There have been hints, and hopes, of vulnerability at the top of the men’s game in 2014. But so far the Big 3, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer, haven’t yielded much. Between them, they’ve filled every spot in this year's Grand Slam finals except one—Stan Wawrinka’s in Melbourne. And they’ve won five of the seven Masters events played so far.
But as the last major, the U.S. Open, begins on Monday, the vulnerability has become undeniable. One member of the top tier, Nadal, has pulled out with a wrist injury. Another, Djokovic, looked listless at best in the Open’s two tune-ups this month. And the man who once made the Big 3 a Big 4, Andy Murray, hasn’t won a tournament since last year at Wimbledon, and hasn’t reached a final in 2014. That leaves—33-year-old Roger Federer as your U.S. Open favorite?
Let’s see what lies ahead in this most open of recent men’s U.S. Opens—you can find the draw here. The cream, it seems, has risen toward the top.
The last time we saw Djokovic, he was in Cincy, wondering where his game had gone, and hoping he could find it again by the time he got to New York. A month off to get married had obviously taken more of a toll than he thought it would. By the looks of his draw, Djokovic should have a few rounds to find his form—he starts against Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman (they’ve never played), and then gets either Gilles Muller or Paul-Henri Mathieu. The highest seed near him is Guillermo Garcia Lopez.
But Djokovic will have to find his best game sooner or later—this is the most stacked section of the draw. Novak is scheduled to face John Isner, who has beaten him twice on outdoor hard courts in recent years, in the round of 16, and either Murray or Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the quarterfinals. Murray beat him here in the final two years ago; Tsonga beat him earlier this month in Toronto.
If we go by the history of August, Djokovic will struggle; if we go by the history of the last decade, he’ll be OK—he hasn’t lost before the semis at the U.S. Open since 2006. And if he showed anything in the Wimbledon final, it was the ability to take his game from shaky to assured in the course of a couple of days.
French Sleeper: Tsonga. Jo beat Murray, Djokovic, and Federer in Toronto. Is anything like that possible in New York? He might have to beat the first two just to reach the semis.
German Nemesis: The No. 1 American, Isner, had his last two Opens ended in the third round by Philipp Kohlschreiber. Can you guess who Isner is scheduled to meet in the third round this time?
Possible second-round match to watch: Murray vs. Radek Stepanek
I asked it a week ago in Cincinnati, and I’ll ask it in New York: Is it time for Stan Wawrinka to shock us again? His run of good form began last year at Flushing Meadows, where he reached his first Grand Slam semifinal. You never know what’s coming next from Stan; he obviously didn’t shock anyone in Cincy, where he lost in the quarters to Julien Benneteau. But on paper at least, he has the draw to make the semis again here. The highest seed in his half of this section is No. 16 Tommy Robredo, and the second-highest seed in this quarter is No. 5 Milos Raonic.
There are other players of interest scattered around, of course. Wawrinka will start against a solid up-and-comer in Jiri Vesely. Another youngster, Nick Kyrgios, is in his half. The sometimes-dangerous Vasek Pospisil is here. And Kei Nishikori, returning from a toe infection, is on Raonic’s side. But overall, this is a quiet section, and an opportunity for someone. Raonic, who opens with a qualifier, would seem to have an especially easy road to the round of 16.
First round match to watch: Wawrinka vs. Vesely
American to watch: Jack Sock. He’s shown signs of progress this summer, and could be a tough match-up for Nishikori in the second round.
Talk about quiet sections, and semifinal opportunities: Here is where the absence of Nadal, and the decline of Murray in the rankings, is really felt. The top two seeds are David Ferrer, who is 32 and has just one title in 2014; and Tomas Berdych, who is in the midst of a major slump.
Who, if anyone, can take advantage? Even those names come with major reservations. Ernests Gulbis is the 11th seed, but he still seems to be enjoying his French Open semifinal finish—he’s 3-4 since then. Jerzy Janowicz remains “a guy no one wants to see in their draw,” but he’s also ranked 52nd now. Feliciano Lopez, the 19th seed, has had a very good summer, but he’ll be 33 in a couple of weeks. Marin Cilic, the 14th seed, would seem to be a logical choice for a breakout run, but you could have said the same for him at any tournament in the last decade. Bernard Tomic is...still Bernard Tomic.
Of interest: Dominic Thiem, who opens with Lukas Lacko, and could play his friend and “mentor” Gulbis in the second round.
Young American: Noah Rubin, Wimbledon junior champ and student at the McEnroe Academy in New York, starts against Federico Delbonis.
First-round matches to watch:
Berdych vs. Lleyton Hewitt: An upset is already brewing.
Cilic vs. Marcos Baghdatis: Can the Cypriot draw a crowd one more time?
Tomic vs. Dustin Brown: There's potential for anything, from the sublime to the just plain sad, in this one.
Federer and Baby Federer: It’s about time they faced off at a major, no? They’re the two top seeds in the bottom section, and scheduled to play in the quarters. Who could get in the way of this family feud?
Federer, judging by his form and his draw, is the more likely to keep the date. He won his first Masters event in two years last week in Cincy, and the closest seeds to him in his half are Fabio Fognini and Roberto Bautista Agut, neither of whom will strike fear into Federer’s heart.
As for Grigor Dimitrov, he showed with his loss to Janowicz last week that he’s still vulnerable against big servers. Fortunately, they’re don’t appear to be any near him in the draw. Dimitrov will open against Ryan Harrison; their first-round match at Wimbledon this year wasn’t competitive, but you have to think Harrison, the king of the bad draws, will put everything he can into this one. After that, the top two seeds in Dimitrov's half are Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet.
Young American: 17-year-old, 305th-ranked Jared Donaldson of Rhode Island plays Monfils.
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Robredo; Federer d. Ferrer
Final: Djokovic d. Federer
Tuesday, August 19: In Defense of John Isner
Tuesday, August 19: Tennis Tuesday vs. The Real Housewives of New York City
Wednesday, August 20: Catching Up with Matt Cronin
Wednesday, August 20: Welcome to the U.S. Open: Qualifying Report
Thursday, August 21: Throwback Thursday: Our Favorite U.S. Open Matches #tbt
Thursday, August 21: Cover it Live, Live from the U.S. Open Draw
Thursday, August 21: U.S. Open Expert Picks
Friday, August 22: The Stars Spell "Roger"
Friday, August 22: Men's Bracket Breakdown
Friday, August 22: Women's Bracket Breakdown
Saturday, August 23: World View: Tennis is Global, Not National
Sunday, August 24: Svetlana Kuznetsova's Title, 10 Years Later