US Open 2017: In a season of surprising results, will the year's final Grand Slam produce the biggest shock?
Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka are some of the star names who will miss the US Open. Could a dark horse step up and shine in their absence?
The men’s field for the US Open wears a depleted look this year. Four of the top 11 seeds — 2016 winner Stan Wawrinka, last year’s runner-up Novak Djokovic, 2016 Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic and 2014 finalist Kei Nishikori have withdrawn from the final Grand Slam of the year due to injuries.
The recently-dethroned World No 1 Andy Murray hasn’t played a match since losing in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon due to a hip injury. Roger Federer, who has won two Majors this year, also has fitness questions hovering over him after he pulled his back in the Montreal Masters final. And finally, there’s top seed Rafael Nadal, who had an incredible clay-court season with his 10th French Open crown, but hasn’t won a hard-court title since 2013.
With so many injuries plaguing players as we head into the last quarter of the season, the US Open has literally been reduced to a contest of survival of the fittest. The tennis tour continues to be a brutal grind over 10 months, but this year in particular has seen plenty of casualties.
However, this diminished field represents opportunity for upcoming youngsters and deprived veterans alike. Only two of the last 50 Grand Slams have been won by players outside the “Big Five” and this US Open could see a first-time winner. While Nadal, Murray and Federer head into the Slam as the leading favourites, there are plenty of dark horses that could cause massive upsets in the two weeks to come.
Leading that pack is Germany’s Alexander Zverev. Though entering the tournament as the fourth seed, he no longer qualifies to be called a 'dark horse'; the 20-year-old is yet to perform in the biggest matches at this stage. He has two Masters titles to his name — Rome and Montreal — and has recorded six wins over top-10 players in the last seven months. But in best-of-five matches, he is yet to defeat a top-50 player.
Another young player who could have a breakthrough at Flushing Meadows is 22-year-old Nick Kyrgios. The mercurial Australian hasn’t yet made it past the quarter-finals at a Slam, and has struggled with injuries in his short career. But as he showed at Cincinnati recently with an appearance in the finals, he is extremely capable of stringing together a deep run. His biggest problem – finding the motivation to stay focused for every match, especially when facing a lower-ranked player on a small court.
Among the other NextGen players, Canada’s Denis Shapovalov and American Frances Tiafoe are players to keep an eye out for. Sam Querrey and John Isner impressed by winning titles in the warm-up events before US Open and could excel in front of their home crowd.
Going by recent form, two players that have stood out with their performances are ninth-ranked Grigor Dimitrov and 35-year-old David Ferrer. Dimitrov had a great start to 2017, winning at Brisbane and making the semi-finals at Australian Open, and seems to have rediscovered that form right in time for US Open with a title at Cincinnati. Ferrer, who had fallen out of the top-40 due to some dismal losses, showed some vintage tennis to reach the semis of a hard-court Masters after a gap of two years.
On the women’s side, sitting out the action at Flushing Meadows are 23-time Major champion Serena Williams, who is pregnant, and two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka, who is dealing with a custody case involving her infant son.
The women’s draw has generally been the more unpredictable one but it’s a case of role reversal at the US Open. Despite last year’s champion Angelique Kerber struggling all season, there are easily half a dozen strong contenders for the title, as well as the World No 1 ranking.
Top seed Karolina Pliskova made the final in 2016 and has continued her consistent streak over 2017; Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza is playing with a few-found composure and confidence; Simona Halep has made the semi-final and final in her last two events; Elina Svitolina has won five titles this year, including Toronto; and Caroline Wozniacki is playing some of the best tennis of her career.
The women’s section has a problem (or virtue) of plenty — a lot of favourites as well as dark horses. The one player that all the top seeds would want to avoid in their draw is American Sloane Stephens. The 24-year-old returned from injury at the Wimbledon and has had a fantastic North American hard-court season. She quickly rose from 934 in the WTA rankings to 84 courtesy two semi-final runs in Canada and Cincinnati.
Fifteenth seed Madison Keys, big-serving Coco Vandeweghe and teen sensation CiCi Bellis are the other Americans who could shine in their home Slam. Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova made the US Open semis in 2014 and could replicate a similar run this year again. She won the Washington Open recently and has a tendency to bring some of her best form to Grand Slams.
Germany's Julia Goerges, seeded 30, is another dark horse who has the big-hitting skills and a killer serve to shock a few higher-ranked players. Goerges reached the final at Washington on the back of her explosive game and her quarter-final appearance at Cincinnati was another sign of her great preparation ahead of the US Open. Young Ashleigh Barty, enjoying a great "second" outing in her tennis career, is unseeded, which makes her an early threat for the seeded players in her section of the draw. At the Canadian and Cincinnati Open, the Australian came through qualifying and then knocked out Elena Vesnina and Venus Williams en route to the Round of 16.
Lastly, there's wildcard Maria Sharapova. The former World No 1 has only played 10 matches since returning to the tour after her doping suspension, and has withdrawn from three events — not the most ideal preparation for her first Grand Slam in 18 months. However, the five-time Grand Slam champion cannot be dismissed, and if healthy, she will be a risky opponent.
The first six months of 2017 have seen a lot of upheaval and surprising results, and if that trend continues, the US Open may turn out to be one of the most shocking tournaments yet. There is a very realistic chance that we may see a first-time Grand Slam champion, in the men's as well as women's events. The titles are up for grabs, let's see who makes the most of this opportunity. Over to the Big Apple!
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