July 15, 2024

When Carlos Met Novak

If you can believe it, it's barely been two years since the first time we had the pleasure of watching Carlos Alcaraz take on Novak Djokovic on the tennis court.

The stage was the 2022 Madrid Masters semifinals -- Alcaraz had literally just turned 19, but you could already see glimpses of the star he would quickly become.

While the year before he was still playing qualifiers at the Majors, he capped that season off with a win at the Next Gen Finals and a few months later captured his first ATP 1000 title, beating Stefanos Tsitsipas, Hubert Hurkacz and Casper Ruud for the crown in Miami. After racing to his fourth career title in Barcelona, he came to Madrid ranked #9 in the world and stunned five-time champion and heretofore undisputed King of Clay Rafael Nadal in the quarters. It was the young Spaniard's first -- and so far only -- win over his compatriot in three tries.

Djokovic, meanwhile, was already well-established as a contender -- and would soon become the leader -- in the GOAT debate. He'd already won twenty Major titles -- just one less than Nadal, who'd climbed back into the lead with the unlikeliest #21 in Melbourne that January. He'd swept the first three the year before, falling just one match short of what would have been the elusive Calendar Year Slam -- something that hadn't happened since 1969. He'd been ranked #1 in the world for 328 weeks and had won 86 singles trophies so far in his career. And at 35 years of age, he showed no signs of stopping.

But somehow, Alcaraz was able to prove his foil. In a three-and-a-half-plus hour match with two tiebreaks and just three breaks of serve total, the teenager pulled out the win and go on to claim the title. Later that year he would earn his first Major at the U.S. Open and climb to the #1 spot himself.

Since that inaugural meeting, the careers of the two men have been remarkably similar. Alcaraz has picked up eleven more titles, Djokovic twelve. They've won all but two of the ten Majors that have been contested -- four apiece. Together they've spent 80 weeks at #1. And appropriately, they've split the six meetings they've had so far.

Was the Madrid semifinal the start of the next great rivalry in tennis? Probably not -- with 16 years of age separating Alcaraz and Djokovic, one has to think the number of times we'll see them square off again are limited. But it might have signaled a passing of the torch.

After all, I'm not sure anyone expected yesterday's Wimbledon final to result in the drubbing it did.

Sure, Djokovic was just a month removed from a knee surgery that I so wrongly assumed would keep him out of the All England Club altogether. Sure, it had been eight months since he last won a title -- marking the first time since 2006 he'd gone this far into a season without scoring a trophy. Sure, his first two opponents in London were ranked outside the top 120 and he benefitted from a walkover by Alex de Minaur in the quarters, so his road to the final was less than fraught with obstacles.

But he had trounced former world #4 Holger Rune in the fourth round and in the semis drubbed Lorenzo Musetti, who'd taken two sets off him in each of their previous two Grand Slam meetings. And with Major #25 and Wimbledon #8 in his sights, you'd expect to see him fight like he always does.

As it turned out, though, another marathon nail-biter was not in the cards.

Alcaraz broke his opponent right off the bat and run off to a 5-1 lead in the first set. He was similarly strong to start the second and quickly built a two-set lead. But we know better than to ever count out Djokovic, who's come back from two sets down eight times at Slams, by my count. And when he saved three championship points late in the third set to score his first break of Alcaraz's serve, it seemed like he might be able to pull off the impossible again.

But Carlos proved to be ever resilient, and after just two-and-a-half, he was the one lofting the Wimbledon trophy this year.

Sunday's victory gives Alcaraz a slew of new superlatives. He's now 4-0 in his first four Major finals -- of the Big Four, only Roger Federer has done that. After the French Open he became the youngest (male) player ever to win a Slam on all three surfaces, and now he's the youngest to win at both Roland Garros and the All England Club in the same year. If he can manage a victory in Australia, he'd have achieved the career Grand Slam before he turns 22.*

So it certainly seems like we've entered a new era of tennis greatness, with a new set of rivalries sure to emerge. It's still early in Alcaraz's career, of course, but he sure seems like he's going to be a force in this sport for some time. Will he, in ten, fifteen years' time, be rivaling Djokovic for the GOAT crown, Nadal for clay supremacy?

Who knows.

But for now, it's nice to know we were there when it all started.
* Serena Williams, of course, did win the French and Wimbledon in 2002, a few months before she turned 21, and completed the Serena Slam the following January in Australia a few months after that birthday.

September 12, 2021

History, Rewritten

I'm sure most people thought they'd be writing hugely different articles today.

After all, the only thing anyone was talking about going into this year's U.S. Open was the chance Novak Djokovic had at making all kinds of history. The possibility of capturing the ever-so-rare Grand Slam. Perhaps the even more impressive opportunity of scoring a never-been-done-before 21st Major title. The chance of cementing himself as the unequivocal #GOAT 🐐 in the sport, with plenty of time left to just add to his accomplishments. And as almost every promo airing on ESPN liked to remind you, he got one match away.

But, as we know, that history was not to be, and an entirely different story will go down in the record books.

Daniil Medvedev became the newest inductee into the Major championship club, stunning the world #1 in tonight's final in straight sets. There was almost never any question he was in control of the match, breaking in the very first game and pulling ahead two sets and two breaks to establish what would turn out to be an insurmountable lead. Even when he double faulted away championship point and was broken for the first time, trying to serve out the match, he was able to regroup and ultimately seal in the victory.

Of course we shouldn't be surprised that Medvedev was able to win a Major -- he came OHSOCLOSE to doing it two years ago on this stage against Rafael Nadal, and with a win in Toronto this year and titles in Paris and London to close out last season, he's certainly established himself as one of the best hardcourt players on tour.

But with his win today, he achieved something bigger. Medvedev became the first Next Gen player to beat one of the Big Three en route to the title -- remember Dominic Thiem got away without facing any of them last year in New York. And that could signal a real passing of the torch is underway, with the Russian taking up the mantle of leader of the pack -- a group he could lead for a long time.

So is it all over for Djokovic? Of course not -- he's still the #1 player in the world and playing at the top of his game. While he'll end the year tied with Rafa and Roger at 20 Majors apiece, the next slate of Grand Slams is just around the corner, and given his dominance in Melbourne, he could very well add #21 to his roster in a matter of months.

Going after the full Grand Slam again, that may be a little tougher, and for now Rod Laver's legacy remains intact. Come January 1, everyone starts at square one in their pursuit of that honor, and there's no reason to believe Djokovic won't give it another whirl.

But now, he's going to have at least one more player nipping at his heels and trying to put his own stamp on history.

Stealing the Spotlight

Someone wrote before yesterday's women's final that it was going to be hard for the ladies to stir up a lot of drama and excitement at the U.S. Open when there was so much history on the line for the men. But, boy, did these two rise up to the challenge, huh?

There were so many firsts accomplished by Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez during their runs this year -- the youngest final since 1999, the first qualifier ever to reach a Major championship match, much less win it, just to name a few. But the achievements aren't just in the superlatives -- for two weeks, more for Raducanu, actually, these two demonstrated some of the best tennis has to offer, and their rise to the spotlight was more than well deserved.

Now, I often spend the first week of a Slam writing about the young standouts or the big upsets, assuming that I'll have a chance to cover the favorites later. But that would not be the case this year, at least not on the women's side.

I'll start with the incredible run from Fernandez, who you know I've had my eye on for a while. From one Major to the next, I'd been waiting for her to break through, and had been a little disappointed that it hadn't happened yet. She sure changed that in New York though -- she quickly dispatched a tough Ana Konjuh in her opener and then took out Melbourne Cinderella in straight sets.

And that's when things started to get really interesting. In the third round against defending champion Naomi Osaka -- a woman who was riding a 17-match win streak at the Majors -- the world #73 came back from a set and a break down to notch her first top ten win of the season and by far the biggest win of her career -- at least until that point. She went on to defeat former world #1 and three-time Slam winner Angelique Kerber, Olympic bronze medalist Elina Svitolina, and hard-hitting second-ranked Aryna Sabalenka, each in three sets, spending nearly 13 hours on court to make the final. It's one of the most illustrious lists of victims we've seen in a long time -- certainly from so unexpected a source.

Raducanu, meanwhile, had a much easier run to the final, at least on paper. Originally slated to meet Australian Open runner-up Jen Brady in the first round, she got a bit of a pass when the American withdrew due to injury. Her fourth round opponent, Shelby Rogers, was coming off a monster defeat of top seed Ash Barty, and her semifinal rival, an in-form Maria Sakkari, had pulled off huge wins over two-time Major winner Petra Kvitova, 2019 U.S. Open champ Bianca Andreescu, and Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova.

Still, that shouldn't diminish her accomplishment. After her breakout at Wimbledon ended so abruptly, she regrouped and recharged, making the final in Chicago last month and battling through qualifying rounds here. And the fact that, in only her second ever Major appearance, she made it through ten matches without losing a set shows she's got power and consistency far beyond her years -- and certainly that she's more mentally tough than any detractor might think.

So after all that, we were left crowning the youngest Major champion in more than 17 years, but also having gotten a glimpse of what should be a bright future for women's tennis. It doesn't feel like Raducanu is going anywhere for a while, and Fernandez, while she may be disappointed that she wasn't able to walk away with the "right" trophy, certainly has a lot to be proud of for what she did this fortnight. Will their success here lay the foundation for a years-long rivalry to come? Well, we'll certainly see.

But it sure feels like we've entered a new era -- and one that could be filled with a whole new level of greatness.

September 4, 2021

The Day That Shook the Earth

There have, as always, been a lot of surprises at this year's U.S. Open. From veteran Peter Gojowczyk making the first Major fourth round of his career after a decade of attempts to young Emma Radancu conceivably reaching her second Slam second week in as many showings, there has been no shortage of shake-ups in either draw.

But perhaps no day has had as far reaching impact as yesterday, when some of the biggest contenders to not just go far, but to possibly win the title, were absolutely stunned on the biggest of courts.

Carlos Alcaraz d. Stefanos Tsitsipas (3): 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(2), 0-6, 7-6(5)

It started in the early afternoon when 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz faced off against third seed and French Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas. The young Spaniard has been on the radar for a while, winning his first tour title in Umag earlier this summer before reaching the semis in Winston-Salem. But in his previous three meetings against top-ten players, he had yet to win even a set.

Tsitsipas, meanwhile, found himself in a weird position. Suddenly cast as the villain of these games (but perhaps for the wrong reasons), he has kind of struggled since that Roland Garros loss. He was, of course, stunned in the first round at Wimbledon, and though he made the semis in both Toronto and Cincinnati, he needed five sets to get past Andy Murray in the first round here, and even dropped a set to Adrian Mannarino in the second.

Against Alcaraz, he found himself in a hole early. The world #55 got a set and two break lead on the heavy favorite before Tsitsipas started to fight back. He even dealt out a bagel in the fourth, something I didn't think someone so inexperienced would have been able to rally back from. But rally back he did -- in a decider with no breaks of serve, Alcaraz kept his cool and prevailed in the nearly four hour match, by far the biggest of his career.

Tsitsipas's elimination certainly opens up the bottom half of the draw, but it also gives a real opportunity to the young upstart. Alcaraz will next face Peter Gojowczyk, who as mentioned is also breaking new ground at the U.S. Open. The German has already spent some eight hours on court, so he's certainly not at his freshest. And if Alcaraz can manage the win to make the quarters, there's no telling what more he can do.

Frances Tiafoe d. Andrey Rublev (5): 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(6), 4-6, 6-1

The drama in the men's draw didn't stop there, of course. In the late-night match on Ashe last night -- literally, this one didn't end until 2am -- Frances Tiafoe, he of the aforementioned stunning of Tsitsipas at Wimbledon, looked for his second straight Major top-ten win against Russia's Andrey Rublev. The gritty American has been working hard this summer, taking out Denis Shapovalov as a lucky loser in Toronto and making the quarters in Winston-Salem.

Rublev's had his share of successes too -- a quarterfinalist here last year, he stunned world #2 Daniil Medvedev on his way to a runner-up finish in Cincy, the second Masters final of his career. And as the fifth seed in New York, he was expected to go far.

But Tiafoe had different plans. Though the two had never met on the ATP Tour, the 23-year-old underdog had scored a big win over the then-#1 seed in the 2014 U.S. Open Boys' quarterfinals. And though this match would take a little longer -- another 3:45 to be exact -- it would ultimately end with the same result. Big Foe dropped the first set, but fought back to take the next two and held tough in the decider to notch his third top-ten win of the year and to get to the second week for the second straight time.

Things won't get much easier from here though -- next up is another young upstart, twelfth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime. But though the 21-year-old Canadian has scored wins over Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev this year, he is notoriously inconsistent and eminently beatable. If Tiafoe can pull it off, he's got a little more room to run -- Tsitsipas, of course, has already been eliminated, and while second seeded Medvedev certainly looms large, we've already learned that truly anything can happen here.

Leylah Fernandes d. Naomi Osaka (2): 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4

But perhaps the biggest wow moment from Friday came in the first night session match on Ashe. Defending champion Naomi Osaka was taking on Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez in her third round match and was looking to rebound from a summer that brought her more headlines off the court than on it. Since withdrawing from the French Open, she was stunned at her homeland Olympics and upset by a feisty Jil Teichmann in Cincy. Though she got a pass in her second round in New York when Olga Danilovic pulled out, she was looking in form to make a play for another title.

But she would be stopped in spectacular fashion by the world #72. It's not that we shouldn't have expected big things from Fernandez -- she was, after all, one of my players to watch, beating Belinda Bencic at Fed Cup in 2020 and capturing her first title this year in Monterrey. But she'd been frustratingly underwhelming at the Majors, winning just one match this year against a lower ranked opponent.

That was, of course, before the U.S. Open. She opened with an impressive win over dangerous qualifier Ana Konjuh and then took out Melbourne Cinderella Kaia Kanepi in straight sets. She dropped her first set to Osaka on Friday night, but as the former world #1 -- who'd won her last sixteen Slam matches -- was serving for a win in the second, Fernandez was able to break for the first time and barely looked back since.

The win earns Fernandez a fourth round date with another former champion, Angelique Kerber, who's been having a strong summer of tennis herself. It'll certainly be a challenge for the 18-year-old to pull off two straight wins against such high caliber opponents. But it wouldn't be the first time such a young talent took a tournament by storm. And why shouldn't we see it happen again?

Of course, there are plenty of top tier stars still out there fighting for the titles here -- top seeds Novak Djokovic and Ashleigh Barty have been so far pretty dominant in their wins. And it's not like these results came completely out of the blue -- all these victors had demonstrated their talents well before these big wins.

Still, the world looks a lot different than it did just 24 hours ago -- some of the favorites may be breathing a little easier as they see their draws open up, while a bunch of underdogs could start to believe they have a shot at pulling off their own monster upsets.

And as we get close to kicking off Week Two at the Open, we certainly have seen that anything is possible.

August 29, 2021

U.S. Open 2021 Preview: Round by Round

Well, guys, we've made it. The last Grand Slam of the year. And there is so much at stake in it.

From a shot at making history, to opportunities for redemption, to the inevitable chance for a real breakthrough, it feels like anything is possible at the U.S. Open this year.

The men's draw, of course, has had huge holes poked in it -- with the withdrawal of not just the defending champ, but of two more repeat titleists, you might think the door is wide open for Novak Djokovic, who'd been so unstoppable for the first half of the year. But plenty others are ready to derail his dreams.

Meanwhile the reigning ladies' champ, who's endured an inordinate amount of attention recently off the court, is still looking to get her feet back under her on them. So is former world #1 Simona Halep, whose injury-addled season has pushed her out of the top ten for the first time since 2014. And, of course, Serena Williams left another big hole in this draw as well. All that could be a big boon for Ash Barty, who's had her own Djokovic-like dominance this year.

But, of course, nothing can be taken for granted. And the way things are going this year, it's perfectly reasonable to expect some big surprises right from the start. And while some of these potential match ups may be a little less than likely, there's certainly a chance that things could work out to make them a reality. And if that happens, we should expect more than a few fireworks.



First Round

Bianca Andreescu (6) vs. Viktorija Golubic: I'm frankly surprised to see the young Canadian is still ranked so high, but that's the beauty, I suppose, of these shutdown-protected rankings. In any case, Andreescu returns to New York for the first time since her 2019 triumph, but she's a much different player than she was then. Sidelined by injury all of last year, she seemed to be getting her sealegs back in Miami, but has only won four matches since. Golubic, meanwhile, was runner-up at two hardcourt events in early spring and made her maiden Grand Slam quarterfinals after beating Danielle Collins and Madison Keys at Wimbledon. At #45 in the world, she's currently at her highest career ranking, and if the former U.S. Open champ is still on rocky ground, the Swiss Miss might be able to score the upset.

Simona Halep (12) vs. Camila Giorgi: It's still so hard to believe that Halep has fallen out of the top ten, but whatever her seed, this is an unlucky first round draw. Giorgi, of course, is coming off her biggest title to date, having beaten six higher ranked players -- including Karolina Pliskova, Petra Kvitova and Coco Gauff -- in Montreal. She actually would have been seeded here if she'd been able to repeat a win over Jessica Pegula in Cincincatti, but as it stands she gets to play the former #1 right off the bat. But Halep is beatable -- having pulled out of the French Open and Wimbledon with injury, she won just one match at the two events she's entered since. If she's still struggling, there's every reason to believe the Italian might be able to get her momentum back in a big way.

Jennifer Brady (13) vs. Emma Raducanu (Q): It feels like a long time ago, but remember this is the Slam where Brady had her first big breakthrough last year. Shortly on the heels of her maiden career title in Lexington, the then-world #41 took out Angelique Kerber on her way to the semis, where she even took a set off eventual champion Naomi Osaka. She had even more success a few months later in Australia, where she earned her first Major final. She's been a little quiet since then -- hampered by injury, she lost her next three matches, skipped Wimbledon and withdrew at three of her last four events. Young Raducanu, meanwhile, has brushed off idiotic criticisms and has only seen her star rise in recent weeks. The surprise fourth-rounder at the All England Club, she is coming off a runner-up finish at the Chicago 125 event and three straight qualifying round wins. Does she have another big win in her? Well, this seems like a pretty good opportunity to try.

Coco Gauff (21) vs. Magda Linette: Early last month I wondered if Coco would win a Major before she turns twenty, which is still three years away, but she certainly seems hungry to make a move towards that goal ASAP. But Linette could certainly throw a wrench into that whole situation. The 29-year-old Pole, who got a huge pass when Ashleigh Barty retired from their second round match at Roland Garros, proved she wasn't just skating by when she beat Elina Svitolina at Wimbledon. She's been a little up-and-down on that hardcourts, but she did notch a nice win over top Cleveland seed Daria Kasatkina on her way to the semis this past week. It'll be interesting to see how she performs against someone who's sure to be the crowd favorite, but Gauff can't consider this opener a walk in the park.

Karolina Muchova (22) vs. Sara Sorribes Tormo: Muchova quietly made her way to at least the quarters at two Majors this year, and that says a lot about her consistency on the big stage. But Sorribes has had some huge wins on the hardcourts, stunning top-ranked Ash Barty -- who was coming off that Wimbledon crown -- at the Olympics and putting up quite a fight in the Miami quarters. She's also fresh off a semifinal run in Cleveland. The Spaniard actually won the pair's only previous meeting, beating Muchova in the final of an ITF event in 2016, and she could cause some fireworks here, too.

Anett Kontaveit (28) vs. Sam Stosur: Kontaveit has made a habit this year of doing well at events directly before Majors. She reached the final in the Grampians draw, which never got played because it ran up against the Australian Open, and she finished runner-up in Eastbourne days before Wimbledon. In the first instance, she followed up with a third round showing in Melbourne; in the second, she lost her very next match -- and three more after that. But she regrouped this past week in Cleveland, where she took out a solid Sara Sorribes Tormo before beating Irina-Camelia Begu in the final for her second career title. Will that give her the confidence she needs against Stosur, whose crazy win here incredibly came ten years ago, or will she be too spent from the effort? Hopefully for her sake it's the former.

Madison Keys vs. Sloane Stephens: It's a little weird that neither of these ladies is seeded here, especially given that both have had decent successes on the season. Stephens got to the fourth round at Roland Garros with wins over Karolina Pliskova and Karolina Muchova, while Keys started the year with a final in Brisbane and made it to the final sixteen in Wimbledon too. She lost early in her attempt to recapture the crown in Cincy, though, which pushed her down the rankings, and Sloane, too, has been a little lacking on hardcourts. Still it's a shame to see this rematch of the 2017 final in New York -- which, you'll remember, Stephens won -- so early in the draw this year, so hopefully whoever emerges the victor will be able to prove she's deserving of much more.

Second Round

Garbiñe Muguruza (9) vs. Andrea Petkovic: The two-time Grand Slam champion came out the gates swinging this year, but has really quieted down in recent weeks. She was upset at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon and lost her rematch of the Dubai final against Barbora Krejcikova in Cincy. Petko, on the other hand, though well off her career best ranking, did make the final in Hamburg and picked up her first title in six years in Cluj-Napoca. Yes, those victories came on clay, but there's something to be said for getting a burst of confidence. The German has also won all three of their previous matches -- albeit the most recent one was five years ago -- but if they meet up again, history could be on her side.

Maria Sakkari (17) vs. Katerina Siniakova: Sakkari is having a solid year, making her first Major semi in Paris, missing the final by just a hair, and stunning Naomi Osaka back in Miami. She may have lost early in her more recent events, but it was always too power players -- Elina Svitolina at the Olympics, Victoria Azarenka in Montreal, Angelique Kerber in an inexplicably unseeded first round in Cincinnati. Still her potential second round opponent, ranked fourth in the world in doubles, has been causing quite a storm herself on the singles scene. Siniakova got the win of her career over Serena Williams in Parma and then went on to the final in Bad Homburg and to upset Garbiñe Muguruza in Montreal. And after an upset of Shelby Rogers this past week in Cleveland, she pushed second seed and eventual champion Anett Kontaveit to three sets in the quarters. If she's anything like her doubles partner, she could ride success one week straight into a big showing this one.

Jelena Ostapenko (27) vs. Liudmila Samsonova: The one-time French Open champion has made her way back to her highest ranking in more than two years, but a lot of those gains came on what was a very strong grass court season. Samsonova, meanwhile, the surprise Berlin titleist, also had her biggest successes on the lawn, but did get a solid win over summer standout Elena Rybakina in Montreal, so she might be a little more primed for this surface. Of course, there's no guarantee this match will happen -- Ostapenko opens against an always-tough Nadia Podoroska -- but if they make it, it could be a great opportunity for the winner.

Yulia Putintseva (31) vs. Ana Konjuh (Q): These two have met a couple times already this year, with the qualifier notching the win on her way to the final in Belgrade, and the seeded Putintseva getting revenge in Budapest, where she picked up her second career title last month. Both those matches were on clay, though, and Konjuh -- though she's still ranked well below her career best -- arguably kicked her comeback into high gear on hardcourts like these. Will that give her an advantage this time? Well I'd certainly like to see her hard work through prelim rounds rewarded with something other than an early exit in the main draw. And if she can get past a tough Leylah Fernandez in her opener, she could have a pretty good shot.

Third Round

Karolina Pliskova (4) vs. Alja Tomljanovic: Not long ago, I wasn't giving Pliskova a lot of attention an the Majors, but she really got everyone back on board with a gutsy performance in the Wimbledon final. And, to her continued credit, she backed up that showing with a runner-up finish in Montreal and semi slot in Cincinnati. Those campaigns brought her back to the top five and made her one to watch in New York, the site of her first Slam final. Tomljanovic, meanwhile, also had a breakthrough at the All-England Club, and while her run ended in the quarters, it'll be fun to see what she can do at her first Major since then, and if she can set up this showdown, it could be fun to watch.

Elina Svitolina (5) vs. Marketa Vondrousova: I've said this before, and I'll say it again -- I'm really, really hoping to see the new Mrs. Monfils have her breakthrough at a Major soon. She's come close, reaching the semis here and at Wimbledon in 2019, but recently, and especially when the field seems to open up for her, she can post some surprising losses, too. That certainly seemed to happen at the Olympics last month, when all three seeds above her were eliminated by the quarters, and yet she still lost in the semis to, you guessed it, Marketa Vondrousova. The one-time French Open finalist's attendance at the Tokyo Games was already controversial, but her win over Svitolina -- after already having stunned Naomi Osaka in the third round -- not only helped her to the silver medal, but showed she still means business. Could the fifth seed avenge that loss in New York? Well, she's coming off a title in Chicago, her first of the season, so momentum could be on her side, and hopefully she can keep it going toward the big prize.

Fourth Round

Aryna Sabalenka (2) vs. Ons Jabeur (20): For so long we'd been noting that Sabalenka -- suddenly ranked #2 in the world -- was probably the best player out there who hadn't made it past the fourth round of a Major. Well, she broke that seal at Wimbledon, finally making a semifinal. Was that a fluke, or can she do it again? Well Jabeur, who's quickly becoming one of the fan favorites in the women's sport, will certainly have something to say about that. The 26-year-old Tunisian barrier-crusher, who lost to Sabalenka in the quarters in London, has continued her strong season with a win over hometown favorite Bianca Andreescu in Montreal and a second straight victory over Iga Swiatek in Cincinnati. She does have a win over the on-paper favorite, having gotten the best of her less than a year ago at a delayed Roland Garros, and if they meet again, you can bet it's going to be a battle.

Naomi Osaka (3) vs. Coco Gauff (21): These two have only met three times on court, but it sure feels like it's been a lot more than that, and it has certainly been only on the biggest stages -- twice at Majors and once just a week ago in Cincinnati. Osaka leads the head-to-head, but it's always been close. And with so much attention on these two -- for different, but similar reasons -- you know the pressure will be high if they meet. The defending champion, Osaka has been front-and-center in the headlines for reasons she surely doesn't want, and perhaps it's been weighing on her match performance -- after a 21-match win streak that spanned seasons, we haven't seen her make even a quarterfinal since March. Gauff, meanwhile, has been pretty consistent, making her first Major quarterfinal on a surface you wouldn't expect. And considering how these two have traded off wins, if she makes it through early challenges, she could present a threat to Osaka here.

Barbora Krejcikova (8) vs. Victoria Azarenka (18): I'm sure you all remember Vika's comeback run here last year -- after a kind of asterisked title at Cincinatti-cum-New York, she stunned Aryna Sabalenka, Elise Mertens, and, most impressively, Serena Williams, on her way to the final, and even took the first set off Naomi Osaka 6-1 in the championship match. She's struggled a bit with injuries this year, but she has nevertheless notched victories over Elina Svitolina, Maria Sakkari and Angelique Kerber. Krejcikova, meanwhile, the super-surprise winner at Roland Garros a few months ago, has more than shown that run was no accident, winning another title on the hardcourts in Prague and cracking the top 10 for the first time in the singles rankings. She lost the only time she played Azarenka solo, but something tells me if they meet again things may look different this time around.

Belinda Bencic (11) vs. Jil Teichmann: Like with Pliskova above, it wasn't long ago that I wouldn't have paid Bencic much mind, but after her Olympic gold medal all that changed. She did, after all beat both of the French Open finalists, as well as Jessica Pegula and Elena Rybakina. And she made her way to the quarters in Cincy too, which is very promising. But you know who she lost to there? Yup -- Jil Teichmann, who also picked off Naomi Osaka and Karolina Pliskova on her way to the biggest final of her career so far. Will we see the same results if they meet again? Well, Bencic could face a rematch against Jessica Pegula first -- and the American likes to avenge losses, and the unseeded Teichman, could face the likes of Cleveland champ Anett Kontaveitt or Iga Swiatek. But a rematch sure would be fun to see.

Elena Rybakina (19) vs. Tsvetana Pironkova: It's been a weird 18 months for Elena Rybakina. At the start of 2020, she was one of the most consistent players on tour, not only entering one event after another, but making it to the final one week to the next. She struggled with injury after the shutdown and seemed to be flaming out until having a breakthrough at Roland Garros, with a stunning win over Serena Williams in the fourth round. Since then, she beat Elina Svitolina in Eastbourne and took out Garbiñe Muguruza at the Olympics. She might be one of the most dangerous low seeds in the field. And Pironkova could be one of the most dangerous non-seeds out there -- last year's surprise quarterfinalist in New York, she beat Garbiñe Muguruza and took Serena to three sets in her first tournament since having a baby. She's been a little more quiet this season, but if she can get through early tests -- Daria Kasatkina is her opening round and Svitolina looms two matches later -- it could be fun to see them face off against each other.


Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Jessica Pegula (23): There's no denying that 27-year-old Pegula has had a strong year -- after a breakthrough run in Melbourne, where she beat two-time champion Victoria Azarenka and fifth seed Elina Svitolina, she made her way to the semis in Doha, the quarters in Rome, and the final four again in Montreal. How does that set her up for a potential battle against the world #1? Well, there are certainly worse ways to prepare. Of course, Pegula would likely have to get past big threats like Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic and last year's French Open champ Iga Swiatek first. And while she did lose her only previous match against Barty, that was two years ago when she was a much different player. If these two meet again, I feel like we could get a real battle.

Petra Kvitova (10) vs. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (14): Kvitova may not be at he very top of her game, but she has been one of the most consistently dangerous women on tour for years. The two-time Wimbledon champ has played some solid ball this year, with wins over Garbiñe Muguruza, Jessica Pegula, Ons Jabeur, and even a title in Doha. She's also blessed with a decent draw this year -- the top seed in her section is Bianca Andreescu, who I honestly don't think can make it too far in her title defense. Pavs, meanwhile, is coming off the summer of her career, kicked off with an impressive but unlikely run to the French Open final and which includes a quarterfinal showing at the Olympics. She's got a few more challenges in her way -- Paula Badosa looms in the third round and a recently surging Karolina Pliskova could wait in the fourth -- but she's pulled off major upsets already this year. What's a few more?


Iga Swiatek (7) vs. Paula Badosa (24): There was a moment this spring when I really, honestly thought that Badosa was going to win Roland Garros. She might not have gotten it done this year, but I do believe a Major is coming her way in the not too distant future. And she's done a lot to prove that it doesn't have to be the French -- she made the fourth round at Wimbledon, the quarters in Cincy, where she beat Aryna Sabalenka in the second round, and took out last year's breakout champion on her way to the Olympic quarterfinals too. Swiatek, though, has two titles herself this year and is doing a lot to prove she's no flash in the pan. Still, she's got a pretty tough section of the draw, with Jessica Pegula, Cleveland champ Anett Kontaveit, Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic, and -- no big deal -- world #1 Ashleigh Barty to contend with. Badosa has a rough road too, in the same quarter as Karolina Pliskova and others, but she, frankly, has a bit of a better chance. Whatever the case, if these two meet in the semis, it could really be fun to watch.

Angelique Kerber (16) vs. Danielle Collins (26): It feels like a while, but it hasn't really been that long since Angelique Kerber won a Major -- it was only, technically, two Wimbledons ago. And she claimed the crown here just before that in 2016. But the 33-year-old German has remained a stalwart in the sport over that time -- while she may be off her career best, she still made the semis at the All England Club last month, and she put up a nice fight vying for the final in Cincy too. Collins, on the other hand, has really just been hitting her stride in recent weeks -- seeded at a Major for the first time, she's reached the semis in Australia and the quarters at the French before, but it wasn't until July that she won her first two titles, running a twelve match win streaked, capped by a defeat of Simona Halep. To make the semis here, she'd likely face Aryna Sabalenka or Barbora Krejcikova, while Kerber is in the same quarter as Naomi Osaka and Chicago champ Elina Svitolina. But they've both overcome challenges before, and might just be able to pull off deep runs here again.


Okay, we know the chances of the top seeds making it to the final are slim, whatever the draws are, but this time, the opportunities if they do are pretty cool. Let's start with the potential championship match everyone wants to see.

Ashleigh Barty (1) vs. Naomi Osaka (3): The potential showdown between the world #1, who has pretty convincingly proven why she's got that ranking, and the winner of the last two hardcourt Majors would be one for the ages. Fittingly, they've split their four previous matches, but they haven't met in nearly two years, and so much has changed since then. Osaka has really been the woman to beat at these big events, but Barty, maybe unlike her would-be final opponent, is clearly an all-court player. Plus she's running a hot streak, while Naomi has had a lot of unwanted attention recently. Hopefully, if they both make it this far, they'll be able to leave everything outside the sport off the court and make this one a real match.

Aryna Sabalenka (2) vs. Karolina Pliskova (4): I'm not sure how I feel about Sabalenka usurping the second seed from Osaka -- which means I'm not happy about it -- but given her strong clay court season and her breakthrough semi run at Wimbledon, I suppose she deserves it. Then again, she's only made it out of the fourth round of a Major once, so asking for her to do it twice in a row may be a lot. Still, if she can manage to make the final, it would be interesting to see her go up against the surprise Wimbledon finalist for the third time this year. Pliskova not only stunned the heavy favorite at the All England Club last month, but did it again in the Montreal semis a few weeks ago. Sabalenka did not look happy with either of those losses, and I wonder how she'd compose herself if she wound up playing for the title against the former #1 and 2016 runner-up. I don't see her taking well to a third loss in a row.


First Round

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Holger Rune (Q): There is a lot on the line for Novak Djokovic in New York, but before we start talking about his chances to win the title here, like everyone else, he's got to get through the first round. Sure, that's almost a given -- the last time Nole lost his opening match at a Major was in 2006, when he was 18 and ranked #76 in the world. But we know you can't take anything for granted these days, even if he's facing off against a qualifier who's playing in his first Major main draw. But the 18-year-old Rune is actually running quite a win streak -- he's coming off back-to-back Challengers titles in San Marino and Verona, both on clay, and three wins in the preliminary rounds. He's going to get quite the initiation to the big leagues here -- he's never even played anyone ranked in the top ten -- and no doubt all eye will be watching what this up-and-comer is made of. If he can put up a bit of a fight, or catch Djokovic off guard, this one could get interesting.

Daniil Medvedev (2) vs. Richard Gasquet: The second seed and former runner-up in New York has really solidified his standing as one of the best hardcourt players on tour, picking up his third title of the year and his fourth Masters crown earlier this month in Toronto. But the veteran Gasquet is a journeyman, with more match wins of any active player outside the Big Four. And he's not going away easily -- he picked up a win this past May over Diego Schwartzman in Lyon, made his 32nd career final in Umag, and this past week beat Dan Evans in straight sets in Winston-Salem. Does he have a shot against Medvedev? Maybe a very long one, but you know he won't go down without a fight.

Stefanos Tsitsipas (3) vs. Andy Murray: Speaking of veterans vs. upstarts... The 2012 champion here continues to be the sentimental favorite almost every time he steps on court and he always seems to give us a show. He's only played a handful of matches this year, though, so whether he'd be able to withstand multiple best-of-five contests is something of a question. So maybe it's a good thing we get to see such a high-stakes battle so early in the draw. Tsitsipas is coming off a roller coaster of a summer -- after that heart-breaking loss in the Roland Garros final, he was stunned in his opening round at Wimbledon. But he's been rebuilding nicely on the hardcourts, making the semis in both Toronto and Cincinnati. He's never faced Murray before, so it'll be interesting to see how he composes himself. And since every match could be the Brit's last, it's nice to know that this one has the potential to be really great.

Alex de Minaur (14) vs. Taylor Fritz: It's been a rough couple months for Fritz who, you might remember, kicked off 2021 by nearly knocking Novak Djokovic out of the Australian Open and then beat Denis Shapovalov and David Goffin on his way to the Doha semis. But then a knee injury sustained in Paris put a damper on his season. While he managed to make the third round at Wimbledon straight off his comeback -- as well as the semis in Los Cabos and Atlanta -- he's lost his last three first rounds and has fallen out of seeding territory. That could make him a dangerous floater, but de Minaur is not one to be ignored. He's won two titles already this year and is just a shade off his career high ranking. He did make the quarters here last year, so there's a lot at stake for the Australian. This one could be a good early test for either one.

John Isner (19) vs. Brandon Nakashima: Somehow I always forget that John Isner is actually a good hardcourt player -- he's made the final of five Masters events on the surface, even winning the title in Miami in 2018. This year he followed up a sixth title in Atlanta with wins over Andrey Rublev in Toronto and Jannik Sinner in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, young Nakashima has been having a pretty strong summer season as well -- he made back-to-back finals in Los Cabos, where he beat Isner in the semis, and Atlanta, where he obviously lost the title match. Still, the 20-year-old is grinding, and who's to say he won't be able to turn the tables back in his favor when they meet again?

Karen Khachanov (25) vs. Lloyd Harris: A couple years ago, I used to watch Karen Khachanov and think, "This guy's going to be a big threat." And he was, for a while, beating Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, and Novak Djokovic -- all in straight sets -- to win the Paris Masters title in 2018, reaching the quarters at Indian Wells and Roland Garros the year after, rising to #7 in the world. But he kind of hiccuped after the shut down and didn't score a lot of high profile wins through the first half of this year. That started to change at Wimbledon, though, when he survived a nearly four-hour match against Sebastian Korda to make the quarters and then very nearly notched a win over Denis Shapovalov too. His real success, though, came in Tokyo, where he beat Diego Schwartzman and Pablo Carreño Busta on his way to the silver medal. Harris, meanwhile, who shocked Thiem on his way to the Dubai final, scored an even bigger win over Rafael Nadal in Washington this month, so you know he can be a threat on these courts. He hasn't yet had a deep run at a Major, but maybe this is his chance to change that.

Cameron Norrie (26) vs. Carlos Alcaraz: Norrie has really established himself as an all-court player this year, reaching the finals at Estoril and Lyon on clay as well as at Queen's Club on grass before finally bringing home that first trophy on the hardcourts of Los Cabos. And he's scored some nice upsets on the way -- he's beaten the likes of Dominic Thiem, Denis Shapovalov, and Grigor Dimitrov to name a few. Meanwhile, young Alcaraz, fresh off a semi run in Winston-Salem, is slowly inching his way to the top fifty -- he might just get there before play start in New York. The 18-year-old became the youngest tour champion since 2008 when he took the title in Umag, and it's just a matter of time before those wins start coming on bigger stages. This will be his first U.S. Open, and it'll be interesting to see how he adapts, but he's already tasted some victory at the Majors, and so one more here is not out of the question.

Second Round

Pablo Carreño Busta (9) vs. Sebastian Korda: For all the attention we give Sebastian Korda, it's amazing to me that he isn't seeded at the Slams yet. But for all his successes, we haven't yet seen him get that really big win on the very biggest courts. Can that change now? Well, PCB is defending semifinal points at the Open, and with wins over Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev on his way to Olympic bronze, you know he's a threat on this surface. It's kind of a shame that these two would have to meet so early -- of course, that in and of itself is no sure think, as Korda opens against a barely unseeded Nikoloz Basilashvili -- but if they do, look for each to try setting the tone for something big.

Roberto Bautista Agut (18) vs. Emil Ruusuvuori: Along with Norway's Casper Ruud, young Ruusuvuori is playing a big part in putting Scandanavia on the tennis map, and while he may not have climbed quite as high as his regional mate, he has still notched some big wins this year. He stunned Alexander Zverev in the second round of Miami, made the semis in Atlanta with a win over Cameron Norrie, and this week in Winston-Salem picked up victories over Alexander Bublik, Richard Gasquet and a suddenly resurgent Benoit Paire. RBA, meanwhile, has been a little more quiet -- though he did manage a monster upset of Daniil Medvedev on his way to the Miami semis, he failed to defend semifinal points at Wimbledon and has been a bit spotty on the summer hardcourts, pushing him out of the top twenty for the first time in two years. Add to that a tough first round against Nick Kyrgios, if he makes it this far, it could be an opportunity ripe for an upset.

Ugo Humbert (23) vs. Benoit Paire: I guess there's something to be said for the rationale behind Benoit Paire's pretty bratty behavior on court since tennis fans were kept out of stadiums over the past year. After months of seeing little success -- he won exactly four matches between the lockdown and Wimbledon -- he finally seemed to be reinvigorated in Cincinnati, where the stands were again at full capacity. He got wins over John Isner and Denis Shapovalov there, and even took a set off Andrey Rublev in the quarters. So with crowds back in New York, will he be able to further revive his game? Well, the underrated Humbert, who took out Rublev and Alexander Zverev on his way to the Halle title and beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in Tokyo, will certainly have something to say about that. Still, it's a good opportunity for Paire to right his ship and prove all his bluster really meant anything.

Kei Nishikori vs. Mackenzie McDonald: Well this one could be interesting. A long-ago finalist in New York, Nishikori is well off the highs of his career, thanks to plaguing injuries that seem to knock him down every time he gets up. But in his third or fourth coming -- I've clearly lost track in the decade-plus he's been among the elite -- he's still putting up good numbers. He made the semis in Washington just the week after reaching the quarters at the Olympics, where the hometown crowd celebrated his first round upset of Andrey Rublev. McDonald, on the other hand, is trying to surpass his pevious career high ranking of #57 and if he keeps his solid hardcourt results coming -- he made the fourth round in Melbourne and the final in DC -- he could do it. Of course, he'll have to get past David Goffin to make this match happen, and whoever wins will likely face off against Novak Djokovic, but it'll be fun to see what either of them can do.

Third Round

Matteo Berrettini (6) vs. Ilya Ivashka: This was the site of Berrettini's first big breakthrough two years ago, remember, when he rocketed to the semifinals with wins over Richard Gasquet, Andrey Rublev, and a then-#13 Gael Monfils, and picked up a lot of fans -- one very vocal one -- in the process. I didn't give him a lot of credit at the time, but he sure has proven that run was no fluke with a runner-up finish last month at Wimbledon. He missed the Olympics with an injury, but got in a little match play in Cincy before making his return to the Big Apple. His form will be tested right off the bat though with an opening match against an always tricky Jeremy Chardy. Two rounds later he's slated to meet Fabio Fognini, but don't be surprised if we see an unseeded Ivashka make it through instead -- the 27-year-old Belarusian is actually just now at a career high ranking, having notched a huge upset over Alexander Zverev in Munich and this past week ousting top seed Pablo Carreño Busta on his way to the Winston-Salem title, the first of his career. The Italian did beat him at the All England Club, but he might be able to turn the tables if they face off again.

Casper Ruud (8) vs. Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (29): A couple weeks ago I gave a shoutout to some of the players who've been really excelling this summer, and I somehow completely forgot to mention Casper Ruud, the 22-year-old Norwegian who went on a three-title win streak after Wimbledon last month. And I feel bad about that, but it bears noting that those, and his two other trophies, have all come on clay, and he hasn't beating many players ranked in the top fifty to get any of them. That's not to say he's not a threat -- he has wins over Stefanos Tsitsipas and Diego Schwartzman this year, again both times on clay, and he is now just a whisper outside the top ten -- but he does have a less than 50% career win record on hardcourts. ADF, on the other hand, did make a nice run to the fourth round here last year before reaching the quarters at Roland Garros this spring. It's hard to bet against Ruud, but on this surface, this one could have the makings of an upset.

Jannik Sinner (13) vs. Gael Monfils (17): It's been a big year for the barely-not-a-teen Sinner -- after ending last season by claiming his maiden title in Sofia, he kicked off this one with a second at the Great Ocean Road Open in Melbourne. He made the final in Miami and took another trophy in Washington earlier this month. If he doesn't end the year in the top ten, I guarantee he'll be pretty close. Meanwhile the new Mr. Svitolina finally seems to have his feet back under him after a rough post-shutdown run. After a red-hot start to last season, he struggled with injury and form for months. But he finally won more than two matches in a row for the first time since Dubai last year in Toronto and did it again a week later in Cincinnati. Can he keep it up in a best-of-five situation? Well, I feel like I've seen more marathon matches featuring him than almost any other player -- almost -- so if he can manage through the early rounds, this one could be fun.

Fourth Round

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Jenson Brooksby (W): Okay, I know it's asking a lot for the young Brooksby to make it all the way to the fourth round of a Major when he's only won one main draw match here before, but hear me out. Back in 2019, when he was just 18 years old, he battled through qualifying rounds in New York, then stunned former world #4 Tomas Berdych in what turned out to be the one-time Wimbledon finalist's last pro match. Brooksby didn't play at all last year, but he's sure making up for lost time now -- after reaching the final in Newport, he stunned Felix Auger-Aliassime on his way to the DC semis. He's also won a handful of Challengers titles to boot. It certainly seems like he's getting primed for the big leagues, and he's got to make a major move sometime, so why not now? And he's gotta start putting in the work against the big guys eventually, so why not start with the #GOAT 🐐 contender? Sure there are more immediate roadblocks -- Alex de Minaur, Aslan Karatsev, for example, lurk in earlier matches -- but it might be time to start shooting for the stars.

Denis Shapovalov (7) vs. Reilly Opelka (22): Shapovalov first cracked the top ten after making the quarters here last year, and he fittingly got back in it with an impressive semi showing at Wimbledon, where he put up quite a fight in a tight three-setter against Novak Djokovic. But he hasn't won a match since, even losing in Gstaad to world #249 Vit Kopriva. Opelka, on the other hand, is OHSOCLOSE to becoming the top ranked U.S. player after making the final in Toronto with a come-from-behind win over Stefanos Tsitsipas. He hasn't had much success at the Majors yet, though, but perhaps that's about to change. Though Opelka is slated to meet a very tough Pablo Carreño Busta and Shaps is scheduled for a date with Karen Khachanov before this meeting can even happen, it's definitely one I could see going in favor of the American, and what a boost that would be for his career.

Felix Auger-Aliassime (12) vs. Frances Tiafoe: Young FAA is really capable of big things -- he's got four top ten wins this year, including one over Roger Federer in Halle, an event the Swiss mister once dominated, and perhaps even more impressively, one over Alexander Zverev at Wimbledon, where he became the surprise quarterfinalist. The problem, though, like with his compatriot above, is consistency -- the Canadian doesn't often win the next match after those milestones, and despite eight final appearances, he remains without a single tour title. Meanwhile Tiafoe has turned to the Challenger tour when he's found himself struggling, picking up a few trophies at those smaller events while working hard in the big leagues too. He's entered one event after another this summer, making the quarters in Winston-Salem last week, and of course, scoring that huge win over Tsitsipas himself at Wimbledon. It may be a lot for him to make his second straight Major fourth round, especially with Andrey Rublev a potential opponent one match earlier, but if both these guys make it, this is kind of an upset I see happening.


Hubert Hurkacz (10) vs. Aslan Karatsev (21): Like many people, I'd written off Hubert Hurkacz's potential after a disastrous clay court season that saw him notch just one win. But the surprise Miami champ surprised us again at Wimbledon, taking out Daniil Medvedev and Roger Federer on the way to his first Major semi. He's done decently since, no long losing streaks anyway, so we should be prepared for his fast court talents to take hold in New York. Karatsev, meanwhile, has been a little quiet since his monster run to start the year -- he hasn't made it out of the second round of an event since Rome, and he's lost both matches he's played on the North American hardcourts. It sure would be amazing if he could find his game now -- though he'd likely have to get past Novak Djokovic, the man he stunned in Belgrade, again, and we know how likely that would be. Still, it would be nice if he could prove he was no flash in the pan and what better place to do it than here?

Diego Schwartzman (11) vs. Marcos Giron: Schwartzman may be more of a clay court player these days, but don't forget, he's made the quarters here twice before and he's got some good results on the surface this year too -- he beat Dan Evans and Frances Tiafoe in Cincinnati, and all his losses during the summer have come in three sets. And he actually has a pretty decent draw to make some things happen -- his first big test, no pun intended, is John Isner, who may be, like, twice his size, but can defintely be outplayed. He could also face Casper Ruud, but as mentioned, he might be a bigger problem on a different surface. Giron is certainly more of a pipe dream, but the 28-year-old American is near his career-high ranking, and he is coming off a quarterfinal run in Winston-Salem, where he beat tenth seed Federico Delbonis in the process. He'll have a lot more challenges here, of course, with Daniil Medvedev the biggest obvious threat. But the seeds in his immediate section -- Evans and Grigor Dimitrov, who retired from their fist round match at the French Open -- aren't playing their best, so he might have a shot at getting at least a few wins in. And some underdog has to make in through at these events, so why not him?


Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Pablo Carreño Busta (9): This one could be interesting, huh? In what would be a rematch of the rematch, it'd be interesting to see whose nerves are stronger. Nole, of course, infamously and weirdly defaulted during their meeting here last year, giving PCB entrée into his second Major semifinal. While Djokovic did win their next match at Roland Garros this spring, the Spaniard quickly thereafter dealt him the rarest of cards -- a second loss in a row in the Olympic bronze medal game. Will the pendulum swing back in favor of the world #1? Well, it wouldn't be the craziest thing to see this one play out -- Carre˜o Busta has established he can play on these courts, and scoring a few more upsets on them is certainly in his grasp.

Andrey Rublev (5) vs. Marin Cilic (31): Okay, this isn't the most likely scenario, but there are reasons to think it could happen. Rublev hasn't been quite as prolific this year as he was in 2020 -- having "only" won one title versus five last year, but he's still had a ton of success, scoring wins over Rafael Nadal in Monte Carlo, Stefanos Tsitsipas in Rotterdam, and Daniil Medvedev in Cincinnati. He's reached the quarters here twice before -- the first time in 2017 when he was just 19, beating then-world #9 Grigor Dimitrov on the way. And Cilic, a one-time world #3 and a long-ago champion here, is doing his best to still matter, winning a title in Stuttgart and even, probably unintentionally, finding himself the subject of a simple but entertaining Twitter account. Barely seeded, he'd likely face a lot of favorites for this match to even be possible, but we've seen bigger surprises before, and he's even been the one to pull some of them off. And what a comeback it would be if he were able to make it work.


Of course, when all is said and done, you have to put your money on the favorites to make it to the final, especially the way these guys are playing this year. And with so much on the line, if nerves don't get the better of them, there's no reason we couldn't see either of these scenarios play out.

Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Stefanos Tsitsipas (3): Novak Djokovic may have lost his chance at completing the calendar year Golden Slam but sweeping the Majors would still be an enormous feat. Not only would it accomplish something that no man has done since 1969, but it would tie him with Roger and Rafa for the most big titles in history and put him in good position to take the lead all by himself in a few months time. But he's got seven matches to win before any of that becomes a reality, and since he's lost the last two matches he played -- something he hadn't done for nine years -- it'll be interesting to see how he rebounds. Tsitsipas, meanwhile, seems to have rebounded nicely from his devastating loss at the French Open. Though he lost his first match back at Wimbledon, he's made the semis of both Masters events he's played since and is now at a career-high ranking at #3 in the world. If he's able to make it to his second Major final, and his second facing off against Nole, it'll be interesting to see what he does with any ghosts, and if these guys can give us a reprise of that nail-biter we saw last spring.

Daniil Medvedev (2) vs. Alexander Zverev (4): Of course, Nole's plans could be derailed at any point and that might create an opening for the two players who won each of the U.S. Open Series Masters events this year. Daniil Medvedev, who came OHSOCLOSE to beating Rafael Nadal in his debut Major final two years ago, picked up his fourth Masters title in Toronto, giving him at least a final showing at every big post-Wimbledon hardcourt event since 2019. I'm a little surprised he didn't put up more of a fight in his second attempt to go for a Major crown, but if he gets a chance again, you can be sure things'll be different. Meanwhile, Zverev, as much as I hate to admit it, has been on point as well, beating Djokovic on his way to Olympic gold and picking up his own fifth Masters title in Cincinnati. Like Medvedev, he too came OHSOCLOSE to winning the title here in his first attempt last year, and if these guys get a chance to work out their frustrations against each other, you can bet it'll be a battle.

Outside these potential match-ups, there are a lot of players worth watching who I didn't get a chance to highlight at all.

There's perennial dark horse Alizé Cornet, who made the fourth round here last year and is fresh off a runner-up finish in Chicago -- she opens against Ons Jabeur. And there are two more qualifiers worth watching -- Elina Svitolina's first round opponent Rebecca Marino, who stunned Madison Keys and Paula Badosa in Montreal, and Katie Boulter, who pushed Aryna Sabalenka to the limit at Wimbledon and starts her campaign against Liudmila Samsonova.

There are some question marks on the men's side as well. Veteran Ivo Karlovic, 42-years-young, fought through qualifying rounds to earn a spot at what he said will be his last event. He'll kick off his goodbye tour against Andrey Rublev, so we'll see if sentiment can carry the day. And 2017 finalist Kevin Anderson is back in the top hundred after a title in Newport -- he hasn't won a main draw match since then, but he might just be able to find his footing again here.

Whatever happens, though, you know there are going to be a lot of great storylines that come out of this year's U.S. Open, and I can't believe I've even scratched the surface of them here. But here's hoping we're in for another great two weeks of tennis, and that whatever history we make, it's only the good kind.

August 22, 2021

Waiting in the Wings

I admit I've been somewhat actively ignoring the steady ascent of Alexander Zverev over the last year or so for various reasons, but while I've been trying to focus my attention elsewhere, it's becoming increasingly hard to deny the fifth-ranked German's emergence as one of the top contenders for the last Major title of the year.

He, of course, made a pretty strong case for himself last year -- back when his biggest offense was his rather cavalier attitude to COVID protocols. Playing in his first Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open, he ran off to a two-set-to-love lead against Dominic Thiem and seemed poised to upset the Austrian's fourth attempt at capturing that big trophy. He came up short that time of course, but continued to plough through in the new season, so nearly getting to the final in Paris, somehow battling from two sets down to Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semis to force a decider.

But it's been on the hard courts where he's really shined. At the Tokyo Olympics last month, he thwarted Novak Djokovic's attempt to win the rare Golden Slam, beating the world #1 in the semis on his way to capturing the gold medal. And this week in Cincinnati, he captured his fifth Masters title with wins over a red-hot Casper Ruud, a back-on-track Tsitsipas, and a surging Andrey Rublev, who was coming off his first ever win over Toronto champ and second-ranked Daniil Medvedev.

That gives Zverev his fourth title of the year and an impressive 11-match win streak heading into the U.S. Open, where he'll try to go one better after that disappointment from last year. And there may be no better chance for him to do it -- within the past week Thiem, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal have all said they won't be playing in New York, which gives the next generation a real chance to show us what they've got.

Of course Djokovic will be there, too, looking for the "consolation" prize of "just" a regular old calendar year Slam, as will Medvedev, who's been one of the most dominant players on tour this year. But Zverev will certainly be a threat, and he's certainly shown he's got what it takes to step into the spotlight.

And For the Ladies...

On the ladies side in Cincinnati, Ashleigh Barty further solidified her spot at the top of the women's game, rolling to her fifth title of the year -- at least one each on every surface -- without dropping a set.

And as impressive as her accomplishment was, it's certainly worth highlighting the run by her final challenger Jil Teichmann, a wildcard at the Western & Southern who followed up a monster upset of Naomi Osaka with wins over Olympic champion Belinda Bencic and Montreal runner-up Karolina Pliskova. Then again, maybe we shouldn't be so surprised that he found success on the American hardcourts -- the 24-year-old Swiss did make the final last year in Lexington and beat Danielle Collins when this event was played in New York a week later. Her success may not be enough to get her a seeding at the Open, but it sure should make her a dangerous spoiler in any section of the draw.

Oh, and, by the way, there was a WTA 125 going on in Chicago and, if you weren't paying attention, you might have missed the fact that Wimbledon Cinderella Emma Raducanu hopefully silenced that British dope with a runner-up finish that began with a big upset of top seed Alison Van Uytvanck in the opening round. She did ultimately lose the trophy to fellow teen sensation Clara Tauson, who picked up her first career title this past March in Lyon, but the wins prove she was no flash in the pan and that she might just have what it take to stick around awhile -- regardless of what that guy says.

August 15, 2021

Giant Slayer

It's been a long and winding road for Camila Giorgi the last few years.

The 29-year-old Italian first caught our eye at Wimbledon back in 2012 when, ranked #145 in the world, she stunned compatriot Flavia Penetta and former world #3 Nadia Petrova on her way to the fourth round. She scored some big wins after that, too, stunning Caroline Wozniacki at the U.S. Open in 2013, beating Maria Sharapova at Indian Wells a year later, and running to the quarters at the All England Club in 2018, her best yet performance at a Major and the catalyst for her career high ranking at #26.

But she's been a little inconsistent around her successes. After making the final at the Citi Open in 2019, she lost the first round in Cincy. Another runner-up finish in the Bronx that summer was followed by an opening round exit at Flushing Meadows. She started this season ranked #76 and between August of last year and this past June she only won more than two matches at the same event once.

Things may be changing for her though. Clearly most comfortable on grass, she stunned an on-fire Aryna Sabalenka in the Eastbourne quarters. And her switch to hardcourts has been rather impressive -- she took out Jen Brady and Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova on her way to the final eight in Tokyo. And that was nothing compared to what she did this past week in Montreal.

Unseeded an low ranked, Giorgi was not dealt an easy hand at the Omnium Banque Nationale. She opened against ninth seed Elise Mertens and got the win in straight sets. She went on to take out 2020's surprise French semifinalist Nadia Podoroska, two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova, wünderking Coco Gauff, all without dropping a set. In yesterday's semi against Jessica Pegula, she avenged that loss in Washington two years ago, and today she scored her third win of the season over Pliskova, whose own run here got her a ticket back to the top five.

It's quite an intimidating list of opponents she left in her wake, and for her efforts she was appropriately awarded with by far the biggest title of her career. But maybe more importantly, she proved she can be dangerous even off the surface we've come to believe is her best, and that could make her quite a threat as we count down to the final Major of the year.


Of course, it wasn't just Giorgi bringing home the hardware this weekend. World #2 Daniil Medvedev put even more distance between himself and #GOAT 🐐 contender Rafael Nadal -- who, incidentally, slipped behind Stefanos Tsitsipas this week after an early loss in Washington pushed him out of the top three. The Russian, who breezed past big-serving Reilly Opelka in today's final in Toronto, added a third Masters crown to his résumé and has now one, or finished second at basically every important second half hard court event since 2019.

With Roger Federer out of the U.S. Open, and Nadal's withdrawal from Toronto and Cincy putting his prospects in question, Medvedev may be the best positioned to thwart Novak Djokovic's quest for that historic calendar year Grand Slam. I've said that before, of course, but something tells me this time things could be very different.