September 21, 2020

When in Rome...

No matter how much has been said about it, it still feels weird that, at this point in the year, we're talking about the clay court season and the lead up to Roland Garros. And with only two weeks between the last two Slams of the year, we had to pack a lot of action into an exceedingly short time. But with the Rome Masters now in the books, and Hamburg and Strasbourg underway, we did get some indications of what we can expect when we finally make the trip over to Paris. And, as always, we're bound to be in for a couple surprises.

Let's start with the ladies, who actually got in a couple weeks play on the surface before the U.S. Open, both in Palermo and Prague, and at an event concurrent with New York in Istanbul. But it wasn't just those who'd been acclimated to the clay that shined this past week. Victoria Azarenka, who made a stunning run to the final in the Big Apple, got right back to work at the BNL Internazionali d'Italia, avenging a loss in Lexington to Venus Williams and shredding defending Aussie Open champ Sofia Kenin, oh-and-oh. And Yulia Putintseva, the somewhat surprising quarterfinalist in New York, got a second straight win over favorite Petra Martic in Rome and took out a recently meh Elena Rybakina before retiring in the quarters.

There were some other standouts too -- Marketa Vondrousova, one of last year's many surprises at Roland Garros, seemed to get her year back on track after what's been an unimpressive 4-8 record so far this year. A decisive quarterfinal win over Elina Svitolina, who was playing her first tournament since March, made that all-important statement as she looks to defend her French Open runner-up points. And Garbiñe Muguruza, who lost early at the U.S. Open, losing to Tsvetana Pironkova in the second round, battled through a tough draw, besting Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff, Johanna Konta and Victoria Azarenka to make the semis.

Ultimately though, the final featured the top two seeds in the draw, with Simona Halep, who skipped the U.S. Open but took a title in Prague this summer and repaid her Melbourne loss to Muguruza on Sunday, taking on defending champion Karolina Pliskova, who, since opening the year with a title in Brisbane, has struggled to make the laters rounds of events. The title match didn't quite live up to potential, though, as Halep ran off with the first set in twenty minutes and an injured Pliskova retired after the third game in the second. It was the Romanian's twenty-second career title and her third in a row, giving her a win streak of fourteen straight matches. And as she looks to reclaim the title she won in Paris more than two years ago, she might just have established herself as the player to beat.

The men's side of things in Rome was no less dramatic and saw its own fair share of surprises emerge. I'll get to the "big" one (was it just one?) in a moment, but it's worth starting with some of the more under-the-radar players that made a splash this week. Denis Shapovalov, who came OHSOCLOSE to making the semis in New York, went a long way to prove not only that was no fluke, but that he can be a true force on clay too. After a test from Ugo Humbert, he went the distance again versus Grigor Dimitrov, withstanding three three-setters in a row during his semifinal run -- a pretty impressive show of endurance considering he played 22 sets at the Open.

Meanwhile Casper Ruud, a breakout star in the pre-lockdown portion of the season, continued his march higher with a win over former U.S. Open champ Marin Cilic and another against surprisingly consistent Matteo Berrettini, who he'd lost to in New York. It was his first Masters semifinal appearance, and his third trip to the final four this year. Not bad for a guy who kicked off the season outside the top fifty.

The real Cinderella, though, was former college star Dominik Koepfer, who made it through qualifiers with wins over Gilles Simon and Mikhail Kukushkin and then stunned Gael Monfils in the Frenchman's first match since a solid winning stretch in February. Koepfer made it all the way to the quarters and even took a set off Novak Djokovic before finally ending his run. It could bode well for where the young-ish German is heading from here.

Of course the shocker of the event came when two-time defending champion Rafael Nadal, going for his tenth title in Rome, fell in straight sets to Argentina's Diego Schwartzman in the quarters. It was the eighth seed's first win over Rafa in ten tries, and his first victory over any of the Big Three. He'd go on to the final, where he eventually lost a two break lead and the match to Djokovic, but what's by far the biggest win of his career could put him on a much different path than we'd expected when we make it to Paris.

Of course, what Nole accomplished in Rome was in itself spectacular. The world #1, whose only loss this year came under the most unusual of circumstances, wasn't playing his best all week, had a few outbursts, and was tested by players who he should have beaten easily. But at the end of the day, he walked away with the trophy, a record 36th at the Masters. Does his dominance, and Rafa's hiccup, signal a changing of the guard at Roland Garros? Not necessarily. Nadal will continue to be the player to beat at the French Open until he isn't, and one loss at his first event in seven months, should not be taken as an omen.

But we certainly have started to see the next generation start to step up -- whether by default or not -- and given the circumstances, this could be their best opportunity to rise to the challenge.

And with just six days to go before the final Major of the year, there's no better time to do it.

September 13, 2020

Fourth Time's a Charm

It seems only appropriate that, to cap off an unprecedented and wildly unpredictable U.S. Open, we get an outcome as crazy as the one we just saw.

In a little over four hours, after losing the first two sets and getting down a break in the third, Austria's Dominic Thiem somehow fought back against first-time Major finalist Alexander Zverev to win his very first Grand Slam title. He was the first man to do so in more than 70 years in New York.

The win is especially sweet after Thiem's heartbreak in Australia at the start of the year. The 27-year-old and two-time French Open finalist had squandered a 2-1 set lead over heavy favorite Novak Djokovic in Melbourne and didn't seem to recover well after that.

He lost to world #128 Gianluca Mager in the Rio quarters on his favorite clay surface, and though he played -- and won -- a lot of exhibition matches, including ones on the ill-advised Adria Tour over the summer, he was absolutely crushed in his opening round of the Western & Southern just ahead of the Open.

But he turned things around when it counted.

Even before Djokovic's unfortunate exit in the fourth round, Thiem was looking solid on court. His only real challenge in the early rounds came from 2014
champ Marin Cilic, who managed to take a set off him, but he rolled over a very talented Felix Auger-Aliassime in the quarters and absolutely crushed last year's runner-up Daniil Medvedev in the semis.

On the other side of the draw Zverev, who started out the year with mixed results -- he lost all three of his matches at the inaugural ATP Cup but then made the semis at the Australian Open -- was the ostensible biggest beneficiary of Nole's default. Still he'd dropped sets in four of his first five matches and found himself down 0-2 sets to Pablo Carreño Busta in the semis. He seemed primed to reverse his fortunes in the final though, when he came out firing from the get-go, building what seemed to be an insurmountable lead.

But in stark contrast to what we've seen on the women's tour, where it seems debut appearances in Major finals seem to be an advantage, this time Thiem's "experience" won out. While both men had an opportunity to serve out the match, and both men failed, it was Dominic who was able to convert his third match point in the fifth set tiebreak.

With the win, he became the first first-time Grand Slam champion on the men's side since Cilic in 2014 and the first man born in the 90s to claim a big trophy. It's weird to think that, once Nole was out, Thiem was essentially the elder statesman left in the field, both the oldest and one of only two quarterfinalists who'd made a final at a Major before. So this was ostensibly his title for the taking. The fact that he had to fight so hard for it, might just indicate we really are on the verge of a new era in men's tennis.

Sure, you could argue that, without having to face any of the Big Three at the Open there is something of an asterisk after Thiem's title. But we saw over this fortnight glimpses of what's to come in the men's game. Whatever your thoughts on the quality of this final, we did certainly see a lot of great shots, fight, and heart in the field.

And with the French Open now around the corner, and the likelihood that both Rafael Nadal and Djokovic will be there to vie for the title, we'll soon see whether all of their runs -- especially Thiem's -- were just flukes or a true sign of what's to come.

And here's hoping they all make it a good one.

September 12, 2020

A Champion for a New Generation

After two of the strangest weeks we've seen in tennis -- and more than seven months since our last Major winner was crowned -- we finally have a new Grand Slam champion in Naomi Osaka, who came back from a set and a break down against Victoria Azarenka to claim the 2020 U.S. Open title.

Maybe it's unfair to call Naomi a "new" champion -- the 22-year-old stunned the world two years ago when she took out Serena Williams in this final in straight sets. A couple months later she won her second crown in Melbourne, and with her victory today she become the first woman since Jennifer Capriati to go 3-for-3 in her first Major finals.

And what an exciting way in which to do it! Azarenka -- who had ended a year-long losing streak in a big way last month, winning the title in "Cincinatti", ironically when Osaka pulled out of the final with a hamstring injury -- was riding a ten-match winning streak coming into Saturday's championship round, capped by a glorious comeback against Serena in the semis, where she notched her first ever win over her long-time rival at a Major. She came out swinging in the final two, breaking Osaka three times to take the first set in 26 minutes and getting an early break to start the second.

But it was almost all Naomi after that. As she said after the match, it would have been embarassing to lose the match in under an hour so she fought her heart out, forced a decider and took the lead in that early. Serving it out at 5-3, she came out on top in what might have been the best point of the match, when Azarenka swiped a return into the net. And somehow, after nearly two hours, she was the one holding the trophy.

But it feels like the win meant so much more than the glory of the title -- over the last few months, Osaka has grown in to a true activist for causes well outside tennis. In June she quietly traveled to Minneapolis, the site of the murder of George Floyd, to show her support for those protesting police violence. At the Western & Southern Open, she withdrew from her semifinal to make a statement about the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin -- an act that caused the entire tournament to pause play in solidarity. And for each of her matches at the U.S. Open, she wore a mask bearing the name of a different Black man or woman killed by law enforcement.

It's a kind of advocacy we don't see from most players much older than Osaka, but she and the likes of Coco Gauff and Frances Tiafoe have done a lot to take up the cause, helping to bring a new generation of voices to light. What have these actions accomplished? Well, to hear Osaka tell it, at least they've gotten us talking -- and hopefully those conversations can effect real change. And as her platform keeps getting bigger, her impact can only grow.

A couple months ago, when the pandemic was just getting underway and lockdown was really taking hold, Osaka told CNN she was trying to get over her "crippling" shyness. Well, it seems clear over the last few months, that she has really found her voice.

And for the good of the sport -- and the good of the world, here's hoping she keeps using it.

September 10, 2020

A Couple Early Predictions Ready to Come True

Well here we are in the final stretches of what's been a very different and extremely surreal U.S. Open. We knew coming into this that we'd be in for some surprises, but I'm not sure anyone could have guessed what the last week and a half had in store for us. But as I look at the eight players still vying for the title, it strikes me that a couple things I'd been hoping against all hope for at the start of the year might actually be about to come true, under the weirdest of circumstances.

Don't get me wrong -- I don't mean to brag. I certainly didn't expect a global pandemic would wipe out half the tennis season and keep a vast number of the sport's top players out of the mix for the second, and possibly third and last, Major of the year. And I would never have thought an undefeated Novak Djokovic would be defaulted in the fourth round and set off a firestorm against an unassuming lineswoman.

But a combination of luck (good or bad, depending on how you look at it) and dogged hard work has put a couple of my 2020 predictions within reach. So let's take a look at them in a little more detail, starting with one that will absolutely happen this weekend.

Prediction #1: Someone not named Rafa, Roger, or Novak wins a Major

While I could not have possibly known this would be a result of 1) knee surgery for Roger Federer, 2) a pandemic keeping Rafael Nadal from defending his U.S. Open crown, and 3) Novak Djokovic smacking a ball in frustration and hitting a lineswoman in the throat, we nevertheless have guaranteed a first-time Grand Slam winner on the men's side. It might not be Juan Martin Del Potro (😢) or Frances Tiafoe (who actually had a reassuring run in New York this year) as I'd hoped, but it will be a new name, nevertheless.

This prediction nearly came to fruition back in Australia, when Dominic Thiem, who'd already beaten Rafa and Alexander Zverev, had a 2-1 set lead over Nole in the final, but the Austrian couldn't quite close the deal. Now, as the semifinalist with the most experience in Major championship matches, he might have the best shot at closing the deal. But we can't count out the other contenders.

Zverev reached his second straight Slam semi with a win over Borna Coric in the quarters, but he's dropped a couple sets here and there. And I can't help but feel like a win by Pablo Carreño Busta, the "beneficiary" of the Djokovic default, would be most fitting. And the Spaniard has a chance -- while you might assume he's a clay specialist, three of the former world #10's four titles have come on the hard courts, and he showed us just how much talent he has in his come-from-behind win against Denis Shapovalov last round. He's lost his one previous match against Zverev, but I sure would like to see him reverse that fortune

But probably the strongest player left in the field is last year's runner-up Daniil Medvedev, who seemed to revel in the hatred of the New York crowd in 2019. Well, the fans are gone this time around, but the 24-year-old Russian hasn't lost a beat and has been clinical in his wins over the first five rounds. He's the only man standing who hasn't lost a set this event, and though he's got a slight losing record against Thiem (1-2), something tells me he's going to be loathe to do so now. And I wouldn't be surprised if he goes one better on his breakout run from last year.

Prediction #2: Vika re-enters the top ten

This one was in real danger right off the bat in 2020, with Victoria Azarenka pulling out of the Australian Open and alluding to the fact that she might even retire this year. She lost her first match back in Monterrey, then got sidelines from the shutdown, and dropped her opener to Venus Williams in Lexington.

Boy, have things turned around since then, though. She took out four higher ranked players in "Cincy", including seeded Donna Vekic and Johanna Konta, and while she benefitted from a walkover by Naomi Osaka in the final, she picked up her first title since 2016 and cut her ranking from #59 to #27. Single digits are certainly in sight too, now that she's made the semis at the Open, notching wins over Aryna Sabalenka -- who beat her here last year -- and a talented Karolina Muchova, before absolutely dismantling a very talented Elise Mertens last night.

Next up, though, is Serena Williams, who's beaten Vika in 18 of their previous 22 matches, twice in the finals here. This one promises to be a battle, too, with Serena still chasing that elusive 24th Grand Slam title, a feat she's come up short at in her previous eight tries. But despite early losses in Lexington and the Western & Southern, she's looked good so far this tournament and might just be ready to close the deal.

Still, while this semi certainly has the makings of a final, the winner is far from guaranteed a title. Naomi Osaka, who denied Serena in one of those attempts is still the oddsmakers' favorite for the championship, and since pulling out of the W&S final has looked strong and healthy. And summer standout Jennifer Brady, the only one of these women who's never won a Major -- never even made it out of the fourth round -- has been on fire in New York, not dropping a set in any of her singles matches yet. She might just have what it takes to give us two first time titleists this event.

Win or lose, though, Azarenka is certainly on her way up the rankings, and with a few months of tennis back on the calendar, there's no telling what she'll be able to do with the time.

By the way, I haven't been completely off base with my other two predictions for the year, either. Perhaps we haven't yet seen huge things from Dayana Yastremska, Anastasia Potapova, or Amanda Anisimova this year, there's still time for them to make a splash on clay. Meanwhile we've seen some new candidates for the Next Big Thing, from Iga Swiatek to Jannik Sinner.

And while John Isner remians the top-ranked male player in the U.S., some controversial comments during an Atlanta exhibition and a first round exit at the U.S. Open could indicate the start of a reckoning for the big man. Whether a full one comes to bear, well, we'll certainly see over the next few weeks.

After all, there's still a lot of tennis left to come this year, and if this event is any indication we'll be in for a lot more excitement to come.

September 6, 2020

Half Way Through -- Where We Stand

So it appears I really suck at predicting semifinalsts at Grand Slams.

Three rounds in to this year's very strange U.S. Open, and only three of my eight selections are still alive. And while those standing are still looking strong and could very well fulfill my expectations, so many others have really asserted themselves in a way I could never have predicted.

The Women

Let's start with the first quarter of the ladies' draw where top seed Karolina Pliskova was upset by Caroline Garcia in the second round. It was the first "huge" shock in the women's draw -- which somewhat shockingly had more seeds emerge out of the first round than the mens -- but something I frankly saw coming. I also expected Jennifer Brady, a winner over Ashleigh Barty, Elina Svitolina, and Garbiñe Muguruza this year and a champion in Lexington, to do well, but that's where my foresight ends.

Yulia Putintseva, who's made a couple of Roland Garros quarters, has only won two matches here once, and Petra Martic, who'd I'd written off as a vulnerable eighth seed, both have been on point in their first few matches, and the fact that one of them will play for a spot in the final four is pretty surprising. But it appears we cannot count out 2016 champion Angelique Kerber who, at #23 in the world, is well off her best tennis, but seems to like winning that way. She's currently down a set to Brady in the fourth round, but she's certainly pulled off bigger comebacks in the past and might just be ready to do it again.

On the end of the draw, my complete Hail Mary pick of Johanna Konta was shocked by a resurgent Sorana Cirstea, but I take some comfort in the fact that my other one to watch, Elise Mertens, has been looking strong this first week. One of the players forced to suspend her second round match and pick it up again the next day, she's technically played three days in a row but kept her level high. And Aussie champ Sofia Kenin is comfortingly playing well again, after losing her first rounds in Dubai, Doha, and Cincinnati. She was pushed by Ons Jabeur last night, but clinched the win in reassuring form.

But you might have to keep an eye out now for two-time finalist Victoria Azarenka who, after a title run in "Cincy" is now riding an eight-match win streak, absolutely crushing Aryna Sabalenka, her vanquisher here last year, in the second round. Next up is a talented Karolina Muchova, one of my Cinderella picks in Melbourne. The 24-year-old Czech scored a huge win over Venus Williams in her opener and survived a big test from Cirstea yesterday. Unseeded Azarenka is actually one ranking spot below her seeded next opponent, but something tells me her experience could help her pull off the win -- and maybe help another one of my predictions come true.

The third quarter of the women's draw is where the most disruption has happened. Yes, Serena Williams making the fourth round shouldn't be a surprise -- though that outcome looked to be in question after she dropped her first set to Sloane Stephens yesterday -- but given her losses so far this summer, it certainly wasn't a given. For a spot in the quarters, she set up a rematch with Maria Sakkari, the woman who came back from a set down in "Cincy" to pull off the upset. Serena's not usually the type to let you get away with two wins in a row, but she has dropped straight matches to Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu in recent years, so the Greek is certainly hoping she can capitalize.

But the real surprise has been Tsvetana Pironkova, a semifinalist at Wimbledon a decade ago. Since then she's retire, had a baby, and in the most unfortunately timed of announcements, decided to come back to tennis in March. But you can certainly see why -- she simply stunned my pick for this quarter, Garbiñe Muguruza, in the second round and went on to take out 18th seed Donna Vekic yesterday. With a fourth round against fellow veteran Alizé Cornet, who beat Sofia Kenin last week in Cincy and benefitted from the retirement of Madison Keys last night, she could very well make another break for the later rounds.

In the last quarter of the draw, the only one on the ladies' side where I picked the favorite to advance, Naomi Osaka has so far lived up to my expectations. But that's not to say there were no surprises here. Osaka, the oddsmakers' favorite to win the title, has dropped sets to Misaki Doi and Marta Kostyuk, so could be challenged by Anett Kontaveit in the next round. The 21st ranked Estonian put up a fight against the 2018 champion last week and has been on point this week. I wouldn't be surprised if she put up a big fight against the heavy favorite again.

I am frankly a little disappointed by the showing from Jessica Pegula, who has far outplayed her #63 ranking this year with wins over Caroline Wozniacki and Aryna Sabalenka. I thought she had the potential to be a spoiler in this section, and while she looked strong early, she fell in the third round to a strong Petra Kvitova. Instead it appears the Cinderella for the tournament will again be Shelby Rogers, a one-time quarterfinalist at Roland Garros who stunned Serena this summer in Lexington. Still ranked #93 in the world, she picked off one of my favorites, Elena Rybakina, in the second round and followed up by beating compatriot Madison Brengle a round later. Repeating her success against Kvitova will be a harder task, but if she can do it, this would certainly push her to new heights.

The Men

The men's draw has seen plenty of drama of its own, but top seeded and top ranked Novak Djokovic continues to dominate, dropping only one set to Kyle Edmund and inching closer and closer to an undefeated 2020 season. With a fourth round match against Pablo Carreno Busta it appears he's soon to take one step closer.

I am pleasantly surprised, though, by the showing from David Goffin, the other favorite in this quarter, who hasn't done too much this year since beating Rafael Nadal at the ATP Cup. I thought he might get tested and possibly upset in the first round by big-serving Reilly Opelka, but he seemed to handle the challenge well, going on to also easily defeat a strong Filip Krajinovic, who took out Dominic Thiem last week in "Cincy". Then there's young Denis Shapovalov, who started this year with so much hype, but came to the Open with a 5-8 record on the season and a handful of opening round matches. This week he's lived up to his seeding, but after a five-setter against Taylor Fritz -- where he had to come back from 1-2 sets down -- he might be spent in his next round.

I tried to hedge my pick for the second quarter of the draw by choosing two potential semifinalists, but that didn't work out too well for me. Roberto Bautista Agut had the upper hand, ousting Tennys Sandgren in the first round, but yesterday squandered a 2-1 set lead over surprising standout, and PTPA founding member, Vasek Pospisil, who'd already beating countryman Milos Raonic in the second round. It's by far the best showing from the Canadian on these courts -- he made the quarters at Wimbledon back in 2015 -- and against Alex de Minaur, who had his own 1-2 set comeback against Karen Khachanov yesterday, he might just be able to keep it going.

And while the advantage still lies with second seeded Dominic Thiem in this section, I've been impressed by young Felix Auger-Aliassime too. He's another one of those players who came into 2020 red hot and, unlike Shapovalov, seemed to make good on it. He reached the finals of two straight events in the late winter, Rotterdam and Marseille, and while he lost to Sandgren early last week in Cincy, his shot-making was clean and precise. After a tight opener in New York against Thiago Monteiro, he's looked unstoppable and against Thiem, a man he's never met before, could pull off a big upset.

For some strange reason I picked John Millman to surprise us in the third set, even though I knew how dominant last year's finalist Daniil Medvedev can be. And the Russian, happy to play the part of villain at the 2019 event, has been exactly that in his first week back, not dropping a set in his first three matches. Next up he faces Frances Tiafoe, who took out Millman in the second round and is finally living up to the expectations I've had for him. I'm not saying he will beat the world #5, but it sure will be fun to watch him try.

But maybe more impressive this week has been Matteo Berrettini, who I, maybe unjustly, thought would be a flash-in-the-pan. Last year's surprise semifinalist only played two events this year, racking up an unimpressive 2-2 record, but he's found his game at the Open again -- perhaps thanks to one ardent follower who's found a way to get around the no-fan policy this year. The Italian hasn't dropped a set yet, and though he faces a very talented Andrey Rublev in the next round, he might just be ready to keep going.

And finally the last quarter of the men's draw was stacked with young talent ready to make a name for themselves on the Slam courts. Stefanos Tsitsipas certainly put up a fight to make my prediction come true, but ultimately fell in a five-set, four-plus hour match that ended at one a.m. to Borna Coric, a man who we've been waiting for years to live up to his potential. He's never made the quarters of a Major, but with a fourth round agaist world #63 Jordan Thompson, he might be able to do it -- if he recovers in time.

But, of course, you have to assume the favorite for this section is now squarely Alexander Zverev, who made the semis in Melbourne this year too. He's dropped a set in each of his matches so far this first week, but next faces who has to be the biggest surprsie on the men's side, 99th-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, a 21-year-old from Spain playing in his first U.S. Open and only his third Slam ever. He's been tested, of course, needing five sets to get past Dennis Novak in his opener, and dropping a set in each of his next two matches too. He's clearly the underdog in his next match, but stranger things have certainly happened before.

Of course, with a week left to go at the U.S. Open, there's still a lot of game left to play, and any of the players still in the running could conceivably pull off some big wins. Will experience win out in the end, or will that new blood finally start asserting itself in both draws? Only time will tell.

And maybe, just maybe, one of these days I'll get the draws right.

August 30, 2020

U.S. Open 2020: Predicting the Final Four

The tennis season is always chock full of surprises, but it's safe to say no one could have predicted things would turn out the way they have this year. And now, nearly seven months since the first Grand Slam of 2020, and with precious little play since, we're finally on the verge of the second one, and weirdly it's the U.S. Open. 

Of course, it's a wildly different U.S. Open than we've seen in years past. Aside from the lack of fans and apparently virtual crowd noise, the towels strewn against the backboards, the temperature checks and COVID tests, there's of course the obviously depleted draws, with just seven of the top ten ranked men and four of the top women in action this fortnight -- and neither of the defending champions. The withdrawals, which came fast and furious over the last few weeks, have allowed players like Rebecca Peterson and Jan-Lennard Struff earn their first seedings at a Major. And they've created plenty of opportunity for everyone else to make a mark for themselves.

That's not to say the trophies are entirely up for grabs -- there is plenty of big name talent in the mix, including a handful of Grand Slam winners (ten* on the women's side, I was surprised to discover!) and runners-up that will be loathe to step aside quietly. And while we may not have had the full slate of lead up tournaments, we still have some evidence to suggest who might be able to pull off an upset or two.

And with all that in mind, I present to you my (likely-to-be-entirely-confounded) picks for who will make the final four in the men's and women's draws, and my (needs-to-be-dusted-off) Confidence Meter for those calls. And since it's been so long, it's worth a reminder what the ratings mean:

I mean, we've seen weirder things this year... →
← As sure as we can be these days

So, without further ado, let's get to it!



First Quarter

Oddly, this might be the weakest section of ladies' field this year. 

Karolina Pliskova is ranked third and seeded first in New York, the site of her only Grand Slam final to date. But that run in 2016 seems like a long time ago, and despite her consistency on the rest of the tour, she continues to struggle on the biggest stage. Her first match back from the lockdown did little to inspire -- she dropped her opening round in "Cincinnati" to Veronika Kudermetova in straight sets. And she faces a tough test at the Open -- a probable second round against Caroline Garcia, Lexington champ Jennifer Brady in the third. It's entirely possible she doesn't get back to the round of 16 like she did last year.

Petra Martic is the other top seed in this quarter, but we haven't seen the Croatian #1 since the clay court comeback events of early August. While she did decently in Palermo, she never faced a real threat there and so could be caught off guard now. She does have a slightly more forgiving early road than Pliskova, but should be tested if she meets Kristina Mladenovic in the third round. 

A little big of a wildcard, though, is three-time Major winner Angelique Kerber who lost here in the first round last year to Mladenovic. We haven't seen her since the Australian Open, and at #23 in the world she's far from her career highs, but that could work to her advantage. She kicks off against a tricky Ajla Tomljanovic, and possibly a higher-ranked Alison Riske a few matches later. But I like her chances to get at least a few rounds in.

All that said, I'm putting my money on Brady, who may have lost early at the Western & Southern, but was literally unstoppable at the Top Seed Open. This is the first time she's seeded at a Major, and given her past performances, it's no wonder why -- she's only won more than one match twice in her career. But with wins over Garbiñe Muguruza, Elina Svitolina and Ashleigh Barty already this year, she seems primed to change that. And as stated above, the luck of the draw may have worked to her favor. 

My Semifinalist Pick:Jennifer Brady
Confidence Meter:She's been the strongest one in a wide-open section

Second Quarter

This section seems to have a little more firepower in it, although maybe not from where you'd expect. 

Australian Open titleist Sofia is the on-paper headliner, but she's struggled in the months since that career-making win. She was one-for-two at Fed Cup, lost a couple early rounds in the late winter, regrouped to take the trophy in Lyon...and then lost pretty handily to Alizé Cornet in Cincy in her first match after the quarantine. And she's got a tough road from the get-go -- a first round against veteran Yanina Wickmayer, a second versus either one-time runner-up Vera Zvonareva or rising star Leylah Fernandez.

On the other side of the quarter is fifth seed Aryna Sabalenka. She's been a little more busy this summer, entered in both Lexington and the Western & Southern, but she's gotten upset both times, by Coco Gauff and Jessica Pegula respectively. She'll begin against feisty Oceane Dodin and will likely then face two-time finalist Victoria Azarenka, the unlikeliest of champions in Cincinnati this year, in round two. She actually got the better of the Belarusian in their opener here in 2019, but there could be a reversal should they meet again.

But there are plenty of other threats out there too. Unseeded Venus Williams opens against Karolina Muchova while wildcard Kim Cljisters, who won her third title here in 2010 before retiring for a second time, faces Shenzhen champ Ekaterina Alexandrova off the top. And let's not forget some of the lower seeds -- both Johanna Konta and Elise Mertens had semifinal runs in Cincy, the latter also reaching the final in Prague. Either one could stand out in this already-packed crowd.

And then there's Ons Jabeur, a quarterfinalist in Melbourne with wins over Konta, Karolina Pliskova, Jennifer Brady and Caroline Wozniacki this year. And as the first player from Tunisia to make any mark on tour, her accomplishments exceed even what she's done on court. She's slated to meet Kenin in the third round, and though she has a 1-4 record against the world #4, she might actually be able to get the upper hand this time.

My Semifinalist Pick:Johanna Konta
Confidence Meter:This is the one where anything can happen

Third Quarter 

Whoever emerges out of that section gets to face the winner of this one for a spot in the finals, so you can be sure she'll be paying close attention. And there's a lot to watch, too.

Serena Williams, still going after that record-tying 24th Major title, one that she's failed to get in her last eight attempts, has the third seed and a first round against last year's Cinderella (and TikTok queen) Kristie Ahn. While Williams' first several matches should be easy wins for her, we've seen her struggle since the reopening -- losing to Maria Sakkari last week after falling to then-#116 Shelby Rogers in Lexington at the start of the month. She's certainly the favorite, but everyone in the field needs to know she's not an immovable force.

Sakkari is in this section too, hopefully well recovered from her stunning win in "Cincy." While she could set up a rematch in the fourth round, something tells me that if both she and Serena make it that far, the American won't let her get by a second time. 

In the other half of this quarter, things could get interesting. Unseeded Jil Teichmann is slated for a second round against Madison Keys, who we haven't seen since she lost to Sakkari in Melbourne. If the Lexington finalist, who made it through qualies at the Western & Southern and beat Danielle Collins in that first round, can pick up where she left off, there could be some upsets in the making.

And then there's Aussie finalist and two-time Major champion Garbiñe Muguruza who pulled out of Cincy because of ankle pain. After a more-than-disappointing 2019 season, she was playing back at her true ability before the stoppage, reaching at least the quarters of every event she played this year. Her first big test should come against Donna Vekic in the third round -- or, frankly, Krystina Pliskova, who's had some nice results this summer and could upset the 18th seed -- but if her ankle holds up, I wouldn't be surprised to see her making the final four.

My Semifinalist Pick:Garbiñe Muguruza
Confidence Meter:It'll come down to her and Serena, I think

Fourth Quarter

This last quarter of the ladies' draw has some of the strongest under-the-radar players in the field all battling it out for a chance at the title.

Let's start with Anett Kontaveit, who made a solid run to the quarters in Australia, beating sixth seed Belinda Bencic in the third round, and then reached the final in Palermo at the start of the month.  She was on point in Cincy too, reaching the quarters and taking the first set off Naomi Osaka before ultimately ending her campaign. While Danielle Collins could be a test in the first round, it feels like the Estonian should make good on, and possibly surpass, the expectations of her 14th seeding.

And then there's Elena Rybakina, by far the stand-out of the season pre-lockdown. She played six tournaments back-to-back, and reached the finals of four of them, even picking up a title in Hobart. Post-lockdown, she lost a tight first round to Ekaterina Alexandrova but could come out swinging when she re-takes the court. A potential second round against Serena-vanquisher Shelby Rogers and a fourth against Petra Kvitova could be manageable.

But we can't count out Jessica Pegula, runner-up in Auckland, where she allowed Williams to break her nearly three-year title draught, and a quarterfinalist at the Western & Southern. She might just give Kvitova a run for the money if they both reach the third round. 

They're not all low profile names, of course. Coco Gauff is still unseeded but certainly a big attraction. She continued her stellar Slam showings with a fourth round appearance in Melbourne, repeating her Wimbledon win over Venus Williams and avenging her U.S. Open loss to Osaka. She made the semis too in Lexington and now sits at a career-high rank of #50 in the world. She kicks off against Anastasia Sevastova and could meet Osaka yet again in the third round.

Speaking of Osaka, she'll have to recover quick from the hamstring injury that forced her out of the Cincy final, but hopes are high that she'll be able to do it. While she got off to a sort of slow start to the year -- she's at her lowest rank in just about two years, notably when she won her first U.S. Open -- but she's developed so much as a player and person since, and her performance this past week might prove she's ready to make another run this time around.

My Semifinalist Pick:Naomi Osaka
Confidence Meter:It feels like experience will win out here


First Quarter

World #1 Novak Djokovic has made a ton of headlines this summer, and not all of them good. But he just picked up his 80th career title in Cincy-cum-New York and, still undefeated this year, is far and away the most experienced/qualified player in the field -- the only other man with a Major title to his name is Marin Cilic, and that win seems a long, long time ago. And if there's anyone who can put aside the distractions and focus on the task at hand -- going for his 18th Major title -- it's this guy. But he had some scares at the Western & Southern -- from a neck injury that caused him to pull out of doubles to nearly squandering a third set lead against Roberto Bautista Agut in their three-hour semi and dropping a 1-6 set to Milos Raonic in the final -- so there are opportunities.  

On paper, the other favorites include David Goffin and Denis Shapovalov, though neither of them have done much since the ATP Cup at the start of the year. The former has a tough first round against big-serving Reilly Opelka, who narrowly missed getting a seed at this event. The third ranked American claimed a title in Delray Beach just before the lockdown and this week in Cincy picked off Diego Schwartzman and Matteo Berrettini before retiring in the quarters. If he recovers, he might be a threat in the early rounds.

But also keep an eye on Filip Krajinovic, who was supposed to be Nole's doubles partner last week. But he did pretty well on the singles side of things, too, trouncing Dominic Thiem in the second round and taking the first set off Milos Raonic in the quarters. He might just be able to set up a showdown with his compatriot for that spot in the semis. 

But in this one, you've got to go with the odds...

My Semifinalist Pick:Novak Djokovic
Confidence Meter:If not for the neck issues, I'd give him the full six... 

Second Quarter

This section of the draw is headlined by one of the most active players on tour during the quarantine -- Dominic Thiem, who came OHSOCLOSE to winning the Australian Open this year, picked up a couple exhibition events, including one on the ill-fated Adria Tour before the plug was pulled. But then in his first legit tournament since the shutdown he was utterly dominated by Filip Krajinovic in his opener. That's not to say he won't rebound here -- he certainly can't do any worse than his first round exit from 2019 -- and he's got a couple rounds before he faces his first test.

Then there's Andy Murray, who won his first Major in New York a full eight years ago. Two hip surgeries later he's now ranked all the way down at #134, but this past week, in his second round win over Alexander Zverev, we saw glimpses of the top talent he once was. A wildcard this year, he could meet young talent Felix Auger-Aliassime in the second round and, followed by countryman Daniel Evans and potentially Thiem. Whether he's in shape to survive multiple best-of-five matches remains a question, but I'm surprised to say I'm excited to see him try.

There could be some fireworks elsewhere in this section too -- Roberto Bautista Agut, who nearly took out Novak Djokovic at the Western & Southern, opens his campaign against the aptly named Tennys Sandgren, who made a Cinderella run in Melbourne this year, beating Matteo Berrettini and Fabio Fognini and pushing Roger Federer to the very edge in the quarters. Post lockdown, he made the third round this week in Cincy and could give us a great first round against the eighth seed.

And of course, Milos Raonic certainly reasserted himself at the Western & Southern -- "reasserted" for those who forgot he made the quarters in Melbourne this year too -- getting the unlikeliest of leads on Novak Djokovic in both the first and third sets. He's never had the best luck in New York, but maybe he can change things now. 

My Semifinalist Pick:Whoever wins between RBA and Sandgren
Confidence Meter:Is that cheating, a little?

Third Quarter

I might be most excited to see how things play out in this part of the men's draw. Last year's runner-up Daniil Medvedev will look to go one better than his banner run from 2019 and might just be in a good position to do it. While he hasn't been as strong as he was last year -- can you really compare the two seasons, though? -- he had a decent run to the fourth round in Melbourne and didn't get too tripped up in his attempt to defend his Cincy title -- a loss to Roberto Bautista Agut is nothing to be ashamed of. And his first few rounds should be similarly easy to handle.

But there are plenty of hopefuls who will try to make him a flash in the pan. Especially someone like Matteo Berrettini, who shocked the world -- okay, shocked me -- when he made the semis here last year. He had some solid wins in 2019 -- a 3-0 record against Karen Khachanov, a couple wins over Dominic Thiem -- but he's frankly still a vulnerable seed. A third round meeting with an emergent Casper Ruud could prove to be a real test of his mettle.

A couple others in the mix could really upset the balance though. Andrey Rublev got off to a pretty nice start to the year with two titles before the Australian Open and a fourth round showing in Melbourne. He's at a career high ranking going into the Open, and though he's lost his last two matches -- both to Daniel Evans -- he'll be eager to get back on track now. He's got a first round against veteran Jeremy Chardy and was slated to face his first seeded opponent Benoit Paire in the third round, but the Frenchman on Sunday became the first player to test positive for the coronavirus in New York and was forced to withdraw. That could prove to Rublev's advantage

And then there's a dangerously unseeded John Millman, who might have the upper hand in his opener against Nikoloz Balisashvili and is in the same immediate section as Grigor Dimitrov, the player we keep waiting to see take the reins in this sport. Millman stunned Roger Federer here in 2018, while Dimitrov did the same last season. The Bulgarian starts his campaign against the same man who knocked him out of the Australian Open, first round Tommy Paul, but if he's sufficiently recovered from his own calamitous bout with COVID we could get a nice clash between him and the Australian a few matches later. 

My Semifinalist Pick:John Millman
Confidence Meter:He's a strong player and really doesn't get enough credit

Fourth Quarter

The last section of the draw is led by two of the guys that hope to take over the crown from the current Big Three -- Alexandrer Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. The former surprised me with a run to the semis Down Under, but has been quiet since, dropping his first match since quarantine (and that ill-planned "gathering") to Andy Murray last week. He opens against 2017 runner-up Kevin Anderson, who's is still recovering from knee surgery. Still he's a big server and might be able to present a threat early. 

Meanwhile, after an earlier exit than anticipated in Melbourne, Tsitsipas did manage a title in Marseille and a final in Dubai. He made the semis in Cincy, but fell there to a resurgent Milos Raonic. He seems to have a less threatening early road in New York, but there are nevertheless some threats out there.

Chief among them is the feisty Diego Schwartzman, slated to meet Zverev for a spot in the quarters and who far outplays his 5'7" frame. He beat the German here last year and put up a fight against Rafael Nadal in the semis, and though he's been a little more quiet this year, he somehow seems to bring his best when you don't expect it.

I've also got my eye on teenage American wildcard Brandon Nakashima, playing in his very first Major. He captured an ITF title in Santa Fe, reached the quarters at Delray Beach and the semis at the Indian Wells Challengers event in February. Over the summer he became a standout in World Team Tennis, getting wins over Steve Johnson Tennys Sandgren, Jack Sock, and Tommy Paul. He'd face Zverev or Anderson in the second round -- if he can get by veteran Paolo Lorenzi -- and it will be great to see exactly what he's made of.

My Semifinalist Pick:Stefanos Tsitsipas
Confidence Meter:It seems like his time to show us what he's got

Well there you go, my full analysis of the 2020 U.S. Open draws. It sure feels weird to go through that with barely a mention of Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal -- though, I suppose, we should start getting used to that some day soon.

I can't say things will feel the same without so many of the sports top stars, to say nothing of how strange it will be with all the other measures being implemented. Though I'm encouraged by how much great tennis we've still seen in spite of all that the last few weeks, and there's no reason we shouldn't expect more.

There's been a lot of speculation about whether whoever wins the titles here will have an asterisk by their names in the record books -- does a record count, will a trophy be as meaningful, if you didn't face a full field to get there? But plenty of titles have been won with the champion never beating someone ranked higher -- Ash Barty won the French Open last year facing just one player in the top twenty, no one in the top ten. And there will still be so much talent on the courts in New York, it's going to be hard to take away from any accomplishments.

So as we get ready for the first balls to be hit, let's just hope we're in for two weeks of solid ball, only the good kind of drama, and a safe tournament for everyone involved.

* By my count: Sofia Kenin, Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Petra Kvitova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Angelique Kerber, Sloane Stephens, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Kim Clijsters. (Active Slam winners not in draw: Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Bianca Andreescu, Jelena Ostapenko, Sam Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova.)

August 26, 2020

The Hangover

It should come as no surprise that after a big night out it's not always easy to spring out of bed the next morning and find the energy you need to really be at your best. And, while it may not always happen under the same circumstances, the world's best athletes are certainly not immune from that feeling.

Take, for example, what we've seen over the last few days at the Western & Southern Open in New York. While there have been plenty of upstarts riding high after taking advantage of the many holes in the ladies' field, too many have crashed back down to earth when looking to follow through.

The first example came when Russia's Veronika Kudermetova, who hadn't notched a top ten win at all this season, toppled top seeded Karolina Pliskova, a titleist at the Cincinnatti event in 2016 and a finalist at the U.S. Open that same year. The 23-year-old wasn't able to extend her run, though, falling a round later to a largely underappreciated Elise Mertens. Then Alizé Cornet, currently #60 in the world, trounced Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin in straight sets. The veteran Frenchwoman then fell in her third round to a resurgent Victoria Azarenka.

But perhaps the biggest high came when Maria Sakkari took the court against Serena Williams on Tuesday. The Greek star, just a shade off her career best ranking at #21 in the world, has had some decent wins over the past year, beating the likes of Elina Svitolina, Petra Kvitova, and Madison Keys, among others. In her opener this week she plowed through wunderkind Coco Gauff in straight sets. And while Williams has struggled to close the deal recently, winning just one title since 2017, Sakkari was clearly the underdog last night. She lost a tight first set and came within two points of dropping the whole match a few times, but after winning the second in a tiebreak, she rolled through the decider in about half an hour.

It was by far the biggest win of Sakkari's career, but unfortunately the momentum didn't last too long. She lost today in straight sets to Britain's Johanna Konta, a woman she'd defeated last year for her first and so far only title in Rabat. Notably, it's the second event in a row that Serena's vanquisher has fallen a round later -- earlier this month in Lexington, then-#116 Shelby Rogers scored the win of her lifetime and immediately folded to eventual champion Jennifer Brady. Perhaps that's a good omen for Konta.

It's not just the women who can fall victim to the second day slump -- an on-the-mend Andy Murray scored his biggest win since 2016 when he defeated world #7 Alexander Zverev on Monday, but fell to Milos Raonic a day later. But a couple men have a chance to keep their highs going a little longer. Big-serving Reilly Opelka followed up his win over Diego Schwartzman by taking out sixth seeded Matteo Berrettini, and Serbia's Filip Krajinovic not only crushed Dominic Thiem in the second round, he's currently up a break on Raonic for a spot in the semis.

Of course, the important thing is not whether these players suffer a hangover every once in a while -- we all can relate with needing a little time to recover from a big celebration -- it's whether they pick themselves up the day after that. And whether they were the ones on the losing side of the initial upset or the ones who lost their mojo a bit, the bigger tests are still to come. And what they learn from these experiences will be what matters in the end.