Unpredictable Tournament Could Be On Tap
The U.S. Open might well consider replacing its usual log with a huge question mark for 2017 as the year’s final Grand Slam has more questions than answers heading towards opening day. Three of last year’s four semifinalist will not even be participating in this year’s event due to injury. 2016 champion Stan Wawrinka had to shut down his season due to a knee injury that required surgery. Runner-up, Novak Djokovic, also cut his season short due to recurring elbow problems. 2016 Semifinalist Kei Nishikori is also on the shelf for the remainder of 2017 with a wrist problem. Another potential top ten seed in this year’s tournament dropped out within the past day with Milos Raonic withdrawing due to ongoing issues with his left wrist that also required surgery. Add to that the questionable status of both Andy Murray and Marin Cilic, and you’re missing a great deal of the players who normally are talked about as having a shot to be in the championship mix.
Where does that leave us? #Fedal of course. However, the resurgent Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer arrive with their own questions in New York. Nadal has retaken the overall #1 ranking for the first time in three years, but has looked mortal in the North American hard court swing this summer. Nadal went just 3-2 in Montreal and Cincinnati, beaten by Denis Shapovalov at the Rogers Cup and then totally overpowered by Nick Kyrgios 6-2, 7-5 at the Western & Southern Open. Certainly no one should rule Rafa out as he’s shown well in all three Grand Slams this season, but there are definitely some questions now that he will need to answer if he’s going to make a big run in New York.
And then there is Federer. The ageless Swiss Maestro who most had at the top of their list for potential winners at the U.S. Open will still be there, but now he arrives with an injury cloud of his own. After running roughshod over the field at Wimbledon, Federer took a break until the Rogers Cup. In his own words, Federer said that his body felt a bit more sore than usual, but that is wasn’t entirely unexpected when going from vacation mode back to work mode. Despite not playing nearly as crisply and dominantly as he did in London, Federer still weaved his way to the final in Montreal against Alexander Zverev. That is where trouble popped up however as Federer appeared to be suffering physically as the match wore on. We would find out afterwards that his problematic back was again to blame. As such, Fed and his team decided rest and rehab was best as he skipped Cincinnati.
Now, three weeks or so in the future, we’ll have to take a bit of a wait and see attitude with Federer. Yes, he will be ready to go in the opening round, but now you have to wonder just a bit how his body will hold up in the best of five conditions you’re subject to in Grand Slams. All of a sudden, one tweaked back has dangled that question mark over the head of the Swiss who has won two of the three Grand Slams played this season.
Previous Champions Arrive With Issues Too
With all of the previously mentioned players who are M.I.A. due to injury plus the questions about Nadal and Federer, this COULD be one of the more wide open Grand Slams on the men’s side in quite some time. Could being the operative word as we know the furious five – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka – will still have three members operating in New York. Despite the rhetoric, that group has won 48 of the last 50 Grand Slams on the ATP World Tour. The exceptions of course both coming at the U.S. Open courtesy of Juan Martin Del Potro in 2009 and Marin Cilic in 2014.
You COULD include Del Potro and Cilic on the list of contenders, but both carry their own baggage. DelPo has been unable to find a ton of consistency with his wrist seemingly an omnipresent thought for him in his matches. Some matches he flashes the big and dominant game that makes him dangerous, but too often, he’s struggled to serve with consistency and his ground game has gone flat. Cilic? He’s an obvious player to make some noise, except he’s been sidelined with an abductor injury this summer. We all remember Cilic’s tearful and painfully poor performance in the Wimbledon final against Federer. That was due in part to this injury, so it remains to be seen if he’s fit and if he can find some form on-the-fly in New York.
There’s also this Scottish fellow you may have heard of – Andy Murray? Murray has been M.I.A. since Wimbledon, desperately attempt to gain fitness after struggling for months with a hip injury. Murray wisely chose to skip the hard court build-up to the U.S. Open to prevent further damage, but is he anywhere close to being 100 percent now? We don’t know for sure, but it seems highly unlikely that the Scot would be 100 percent physically and MENTALLY fit for the U.S. Open.
It’s no secret that Murray wore himself out in both those categories last year to chase down the #1 ranking. He seemingly never recovered to start the season with his body failing him with elbow and hip problems along with bouts with the flu at different times. The 2012 U.S. Open champ is likely to take the court still, but will be woefully short on match play conditions and rhythm. For a player who relies a lot on his fitness and getting a rhythm from regular work on the court, this seems a poor set-up to him finding much success in New York.
The Name on Everyone’s List is Sascha
On a short and different list of contenders this year, Alexander Zverev is the name that has elevated to the top of the list. Sascha’s name is now on the top of every pundit’s tongue as the next “break-through” Grand Slam champion and rightfully so after a wonderful summer of results. Zverev won the Citi Open to kick off his hard court campaign and then secured his second Masters title of the year with the win over Federer at the Rogers Cup. Sascha did run out of gas in Cincinnati with first-up loss to Frances Tiafoe, but that was hardly surprising given his busy summer.
While the world’s 6th ranked player is now considered a contender, do look over the peripherals. He’s 6-5 against the top ten this year, but 0-2 against them in Grand Slams this year and he does not own a top ten win at a Slam. The good news? Three players ranked in the top ten won’t be playing this year – Wawrinka, Djokovic and Nishikori and two more – Murray and Cilic – are injury concerns. That still leaves Nadal, Federer, Thiem and Dimitrov to contend with in that realm however for a player who is still seeking his first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
That’s right and it’s easy to forget that Zverev has not been past the fourth round at Slam. It’s also easy to forget that at 20 years of age, he could just be entering his reign of terror over the tour. Still, he’s never been past round two at the U.S. Open and his Slam resume this season reads disappointing five set losses to Nadal at the Australian and Raonic at Wimbledon, plus a thudding first round loss to Fernando Verdasco at the French Open. I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we were all a bit giddy about Sascha’s prospects of being a contender there after he won the title in Rome right before Roland Garros.
Still, Zverev looks more like a player maturing at this point, rather than a player who still questions whether he belongs. He belongs. He’s now firmly inside the top ten and looking like a possibility to finish the season as high as #4 if he continues along his current trajectory. I think for me, this tournament is all about Zverev’s mental preparation and how he handles the pressure of increased expectation. With all the missing players and his recent success on this surface, he’ll be expected to do much more than just making it to the fourth round. Barring a really poor draw, anything less than getting that first Slam quarterfinal under his belt in New York will be a failure.
Dimitrov: Uprising or Downsizing?
Another player who figures to hear his name bandied about as a possible party crasher late in New York is Grigor Dimitrov. Coming off his first Masters title in Cincinnati, that’s enough to pump up expectation for the Bulgarian. He’s also back into the top ten for the first time since the summer of 2014. Not coincidentally, that was during Dimitrov’s best Slam performances in a calendar year when he made the Australian Open quarterfinals and then the semifinals at Wimbledon. This year? He was red hot making the semifinals in Australia, but had fizzled out by March. He had mediocre showings at the French (third round loss) and Wimbledon (fourth round pummeling to Federer).
The beginning of the summer also didn’t bring much hype for Dimitrov with early exits to Daniil Medvedev at the Citi Open and Robin Haase at the Rogers Cup. That changed though with the result in Cincinnati last week. Dimitrov beat Felciano Lopez, Del Potro, Yuichi Sugita, John Isner and Nick Kyrgios en route to the title. You will notice there isn’t a top ten player in the bunch and only Isner was in the top 20, although Kyrgios is now there due to his Cincinnati result.
The big question for Dimitrov is if he can turn around his poor history at the U.S. Open. He is just 7-6 all-time in New York with the majority of those wins coming in 2014 and 2016 during runs to the fourth round. He has avoided first round exits that plagued him from 2011-2013, but he hasn’t really done much more than beat the beatable and lose to the toughest player he meets at the earliest stage in the tournament. This is a big proving ground for Dimitrov or disproving ground as the case might wind up. I’m not sold on the uprising quite yet, so I think he might need a favorable draw to make a real run at the business end of things.
The Best of the Rest is a Bit of a Mess
The highest seed that I didn’t include above is Dominic Thiem and I think it’s for good reason. Thiem has had a fairly poor summer for someone who should be doing more as a top ten player. Thiem is just 3-3 in D.C., Montreal and Cincinnati this summer. Poor losses to Diego Schwartzman to end his Rogers Cup run and David Ferrer to stop him in Cincy have me hesitant to think the Austrian is going to be a major factor at the U.S. Open. This is after all that time of the year where early overs cheduling seems to wear Thiem down the most.
Thiem is 8-3 in his young career in New York, but wear and tear have looked to be big factors in his losses the last few years. His debut in New York came in 2014 where he breezed into the fourth round before getting pounded 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 by Tomas Berdych. 2015 saw a tough loss to Kevin Anderson in the third round in straight sets. 2016 saw Thiem get back to the fourth round again, but retire mid-match against Del Potro with a knee injury. Thiem could still be a thought late in the tournament, but to me he needs some easy early round wins to avoid over taxing his body.
Someone who will need to abide by that same formula to have any outside shot to be in the mix late would be Nick Kyrgios. Listen, we’re still not sure from week to week what sort of shape Kyrgios’ body is in, but Cincy showed that he’s still a threat when he’s rocking in rhythm with his serve. That will be a massive key in New York as to what sort of chance he will have to make some late noise. The obvious worry though is how his body will hold up with shoulder and hip injuries derailing him at different times during the season. We saw that at Wimbledon, where he had to retire in round one. He completrly went away in a second round loss to Kevin Anderson at Roland Garros 7-5, 4-6, 1-6, 2-6 and his supposed strongest Slam in Melbourne ended with a 10-8 5th set upset to Andreas Seppi.
If we’re being honest, Kyrgios has been a big disappointment at Slams since making the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2014 and following that with a quarterfinal in Australia the following year. The U.S. Open has been a horror show for him with the hip doing him in last year in round three against Illya Marchenko. The year before he had the terrible draw with Andy Murray in round one and in 2013, he lost to Tommy Robredo in round three. That is the farthest he has been, but at 22m surely the Aussie has plenty of time to start righting that course. Fitness will be the biggie and as mentioned, easy and straight forward matches are needed early. Kyrgios hasn’t spent enough time building his endurance, so playing lengthy best of five matches will be a burden on his mind and body. That he has those past injuries to kind of fall back on as a bailing out point is what worries the most with his mind usually not in the mood to put up a fight if things go off point and he feels less than 100 percent.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t wrap this up with one of last year’s quarterfinalists who has somewhat predictably fallen off this season. A year ago at the end of the U.S. Open, Lucas Pouille was being talked about as a future stud. He had knocked off Rafael Nadal in a gritty five set match to get to his second straight Grand Slam quarterfinal, after first turning the trick at Wimbledon. In 2017, little has gone right for Pouille in the first three Slams. He was a first round exit to Alexander Bublik in Australia and then made a third round exit in Paris and a second round exit in London.
Sure, Pouille has a couple of titles under his belt this season too, but in the big tournaments he has rarely made a peep. His Masters record this season is 5-6 and his Slam record is 3-3. This summer he has no traction with losses in both his tuneup matches to Tommy Paul in DC and Jared Donaldson in Montreal. At the beginning of the season, you could have made a case that the Frenchman would be one to potentially watch in the second week of Slams. This year, wins have been tougher to come by in those big matches. It’s not to say that he can’t find that again at the U.S. Open, but it seems more wishful thinking right now than probability.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …
So there you have it. Did I miss someone you think has a chance to stun the world? Do Gael Monfils or Kevin Anderson inspire visions of grandeur? Is there a Gaston Gaudio in the crowd? An unseeded player who will truly shock the world like the Argentine did at the 2004 French Open. Never say never, but 48 of the last 50 Grand Slams have belonged to a group of five players. Their numbers have dwindled though due to injury and realistically you’d say Nadal and Federer are the only members of the furious five who you can see raising the trophy. Andy Murray’s body is an unknown, but from what we’ve seen this season, it would take a lot for Murray to find his way to the end.
I probably touched on the eventual winner this year in New York somewhere above. Perhaps Nadal. Perhaps Federer. Perhaps we get a first timer. I can’t recall the last Grand Slam that had this many question marks and missing players, and quite frankly that might be why this becomes one of the more memorable Slams. There are going to be some players who step up and step into the spotlight – that is the feeling here – they could be ones like Zverev or Thiem – that we’ve been waiting to break that glass ceiling of the furious five. The other feeling is whether they do it themselves or make someone rev up their game to beat them – that Nadal and Federer will still have a say in crowning the 2017 U.S. Open champion.
Keep following me @tennispig for full men’s draw previews of both singles and doubles.