The ATP tour has had a busy summer as it has made its way through the clay and grass swings, with agonies and ecstasies of the players, fans and enthusiasts. There were the highs, lows, surprises, disappointments and more. While the Wimbledon final will be a strong contender for the match of the summer (and possibly the year) thus far, there were many other gripping moments and matches.
Tennis fans witnessed two clashes between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (a rare phenomenon) in the space of six weeks at both majors, intense clay court tennis involving the likes of Nadal, Dominic Thiem, Novak Djokovic, Federer and others, and the lush green Wimbledon grass courts culminating in the once in a lifetime title match between Federer and Djokovic among other special moments.
If that was plenty, its brings us now to the US Open Series with another six weeks of what promises to be more gripping tennis on the North American outdoor hard courts, ending with the last grand slam of the year, the US Open.
The US Open Series begins with the BB&T Open ATP 250 this week in Atlanta and makes it way gaining momentum through the ATP 500 at Washington DC next week, followed by the ATP 1000 Masters events in Montreal and Cincinnati, the ATP 250 at Winston Salem and then over to New York for the US Open.
Evidently, this brings us to the next questions; who are the favorites, who are the challengers, who are the contenders and the dark horses?
The last fifteen years and the last six months of tennis probably gives us the same message, the ‘Big Three’ (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic) start as favorites at all the majors, and at any other tournament any or all of them participate in.
Australian Open and Wimbledon winner and defending US Open champion Novak Djokovic begins as a strong favorite for the last major of the year, with next in line being Nadal and Federer. The Swiss maestro has not won the US slam in 11 years now, and although Nadal has won three US Opens this decade, this is around the time his body begins to show signs of wear and tear.
The US Open series also involves other hard court tournaments across the continent and it is interesting to note who are the players to watch out for. With Federer and Djokovic only playing the Cincinnati Masters prior to the US Open, there are definitely other crowd pullers on the tour, and some encouraging wins will bode well for them going into the major.
Among the next generation of tennis stars, the obvious names that come to mind are Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Thiem and Zverev are wrapping up their clay court duties before heading to the hard courts, while Tsitsipas is just getting started as the number one seed at the Washington DC ATP 500 next week.
Zverev has had a below average year by his recent standards, and a considerable amount of off-court issues and concerns. It remains to be seen how well he can handle these and going by his track record of late, it can get challenging to balance such matters.
Both Thiem and Tsitsipas,(and especially Thiem) will like to believe that they have a realistic chance at a strong hard court season. They are probably among the best contenders right behind the ‘Big Three’.
Thiem has had another phenomenal clay court season and managed his schedule better this year, taking the necessary time off and much needed rest and recovery times. If his quarter-final showing against Nadal last year at the US Open and winning the Indian Wells Masters trophy this year are any indication, he is definitely one with all that is needed to excel on the outdoor hard courts this August.
Tsitsipas has already played a lot of tennis this year and while he comes from a disappointing grass court season, he has exhibited strong form on both the hard courts and clay earlier this year. While it may still be a little early for him to be a contender to win a major, a few strong weeks on the hard courts will definitely make him one to avoid in the draw in New York.
The rest of the ‘Next Gen’ has shown intermittent signs of promise but none too strong to be a real contender at Montreal, Cincinnati or New York. The likes of Frances Tiafoe and Denis Shapovalov, while impressive in bits, have not managed to live up to potential and are yet to show signs of maturity and consistency.
Karen Khachanov and Daniil Medvedev especially, along with Borna Coric and Felix Auger Aliassime have displayed the ability and intent to defeat the best in the game, but will need to step it up a notch if they really are to be a force to reckon with between now and the end of the year.
Juan Martin Del Potro, out with a fractured knee will be sorely missed as he is always a strong contender on the hard courts. He will always be remembered for his 2009 US Open win defeating Nadal in the semis and Federer in the final. The Argentine was also a finalist at last year’s US Open.
The US hard courts seem to bring out the best in the likes of the big servers John Isner, Kevin Anderson and Milos Raonic among others. This time around, most of them are recovering from injuries and are short on match practice.
In addition to Thiem and Tsitsipas probably being the ones to focus on over the next six weeks aside the ‘Big Three’, a definite dark horse will be Roberto Bautista Agut. The Spaniard who is most comfortable on the hard courts and generally keeps a low profile has had the best year of his career. He has been a consistent performer throughout the year, defeating Djokovic twice, winning the ATP 250 at Doha, being a Wimbledon semi-finalist, an Australian Open quarter finalist and more.
With a solid all court game, a good return and a gritty counter-punch, Agut is definitely one to watch out for on the outdoor American hard courts. He is high on confidence and endurance and in the best form of his career.
While it it hard to not feel that the next month and a half will be largely about the ‘Big Three’, there is some very good talent on the circuit and the more they deliver, the more confident they will be when it comes to the biggest stage against the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.