After flying the Big 3 flag alone, and successfully, this past week in Montreal, Rafael Nadal makes way for his two fellow Hall-of-Famers this week. Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer—both, hopefully, have recovered from their Wimbledon final—will return to the tour, and the run-up to the US Open will get a little more serious on the men’s side. These days, instead of being more vulnerable to upsets, the ATP’s legendary trio is harder to pick against than ever.
Last year Djokovic won Cincinnati for the first time, which made him the first man to win all four majors and all nine Masters 1000 events—an amazing and so far underrated achievement. Whatever pressure he may have felt about completing that sweep will be gone now. We’ll find out whether that helps Djokovic relax and play well, or whether it makes him slightly less motivated, the way he seemed to be at the other U.S. Masters tournaments this year, in Indian Wells and Miami.
Djokovic will start against either Sam Querrey or Pierre-Hugues Herbert, and could face John Isner, a former Cincy finalist, after that. Looking a little farther down the road, Nick Kyrgios and Karen Khachanov are potential quarterfinal opponents.
First-round match to watch: Fabio Fognini vs. Denis Shapovalov
Potential second-round match to watch: Kyrgios vs. Khachanov. Kyrgios was a finalist here two years ago.
Unlike Djokovic, Federer is an old hand at winning in Cincy. He first did it back in 2005, and has won it six more times since. Will he suffer any hangover effect from his Wimbledon loss? Judging by the way he reacted that day, it seems unlikely. Cincy has served as a rejuvenating week for him in the past, and it could be again.
Federer will start against either Matteo Berrettini or Juan Ignacio Londero; Berrettini should be eager to improve on his disastrously lopsided loss to Federer at Wimbledon. Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev are on the other side of this section, and could meet in the third round.
First-round match to watch, again: Stan Wawrinka vs. Grigor Dimitrov. Wawrinka won their opening-round meeting in Montreal last week.
Potential third-round matches to watch: Federer vs. Wawrinka; Tsitsipas vs. Medvedev
Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, the top two seeds in this section, both made the quarters in Montreal, and both were quickly dismissed in that round. Can either of them go a step farther and make their first semi in Cincy? Zverev is probably just hoping to win a match: He’s 0-4 at this event.
If the German and the Austrian don’t live up to their seedings, there are other players and matches of interest in this quarter. Andy Murray, a two-time champion here, will play his first singles match since losing in the first round at the Australian Open. Felix Auger-Aliassime, newly 19, will look to build momentum before the Open. If he wins his opener, he’ll face Zverev, in a battle of Next Gen vs. Next Next Gen.
First-round match to watch: Gael Monfils vs. Frances Tiafoe. Monfils had to withdraw from the semis in Montreal, so this one might not happen. If it does, it could be the fastest—as in combined foot speed—match in tennis history.
Also here: Roberto Baustista Agut, Marin Cilic, Andy Murray
Semifinalist: Bautista Agut
I thought, when Nadal got a glimpse of his draw here, that he might make the trip to Cincy after all. This looked like a good chance for him to pick up at least semifinal points at a tournament he skipped in 2018. Instead, it will be Mikhail Kukushkin who gets that draw, and who gets to be a very lucky loser for the week. He not only makes it into the tournament, he takes Rafa’s first-round bye as well.
Nadal’s departure means opportunity for everyone else in this quarter. Kei Nishikori, David Goffin, and Borna Coric are the three seeds left. Of the non-seeds, Guido Pella seems like a player to watch right now.
First-round matches to watch: Goffin vs. Taylor Fritz; Borna Coric vs. Reilly Opelka
Semifinals: Federer d. Djokovic; Bautista Agut d. Nishikori
Final: Federer d. Bautista Agut