By Mike McIntyre
The final Grand Slam of the year is upon us in New York and 127 players on the ATP World Tour will be trying to wrestle the U.S. Open title away from Novak Djokovic. For the first time in over a year, Djokovic is likely not being considered the favorite at this event as he has struggled since winning his maiden French Open title at the beginning of June. With his health uncertain - a wrist issue has been bothering him in recent weeks - Djokovic will have his work cut out for him in order to take home his third U.S. Open championship.
First of all let me say that if Djokovic is playing 100% healthy, then he is still (along with Andy Murray) a very strong candidate for the title. It is the fact that we don't exactly know the full extent of his injury, coupled with an up-and-down summer that makes me feel he is going to be pushed really hard to repeat as the champ. Djokovic faces an underrated Jerzy Janowicz in the opening round. Janowicz is currently ranked 228th in the world but only recently returned to the court after an injury layoff (knee) that began after the Australian Open and ended but a month ago. Janowicz has not won a Grand Slam match since winning one round at the 2015 French Open. The 25 year old from Poland is best known for his 2013 run to the semi-finals of Wimbledon. He has never faced Djokovic before.
Djokovic could face Jiri Vessely in the second round, Mikhail Youzhny in the third and then American John Isner in the fourth round. These matches should give Novak some much needed confidence after his opening round loss to Juan Martin Del Potro at the Rio Olympics. An in-form Marin Cilic could be waiting in the quarter-finals.
Cilic just won the first Masters 1000 title of his career in Cincinnati a week ago and opens against Rogerio Dutra Silva of Brazil. Jack Sock is his likely third round match-up and a struggling Jo-Wilfried Tsonga looms in the fourth round. Cilic, let's not forget, won the Open in 2014 and has already proved he has what it takes to win here.
Canadian Milos Raonic is seeded fifth in New York but many consider the Wimbledon finalist as the third most likely to win the Open behind Djokovic and Murray. Since falling to Murray on grass, Raonic made the quarter-finals in Toronto and the semi-finals in Cincy. He has a 42-11 record on the year and has John McEnroe back in his squad as he gets ever closer to the first Grand Slam title of his career. Milos opens against Dustin Brown of Germany and then has a favorable draw until a Rogers Cup re-match against Gael Monfils that looms for the round of sixteen. Monfils beat Milos in TO and was on a real hot streak this summer. For his part, Raonic did beat him in a best-of-five hardcourt match at the Aussie Open at the start of the year as well as at Indian Wells a couple of months later.
Rafael Nadal is in this section of the draw but it is hard to know what he will be able to bring to the table if the matches go into a fourth or fifth set. He made an incredible return to tennis at the Olympics where he won gold in doubles and lost the bronze medal singles match to Kei Nishikori. He doesn't sound too optimistic when talking about his current health status and lost last week in Cincinnati in his third round match to Borna Coric by a quick score of 6-1, 6-3.
The most entertaining quarter of the draw in my opinion is right here with third seed Stan Warinka leading the charge. This is Stan's last chance to win a Slam in three straight years but he'll have his hands full if he is to accomplish that. Wawrinka has gone 5-4 on Tour since his semi-final result at Roland Garros. He opens against veteran Fernando Verdasco who defeated him at Queen's Club in June. He could get youngster Alexander Zverev in the third round and then Nick Kyrgios in the fourth. I think Kyrgios is due for a breakthrough at the Slam level and after putting his you-know-what together in Atlanta earlier this month, he could very well have that moment here in New York.
An admittedly tired Dominic Thiem is in this section as the eighth seed and so is Olympic silver medalist Del Potro. Whoever makes it out of this section is either going to be incredibly tired or on one heck of a roll moving towards the semi-finals.
Andy Murray is the favorite this year at the U.S. Open and I don't think that can really be disputed one bit. In 2016 he can boast of being the runner-up at the Aussie Open, the French Open and the Master events in Madrid and Cincinnati. He was champion in Rome, Queen's Club, Wimbledon and the Rio Olympics. He is looking as good as he could possibly hope in his bid for a second U.S. Open title. Murray opens against Lukas Rosol, could see Gilles Simon in the third round followed by a reinvigorated Grigor Dimitrov in the fourth. Kei Nishikori is in this section and would be the likely quarter-final opponent for Murray here. That would be a repeat of the Olympic semi-finals where Murray routinely won 6-1, 6-4.
Nishikori faces Benjamin Becker in the opening round. It was ten years ago (wow!) since Becker knocked Andre Agassi out of the last tournament of his career at Flushing Meadows. He could see David Goffin in the fourth round. Add Goffin to the next wave of potential Grand Slam champions who are trying to unseat the usual suspects.
Check back with us throughout the next two weeks as we focus on the Grand Slam action in New York. You can also follow us on Twitter for regular updates.