Shapovalov-Auger Aliassime. Kuzentzova-Venus. Nadal-Ferrer. The first round at the U.S. Open will not disappoint. 

By Stanley Kay
August 25, 2018

Late August in New York City: the lingering smell of warm trash, a hint of autumn in the air and tennis players everywhere, hawking their sponsors. The U.S. Open begins on Monday, but the city’s annual love affair with tennis starts in earnest a week earlier, when qualifying begins and pros descend upon Manhattan.

The release of the draw allows us to salivate over possibilities: a third-round meeting between Serena and Venus, a fourth-round clash between Serena/Venus and Simona Halep, a quarterfinal showdown pitting Roger Federer against a resurgent Novak Djokovic. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, the opening two days of the tournament offer plenty of intrigue. Here’s a look at some of the most compelling first-round matches.

10. Garbine Muguruza vs. Zhang Shuai (Monday)

I think Muguruza is due for a deep run in Flushing Meadows—she’s yet to reach the quarters at Flushing Meadows—but watch out for an upset here. Though Muguruza is 2-0 for her career against Zhang, besting her twice last season, both matches went three sets. And Zhang, after failing to advance past the first round at a major in her first 14 main draw appearances, reached at least the second round in six of eight majors from 2016-17, including a quarterfinal appearance at the 2016 Australian Open.

Muguruza, the No. 12 seed, is a two-time Slam winner, but she’s also susceptible to the early upset, losing in the second round at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon this year. I think Muguruza will win this match, but it should be interesting. 

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9. Nick Kyrgios vs. Radu Albot (Tuesday)

Think Nick Kyrgios is just a bit excited for Laver Cup? The team-style format of the former suits Kyrgios’s sensibilities, and I think he’ll deliver another scintillating performance in Chicago come late September. But first, Kyrgios has to play that pesky warmup event known as the U.S. Open.

This tournament, with its hard courts and electric atmosphere, would seem to suit Kyrgios’s style and personality. But Kyrgios has struggled in the past at Flushing Meadows, both with injury and mentality. Last year, he lost to fellow Aussie John Millman in the first round. He’s yet to reach the fourth round of this tournament. Getting there might be a stretch this year: If he wins his first two matches, he’d likely play Roger Federer in the third round. He should beat Albot, but I’ve realized that predicting a match involving Nick Kyrgios is never a good idea.

8.  Andrea Petkovic vs. Jelena Ostapenko (Tuesday)

This should be fun. Andrea Petkovic will take a break from her duties as the SI Tennis guest mailbag writer on Monday when she faces Jelena Ostapenko. Petkovic put together a nice run in Washington, beating Sloane Stephens and Belinda Bencic on her way to the semifinal; meanwhile, Ostapenko hasn’t won a singles match since Wimbledon, where she made the semis. The 2017 French Open champion, seeded No. 10 at the U.S. Open, has yet to reach the fourth round at a hard-court major, while Petkovic hasn’t made the fourth round in Flushing Meadows since a quarterfinal appearance in 2011.

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Petkovic’s entire mailbag is worth a read—she might be the most interesting person in tennis. But here are a few select quotes that I feel compelled to reshare:

On grunting: “In my darkest moment I think it's Satan who is hiding in the depths of my souls and only comes out when I need him the least. What can I say, we all have burdens and sins we carry.”

On how art and literature help her tennis game: “I think the most dangerous part about traveling the world in a secluded microcosm is forgetting that other worlds exist out there. We tend to only see ourselves and only our little society of tennis players where nothing else matters but points, wins and confidence.”

On friendships with ATP players: “I'll gladly go through Instagram every day of my life with Sascha Zverev, trying to find him a girlfriend. I'm just kidding, he's perfectly capable to do that alone.”

Read Petkovic’s writing, and then watch her play. If she grunts a lot against Ostapenko, blame Satan.

7. Rafael Nadal vs. David Ferrer (Monday)

David Ferrer, playing in his last Grand Slam, draws…Rafael Nadal. The two Spaniards have only met once at the U.S. Open: the fourth round in ’07, when Ferrer upset Nadal in four sets.

I’m not sure if Nadal really needs to exact revenge on his compatriot 11 years later, but he’ll have a great opportunity on Monday. Ferrer is out of the top 100, down to No. 148 in the rankings. He’s below .500 for the year. It hasn’t been pretty. But spare a moment for “The Little Beast,” who grinded his way to world No. 3 and surpassed $30 million in career prize money. Not bad for a 5’9” guy playing in an era of giants. Obviously, he’ll forever be in the shadow of the golden generation—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray—but as he prepares for his last major, let’s take a moment to admire his incredible career. So even though Nadal will likely dispatch Ferrer with ease, I hope Ashe will give him the reception he deserves. 

A brief addendum: Let’s revisit Ferrer’s reaction to learning his English nickname in 2012. It was perfectly David Ferrer: “Yes, you can write little beast if you want to, but my name is David Ferrer.” How can you not like this guy?

5. Caroline Garcia vs. Johanna Konta (Tuesday)        

Konta’s ranking has plunged from No. 9 at the end of last year to No. 46, a slight improvement from her 2018 low of No. 50 post-Wimbledon. She’s been in poor form all year, and she drew a tough matchup in No. 6 seed Caroline Garcia, who’s establishing herself as a resident top 10 player. And yet…Konta has looked a bit better in recent weeks, picking up wins over Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Ostapenko. She holds a 3-2 lifetime advantage over Garcia, including the quarterfinals at Wimbledon 2017. Konta hasn’t had her best season, but pay attention to this one. 

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5. Frances Tiafoe vs. Adrian Mannarino (Tuesday)

Tiafoe has yet to win a match at the U.S. Open, losing in the first round each of the last three years. But he also hasn’t had much luck in the draw: Tiafoe fell to No. 22 seed Victor Troicki in 2015, No. 20 John Isner in ’16 and No. 3 Federer last year, with the latter two matches turning into five-set thrillers.

This year, Tiafoe, now 42nd in the world rnakings, drew No. 29 seed Adrian Mannarino—not an easy matchup necessarily, but certainly Tiafoe’s most favorable draw yet. Tiafoe announced his arrival last year against Federer, albeit with a loss. If he strings together a few victories, he’ll become a sensation.

4. Serena Williams vs. Magda Linette (Monday)

Serena’s first U.S. Open appearance in two years? Arthur Ashe Stadium will be electric. I don’t expect much drama on the court, but this match will be must-watch. Is it too late for Serena to wear the catsuit?

3. Denis Shapovalov vs. Felix Auger Aliassime

I’m not sure if Canada can handle this much internal tension. Sure, Shapomania has cooled down somewhat this summer, but the two friends (and junior doubles partners) are among the brightest young stars in tennis. Auger Aliassime , 18, didn’t drop a set during qualifying, while Shapovalov reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open last year.

Both players are electrifying, and they’re only getting better. It’s unfortunate that only one will emerge from the first round, but this is only Act I of Shapo vs. Felix. We’ll be hearing a lot more from them in the future.

2. Svetlana Kuznetsova vs. Venus Williams (Monday)

Already blocked out your Friday night for Serena vs. Venus? Some bad news: Svetlana Kuznetsova doesn’t care about your Friday night. (Also, you should be watching tennis on Friday night no matter who’s playing.) The ’04 U.S. Open champion dropped just one set on her way to winning the Citi Open earlier this month, and while she hasn’t reached the third round in Flushing Meadows since 2013, the wild card entrant is in very good form. With a 5-5 career record against Venus Williams, Kuznetsova has a real shot to pull off an upset and deny us a 30th (!) Serena–Venus meeting.

1. Stanislas Wawrinka vs. Grigor Dimitrov (Monday)

This match is more than just two beautiful one-handed backhands. It’s a rematch of the Wimbledon first round, when Grigor drew Stan, a wild card, in the first round and lost in four sets. It’s an opportunity for redemption, not just for Grigor after his All-England Club defeat, but for both players after a few challenging months.

Dimitrov, the tournament’s No. 8 seed, looked a strong candidate to win his first major this season after a strong finish to 2017, capped by his ATP Finals crown. He reached the quarters of the Australian Open, but he has yet to win a title this season after winning five tournaments last year. His ranking is falling and he’s struggling with his serve. Can we still call him Baby Fed if he’s not a baby anymore and he doesn’t really resemble Fed?

Dimitrov could learn a thing or two from Wawrinka, who managed to find success later in his career. Wawrinka, 33, has struggled to find his form after injuries kept him out of last year’s fall season, including the U.S. Open. But he seems to be gaining some momentum, putting up a good fight against Rafael Nadal in Toronto after beating Nick Kyrgios and nearly knocking off Roger Federer in Cincinnati.

Both Dimitrov and Wawrinka would have preferred to start with another opponent. But hey, it’s fun for the rest of us.

A few other matches to watch: Caroline Wozniacki–Sam Stosur, Kevin Anderson–Ryan Harrison, Taylor Fritz–Mischa Zverev

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