By John Huston
RETURN OF THE KING: Going into the US Open, two outcomes stand out, and they couldn’t be more opposite. The first is a classic heroic master narrative: the return of Roger Federer to the throne, and the possibility that the man who many consider the greatest of all time might win a historic 18th Slam title. Just like Serena, Federer has been stuck at 17, but unlike her, it’s been a while since he was earmarked as the favorite to win a major—until now. Fresh from a title in Cincinnati—again, just like Serena—and with a strong year in the rear-view mirror, Roger looks ready to rule again. His draw even looks pretty straightforward, at least until the other
DAWN OF A NEW ERA? And yet, perhaps it’s time for the walls to come crumbling down, for a little chaos to enter the picture, for youth to finally stake its claim. All year long, the dominant Big Four—Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray—has shown signs of deterioration. Now, more than ever before, it seems to have given way. In Australia, Stan Wawrinka showed that someone outside the fearsome foursome could claim the crown. Aging young guns Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov both reached the Wimbledon semis. Could they go a step or two further at the Open? Dimitrov’s path here looks relatively clear until a quarterfinal joust with Federer, but he has seriously underperformed at this major in years past. Milos’ serve is big, and he even has a Seinfeld connection, yet it remains to be seen whether he’s a New York kind of guy.
A MISSING MAN: If the men’s draw seems a bit plain at first glance, not as laden with subtext or intrigue, it might be because the Open lacks a defending champion. After skipping the lead-in hard court events, Rafael Nadal withdrew from the tournament due to this year’s most common ailment, an injured wrist. If Rafa holds true to form, this means next year he’ll be collecting more than one major title, but he isn’t getting any younger. Oh, how things have changed since January, when Federer’s Slam count was beginning to look within reach. His absence will be felt.
THE MYSTERY OF NOVAK, AND ANDY: You’d think that Novak Djokovic would be the man to beat in New York. He’s No. 1 and the current.Wimbledon champ. But marriage and impending fatherhood have far outshone his results on court as of late. If a rare loss to eventual Toronto champ Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Canada hinted that Novak might be on autopilot, a defeat by Tommy Robredo in Cincinnati—a rare Masters title the Serb has yet to claim—hinted his priorities may be elsewhere. Of course, Djokovic has the game to turn things around quickly from point to point, so only a fool wouldn’t consider him Federer’s main challenger, if not the outright favorite. Andy Murray, on the other hand, has truly extended complacency in the wake. he has yet to win a title since last year’s Wimbledon, and he’s barely holding onto a spot in the top 10, at No. 9. Rafa out, Novak distracted, Andy dithering—it’s certainly looking like the Big Four is no more.
TSONGA GETS STRONGER: If there’s any veteran who looks set to seize the day, it’s the man who blamed Federer for marring his] career earlier this year: Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. To win in Canada, Tsonga had to overcome three of the Big Four and Dimitrov, and he dropped only a single set along the way. Let’s face it, his booming style of play and outsize personality are a natural fit for Arthur Ashe Stadium. But it’s been over six years since he put it all together long enough to reach his only Slam final.
AN ENDANGERED SPECIES: If Rafa fans think they have it bad, consider the plight of the American men’s tennis fan: a thirteen-year Slam drought, and ever-diminishing returns in New York, where no man from the US made it past the third round last year. There were a dozen Americans—Sam Querrey, NCAA champ Marcos Giron, John Isner, Bradley Klahn, Donald Young, Wayne Odesnik, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, junior Wimbledon and US boys’ 18s winner Noah Rubin, Ryan Harrison, young Californian Jared Donaldson, Tim Smyczek—in the draw before qualifiers were placed. Of those, Isner would seem the strongest candidate to reach the second week, in which case he’d likely face Djokovic in the fourth round. But a sprained ankle has cast a shadow over his US Open campaign.
LOUSY LUCK—THE LATEST CHAPTER: It has been said that Ryan Harrison has notoriously bad luck with Slam draws, though he’s been struggling in general in 2014. In the past this poor fortune meant first-round encounters with the likes of Nadal. This time, it’s a matchup with someone from his generation who is achieving more: Grigor Dimitrov.
BAD BOYS CLUB: At Wimbledon, the bad boys of tennis have a long list of traditions to rebel against. In New York, they have a stage where they can draw cheers or jeers. Temperamental Jerzy Janowicz went out quickly and relatively meekly here last August, and his 2014 hasn’t been noteworthy. Latvian playboy Ernests Gulbis, on the other hand, has finally begun to provide Slam performances that rival his press conferences, and perhaps it’s worth remembering that he first made his presence known here back in 2007. Acrobatic Gael Monfils made John Isner fume when he got a New York crowd on his side in their match her last year. Fabio Fognini? At the moment, the less said, the better.
COLLEGIATE CLASH: One first round match pairs the current NCAA champion, UCLA junior Marcos Giron, against the top-ranked former college player in the ATP, John Isner. Will the class of 2006 or class of 2015 prevail?
FIRST-ROUND FIGHTS: Giron vs. Isner; Mikhail Youzhny and Nick Kyrgios; Tomas Berdych vs. Lleyton Hewitt; Marin Cilic vs. Marcos Baghdatis, who’s been on the comeback trail; Bernard Tomic vs. Dustin Brown.