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This time last year, Sloane Stephens entered the US Open ranked number 83 in the world, known as a talented, but inconsistent player who had suffered a number of frustrating injuries.
She left the tournament two weeks later with her maiden Grand Slam victory, and a top ten ranking. That title has seemed to buoy her on to greater levels of consistency this year, which has played out in her absorbing rivalry with world number one Simona Halep.
Twice this year the two players have met in finals – at Roland Garros in May, and Montreal a few weeks ago – and both times Halep has prevailed in three enthralling sets. We could be in for a third instalment in the rivalry, with the two drawn to meet in the semi-finals of this year’s tournament.
However, for that to happen, Halep will need to navigate her way through a treacherous draw, which could see her face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. Pavlyuchenkova took it up to her in Montreal last week, and then two-time Slam champion Garbine Muguruza.
She could also face former finalist Karolina Pliskova in the quarter-finals. Working in Halep’s favour is the fact that she lost in the first round here last year, and so, having locked up the number one ranking with her performances in the past few weeks – winning nine out of ten matches in the hard-court swing – she can play with a certain degree of freedom.
After her breakthrough French Open title in May, Halep spoke about how her mental toughness has developed over the past year, which was evident in the tenacity she showed to fight through a serious ankle injury to reach the final of the Australian Open.
Although the US Open hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for her in the past, winning her maiden slam seems to have imbued her with the desire to win more. That, coupled with her newfound mental fortitude, and her excellent results in the North American hard-court swing, may mean her best chance yet for a hard-court Slam.
We could also be in for another instalment in the Venus and Serena story, with both drawn to face each other in the third round. Tournament directors have elevated Serena’s seeding to number 17 (from her world ranking of 26), guaranteeing that she won’t meed a seed ranked higher than six until the quarter-finals.
Serena is still searching for a record-equalling 24th Slam title, but comes in to this tournament with minimal match play, having played only three matches since Wimbledon. Despite a second-round loss, she showed good form against Petra Kvitova in Cincinnati last week, and it would be a brave person who counts out Serena at a Slam.
A smoky in the women’s draw is Kiki Bertens. Other than Halep, she’s arguably the best-performed played this season. Her list of achievements this year is enormous – reaching a career-high ranking of 13, winning titles in Charleston and Cincinnati, making the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, and defeating six top-10 players in the past two weeks.
To put the immensity of these achievements into perspective, before Cincinnati she was regarded as a clay-court specialist, had never beaten a top-10 player on hard courts, and had never made a hard-court final.
Cincinnati is one of the premier tournaments on the women’s tour, and for her to win that – defeating Halep, world number six Kvitova, world number seven Elena Svitolina, and world number two Caroline Wozniacki in the process – highlights her form.
She may not yet be ready to win a Slam, but she has a good draw here – the first seed she’s likely to face is 31st seed Mihaela Buzarnescu in the third round, who is coming off a serious ankle injury – and in a Slam, anything can happen.
The men’s side of the draw also looks like producing some compelling storylines. For the first time in a long while, we enter the US Open with three different players having won the three preceding Slams (Roger Federer – Australian Open; Rafael Nadal – French Open; Novak Djokovic – Wimbledon), and with a near full-strength draw.
2016 champion Stan Wawrinka is on the comeback trail from injury, as is Andy Murray. 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro, and 2014 champion Marin Cilic are both in good form, while Djokovic is back to his best, following up his Wimbledon crown with the title in Cincinnati last week.
Federer is aiming to win his sixth US Open title, the last of which came a decade ago. Since then, it has been slim pickings (by his standards). Of he’s to win this year, he will likely have to overcome a resurgent Djokovic at the quarter-final stage. He could also match up against Nick Kyrgios in the third round. For his part, Djokovic has an easier draw, with a possible match up against 12th seed Pablo Carreno-Busta his toughest challenge before the quarter-finals. The 13-time Slam champion has been in scintillating form since Wimbledon, and would have to be favourite to take out the title.
Defending champion Rafa Nadal comes into this year’s tournament fresh from a two-week break, having opted not to contest the tournament in Cincinnati. He’s found himself in the opposite half of the draw to Federer and Djokovic, and stands a good chance of making it to the quarter-finals, where he could face last year’s runner-up Kevin Anderson.
Nadal has often stated his fondness for the US Open, and should thrive on the atmosphere here. Djokovic will pose a stern challenge for him, should they meet in the final, but as we’ve been seeing for the past 15 years, you can never discount Rafa.
Del Potro could be another contender for the title. After capturing his only Slam title here in 2009, many predicted that ‘Del Po’ could be destined for many more. Unfortunately, what followed has been nothing short of disastrous for the Argentine, who has endured multiple wrist surgeries, and at one stage dropped out of the top 200 in the world.
Thankfully for us, he has steadily worked his way back, and, over the past year, has recaptured some of his best form, winning Indian Wells, and reaching the semi-finals at the French Open and the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
He’s been placed in a loaded half of the draw, which features both Murray and Wawrinka, but also the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, and rising Greek young gun Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Like Bertens on the women’s side, Tsitsipas is unlikely to win this year’s US Open, but shapes as a future Slam champion, and, on the back of his recent scintillating form, could pose a big obstacle for the eventual champion. Two weeks ago, Tsitsipas became the youngest player to beat four top-10 players at the same event since 1990.
That was at the Canadian Masters event, where he defeated Thiem, Djokovic, fellow young gun Alex Zverev, and Kevin Anderson, before succumbing to Nadal in the final. He hasn’t yet put it all together at Slam level – this year’s fourth round result at Wimbledon was his best to date – but at only 20 years of age, and ranked 15 in the world, Tsitsipas has truly announced himself as a player to watch.
Other than Tsitsipas, the best title chance from ‘Generation Next’ – tennis’ so-called group of up-and-coming stars – is still Zverev, the enigmatic 21-year-old, who, despite winning three Masters 1000 titles in the last year (Rome, Montreal, Madrid), and being firmly cemented in the world’s top five, hasn’t yet been able to make an impact at Slams.
Zverev has been spoken about as the next men’s Slam champion for the past three years, but has been frustratingly inconsistent at that level. However, his best Slam result of a quarter-final came at Roland Garros this year, which, along with his new coaching partnership with Ivan Ljubicic, may be evidence that that’s about to change.
He’s been in decent form in the lead-up tournaments, and, while he could face Cilic in a quarter-final, has a fairly comfortable draw. Winning a Slam has always been a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’, for Zverev, and he enters the year’s final major with his best chance yet of fulfilling that destiny.