US Open draw: Many top players missing but intrigue remains

Tennis

NEW YORK — The men’s singles draw for the US Open just doesn’t look right — not with the names of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal missing, not with Andy Murray buried like just another ATP schmo down on line No. 115, his name in regular typeface as opposed to the bold reserved for the seeded players.

Just as strange: the lack of 16 qualifiers. Usually, seeing how many qualifiers end up in the same quarter, or playing one another, perhaps even in successive rounds, is good entertainment. Not in this year of the coronavirus pandemic.

At least Novak Djokovic is in, representing what’s left of the Big Three, while Federer works on healing his damaged knee and Nadal sits out the tournament, his eyes on the upcoming French Open in this topsy-turvy year.

The WTA draw is less jarring, perhaps because supernova Serena Williams has signed up to play, as has Sofia Kenin, who won the first — and thus far only — Grand Slam event contested this year, the Australian Open. The missing recent Grand Slam champions, No. 1-ranked Ashleigh Barty, No. 2 Simona Halep and No. 6 Bianca Andreescu, certainly will be missed. But perhaps their loss will be as large as ours if this tournament, so powerfully shaped by concerns for safety during the pandemic, plays out smoothly.

Here’s our analysis of the draw.

Best first-round match

ATP: No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev vs. Kevin Anderson. Who can forget Anderson’s epic back-to-back overtime matches over Federer and John Isner in the late stages of Wimbledon in 2018? Those were the matches that forced Wimbledon to finally adopt a final-set tiebreaker. Anderson, who hit a career-high ranking of No. 5 in July 2018, has fallen to No. 124, mainly due to a persistent elbow injury. But he’s on the comeback trail now while Zverev, who has won all five of their previous meetings, was struggling when the game shut down.

WTA: No. 20 seed Karolina Muchova vs. Venus Williams. Does the 40-year-old icon from the U.S. still have enough game to take out Muchova, who has risen quickly on the wings of an appealing, all-court game? Neither of these women is on the short list of contenders, but they are likely to produce a close, expertly played match. This will be their first meeting.

Strongest quarterfinal

WTA: The third quarter of the draw is anchored by No. 3 seed Serena Williams, at the opposite end from No. 7 seed Madison Keys. In between: former Grand Slam winners Garbine Muguruza, who was playing at a high level when the tour adjourned due to the pandemic, and Sloane Stephens. Also in the quarter: dangerous Maria Sakkari, Olympic singles gold medalist Monica Puig, hard-hitting Donna Vekic and rising American star Amanda Anisimova.

ATP: The fourth, bottom quarter of the draw led by No. 2 seed Dominic Thiem is what soccer pundits would call “the group of death.” There’s a ton of firepower in this section: Murray, No. 11 seed Karen Khachanov, No. 15 Felix Auger-Aliassime, former US Open champion Marin Cilic, Sam Querrey, No. 25 Milos Raonic, king of aces Ivo Karlovic, and Vasek Pospisil are all in this quarter, along with two very tough outs in No. 8 Roberto Bautista Agut and the Aussie dynamo Alex De Minaur. It’s nothing less than mind-boggling.

Weakest quarterfinal

ATP: The only person who would seem capable of overpowering No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in this quarter is at the other end of the section is Zverev. But the German star has enough to worry about (see above) coming out of the gate. No. 9 Diego Schwartzman is a terrific competitor but lacks size and power, and while No. 27 Borna Coric has had his moments, not too many of them have been lately. Tsitsipas has an excellent shot at making the semis.

WTA: The top quarter offers top seed Karolina Pliskova, who’s ranked No. 3, a splendid opportunity. Sure, No. 17 Angelique Kerber, a multiple Grand Slam singles champion, could be her fourth-round opponent, but the German, now 32, is fading. The only other pro in the section who has gone deep at a major is No. 12 Marketa Vondrousova, but that young Slovak, the 2019 French Open finalist, has recently had injury issues and still has only one WTA title, compared to Pliskova’s 16.

Most at-risk favorite

WTA: Serena Williams is the No. 3 seed, but her history in Grand Slam majors since she last won one (Australian Open in 2017) has been both puzzling and disappointing. Her drive to equal Margaret Court’s record 24 Grand Slam singles titles (Williams trails by one) has been taking a toll. She has been extremely positive in her return from the pandemic lockdown, but she has won only two of five matches and struggled in un-Serenaesque fashion in every one of them.

ATP: It might seem as if we’re picking on Zverev, but he not only has a very tough first-rounder, he hasn’t completely overcome the serving yips he developed last year. Leading up to the shutdown, he often seemed complacent and poorly motivated. Whatever weaknesses the others in the top eight seeding have, complacency isn’t one of them.

Favorite best positioned to sail

ATP: Daniil Medvedev, seeded No. 3 and the losing finalist in 2019 to Nadal, looks to have a clear runway to at least Round 4, where his most likely opponent would be No. 14 Grigor Dimitrov. That Bulgarian player still might not be fully fit after his bout of coronavirus. Matteo Berrettini, No. 6, could be an obstacle in the quarterfinals, because he’s one of the few players who can hit anyone off the court.

WTA: It’s a toss-up between top seed Pliskova, in the weakest quarter, and Kenin, who has a few tricky but navigable potential opponents in hard-hitting Kaia Kanepi, No. 27 Ons Jabeur, Kim Clijsters and No. 9 Johanna Konta. But Kenin can probably imagine a fate worse than a quarterfinal against power-punching but inconsistent No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka.

Cinderella candidate

WTA: Sure, youngsters like Coco Gauff, Anisimova and Leylah Fernandez are appealing choices, but 16-year-old Gauff faces a potential rematch with two-time Grand Slam champion and No. 4 seed Naomi Osaka in the third round. And remember that 21-year-old, Russian-born Elena Rybakina fired out to a 21-5 start this year, surprising nobody, and was halted only by the shutdown in mid-March. Honorable mention: Can Clijsters actually win another US Open as a wild-card entry?

ATP: De Minaur, No. 21, started 2020 with a bang: back-to-back wins over No. 12 Denis Shapovalov and Zverev at the ATP Cup. The winner of three main tour titles in 2019, the 21-year-old Aussie then suffered an abdominal injury that caused him to miss the Australian Open. Due to the pandemic, he never had a chance to get his game back on track. Honorable mention: Andrey Rublev, seeded No. 10, won the hard-court event in Adelaide early this year. He loves the hard courts, and is quick enough to handle the fast court speeds of the US Open.

American with the friendliest path

ATP: “Friendliest” is a relative term, and the reality is that the U.S. men have not been issued any free passes. Reilly Opelka, Steve Johnson, Tommy Paul and Tennys Sandgren have all drawn seeded opponents. Taylor Fritz opens against Germany’s Dominik Koepfer, ranked No. 91. Fritz would be in with a chance if he makes the third round and finds Shapovalov waiting.

WTA: The best American player right now, Kenin, also has the most appealing path. The only other player in her quarter who has also won a major is Clijsters, who would have to make it to the Round 4 to play Kenin.

Most needs to hit the reset button

WTA: Stephens is in another down period. She has fallen to No. 37 in the rankings and is lucky to be seeded (No. 26) in New York due to so many higher-ranked women choosing not to play. Stephens, who won only one match before the tour went dark, has a winnable first-round match against Mihaela Buzarnescu, and a potential third-round meeting with Serena Williams is not quite the mission impossible it has been in previous years.

ATP: It’s remarkable how up-and-down Cilic, a former US Open champion and Wimbledon runner-up, has been throughout his career. He’s down to No. 37 but lucky to have the No. 31 seeding. At 31, he should still be capable of contending at majors — especially on fast surfaces.

Hard luck of the draw

ATP: The game went into hiatus just when struggling Johnson was beginning to pull out of a swoon with a win at the Indian Wells Challenger. His first-round opponent at the US Open will be No. 16 seed, friend and fellow countryman Isner. It’s an awkward matchup, given that the American men are close, and even more so because of Isner’s fondness for the US Open hard courts. However, Johnson has won six of their 11 meetings, so he has certainly got a shot.

WTA: Did wild card Sachia Vickery of the U.S. really need to see her name paired with that of fellow American Taylor Townsend? Four other WTA first-round matches, featuring three big names, will be between compatriots: Another American matchup between Serena Williams and Kristie Ahn; Konta vs. Heather Watson, both of Great Britain; and Osaka vs. fellow Japanese player Misaki Doi.

Most likely to sneak through undetected

WTA: Anett Kontaveit has flown under the radar her entire career, but the No. 14 seed is a hardened competitor with a maddening game. Don’t be surprised if she gets past Danielle Collins of the U.S. in the first round. She could make life difficult for Osaka in a fourth-round clash.

ATP: Raonic, the 2016 Wimbledon finalist, is seeded No. 25 but much stronger than the number suggests. A former ATP No. 3, the Canadian has struggled with injuries for a long time, but he’s one of the players who benefited most from the stoppage of the game. He looked fresh and healthy at the Western & Southern Open.

First-round match we’d most like to watch

ATP: No. 7 David Goffin vs. Opelka will provide a great contrast: The towering American serving bombs, while Goffin tries to outwit him with quickness and consistency.

WTA: Wild card Robin Montgomery, a 15-year-old who doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page yet, is 5-1 as a pro and already being hailed as the “next Coco Gauff.” She will play No. 23 Yulia Putintseva in Round 1. This will be a first look for everyone.

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