US OPEN PREVIEW: THE MEN AND THE WOMEN

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Photo by Gary Hershorn/Corbis via Getty Images

ANDY THE ASCENDANT: Andy Murray could scarcely have asked for a better summer, backing up his WImbledon victory with a repeat win at the Olympics. Fortune also seems to have smiled on him in terms of the draw – Nadal and Raonic are on the other half, and his route to Kei Nishikori in the quarters is lined with opponents he likes to play. Of course, Murray does have a tendency to make things hard for himself in the early rounds….

THE DJOKOVIC QUESTION: Novak Djokovic enters the US Open looking more vulnerable than he has in years. He skipped the warmup in Cincy and lost in the first round of the Olympics against gentle giant Juan Martin del Potro. Amongst the top four men’s seeds, his draw may be the toughest. He could face Jiri Vesely, who beat him earlier this year, in the second round. Cincy winner and 2014 US Open champ Marin Cilic, though usually an easy mark for him, is in his quarter. And he might encounter Nadal and Murray back-to-back in the late stages. Will Novak right the ship in New York and reassert his dominance?

SERENA AIMS TO STEP PAST STEFFI: Having finally tied Steffi Graf’s Slam count of 22 at Wimbledon, Serena will aim to surpass it in New York – and begin to court Margaret Court’s total of 24. (It certainly would be a dramatic narrative for Serena to enter the Australian Open with a chance to tie Court at her home tournament – but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) Last year Serena entered the Open under incredible pressure, while this year she’s been far less authoritative – in fact, she was in danger of losing her No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber in Cincy. The Olympics were a surprising flop for Serena, and like Djokovic, she comes into New York without much momentum. She’s going to have to start sharp (see “First-Round Face-Offs” below).

FIRST-ROUND FACE-OFFS: The men’s draw pits different generations of US men’s tennis against each other in the very first round, with John Isner taking on Frances Tiafoe and Jack Sock going up against Taylor Fritz. Amongst the top seeds, Novak Djokovic‘s tricky draw kicks off with the towering Jerzy Janowicz – while the Pole has been struggling for some time now, it’s still worth noting that Djokovic has been prey to big hitters this year – think Sam Querrey and Del Potro. Blessed with a kinder draw, Andy Murray has to bounce the Czech Lukas Rosol first off. A hunky first-rounder: Stan Wawrinka vs. Fernando Verdasco.

The wildest women’s first-round pairing is right at the top of the draw: Serena has drawn the formidable Russian vet Ekaterina Makarova, who’s reached the second week of this Slam more often than not in recent years, and who has a Slam win over Serena years ago in Australia. The very top of the bottom half of the draw is packed with Americans: Madison Keys and Alison Riske square off to face the winner of Madison Brengle and US girls’ 18 champion Kayla Day, a lefty from SoCal. One big-hitting showdown worth checking out: Naomi Osaka vs. Coco Vandweghe.

ANGELIQUE’S QUEST FOR NO. 1: The US Open was where it all started for Angelique Kerber – she first served notice that she was a top player by reaching the semis in 2011. A series of bridesmaid performances – losses in the finals of Wimbledon, the Olympics and in Cincinnati – mean this year’s Australian Open champ is tantalizingly close to taking the No. 1 spot from Serena, but is still not there yet. If she’s to break through in New York, she might have to initially overcome some heavy hitters, such as Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (second round) and Petra Kvitova (fourth round).

MONICA’S COMING OUT PARTY: The story of the Olympics has to be Monica Puig‘s great leap forward, playing incredible tennis for Puerto Rico to score her country’s first-ever gold medal. Labeled an underachiever until this year, the rising 22-year-old Puig will be confronted with newfound attention in New York, and she’s also likely to have a lively fan base. Will she stumble at the Open or will she continue to blaze? If she gets past great-backboard-of-China Saisai Zheng in the first round, she could go toe to toe with French Open champ Garbine Muguruza (one of her Olympic victims) in the third.

OUR MAN JOHNSON: Though he’s been the strongest American player this summer, Steve Johnson‘s season took a bleak turn with the draw, which gives him Juan Martin del Potro as a potential second-round opponent. Still, Johnson has been on the brink of a breakthrough in recent months. Should he make it past del Potro he has a chance to make a serious run into the second week.

CICI RIDES AGAIN? Knocking out an Aussie Open finalist and top 10 seed back when she was the US girls’ 18 champ at the age of 15, NorCal’s CiCi Bellis was the Cinderella story of the 2014 US Open. The last year has been more about realistic expectations for the now-seasoned teen, who has committed to Stanford. She’s made it into the main draw as a qualifier, steamrolling two opponents then toughing out a win against Belgium’s formidable Alison Van Uytvanck. Bellis’ peer Sofia Kenin, this year’s Wild Card Challenge winner, has a tough top 10 ask in the first round, facing Karolina Pliskova. This year’s girls’ 18 champ, Kayla Day, takes on veteran American Madison Brengle. Another American qualifier to watch for: Taylor Townsend, back on the upswing in a crazy year that’s seen her take on an opponent more than three times her age.

WHO WILL CATCH FIRE? Z is for zany, which the US Open often is – who would have predicted last year’s all-Italian women’s final between Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci, or that Marin Cilic would suddenly tree and annihilate the opposition in the late stages of 2014’s tournament? Fresh from a Masters win in Cincy, Cilic goes into this year’s Open looking fierce, though. Z is also for Zverev, as in the lanky but electric Alexander Zverev, the teen phenom whose made a splash earlier this year – a third-round battle between him and barrel-chested Wawrinka could offer an interesting contrast in styles. After his heroic Olympic run, many will be hoping that lovable del Potro, the 2009 champ, again catches fire. The court itself might catch fire during another potential third round battle between Aussie bad boys: Nick Kyrgios vs. Bernard Tomic.

RAFA’S LUCK OF THE DRAW: Of the top four men’s seeds, Rafa Nadal might be the most fortunate, with a draw that looks navigable until a possible quarterfinal duel with Gael Monfils or Milos Raonic, who he is 6-1 against. Still, it’s been a long, long time now since Nadal has made a serious run at a Slam.