The first Grand Slam of the year, the Australian Open in January, feels like it happened a lifetime ago. A lot has changed since in 2020. The sport was shutdown for close to half a year due to the coronavirus pandemic with the French Open postponed and Wimbledon cancelled as the traditional final Major, US Open being the second of the year.
The spectre of the disease will be very present in New York, a Grand Slam played in a bubble without fans, with many big names including top five players such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Ashleigh Barty and Simona Halep missing.
The results of the decade’s first Grand Slam in Melbourne felt very familiar with Novak Djokovic winning his 17th Grand Slam while Sofia Kenin stunned the women’s draw to lift her first. There have been very few top-level tournaments since then but if recent results are anything to go by, there is very little that might stop the same from repeating at the second Grand Slam of the year.
Men’s world No 1 Djokovic is very much the man to beat as he extended his unbeaten run in 2020 to 23 matches after winning the relocated Cincinnati Open despite injury problems. In a depleted field, the women’s draw seems as open as ever for someone to put together a championship run.
But in a year full of upheaval and chaos, will Grand Slam tennis stay the same? Will someone break the Big Three monopoly at Majors? Will a former champion emerge resurgent in the women’s field?
Here are the big questions ahead of US Open 2020.
Can anyone stop Djokovic?
Even in a fractured season and controversial year for him, the world No 1 has been unshaken on the tennis court and the only member of the Big Three competing in New York looks set to continue his unbeaten run.
The last man to beat him was Federer at the ATP Finals back in November and since then he has won Australian, Dubai Open, and Cincinnati Masters. The latter one came after the sport hiatus where he contracted coronavirus after organising the ill-fated Adria Tour and during a tournament where a neck injury caused him discomfort. But the manner in which he raised him game after being cornered in the semis against Roberto Bautista Agut and final in Milos Raonic is proof that very few players can match the Serb for tenacity and skill.
With the absence of his biggest rivals in Nadal, Federer, Wawrinka, the onus will be on the younger generation to try and dent the wall. The tune-up event in New York only highlighted that most of the young blood are still erratic as ever. While top 10 seeds such as Thiem, Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas have all beaten him in the past, to do it at a Major over five sets will be a whole different challenge. Bet against No 18 at your own peril.
Can Serena exploit a depleted field for the elusive No 24?
The women’s singles draw features only four of the top 10 as players didn’t want to travel due to health and safety concerns. But even in a severely depleted field, the quality of the WTA remains high with seven Grand Slam champions seeded and three more in the draw. (Welcome back, Kim Clijsters) Former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka winning the Cincinnati tune-up for her first trophy since motherhood in 2016 serves yet another reminder of the depth in the draw.
Former runner-up Karolina Pliskova is the top seed while Australian Open winner Kenin is second and former champions Serena and Naomi Osaka, who is under an injury cloud, follow. Aryna Sabalenka, Johanna Konta and Garbine Muguruza would be the other top 10 seeds to watch out for given their good results on hard-court in the limited action this year.
As has been the case ever since she returned from her maternity break in 2018, the focus will once again be on Serena and her quest for the 24th Major that will put her on par with Margaret Court’s all-time record. After four-runners up plates and several more meltdowns in other tournaments, it’s hard to predict a title for the 38-year-old. But in a stadium without the crowd factor and a general lack of expectations could actually work in the American’s favour. She has reached the final in New York in the last two years after all.
On the flip side, the empty stadiums gives several other players an edge and has been the trend, it is entirely likely that we will see a first-time Major winner again.
Who are the Indians in action?
After coming through qualifiers to make his Grand Slam debut at the biggest possible stage – a first-round match against Roger Federer on the Arthur Ashe where he took the first set – Sumit Nagal is back at the US Open for the second straight year.
This year, the India No 1 is playing with a direct entry by virtue of his ranking (world No 128 when the draw was made) and the several withdrawals. Unlike 2019, his opener will be a much easier match as he takes on Bradley Klahn, who as world 128 is ranked lower than 122-ranked Nagal. The 23-year-old Indian is also coming off a solid run at the Prague Challenger where he played Wawrinka in the quarters, which has put him in good knick.
Nagal has a great chance to get his first Grand Slam win under his belt and should he progress to the second round, he will be rewarded with another potential big-court match against second seed Thiem.
In men’s doubles, Rohan Bopanna will partner with Denis Shapovalov while Divij Sharan is partnering Nikol Cacic.
Will no crowd support make a difference?
While it is being played in silence, tennis is a sport very much affected by the crowd and the packed stadium will be sorely missed. The New York crowd is famed for both their cheers and jeers and it is often this external element that fuels players. Remember the support for 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro or the boos for last year’s runner-up Daniil Medvedev and the final between Osaka and Serena?
But the absence of a crowd could also be factor in deciding matches this year. With no pressure or noise from the outside, players will have a chance to be focussed more longer periods of time. This might be especially beneficial for the younger seeded players in the men’s draw, who often lose steam in five-setters. As has been the case with the several successive ‘Next’ generations, playing on big courts against top players in Majors can often be a match against the crowd as well.
As seen in the few tournaments before, the players’ intensity is not affected much by this; they all have played on the lower tier before after all. This new normal of only having your team in the stadium might just pave the way for a few others to challenge further. It is ultimately a small thing but could level the field to some extent.
Should there be an asterisk on the tournament given the number of absentees?
This will always be a question on the minds of many tennis fans, even after the tournament is done. This US Open doesn’t feature both its defending champions as both Nadal and Andreescu pulled out and a number of big names are missing.
But it is a Grand Slam after all, one with several former champions in both the men’s and women’s sections. While the WTA field is understandably depleted at the top, the ATP bracket is more or less stacked even without most former champions. (Nadal, Federer, Wawrinka and del Potro may be missing but Andy Murray and Marin Cilic are still around with Djokovic.)
However, the US Open is already called the Upset Open for the general upheaval in the draw and surprise winners it throws up towards the end of the season. Even though it is not the final Major of 2020, the fact that top-flight tennis was absent for five months means there will be more upsets and perhaps even unexpected champions at the end of two weeks. But whoever wins at Flushing Meadows, it will be despite the chaos of 2020 and not because of it.
The US Open will be telecast live in India on Star Sports Select 1, 2