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.

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