What to watch for at 2020 US Open: Don’t sleep on Milos Raonic

The United States Open Tennis Championships returns this week for its 140th edition, and without a shadow of a doubt, it will be a major event like no other before it.

Despite a COVID-19 pandemic that continues to ravage the globe, the USTA has managed to organize grand slam tennis and a bubble of several hundred players in a quest to award the prestigious trophies in two weeks’ time.

The usual electricity of thousands of buzzing fans jam packed into stadiums will be absent, automated line calls will replace judges, and strict protocols will subject players to frequent coronavirus testing.

Nevertheless, we still get two weeks of world class tennis. So, let’s try to enjoy it, shall we?

MEN’S SIDE

Novak is the MASSIVE favourite

Before COVID-19 halted play back in March at Indian Wells, Novak Djokovic was an absolute force.

He began the season leading Serbia to a victory in the inaugural ATP Cup; he promptly won his eighth-career Australian Open just three weeks later; and then he captured his fifth-career Dubai Tennis Championships at the end of February.

Djokovic said post-match after his title in Dubai, albeit facetiously, that he was trying to go undefeated in 2020.

With a sudden five-month hiatus due to COVID-19 – and now another title to resume his season after a comeback final win over Milos Raonic at the Western & Southern Open – what seemed to be an afterthought is in fact a possibility.

Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, front, holds his winning trophy up high as Milos Raonic, of Canada, center left, looks on after their finals match of the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament Saturday, Aug. 29, 2020, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Djokovic is an absurd 23-0 on his 2020 campaign. His title at the Western & Southern Open was the 35th Masters 1000 trophy of his career, tying Rafael Nadal’s record. He’s also now the only player in the history of the sport to have won all nine Masters 1000 titles twice.

Meantime, his two greatest rivals are not in attendance this fortnight. Nadal opted to skip the Open due to travel concerns, while Roger Federer is rehabbing for the remainder of the year following two right knee surgeries.

This US Open is Djokovic’s to lose.

Next Gen views its best chance ever?

The Big 3 of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have swept up 13 consecutive grand slams. Astoundingly, they’ve won 51 of the 59 majors since 2006.

In fact, only two players outside of Djokovic in this US Open field have captured grand slam titles: Andy Murray and Marin Cilic. That leaves 125 players vying for a first-ever slam.

If a new face is to emerge, look to the young crop of talent.

Last year’s finalist Daniil Medvedev certainly has the firepower, variety, defensive skills and confidence to get there.

Austrian Dominic Thiem is 0-3 in grand slam finals and pushed Djokovic to five sets earlier in the final this year in Melbourne.

Stefanos Tsitsipas is a mercurial talent with elite shot-making skills and movement. He hoisted the ATP Finals crown late last season and will be eyeing his first-career grand slam final.

With a less complicated draw in front of the next generation, an opportunity certainly knocks.

Don’t sleep on Milos

While he did come up just short in the finals of the Western & Southern Open this past weekend, a healthy Milos Raonic at any event is a dangerous proposition.

Raonic fortunately used the hiatus to build up his body with three separate six-week training blocks, and it has certainly paid off. He earned nice wins in the lead-up tournament over Filip Krajinovic and Tsitsipas, who afterward called Raonic’s serve “the best in the game.”

He’s also served up impressive consistency in majors. Since 2015, Raonic has advanced to the fourth round or better in 12 of 16 grand slams.

The fresh, curly flow that Raonic is now rocking has also been the talk of the tour.

Can Denis and Felix make noise?

Inconsistent results be damned, Denis Shapovalov is one of the most electric players the sport has to offer. The tennis ball shoots off his racquet like a lightning bolt, his one-handed backhand is as devastating as it is poetic, and he plays with a fervour on court that any sports enthusiast can’t help but get behind.

Late 2019 saw a significant breakthrough from Shapovalov on the ATP circuit. He hoisted his first-career title last October in Stockholm and also reached his first-career Masters 1000 final in Paris.

The results catapulted him to a career-high No. 13.

However, Shapovalov has failed to advance to the second week of a grand slam since 2017. A relatively easy quarter should prove advantageous for the 21-year-old, who is the 12th seed at the event.

His counterpart, Felix Auger-Aliassime, is equal parts dangerous on the court but with different strengths.

Auger-Aliassime’s movement and athleticism are off the charts and he’s a frequent maker of highlight reels. Former players, pundits and greats in the sport marvel at his all-court game.

The Montreal native will open his tournament Tuesday against Brazil’s Thiago Monteiro looking to advance past the first round in New York for the first time.

Women’s side

Osaka leads social justice messaging off court, now looks to thrive on it

In the wake of boycotts across professional sports, it was unclear how tennis, an individualist sport made up of hundreds of sole proprietors, could conceivably get involved.

Naomi Osaka chose to rise to the occasion and take a stance. Osaka spearheaded a boycott of semifinal matches at the Western & Southern Open, putting a pause to the action for a day.

The two-time grand slam champion has not been shy in the past to use her platform for conversation and change. She’s been active on social media in her support for the Black Lives Matter movement and has challenged racist ideologies throughout the hiatus.

As for her tennis, she’s in brilliant form entering Flushing Meadows after a finals run at the Western & Southern Open (she withdrew from the final due to a hamstring injury). She is a definite contender to win a third career slam.

naomi-osaka
Naomi Osaka serves to Anett Kontaveit during the quarterfinals at the Western & Southern Open on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2020, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

The Serena quest continues

Serena Williams will again try to equal Margaret Court’s grand slam record of 24, and this time with fewer obstacles in the draw.

Six of the top-10 players in the WTA rankings opted to skip this year’s event, including defending champion and Canadian Bianca Andreescu.

Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Kiki Bertens and Belinda Bencic are also staying home.

Williams has been runner-up at Flushing Meadows the past two years, and winner of the event five times. One major positive heading into the tournament is her fitness and conditioning look to be in peak shape after the layoff.

Lefty Leylah the lone Canadian hopeful in singles

With Andreescu absent and Genie Bouchard’s ranking too low to qualify, Canadian tennis fans will hope that emerging teenage star Leylah Fernandez can deliver a breakthrough on the grand slam stage.

The 17-year-old was fast becoming a sensation on the tour early in the season before the sport halted play. She reached her first career WTA final in Acapulco, made the quarterfinals of Monterrey, produced a signature top-10 win over Bencic in Fed Cup action, and was knocking on the door of the top-100.

The former junior French Open champion often has a laser-like focus on-court, and with her ability to take the ball early and her left-handed spin, she’s a problematic matchup for most any opponent.

canadian-leylah-fernandez
Canada’s Leylah Fernandez celebrates winning the second set, sending the match to a third set, in her women’s final match against Heather Watson of Great Britain at the Mexican Tennis Open in Acapulco, Mexico, Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. (Rebecca Blackwell/AP)

First-time Slam winners are the new norm

While the men’s field has been dominated by three players collectively winning the bulk of the major titles, the women’s game has been much of the opposite.

There have been 10 new grand slam champions since 2015, and three of the last four majors have been hoisted by a first-time winner.

Notable absences to the top-10 make this draw even more open and several players could be peaking at the right time.

Belgian Elise Mertens is back inside the top-20 after a semifinal run at the Western & Southern Open, and she won a U.S. Open crown in doubles last year.

Ons Jabeur, of Tunisia, made history in Melbourne earlier this year when she became the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals of a grand slam tournament. After making quarterfinals last week, she’s at a career-high No. 31 in the rankings.

We know how special Coco Gauff is, and the 16-year-old American has already made the second week of two of three slams she’s competed in.

Karolina Pliskova is perhaps the most under-the-radar top player you can find. She’s the first seed at the event, has won 16 career WTA titles, and was a US Open finalist in 2016. This just might be her best chance.

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