But the feeling here is that Djokovic is better than that. He is industrious, enterprising, thoroughly professional and unwavering in pursuit of his goals. He has played eleven tournaments in 2015 and has failed to reach a final round only once—in his first event of the year at Doha. He has played 61 matches, winning 56. He has been the standout performer in the first three majors of 2015, winning his fifth Australian Open and his third Wimbledon, reaching the final of Roland Garros for the third time. He played two hard court tournaments in recent weeks, and made it to the final of both, bowing against Andy Murray in Montreal and Roger Federer at Cincinnati.
There is every reason to believe that Djokovic is poised to be the last man standing at the Open. As I see it, he is the clear favorite at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Two other men have a serious chance to prevail this year in New York, and they are Federer and Andy Murray. Federer swept an astounding five Opens in a row from 2004-2008. He reached the final in 2009, but has not been back in a title round match since. The fact remains that his semifinal and final round performances in Cincinnati against Murray and Djokovic were sublime. He played his best tennis of 2015 and his finest hard court tennis in a long time. Winning that tournament so convincingly gave the Swiss an immeasurable boost coming into the Open.
On the flip side, he has not captured a major since Wimbledon in 2012. That is Federer’s only Grand Slam title triumph in his last 22 majors. And yet, at 34, he seems reawakened in many ways; not only was his game otherworldly in Cincinnati, but his mobility was decidedly better than he has exhibited in probably three years. Federer is a figure of substantial authority, with crowds cheering his every move wherever he goes. This might be his last great chance to win the U.S. Open and he will throw his heart and soul into realizing that goal this coming fortnight. But can he survive the rigors of potentially long and debilitating best of five set contests down the stretch?
A year ago, Federer was apparently softened up by Gael Monfils in the quarterfinals. The Frenchman had two match points before losing in five strenuous sets, but Federer paid a considerable price for his debilitating victory. Marin Cilic crushed the 17 time major champion in a straight set semifinal, moving into the zone during that encounter. He served stupendously and went after his returns with little hesitation. It was arguably the match of Cilic’s life. Yet the fact remains that Federer was drained from his exhausting duel with Monfils, who engaged him in long rallies and made the Swiss cover an awful lot of court. He must avoid those kinds of matches at all costs this year.
Murray has been a model of consistency this year, reaching the Australian Open final, advancing to the semifinals of the French Open and Wimbledon, winning four tournaments over the course of the season (on three different surfaces) including his hard court success against Djokovic in Montreal, where he snapped an eight match losing streak against his primary rival. Yet he has lost his last five meetings against Federer. It is up to him to make amends, but that is easier said than done.
Let’s turn to the women. Serena Williams is looking to hit a cluster of historical milestones all at once this year. She is determined to establish herself as only the fourth woman ever to win the Grand Slam, following in the footsteps of Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Court (1970), and Steffi Graf (1988). If Serena realizes that extraordinary feat, she would tie Graf for second place all time among the women with 22 major titles. She would surpass Chrissie Evert for the most U.S. Open singles championships taken by any player (man or woman) in the Open Era if she wins a seventh championship, and she would secure a fourth singles title in a row. The last woman to do that was Evert from 1975-78.
Williams in my view is an overwhelming favorite to collect the women’s crown. The No. 2 seed Simona Halep has a chance. She reached the final of Toronto and Cincinnati and she seems to have recovered her conviction in recent weeks after a difficult stretch. Maria Sharapova is seeded third but has been absent all through the hard court summer with injuries. And a bunch of other candidates could be in the mix, including 2014 finalist Caroline Wozniacki and the enigmatic Petra Kvitova. They are seeded fourth and fifth. But, in the final analysis, Williams is in a class by herself at the moment.
Looking at her draw, Williams should take her first two matches comfortably, but she confronts Sloane Stephens in the third round, and this match is a dandy. Stephens upset Williams at the 2013 Australian Open, and earlier this season she was on the edge of victory against her countrywoman at the French Open before bowing in three sets. Stephens—a first round winner over Coco Vandeweghe—makes a real go of it against Serena, and her forehand gives the great champion fits.
Williams is under duress for a set, but comes from behind to win convincingly in three sets. In the round of 16, she takes on another countrywoman Madison Keys in a rematch of the Australian Open semifinals earlier in the season. The Keys serve is formidable, and it keeps her in the first set. But Serena wins this battle 7-6 (5), 6-3. In the quarters, Williams finds herself up against one of only two women to defeat her in 2015, and that, of course, is the highly intelligent Swiss competitor Belinda Bencic.
Bencic upended Williams with guile and admirable ball control in Canada a few weeks ago, coming through at Toronto in the semifinals with excellent use of down the line shots off both sides. Bencic had a 5-1, two service break lead in the third set, and had two chances to serve out the match. She was stymied by a typically resolute Serena, but the 18-year-old broke again to get an improbable victory. She won that tournament, and has moved up deservedly to No. 12 among the seeds.
A composed Bencic befuddles Williams again at the Open for a while. But Williams battles back in this quarterfinal, boosted largely by some sparkling serving on the big points. She wins 7-5, 6-3 without losing her delivery. On to the semifinals goes Williams, standing two matches away from a sweep of the four 2015 majors. Waiting for her there is Ana Ivanovic, another player who has given the American problems regularly in recent years.
Ivanovic has lost nine of her ten confrontations with Williams, but the fact remains that she eclipsed the American at the Australian Open of 2014. Since then, they have collided five times, with Williams victorious in all of them. But three of those showdowns—including their most recent duel in Cincinnati—have gone three sets. Ivanovic was up a set and serving at 4-3 in the second set at Cincinnati in their latest encounter. Very few players stand as far in and do as much with their second serve returns against Serena as the captivating Ivanovic.
Those returns are scorching once more in this semifinal of the Open. After losing a tight first set to the two time defending champion, Ivanovic secures the second set behind a flurry of winners, and stays with Williams deep into the third. But the American breaks at 4-4 in the final set, and closes out the match in three absorbing sets 7-5, 2-6, 6-4.
That sets the stage for the final. The bottom half of the draw has been filled with surprises, some milder than others. The No. 5 seed Petra Kvitova—a two-time Wimbledon champion who is the only other players besides Bencic to beat Serena in 2015—falls in the fourth round against No. 9 seed and Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza. Kvitova has never displayed her most spectacularly explosive brand of tennis in New York, and Muguruza is the better player from the backcourt.
In the quarters, Muguruza faces No. 26 seed Flavia Pennetta, two rounds after the Italian upsets Wozniacki. In her last six appearances at the Open, the tactically agile Pennetta has been to the quarterfinals four times and the semifinals once. She gets to the penultimate round again by halting the Spaniard, and meets a resurgent Victoria Azarenka, the No. 20 seed. Azarenka has beaten No. 11 seed Angelique Kerber, No. 6 seed and Wimbledon finalist Lucia Safarova and No. 2 Halep to get this far. She now meets Pennetta in a blockbuster, willing her way to a 5-7, 7-5, 7-6 (6) triumph. Azarenka reached the final of the Open in 2012 and 2013, losing both in three sets to Williams.
Now they meet again for the title, and Azarenka comes out of the blocks in style, as she has all year against Williams. Williams walks on court with a decisive 17-3 career lead, and yet in all three of her losses this year against the best woman player in the world, Azarenka has pushed her adversary to the full three sets. This time, she is firing away freely from the baseline again, returning superbly, serving intelligently to keep the American at bay. Azarenka takes the first set 6-3 with her sound percentage tactics. She gains an early break in the second set and moves ahead 3-1.
The crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium—heavily anticipating a victory for the No. 1 seed at the outset—is astonished, sensing the upset, realizing that Williams is out of sorts and almost frantic. But with customary fighting spirit, fortitude and deep resolve, Williams elevates her game immensely, serving with more speed and much better precision, returning with increasing consistency, controlling the center of the court unrelentingly.
Suddenly, Williams can do no wrong. Azarenka’s level remains exceedingly high, but Williams soars above and beyond her, all the way to victory. Williams garners the Grand Slam, secures her 22nd major, wins a seventh Open, and convinces many authorities that she is the best woman player ever to lift a racket. She strikes down a determined Azarenka 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. It is a title hard earned, a win well deserved, and an historic victory.
How about the men? Djokovic likes his draw. He stops Andreas Seppi in the third round, removes David Goffin in a straight set round of 16 assignment, and then takes on No. 8 seed Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. The Spaniard has had a tough road to get here, starting with a four set, first round win over the swiftly rising Borna Coric in the opening round. Nadal stops Stevie Johnson—a first round winner over No. 32 seed Fabio Fognini—in the third round. He then avenges a loss in Cincinnati to countryman Feliciano Lopez in the round of 16. Lopez—a third round winner over No. 10 seed Milos Raonic—falls in four sets against two-time Open champion Nadal.
Nadal and Djokovic have met thrice in the finals of the Open, with the Spaniard the victor in two of the three contests. This time around, Nadal fights ferociously to stop Djokovic in the opening set, serving his way into a tie-break despite being close to losing his delivery at many junctures. But Djokovic confounds the Spaniard in that critical sequence, surging back from 3-5 down, winning four points in a row (three with forehand winners), and salvaging the set with stern application of his skills. Nadal plays terrific tennis over the next two sets, but has nothing to show for it. The Serbian wins 7-6 (5), 7-5, 7-6 (3). It is a first class clash, but at the propitious moments Djokovic is the unstoppable man. He moves on to the semifinals.
The next section of the draw is wide open, at least as I see it. Both the 2014 champion Marin Cilic and last year’s runner-up Kei Nishikori have landed there, and that means one of them will not make it past the quarterfinals. Nishikori—the No. 4 seed—opens his campaign against the Frenchman Benoit Paire, and he should reach the round of 16 without being stretched to his limits, although the ever dangerous Alexandr Dolgopolov might test him in the third round if “The Dog” can surprise Tommy Robredo in the second round.
Nishikori figures to take on the winner of an enticing all-French third round collision between No. 19 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and No. 16 seed Gael Monfils. I will flip a coin to determine the winner of that match and go with Monfils. So Monfils battles Nishikori in the round of 16, and they play to their full capacities, with Nishikori the victor in five exhilarating sets. On he travels to the quarterfinals. Cilic, meanwhile, has a third round meeting with Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov has slumped significantly this year and is seeded only 17th, but this is a chance for him to move past his woes and claim a big win.
Dimitrov upends the defending champion in four well played sets, coming through in a fourth set tie-break. Dimitrov wins his round of 16 contest over the Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, and is pitted against Nishikori for the right to meet Djokovic in the semifinals. Dimitrov nearly pulls off another big win, building a two sets to one lead, reaching 4-2 in the fourth set. But Nishikori demonstrates his propensity to survive under duress. He is victorious 6-4 in the fifth set, breaking down Dimitrov’s game and morale. For the second year in a row, it is Nishikori facing Djokovic in the semifinals of the season’s last major, but this time the tables are turned. In 2014, Djokovic could not handle the oppressive early afternoon heat in the stadium. He fell in four sets against a much sprightlier Nishikori. This time around, Djokovic is masterful from the backcourt. He locates his serve skillfully to neutralize his opponent’s excellent returns, and he is better on the biggest points. Djokovic stops Nishikori in four sets to move into his sixth United States Open final.
The other half of the draw is fascinating. The No. 2 seed Federer was down match points against Leonardo Mayer last year in Shanghai, but he turned that match around and went on to win the tournament. They meet again here in the first round. Mayer—No. 33 in the world—just missed the seeding cut. He is a very capable player, and is not ranked where he is by accident. But Federer was caught off guard by him in Shanghai. This time around, the Swiss is fully ready, and he wastes no energy or motion. Federer beats Mayer in three tight sets.
Federer was a couple of points away from losing to the gifted German Philipp Kohlschreiber earlier this year on the clay, but the Swiss has owned him across their careers. Federer defeats Kohlschreiber in four sets to reach the round of 16. John Isner and Ivo Karlovic square off in an old fashioned serving fest. Isner gets by in this third round battle between two men who both stand at 6’10”. And so Isner plays Federer in the round of 16, and he makes a go of it. After losing a first set tie-break, the American wins another tie-break in the second. The third set is pivotal. Isner is serving at 5-6 when he is broken for the first time, and Federer never looks back, winning 7-6 (5), 6-7 (3), 7-5, 6-4.
In the quarterfinals, Federer avenges a 2012 quarterfinal loss to Tomas Berdych. The Swiss picks apart Berdych in four sets for a place in the semifinals. Andy Murray stops world No. 37 Nick Kyrgios in the first round and is off and running. Murray faces French Open champion Stan Wawrinka in the quarterfinals. Twice before—in 2010 and 2013—the Swiss overwhelmed the British stalwart with big hitting and that glorious one-handed backhand at the Open. In this showdown, Murray is prepared to throw everything he has in his wide-ranging arsenal at the burly Swiss. Yet Wawrinka is almost equal to the challenge, and his serve is magnificent.
Murray has great difficulty halting the obstinate Wawrinka, but in the end the 2012 champion prevails in five pulsating sets. Murray now confronts Federer, a man who has haunted him so frequently at times of consequence over the years. Federer toppled Murray in the finals of the 2008 U.S. Open, the 2010 Australian Open and the 2012 Wimbledon. Murray did defeat the Swiss in the final of the 2012 Olympic Games, and in a five set semifinal at the 2013 Australian Open.
But Federer has twice handled Murray recently, in the semifinals of Wimbledon and Cincinnati. Murray played some excellent tennis in both appointments, but Federer’s serve was too much for one of the game’s great returners. Murray had one break point at Wimbledon and none in Cincinnati; he did not break serve in either contest. In this gripping contest, Murray manages to raise the level of his returns, and he is cagey from the baseline. It is hard fought. It is close. Murray takes the second and fourth sets. But Federer serves with uncanny precision in the fifth set, winning 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (4), 6-3.
And so the two top seeds do battle in the final. Their series of duels at the U.S. Open have been remarkable. Federer beat Djokovic in a straight set 2007 final as the Serbian made his debut in a major final. In 2008 and 2009, Federer prevailed in semifinals over Djokovic. But the following two years, it was Djokovic who toppled Federer in five set classics, saving two match points on each occasion. This is their sixth head to head meeting in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and it is rousing. Djokovic and Federer both serve terrifically all through the first set, which Djokovic takes seven points to five in a tiebreak.
Federer retaliates to win the second set 6-4 with some outstanding shotmaking. The third set features both men at their very best. It is settled in another tie-break, and Federer opens up a 4-1 lead. But Djokovic imposes himself here, striking his backhand down the line immaculately, returning supremely, passing impeccably. He wins six of the next seven points in a flourish. The set goes to Djokovic. He has the momentum, and never lets go of it, wearing down Federer 7-6 (5), 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4. For the second time, Novak Djokovic is the U.S. Open champion. He takes his tenth major, and even wins over a substantial section of the audience with the excellence of his performance.
There you have my projections for the 2015 U.S. Open. No matter what happens this year, I am certain it will be a riveting tournament as the curtain closes on another season at the majors.