisimova, who had a strong spring—defeating Petra Kvitova at Indian Wells—before a fractured foot sidelined her until late July. The aforementioned Mihaela Buzarnescu is the 2018 summer special for the dark horse category.
Stefanos Tsitsipas is last summer’s Denis Shapovalov, but both are worthy of a mention here. Considering his record at Grand Slams—and disregarding his ranking—can we put Alexander Zverev in this group? At this point, making it to the second week would be more surprising than an early loss for the fourth-ranked German. As for the young American men, check out Michael Mmoh, Noah Rubin and Taylor Fritz. (Need a first round match to watch? Fritz opens against Mischa Zverev.)
DR: I'm going patriotic—how about Frances Tiafoe? The 20-year-old has had a solid summer and has risen all the way to No. 42 in the world. He pushed one Roger Federer to five sets in the first round at the Open last year. He's ready to make it into the second week of a major, and there's no better place for the Maryland native to do it than New York. The draw is manageable—a first-round matchup against Adrian Mannarino, then the winner of a qualifier-qualifier match before potential third-round showdown with Marin Cilic. Tiafoe's game is big enough to beat anyone, and this will be the tournament where he shows he deserves a spot among the rising Zverev-Tsitsipas-Shapovalov clan.
Serena was seeded 17th. Is that the right number? Is she the favorite?
JW: Second question first: I don't think she can be the favorite. But I’d put her down as a favorite. On track record alone. And don't read too much into the Stanford defeat given the tragic context.
There’s no argument that she deserves a higher seed than her ranking indicated. Part of this is common sense. Part of this is fairness, ironically, to the rest of the field. But had she been No. 16—just one spot higher— she would have been guaranteed not to play a higher-ranked opponent until the fourth round, rather than a potential matchup against her sister, seeded No. 16, in the third round. Why not give her this extra level of protection?
SK: I wouldn't consider Serena to be the favorite, exactly, but she's certainly in the upper echelon of contenders. Her draw didn't help: She'll likely face Venus Williams in the third round and Simona Halep in the fourth round. With Garbine Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova lurking in her quarter, it won't get much easier from there. Still, even if she's not the outright favorite, she's probably the player you'd least want to face.
JL: Yes, of course, Serena Williams deserves better than the No. 17 seed at the U.S. Open. Heck, give her a bump up just one spot and we’re making progress. But at Wimbledon, Serena proved that seeding—and ranking—numbers are merely figures. Seeded No. 25 and ranked No. 183, she advanced to the final. Seeded No. 17 and now ranked No. 26 heading into the U.S. Open, it wouldn’t be a surprise if she took home the trophy. I don’t think she’s the hands down favorite—but I also wouldn’t bet against her if she catches fire in New York.
DR: I admire—ney, I understand—my counterparts' measured words, but I'm gonna be blunt here: Yes. She is. It all comes down to the meaning of the word "favorite." In my mind, favorite doesn't mean who should win on paper or whose past play suggest they have the best chance. It means who you think is going to win the tournament. For me, it's Serena. Plain and simple.
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have never played at the U.S. Open. Is this the year New Yorkers are finally treated to that long desired showdown?
JW: Federer and Nadal played each other at least thrice at the other majors. But never in New York. Passing No. 7 trains in the night. Sometimes they've come within a few points. Other times, not even close. I write this in advance of the draw, but, sadly I’m not feeling it. Too much has to go right.
SK: I don’t see it. Nadal's path to the final doesn't look so bad, but Federer drew a tough road: Nick Kyrgios in the third round, Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. By Federer standards, this summer has been underwhelming: His last title came in June in Stuttgart. He lost finals to Borna Coric and Novak Djokovic in Halle and Cincinnati, respectively, and he fell in the Wimbledon quarterfinals to Kevin Anderson after leading two sets to love. The Anderson defeat in particular was uncharacteristic. But was it a worrying sign of decline or just an aberration?
The good news is Federer seems relatively healthy at the moment, at least for a 37-year-old. So if he has a bad U.S. Open, I'm blaming Uniqlo.
JL: Oof, what a rough draw for No. 2-seeded Roger Federer. He could face a peaking Djokovic—who just beat him in Cincinnati—in the quarterfinals. Zverev and Cilic are also in his half of the draw. It would be a treat, but I think the U.S. Open will once again be denied a Federer-Nadal showdown.
DR: No-siree-bob. It'd have to be in the final, given that they're the top two seeds, and what a final it would be. I'd imagine a Federer-Nadal showdown in the finals of Arthur Ashe would be the most watched tennis match in America in quite some time. But it's just too tough of a draw for Federer, including the one player he would have loved to avoid in his quarter: Djokovic.
Give us one offbeat storyline to follow.
JW: Just one? The shot clock. Lingering discussion and debate about the new, improved and lemon-scented Davis Cup and what this does for the ATP event. The usual, life-after-Federer-Nadal-Serena hand-wringing. Has Steve Simon, WTA CEO, done enough to earn a contract extension this fall? The runaway success of the U.S. Open—the hedgefundarific shoshing of commerce; the sold-out sessions; the overselling of grounds passes—is a great validation of tennis. But it always triggers thorny questions about how the USTA is spending this windfall and where the return on investment might be.
SK: I’m newly obsessed with Andy Murray’s Instagram. In Washington, he posted a video of Nick Kyrgios booking him a haircut. In Cincinnati, he posted a video of himself and Kyrgios riding a roller-coaster. (I’m also enjoying the Kyrgios–Murray bromance.) And a few nights ago, he posted videos of himself rewatching the 2012 U.S. Open final, taking careful note of criticism from TV commentators. Do yourself a favor and give Sir Muzza a follow.
JL: How do we feel about the new U.S. Open logo? It’s splashed all over the grounds and it certainly gives off a different vibe. I’m excited to see some of the first matches in the new Louis Armstrong Stadium. Of course, the new food items around the grounds are always fun to try. What will the players say when asked about the new Davis Cup format?
DR: Not exactly a storyline to follow, but one thing I can't understand: How does Uniqlo not have Federer apparel ready for purchase? It's been nearly two months since the Japanese superbrand signed the Swiss superstar, and the only Fed gear you can buy is his on-court apparel that he'll wear at the U.S. Open...and it doesn't ship until mid-October. How does a company with that sort of a resources not at least whip up a Federer-branded t-shirt for sale at its massive Fifth Avenue store? New Yorkers love Federer. The sales would be astronomical. Just a massive missed opportunity.
Who wins the men's tournament?
JW: Again, I am submitting this before the draw but I’m thinking Nadal barely ahead of Djokovic. Federer has a shot, mostly because he is Federer; but he will need to find the form that he showed in Australia and hasn’t been much in evidence since. Wawrinka—riding a seven-match U.S. Open win streak let’s not forget—merits some discussion as well. It’s then a long staircase down to the next set of contenders.
SK: There’s a lot to love about Rafa Nadal entering this tournament, and I think he should be considered the favorite. But perhaps stupidly, I’m going to pick someone outside the Big Three: Juan Martin del Potro. Delpo has been knocking on the door of his second major title for more than a year now: in his last four Slam events, he’s made two semifinals and one quarterfinal. He nearly won last year’s U.S. Open. He’s hitting his backhand with greater authority, and his forehand remains a force of nature. Olé!
JL: Ready and rested after skipping Cincinnati, Rafael Nadal will come to New York and defend his U.S. Open title.
DR: Nole, Nole, Nole, Nole! It's tough to bet against Rafa, who was fantastic en route to the title in Canada. But Djokovic is on a mission, focused and hungry once again. The Serb takes home his third U.S. Open.
Who wins the women's tournament?
JW: As a gesture of respect, I suppose you have to pick Halep, who has acquitted herself like a No.1 all year and broke through in Paris. But…I still like the Americans. Stephens, Keys, and yes of course, Serena, who will benefit from home support, the certainty of knowing she’ll play every match on Ashe, and a day off between matches. In the course of writing that preceding sentence, I’ve changed my mind. Going with emotion more than reason, I'll take Serena in a Cinderella story. A first birthday party will only be the second biggest Williams celebration next week.
SK: Probably whoever emerges from Simona Halep’s quarter. It’s the tennis version of the SEC West: Halep, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Karolina Pliskova, all in one quadrant. Halep has played with tremendous confidence since winning the French Open in May, and I think she’ll keep her momentum going with her first U.S. Open title.
JL: It’s not going to be easy forHalep to win her second slam of the year (and her career) at the U.S. Open. It’s not going to be easy for Serena to win her 24th Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open. It’s not going to be easy for Sloane Stephens to continue her top form and defend her title. Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Garbine Muguruza all enter the U.S. Open shroud in uncertainty. Who’s left? I’m going with last year’s runner-up Madison Keys, who will return to New York, catch a hold of last year’s magic, take advantage of the opportunity in her quarter of the draw and finally capture her maiden Grand Slam title.
DR: Serena. I picked her at Wimbledon, where she entered with less match experience and worse form, and she nearly made me look like a genius. She wasn't great in the post-Wimbledon stretch, but I saw enough from her at the All England Club to believe she'll win the U.S. Open. And like Jon said, she knows she'll have unbelievable crowd support, play every match on Ashe and given a preferntial schedule. Number 24 is on the way.