US Open: Serena Williams could make a run; Rafael Nadal gets ideal matchups
- Fans will be hoping for a run from 23-time grand slam singles champion Serena Williams in her final tournament, with the US Open seen as wide open
- Since the 40-year old Williams announced on August 9 that she was transitioning away from professional tennis, her form has not been good
The first thing most of the tennis world looked for when the US Open draws came out was where Serena Williams landed in her final tournament.
As it turns out, not in a bad spot at all. Williams, the six-time US Open champ, theoretically will have a chance to make a bit of a run facing 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic in the first round and the very vulnerable No 2 seed Anett Kontaveit after that.
The question is whether Williams’ body will hold up well enough to put consecutive matches together – something she has not had much success with since returning to tournament tennis at Wimbledon.
In reality, since the 40-year old Williams announced early this month that she was moving away from professional tennis, her form has not been good.
Though she did score one win in Canada over Nuria Parrizas-Diaz, she got handed some pretty thorough defeats by top-15 players.
Williams seemed to be struggling with knee soreness as she was swept aside by Belinda Bencic and Emma Raducanu.
It is hard to know what to expect from Williams, but the New York crowd will be a huge asset. And she ended up in a fortunate section of the draw alongside Kontaveit, No 14 seed Leylah Fernandez and No 23 seed Barbora Krejcikova who have all struggled to come back from health setbacks. On paper, one of those three should be in the quarter-finals.
When she heard about the match-up with Williams, Kovinic said: “I was happy; I won’t lie.
“It’s a privilege to share the court with Serena,” Kovinic said at Flushing Meadows. “I just really hope that I can show my good game. Maybe my best game.
“Serena is an icon. If I was not playing her on Monday, I would not have all this attention. I’m aware of that,” Kovinic said. “So it’ll be a very nice experience and, at the same moment, maybe a little bit stressful. Of course I will feel pressure. But I will try to turn it into something positive.”
Expecting something special to happen for Williams at this event is too high a bar to set. But given the draw, it looks far more realistic now for her to sneak through into the second week.
It is the most wide open Open in recent memory, for men and women. This is the rare circumstance in tennis where you could have as many as a dozen different men holding the trophy and maybe twice as many women and not be surprised by the result.
With unvaccinated Novak Djokovic sitting at home because he cannot get into the US, Rafael Nadal’s health a significant question mark and both No 1 seeds showing vulnerability in their last few tournaments, this will be a huge opportunity to see first-time grand slam winners.
No 1-ranked Daniil Medvedev, the defending champion, seems to enjoy the conditions in New York more than anywhere else in the world. He is 18-2 at the US Open since 2019, with both losses coming against the eventual champions. But since his heartbreaking loss to Nadal in the Australian Open final this year, Medvedev’s play has not been as sharp as expected.
Medvedev looks like he will have a tough path. In the fourth round he could face Nick Kyrgios, who is having a career year and just beat Medvedev in Canada earlier this month. The quarter-finals would likely pit him against Canadian Open champion and two-time US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta or No 8 Felix Auger-Aliassime.
For entertainment’s sake, a semi-final between Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas – who do not particularly like each other going back to a famous incident in Miami five years ago – would be a pretty fun match-up.
For women’s No 1 seed Iga Swiatek, it has been a bit of a struggle since the end of her 37-match winning streak, which included the French Open title. Swiatek has complained about the Wilson balls being used for the US Open, which are a bit lighter and more difficult to control with her heavy topspin game.
Though the calendar-year grand slam possibility died when Nadal withdrew from the Wimbledon semi-finals, nobody has beaten him this year in the majors. Unfortunately, we have not seen much of Nadal since then as he has tried to recover from an abdominal muscle tear.
Nadal got just one prep match under his belt in Cincinnati, losing in three sets to the eventual champion Borna Coric. The big issue for Nadal with that injury was serving, and it is still unclear how much that affects him now and whether it will flare up again playing a string of best-of-five set matches.
Nadal said it was sad to not have Djokovic at the US Open. “It’s always a shame when the best players of the world are not able to play a tournament because of injuries or because of a different reason,” he said.
If Nadal is relatively healthy, it is hard to see the four-time US Open champ being seriously challenged until the quarter-finals where he would be theoretically lined up against No 7 seed Cameron Norrie.
If the tennis gods are looking favourably, it could be Nadal in the semi-finals against fellow Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz. The 20-year old made his first big grand slam run to the quarters of last year’s US Open.
The women’s tournament a year ago captivated hardcore and casual fans alike as charismatic teenagers Raducanu and Fernandez ended up in a final no one predicted.
That result launched both of their careers into a different stratosphere, but the downside is that they return to the US Open with a lot at stake in the rankings, which are calculated on a rolling 12-month basis.
Raducanu, for example, is currently No 11. But if she were to lose in the first round to Alize Cornet – and that is certainly a match she could lose – all those points she got for winning the title last year would come off and she would tumble down to around No 80. Likewise, Fernandez would slip from No 14 to around 45 if she lost in the first round.
Fernandez got a much more favourable opening match-up against Oceane Dodin and landed in Williams’ quarter, which does not look that daunting on paper. But the foot injury Fernandez suffered at the French Open has been an issue during the hard court season, as she is just 1-2 since coming back.
When you consider the likeliest candidates to win their first grand slam title, you have to start with 21-year old Italian Jannik Sinner. He has always had the raw tools and massive power, but his game has gone up a level this year since Darren Cahill – who also works as an ESPN analyst – joined his coaching team.
Sinner is starting to consistently go deeper in the majors, including Wimbledon, where he beat Alcaraz and was up two sets on Djokovic in the quarter-finals before his inexperience showed. He could end up facing Alcaraz again here in the quarter-finals in what should be one of the premier rivalries of the next decade.
There is also a case to be made for top-ranked American Taylor Fritz, who has a draw he can work with here. Fritz looked good in Cincinnati until he met Medvedev in the quarter-finals, collecting victories over Kyrgios and Andrey Rublev. In the US Open, he lands in the same quarter as No 5 seed Casper Ruud and No 4 seed Tsitsipas, who are both more comfortable on clay.
On the women’s side, you could almost pick names out of a hat at this point. Jessica Pegula, the top American, has had such a consistent year but no singles titles to show for it. Coco Gauff can look like the best player in the world one match, then fail to keep her forehand in the court the next.
Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia has been an incredible story, climbing from No 80 at the end of last year to No 15 on the back of some terrific results, including the Canadian Open finals. Carolina Garcia has also been hot, winning 26 of her last 30 matches. She could face 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu in the third round.
Two-time US Open champion Naomi Osaka comes into this event on one of the worst runs of form in her career with just a 1-3 record during the North American hard-court swing. It is hard to know whether she is even healthy, having battled an Achilles problem this spring and more recently a back issue. She faces this year’s Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins, who has likewise struggled with a neck injury and has not posted many good results lately.
If you like hard hitting, two-time grand slam champion Garbine Muguruza against Danish teen Clara Tauson will be a match where neither one of them holds back. Though her sister has got all the attention, Venus Williams is also back in the US Open for perhaps the final time, facing the solid Alison Van Uytvanck.
The men’s first round with the most star power is 2020 champion Dominic Thiem against Carreno Busta. Thiem is trying to get back to the top after two injury-plagued seasons, but it has been slow progress, and it would be a pretty big upset if he beats an in-form Carreno Busta.
Additional reporting by Associated Press, Reuters