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Last week, before the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, I wrote that it was hard to imagine anyone other than the Big 3—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer—winning a men’s tournament anymore. As if on cue, none of them reached the final in Cincy. Was that a sign of things to come in New York? Or will the ATP’s living legends restore order and extend their never-ending domination for one more major, and one more year? Here’s a look at their paths through the draw, and the obstacles they may face.
Djokovic has won five of the last six Slams, and he looks to be on his way to his sixth year-end No. 1 ranking this decade. Last week in Cincy, though, he was beaten by Daniil Medvedev for the second time this season; even more surprising was the fact that Djokovic was beaten when he was healthy and playing well. Was Medvedev’s win a fluke? We may find out in the middle of the second week: The Serb and the Russian are slated to face each other in the quarterfinals. As well as Medvedev has been playing—he’s up to No. 5 in the world—it would be tough to pick him to make it a hat trick against the world No. 1 in 2019.
Of course, neither man is there yet. Djokovic will start against 76th-ranked Roberto Carballes Baena. He could face Sam Querrey, who beat him at Wimbledon in 2016, in the second round. And his fourth-round opponent might be Stan Wawrinka, who beat him in the final here, also in 2016. Medvedev, meanwhile, plays 89th-ranked Pranesh Gunneswaran to start.
First-round matches to watch:
Taylor Fritz vs. Feliciano Lopez
Reilly Opelka vs. Fabio Fognini
Federer came within a point of beating Djokovic for the Wimbledon title; if they meet at the Open, it will be in the semifinals. That’s a large if, though; Federer lost in the fourth round and the quarters the last two years, he hasn’t won in New York since 2008, and last week he was drummed out of Cincy by Andrey Rublev in two unceremonious sets. Federer struggled to control the ball on the fast courts there; he and his fans should probably hope they’re a little slower in Flushing. Still, Federer has a good draw. He starts against a qualifier; the first seed he could face is Lucas Pouille; and his quarterfinal opponent is projected to be Kei Nishikori.
Question Mark: David Goffin. He’s just 10-7 at the Open for his career, but he made the final in Cincy. A fourth-rounder with Federer would be fun.
Returning: Jack Sock, with a wild card. He’ll play Pablo Cuevas.
Where are the tour’s young—or at least somewhat younger—guns? Many of them have been corralled into this section, the only one not featuring a member of the Big 3. Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Nick Kyrgios, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov, Andrey Rublev, Kyle Edmund, Alexei Popyrin, Matteo Berrettini: They’ll all be dueling for one semifinal spot. Some of them will be dueling considerably earlier than that. In two of the highlights of the first round, Tsitsipas will face Rublev, and Auger-Alissiame will face his buddy Shapovalov. FAA and Shapo, unfortunately, also played in the first round here last year.
Question Mark: Thiem. He’s the No. 4 seed, and he lost a classic late-night quarterfinal here last year to Nadal. But is he ready, right now, to take the next step? He went out in a hurry to Medvedev in Montreal, and then withdrew from Cincy with an illness. If he’s not 100 percent in New York, that will open up this quarter considerably.
Sleeper: Roberto Bautista Agut. As the Next Gen knocks each other off, this 31-year-old late bloomer—he reached his first Grand Slam semi at Wimbledon—could be the beneficiary.
First-round matches to watch:
Tsitsipas vs. Rublev; Auger-Aliassime vs. Shapovalov; Kyrgios vs. Steve Johnson; Berrettini vs. Richard Gasquet; Thiem vs. Thomas Fabbiano—the Italian upset Tsitsipas at Wimbledon.
Semifinalist: Bautista Agut
Over the course of the first week, the question for Rafael Nadal may not be whether he can win, but whether he can win efficiently. Last year, he survived a series of marathons in the New York heat, until his knees finally gave out in the semifinals. On paper, his road doesn’t look quite as laborious this time. He’ll start against John Millman, who beat Federer at the Open last year. While the Aussie can grind, Rafa made quick work of him in their only meeting, at Wimbledon two years ago.
After that, Nadal could face Fernando Verdasco in the third round, either John Isner or Marin Cilic in the fourth round, and either Karen Khachanov or Alexander Zverev in the quarters. I’d say Isner or Khachanov would pose the biggest potential dangers to an eighth semifinal appearance at the Open for Rafa.
First-round match to watch: Jan-Lennard Struff vs. Casper Ruud
Question Mark: Zverev. Is there any reason to think, now that he has split with Ivan Lendl, that he might be freed up to play some better tennis? The safe bet is no: He’s just 4-4 at the Open.
Semifinals: Djokovic d. Federer; Nadal d. Bautista Agut
Final: Djokovic d. Nadal
Champion: Novak Djokovic
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