August 26, 2015

2015 U.S. Open: Ten to Watch

With just days to go before the start of this year's U.S. Open, we all know that we could be on the verge of making history. Serena Williams has the rare opportunity to complete a calendar year Grand Slam -- an achievement that even she, with all her career accomplishments and honors, has never even had a chance to claim.

But as much as that would mean for the world #1 -- and the sport itself -- there are certainly other story lines to follow in New York. And, more specifically, other players to keep an eye on too. Some have been a little quiet of late and are looking to launch a bit of a comeback, others are hoping to capitalize on a summer during which they were really able to shine.

And while most headlines will likely focus on just a couple of favorites, any one of these guys could make a splash of their own in Flushing Meadows.

The Women

Caroline Wozniacki

Last year's Cinderella made a stunning run to her second Major final while ranked just #11 in the world and rode her success to one of the best comebacks of the year. It's not that she's done badly this season -- she was a runner-up in Auckland and Stuttgart and even picked up a title in Kuala Lumpur, which was enough to keep her in the top five on Tour. Still her summer's been a little less than spectacular -- she squandered her top seed in Stanford, fell in her Toronto opener to eventual champion Belinda Bencic, and lost in Cincinnati to Victoria Azarenka for the fourth time this year. This week she hit the courts among a crowded and talented field in New Haven -- a place where she's had a lot of success in the past. She started out strong, though, dropping just two games to Alison Riske in her opener, and if she can at least gather some momentum, she might just be able to keep her success going in Flushing Meadows.

Jelena Jankovic

JJ is another former top-ranked player who knows what it's like to come in second in New York, but her trip to the final came a long seven years ago and she's had more than a little trouble recapturing that glory. While she managed to stay in the top ten for a few years, even finishing 2013 at #8 in the world, it's been a while since she's been a relevant feature at the Majors -- in the last five years she's only made it to the quarterfinals once and she's fallen in the first round five times, twice this year alone. She's also put together long stretches without any kind of title -- after making a surprise run to the Indian Wells crown in 2010, it took more than three years before she picked up a trophy in Bogota, and since then she only scored a 125K championship in Nanchang last month, without facing a player in the top hundred to do it. Still, with all her struggles, the Serb has shown some signs of her old self this season -- she made it back to the final in the California desert and last week scored her first top ten win of the year, taking out Karolina Pliskova in Cincinnati. She did eventually lose in the semifinals, but her performance may have reminded us of the kind of damage she can do on a hard court if she's at her best.

Sloane Stephens

I don't think I was the only one who wrote off the former Australian Open semifinalist a few months ago -- after her stellar start to the 2013 season, she had a hard time following through. Last year she lost four matches to players ranked in the triple digits and with a 2-4 record to start 2015, she saw her own position fall out of the top forty. But she's been getting her game back together more recently, it seems -- in Indian Wells she scored upsets over Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and even took a set of Serena Williams in the fourth round. She rode her momentum to the quarters in Indian Wells later that month and went on to score upsets over Coco Vandeweghe in Strasbourg, Venus Williams at Roland Garros and Carla Suarez Navarro in Eastbourne. It wasn't until the start the summer hardcourt season, though, that she really hit her stride -- unseeded at the Citi Open in Washington, the American took out both Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Sam Stosur to claim her first Tour title without dropping a set. While she fell early in Toronto, she was able to put up a nice fight against Ana Ivanovic in Cincinnati, and might just have re-established herself as a contender on the big stages again.

Anna Schmiedlova

The young Slovakian will celebrate her twentieth birthday on the same day the women's champion is crowned, and while it might be a tall order to ask that she's still around at the end of the fortnight, it might not be so far out of the question. After all, we've seen two first time Major finalists already this year, so why not add Schmiedlova to the mix. The former French Open Girls' runner-up has already made a couple big statements at the Slams -- last year she picked up a couple ITF titles on clay and went on to stun Venus Williams in Paris. This year she's proven herself on the WTA Tour too -- after reaching the final in Rio, she picked up her maiden trophy on the hard courts of Katowice and, for good measure, added another crown in Bucharest. Ranked just outside the top forty to start the month, she still had to qualify for the main draw in Cincinnati, but she rode an upset of former world #2 Aga Radwanska all the way to the quarters and a #32 ranking. While she hasn't yet made it out of the third round at a Major, I wouldn't be surprised if this was her chance to change that.

Margarita Gasparyan

Don't worry, you're not the only one who's never heard of the twenty-year-old. The little-known Russian has spent most of her time on the ITF Tour and hasn't gotten much action at all against the sport's elite. But she has quietly picked up a trio of titles on that circuit and put together a 37-8 record so far this year, climbing from a sub-two hundred ranking to #71 now. She even managed to qualify for both the French Open and Wimbledon, playing the first two Major main draws of her career. Her big break, though, came this summer when she took to the courts of Baku -- a lower-tier tournament which has nevertheless boasted champions from Elina Svitolina to Vera Zvonareva. She opened with a solid win over one-time Grand Slam runner-up Dominika Cibulkova and then took out Karin Knapp, who was fresh off a solid showing in Bad Gastein. In her WTA-level final debut, she was challenged a bit by also-unknown Patricia Maria Tig, but came out on top to claim her maiden Big Girls' trophy which might give her the confidence she needs in the Big Apple. Gasparyan has a little work left to do to make the main draw, though -- the top seed in qualifying tournament, she rolled through her opening round opponent on Tuesday, but still could face plenty of challenges, including one-time New York darling Melanie Oudin. But maybe this time she's finally primed to get that all important win when it counts.

The Men

Marin Cilic

It's not often that the defending champion is as far off the radar as this Croat is, but the man who unexpectedly ran off with his maiden Major title twelve months ago has had a hard time keeping the momentum going. Though he did manage to pick up another title at the end of the year in Moscow, he lost all three of his round robin matches at his first year-end championship and was forced to skip the first Grand Slam of this season with injury. Since he returned to action at Indian Wells he's lost in his opening round four times and racked up a barely break-even 18-13 record. There have been some glimpses of what he's capable of, though -- he reached the quarters at Wimbledon and put up a nice fight in a rematch against Kei Nishikori in the Citi Open semis. Still he's got a lot to lose in his return to New York, and if he's not truly back in form he could potentially fall well down the rankings by the time this fortnight is over. But if he can put together even a decent run -- which we know he can -- he might just be able to set the stage for an even bigger rebound down the road.

Nick Kyrgios

I haven't spent a lot of time writing about the scandal that overtook the young Australian -- and kind of the entire sport -- the last few weeks, and while I have absolutely no desire to get into the details here, I can't help but wonder what it will mean for his performance in New York. The twenty-year-old had been putting together a more-than-impressive season through the start of the summer -- he reached the quarters at his homeland's Major and reached his first career final in Estoril. More impressively, though, he took out 2014 semifinalist Milos Raonic at Wimbledon and two-time champion Roger Federer in Madrid. His early successes got him all the way to a career high #25 ranking in early June, but he's taken a bit of a tumble since then. After grabbing headlines for all the wrong reasons in Montreal, he lost his next match in straight sets to John Isner, and a week later in Cincy, he only managed to take three games off Richard Gasquet in his opening round. He's now fallen out of seeding territory for the U.S. Open, which could make him vulnerable from the get go -- and while he only has third round points at stake in his return to New York, if he's not able to shake off the stink that's been cast over him this month, he might be an easier target this time than he would be under other circumstances.

Alexandr Dolgopolov

It was about this time last year that the Ukrainian star's season began to implode -- after a year in which he'd stunned Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells and took out recently crowned Grand Slam champ Stan Wawrinka in Miami, he'd re-established himself as a legitimate force on Tour. But knee surgery in July kept him out of the draw in New York and off the courts until late September, since when he only won one match the rest of the year. It took a while for him to get his footing back this season -- after failing to defend points during the spring hardcourt sweep he fell to #80 in the world and had to qualify for the Rome Masters event. Things got a little better in the summer though -- he took out four higher ranked players on his way to the semis in Nottingham, and after qualifying again for Cincinnati last week, was two points away from defeating Novak Djokovic for a spot in the final. He may have run out of steam a bit in Winston-Salem though -- still unseeded, despite his post-Ohio boost, Dolgo lost two tiebreaks to young Thanasi Kokkinakis -- but perhaps that will give him the time and rest he needs to make a real push in New York.

Marcos Baghdatis

As much as I always root for the veteran Cypriot, I can hardly believe myself that he's still alive and kicking these days. A finalist at the Australian Open nearly ten years ago, the former world #8 has dealt with one injury after another, falling out of the top hundred several times since hitting his peak. In fact at the start of 2014 he'd gone as low as #155 in the world. But he's nothing if not resilient -- after a second round loss at Wimbledon last year, he picked up a trio of Challengers' titles to end the season and this year pushed Grigor Dimitrov through a long five sets in their Melbourne third round. He continued his momentum with a semi run in Zagreb and even beat David Ferrer in Nottingham. Back in the top fifty again after a trip to the All England Club, he made his way to the final in Atlanta, his first Tour-level championship since 2011. He too had a bit of a hiccup this week in Winston-Salem, losing to qualifier Pierre-Hugues Herbert in his opener, but given how he's pulled his game together this year, there's no reason to believe he won't be able to rebound again.

Denis Kudla

As we Americans wait (and wait) for the next big star to take over the reins from Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and even Andy Roddick, there have been a couple names that have come up as potential contenders -- John Isner, Sam Querrey, and, what now seems like a long time ago, James Blake. And while a couple of the young guns surely still have an opportunity to make a splash, this year it could be someone way farther down the radar that causes a stir. The twenty-three year old Kudla put up a huge fight against Feliciano Lopez at the Australian Open and then endured a couple more five-set marathons on his way to the fourth round at Wimbledon, the only man from the U.S. to get that far. He kept up his success at the start of the summer, too, qualifying for the main draw in Atlanta and beating compatriot Jack Sock on his way to the semis -- where he, incidentally, took a set off eventual champion Isner. He qualified for Montreal and Cincy too, and managed to climb to a career high ranking of #74 in the world at the start of this week. While he may be a little older than his contemporaries were when they made their first impact in New York, he might just have the experience and maturity now to make a more lasting impression.

Bonus Round

Okay, I know I've been limiting these lists to five men and five women all year long, but with the U.S. Open being the final Major of 2015, this is the last chance players have to make any sort of real statement this season. So I'm expanding the field this one time to include a couple athletes who might not be quite on the radar in New York, but nevertheless could prove to be big spoilers.

Roberta Vinci

The two-time quarterfinalist in the Big Apple has fallen well off the radar in the last several months -- both on the singles circuit and on the doubles Tour, which she and former partner Sara Errani dominated for years. After a disappointing 2014, she began this year barely ranked inside the top fifty and notched surprising losses to players like world #113 Tatjana Maria and #168 Veronica Cepede Royg. Though she made a somewhat surprising run to the final in Nürnberg, she lost four straight matches after that, even going 0-3 during her traditionally strong grass court run. But something seemed to click one the seasons turned -- she took out a strong Daria Gavrilova to make the elite eight in Toronto, and earlier this week as a qualifier in New Haven, trounced former Wimbledon finalist Genie Bouchard in a barely hour-long opening match. Though she'll now face off against three-time champion Caroline Wozniacki, she's certainly shown she still has the capability of pulling off big upsets and could keep proving that for a few more matches to come.

Mardy Fish

Now I realize the veteran American hasn't made as big an impact at the Majors as others, but as the one-time world #7 gets ready for his last U.S. Open run, you can't help but appreciate all he's accomplished. Long a middle-of-the-road player, he had a breakthrough in 2010 -- dropping some thirty pounds, a fact many commentators seemingly could not get over, he soared to new levels in the game, stunning Andy Murray three times in a row, in Miami, Queen's Club, and Cincinnati and racking up a slew of other top-ten wins. He cracked the single digit rankings himself less than a year later, rode his momentum to a quarterfinal showing at Wimbledon and surpassed Andy Roddick as the top-ranked player in the U.S. But just as he was peaking, Fish was dealt an unfortunate blow -- diagnosed with severe anxiety and a heart condition that required surgery, Fish skipped the entire 2014 season and has only played three singles matches since his return at Indian Wells -- winning just one last week in Cincinnati -- but that might not be the worst harbinger. Remember how well a struggling Andy Roddick did after announced his retirement a few years back? Of course, it'll be much tougher for Fish to put together a big run, but with the crowd certainly behind him in the Big Apple, I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a little splash.

Well there you go -- ten or so players who may not be super high on the radar this year at the U.S. Open, but nonetheless could stir things up a bit. And while we're all so focused on the favorites, any of these guys could surprise us while our eyes are trained elsewhere.

Of course, with a few days left before the draws are released, who knows yet how challenging any of their roads in New York will be -- but there's no reason one or more of them can't rise to the occasion.

After all, with this being their last big opportunity to make a name for themselves in the 2015 season, expect all of them to put up their biggest fight now.

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