Novak Djokovic has been dealing with an ailing left wrist which began bothering him shortly before the start of the Olympic Games a few weeks ago, and that issue could ultimately determine whether or not he successfully defends his hard earned title. Serena Williams is going full force after a record seventh women’s Open singles title, but she, too, confronts a nagging physical issue. Williams has a shoulder injury that could potentially reduce the speed and effectiveness of her renowned serve, which happens to be the single most dominant weapon in the world of women’s tennis.
If Djokovic and Williams can move past these challenges, become healthier and compete almost entirely on their own terms with unbridled intensity and full-barreled athleticism, they could well claim the top prizes and conclude the Grand Slam season triumphantly. And yet, no one—not even the two towering figures themselves—knew quite what to expect from the Serbian and the American as they approached the proceedings in New York with what can only be described as cautious optimism. Given that set of circumstances, this U.S Open might surprise us in many ways, but, then again, maybe it will not.
Let’s look at the draws. In the case of the men, the top seeded Djokovic is expected to meet No. 4 seed Rafael Nadal in one semifinal on the top half, with No. 2 seed Andy Murray hoping to set up a penultimate round appointment against two-time major singles victor and No. 3 seed Stan Wawrinka on the bottom half. But all of these players face serious obstacles along the way. Djokovic will meet 2013 semifinalist Jerzy Janonwicz, and the 6’8″ Polish player will give the favorite no rhythm. But Djokovic, even if he does not really find his range, will prevail.
In the second round, the 29-year-old is likely to take on the left-handed Jiri Vesely, a crafty competitor who upended Djokovic this year on clay at Monte Carlo. In Monte Carlo, Djokovic had big problems on the return of serve when he played Vesely, but, presumably, this time he would not. Nonetheless, a four set match could be in the cards. After a third round skirmish with either the lefty Martin Klizan (the No. 28 seed), 2006 Open semifinalist Mikhail Youzhny, or perhaps Brian Fratangelo, the wildcard from the United States who took a set off the Serbian at Indian Wells. Djokovic conceivably figures to play either John Isner (who has a stern first round assignment against fellow American Frances Tiafoe) or No 13 seed Richard Gasquet. By then, it will be more apparent whether or not Djokovic has the right stuff to win this tournament.
If the world No. 1 makes it to the quarters, his opponent would probably be either Jo-Wilfried Tsonga or Marin Cilic. Tsonga played a terrific match against Djokovic earlier this year at Indian Wells, bowing in two tie-breaks as neither man broke serve. But it is hard to imagine him staying with Djokovic over a best of five set duel. And Cilic has never beaten Djokovic in 14 attempts. Assuming all is right with Djokovic and he is able to drive his two-hander with his standard depth and velocity, he should find himself in the semifinals.
Who will be standing on the opposite side of the net in that encounter? My guess is that No. 4 seed Rafael Nadal will be that man, but this has been a disrupted and often frustrating season for the unwavering Spaniard. He fell in the first round of the Australian Open against countryman and fellow southpaw Fernando Verdasco, gathered steam across the spring with clay court tournament triumphs in Monte Carlo and Barcelona, and then startlingly pulled out of the French Open prior to his third round contest with a burdensome left wrist injury.
Nadal was out of the game for 73 days, but admirably went to the semifinals of the Olympics before losing in a final set tie-break to a revitalized Juan Martin Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion. Nadal lost the bronze medal match to Kei Nishikori and moved on to Cincinnati, where he was beaten in the round of 16 by Borna Coric. The Spaniard was unmistakably spent that day.
And yet, I believe he will be inspired at the Open. His draw looks favorable to me. In the round of 16, he may meet the impressive Lucas Pouille or countryman Roberto Bautista Agut. I like his chances there, as long as Nadal is not struggling inordinately with his wrist. In the quarterfinals, I expect the Spaniard to play Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic, the No. 5 seed, although the increasingly stable Gael Monfils just might defeat the Canadian.
Either way, I expect Nadal to win. Raonic would get worn down because Nadal will get too many second serve returns back into play. The physical nature of that match would be awfully difficult for Raonic over best of five. I pick Nadal in four if they meet. If it is Nadal-Monfils, that would be a bruising confrontation, but as long as Nadal splits the first two sets he would weaken the Frenchman’s legs and seize control of the match.
So I am expecting we will get Round 50 of the heavyweight Djokovic-Nadal series, which currently stands at 26-23 in favor of the Serbian, who has won their last seven clashes without the loss of a set. These two icons have faced each other in three U.S. Open finals, with Nadal winning in 2010 and 2013 and Djokovic prevailing in 2011. If this semifinal confrontation comes off, it will be furiously fought on both sides of the net, featuring dazzling rallies that only they could produce. But Djokovic will get many more free points on serve. He will outmaneuver the Spaniard off the ground. His wider range of options will carry him to victory in four enticing sets.
On the opposite half of the draw, the game’s hottest player will go to work with his customary pride and professionalism. Andy Murray has reached seven finals in a row, and captured 22 matches in a row after losing to Djokovic in the French Open final. In that span, he has won four tournaments on three different surfaces, including Wimbledon on grass and the Olympics on hard courts. He has never come into an Open with this much confidence; not once before has he displayed the sustained consistency on the level he has found from this past spring until the end of this summer.
Murray has an awkward opening round assignment against Lukas Rosol, the explosive player from the Czech Republic who has periodically made life difficult for those with bigger bank accounts and larger reputations. But he is too streaky to halt Murray in a best of five set situation. Murray might face the endlessly obstinate Gilles Simon, the sport’s perpetual pest, in the third round. Next up for the British warrior could be either Grigor Dimitrov or Feliciano Lopez. I like his chances in all of those match-ups.
The likeliest candidate for a quarterfinal appointment against Murray is 2014 Open finalist Kei Nishikori, who stands right up there among the game’s most reliable performers in 2016. But Murray just crushed Nishikori in the semifinals of the Olympics. Moreover, his career winning record over the Japanese competitor is a convincing 7-1.
Almost surely, Murray would topple Nishikori in that quarterfinal, or anyone else who might emerge from that section, including Belgium’s resourceful David Goffin. So Murray should find himself in the semifinals. The cast of characters who could be there with the British competitor on the second Friday include No. 8 seed Domimic Thiem, the always combustible yet remarkably gifted Nick Kyrgios and, of course, the unpredictable Stan Wawrinka. Or, could it be that the wildcard Del Potro will step up to reproduce the magic he exhibited seven years ago during his sparkling title run?
Wawrinka will be pushed hard by Verdasco in the first round. He could have another rugged skirmish against the rapidly rising German Alexander Zverev (the No. 27 seed) in the third round. Awaiting Wawrinka for a potential fourth round meeting will be perhaps the big serving No. 14 seed Kyrgios or maybe No. 17 seed Bernie Tomic. It is entirely possible that Wawrinka will overcome any of these players, but it will be awfully difficult for the Swiss to deal with so many capable adversaries.
Meanwhile, Thiem, if he can avoid a first round upset against the in form John Millman of Australia, should move into the round of 16 comfortably enough. The view here is that Thiem will make it to the fourth round safely. But he could well be in trouble at that stage. My guess is that the appealing Austrian will be playing a wildcard in the fourth round, and that would be none other than Del Potro.
The 6’6″ Argentine opens against a compatriot named Diego Schwartzman, and then would have an intriguing second round confrontation against No. 19 seed Steve Johnson, now the top ranked American in the sport. There are some clear similarities here; both men rely on the sliced backhand to set up sizzling forehand winners. But the Del Potro forehand is a much bigger and better shot in my book. So I predict a four set win for him over the industrious American.
Del Potro thus earns the right to set up a gripping fourth round battle with Thiem. This would be a match that fans in the know would not want to miss. It would have five sets written all over it. It would be played at a very high caliber by two men with heavy arsenals and lofty aspirations. My pick would be Del Potro, 6-4 in the fifth set.
I am also forecasting a Kyrgios round of 16 upset over the No. 3 seed Wawrinka. That would set up a quarterfinal featuring the surging Del Potro and the dynamic young Australian. Put me down to watch that showdown, from beginning to end, from a good seat behind the court. Del Potro would have no easy time containing the uncompromising Kyrgios. Both men should be primed for a fascinating appointment. Service breaks would be hard to come by. Tie-breaks will decide two sets, and possibly three. it goes right down to the wire, but somehow Del Potro survives from 3-5 down in a fifth set tie-break, sweeping four points in a row, two with aces and two more with unstoppable forehands. This is a blockbuster, lasting more than four-and-a-half hours, sending Del Potro into the semifinals.
But the big man has taken too much out of himself by going five debilitating sets in two straight matches. To his extreme misfortune, Del Potro has to battle a much fresher Murray in the penultimate round. This is eerily familiar to the scenario at the Olympics, when a depleted Del Potro lost a four set final to the British competitor. This time around, Murray proceeds much the way he did in Rio, deliberately making Del Potro play, moving him side to side, looking to extend the rallies. He makes fitness the central issue. Murray does drop a set, but comes through 6-4, 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-2 to reach the final.
This would be just what we wanted: the two best players in the world squaring off in the last major of the season, with Murray striving for his second straight Grand Slam title and Djokovic seeking a third ” Big Four” championship of 2016. Both men fully comprehend what is at stake. For Djokovic, his status as the dominant player in tennis would be reaffirmed, and he would celebrate a second straight three major season. For Murray, a victory at Flushing Meadows would mean he had claimed the two most prestigious titles in the game this year, and, by also sealing the gold medal at the Olympics, he would be considered by most authorities as the best player in the world.
The tennis in this contest surpasses the level they attained in the final of Roland Garros. Djokovic is breathtaking in the first set, but Murray retaliates boldly in the second. The pivotal third set is settled in a tie-break, and Murray leads 4-1 in that sequence. But Djokovic captures five points in succession, defending masterfully, serving superbly under pressure, refusing to miss a ball. He takes the set, and then pulls away to win 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (4), 6-3, defeating Murray for the fourteenth time in their last 16 meetings.
And now to the women’s draw. Serena Williams is pressed immediately in the first round by Ekaterina Makarova, the left-handed Russian who upset the American back at the Australian Open of 2012. This time around, with Serena serving tentatively and spraying forehands long, Makarova wins the first set and goes up a break in the second, but right then and there Williams raises her intensity decidedly and recoups for a 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory. In the third round, she is pushed hard by Ana Ivanovic, who characteristically attacks the Williams second serve like no one else has done. But Williams steadies down off the ground and rallies to win 4-6, 6-2, 6-2. In the round of 16, Serena has an appointment with the woman who beat her so soundly in the 2011 U.S. Open final: Sam Stosur.
Stosur also knocked Williams out of the 2010 French Open from match point down in the quarterfinals. But, in this encounter at the Open, her trademark heavy kick serve is not in full working order. Williams wins 6-4, 6-3 for a place in the quarterfinals. She comes up against No. 5 seed Simona Halep, and the Romanian is unintimidated. She senses that Serena is still not serving like Serena, and she pounces on the American’s sub par second serve. Halep is also covering the court with alacrity, hardly missing off the ground, and forcing Williams to play out of her comfort zone.
Halep wins the first set 7-5, drops the second 6-4, and then races to 5-1 in the third. Yet Williams is not ready to leave. She secures three games in a row, breaking twice in that stretch, going for broke without becoming reckless. At 4-5, Williams rolls to 40-0, but double faults, misses an easy forehand, and drives a two-hander down the line that lands a foot long. Halep then makes her best return of the match, sending a forehand down the line for an outright winner. At match point down, Williams serves down the T, and the return is short. But an overanxious Williams nets the forehand approach. Halep completes a stunning 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 victory.
In the semifinals, Halep meets No.4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, who has ousted 36-year-old Venus Williams in the previous round, winning in three sets. These two magnificent defenders are locked at 5-5 in their rivalry, and this match reflects that history. Halep wins the first set 6-3, loses the second 7-5, and then bolts to 5-3 in the third. Radwanska is quietly defiant. She sweeps three games in a row before a resolute Halep levels at 6-6. In the final set tie-break, Radwanska is unerring, but so, too, is Halep. At 5-5 in that sequence, though, Halep meets the moment beautifully, driving a two-handed backhand on the dead run down the line for a gorgeous winner. Now, at match point, Halep refuses to make a mistake. On the 33rd stroke of the rally, Radwanska nets a forehand down the line. Halep succeeds 6-3, 5-7, 7-6 (5). She reaches her second career major final.
On the opposite half of the draw, No. 2 seed Angelique Kerber is all business as she pursues a second Grand Slam title of the season. She topples Petra Kvitova in an all-lefty battle for a place in the quarterfinals. Don’t ask me who Kerber will play in the quarters. It might be No. 7 seed Roberta Vinci, the woman who spoiled Serena Williams’ bid for a Grand Slam last year in the semifinals. It could be Dominika Cibulkova. But no matter who happens to be standing on the other side of the net, the German wins.
In the semifinals, she confronts none other than Madison Keys of the United States, the No. 8 seed. Keys is dictating relentlessly from the baseline, forcing the issue unswervingly, making Kerber chase one big shot after another. But, as was the case in Rio when they met there, Kerber is too reliable on the big points. She overcomes Keys 7-5, 7-6 (3).
So it is Kerber versus Halep for the title. The German has defeated her worthy rival three out of four times this year. But the fact remains that there is little to choose between them in a stirring final. Halep is in an ultra-aggressive mood, going for her shots audaciously, keeping Kerber at bay with her game plan. Kerber, however, counters magnificently, running down every ball off the forehand, forcing Halep to keep playing one extra shot to finish off points. Kerber also comes up with some outstanding clutch serving in the Ad Court, saving a cluster of crucial break points with the wide slice serve.
In the end, Kerber is victorious 7-5, 4-6, 6-3. She achieves her longtime dream, rising to No. 1 in the world, taking her second major in style, earning the admiration of the New York fans with her grit, gumption and tenacity. The German is a winner in New York, and deservedly so. She caps a terrific 2016 campaign with her triumph.
So there you have it; those are my projections. I am convinced it will be an outstanding tournament, filled with gripping contests, providing high drama across the fortnight, giving fans just about everything they could want. Usually when I weigh in with my predictions, I do so with a reasonable degree of conviction, and very little hesitation.This year, I make my calls with some clear reservations. In the final analysis, the 2016 U.S. Open titles could well be won by five or six different men, and about the same number of women. I look forward to watching it all unfold. No matter what transpires, the feeling grows that this version of the Open might rank among the most riveting majors we have witnessed in a long time.