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US Open 2020 long shots, best brackets and picks ahead of unique tournament setting

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In this, the strangest sporting year, the 2020 US Open begins on Monday as the second Grand Slam event of the tennis season. As the coronavirus pandemic stopped sports throughout the world, Wimbledon was canceled and the French Open was moved to later in September.

Many top stars elected to forgo participation in Flushing Meadows, New York, most notably Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer on the men’s side and six of the WTA’s top 10 players — No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, No. 2 Simona Halep, No. 5 Elina Svitolina, No. 7 Kiki Bertens and No. 8 Belinda Bencic, plus injured No. 6 and defending champion Bianca Andreescu.

There’s still plenty of noteworthy talent in the field. It speaks to the depth of the WTA Tour that, without six of the top 10, you still have massive star power in No. 9 Serena Williams, No. 10 Naomi Osaka, Australian Open champion and No. 4-ranked Sofia Kenin, No. 3 Karolina Pliskova and lots of other former Slam champions.

Aside from the lack of fans in the stands, this will still look and feel like a Grand Slam. So let’s talk about the most interesting names in both draws.

We’ll begin with the favorites.

Betting favorites

According to Caesars, the men’s draw is unlikely to produce much of a surprise.

A line of -120 means the bet needs to succeed about 55% of the time to break even. It’s giving one player a greater chance of winning the tournament than the other 127 players combined. That’s beyond Tiger Woods-at-his-peak levels right there, and … it’s rather justified, isn’t it? Djokovic has 17 Slam titles, and the next four names on the favorites list have zero. They’ve combined for only four finals appearances among them — three for Thiem (two French Opens and January’s Australian Open, where he lost in five sets to Djokovic) and one for Medvedev (last year’s US Open, where he lost to Nadal). That both Thiem and Medvedev lasted so long in these past two finals was encouraging, but there’s still another step to take.

This quartet all comes in between 22 and 26 years old, and it is inevitably the group most likely to take advantage if, or when, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer ever officially hang it up. (You wonder at this point if they ever will.) With only Djokovic in the field among the “Big Three,” each will have solid opportunities to advance pretty far if they can avoid upsets — Djokovic could face a Tsitsipas-Zverev winner in the semifinals, then either Medvedev or Thiem in the finals. But consistency remains an issue with this group of players. We’ll see who makes it to challenge Djokovic, let alone defeats him. No one from any generation has done that since Federer and Thiem both took him down in last November’s ATP finals. He’s 22-0 in 2020.

On the women’s side, there is predictably no such clear favorite.

Odds of +400 for Osaka and +500 for Williams translate to a 20% chance and 17% chance, respectively, and no one else is above 10%. Considering a different woman has won each of the past five Slams, and 11 have won the past 13, this makes sense. There is no dominant Big Three in women’s tennis at the moment (especially when the top two players in the WTA rankings aren’t even in the field), and a best-of-three-sets format will forever produce more upsets than best-of-five. You could make the case that, even if Osaka and Williams are the most likely winners in the field, no one should have odds better than about +800 or +1000.

One thing is probably certain: Pliskova is never going to have a better shot at breaking through — if she is ready.

The 28-year-old announced her arrival as an elite-level player by taking down both Venus and Serena Williams on her way to the finals of the 2016 US Open, where she fell to Angelique Kerber 6-4 in the third set in the finals. Since then, she has consistently figured out ways to fall short. She has reached just two semifinals in her past 13 Slams — she fell in three sets to Halep in the 2017 French semis and in three to Osaka in the 2019 Aussie semis — and worse, hasn’t advanced past the fourth round of any of her past four. She was just 2-2 in her two post-Australian Open events last winter before play stopped, and she dropped her only official post-stoppage match to Veronika Kudermetova in straight sets at the Western & Southern Open.

With Barty and Halep out, she is the No. 1 seed by default, and no one else in her quarter of the draw has better Caesars odds than Kerber’s +2500. But she might have to get past Kerber in the fourth round before potentially facing Osaka or Kvitova in the semis. This is technically a favorable draw, but it’s only so favorable.

On the rise

Not including the betting favorites above, here are the men’s players who have seen their ratings points rise the most since the start of this long, strange 2020:

Interestingly, all five of these players avoided Djokovic’s quarter. Ruud and Rublev landed in Medvedev’s portion of the draw — Ruud could face No. 6 seed Matteo Berrettini in the third round, with Rublev potentially facing the winner in the fourth. Meanwhile, Garin and Balazs could face each other in the second round in Tsitsipas’ quarter, with the winner facing Lajovic and the winner of that match catching Tsitsipas in the fourth.

Among them, Rublev is particularly interesting. He is your No. 7 betting favorite at +2800, and he found an utterly spectacular run of form at the turn of the year. The 22-year-old helped Russia to the Davis Cup semifinals in November, then swept through Australian Open tuneup events in both Doha and Adelaide. His form took a downturn after a fourth-round Aussie loss to Zverev, but he did still reach two quarterfinals in February. He lost his only US Open tuneup match to Daniel Evans at the Western & Southern, but he has a decent draw if he can again find his Doha form.

On the women’s side, Kenin’s rise was the story of the winter run — she began the year at No. 14 before storming to the Australian Open title, then winning Lyon as well in early March. She is the No. 2 seed, and the woman she defeated in the Aussie finals leads the list of non-favorites with big gains since the start of 2020.

A two-time Slam champion, Muguruza began the year ranked a frustrating 36th. She rejoined forces with coach Conchita Martinez last November (Martinez was her coach when she won Wimbledon in 2017), and she’s 16-4 since the start of the year. She didn’t get the greatest draw — she’s in Serena Williams’ quarter and could potentially have to get past Donna Vekic in the third round and Madison Keys in the fourth to even get to Williams. But when she’s got her A-game, she remains one of the best players in the world.

Perhaps the most interesting name among this quintet is Jabeur. The 25-year-old from Tunisia plays an impossibly unique game, placing balls in every inch of the court and running opponents ragged with endless drop shots. She beat four straight top-50 opponents on her way to the Australian Open quarterfinals, she beat Pliskova in Doha in February, and she smoked Keys 6-4, 6-1, at the Western & Southern this week before falling in the quarterfinals to Victoria Azarenka.

This list also nearly included Coco Gauff, the 16-year-old from Delray Beach who basically went from unranked to top 50 over the course of six months. She has won eight matches in her past three Slams, taking down Osaka and Venus Williams in the process, and she’s clearly a rising star. She got a rough draw, however, getting Anastasija Sevastova in the first round. Sevastova likes playing in New York a lot.

Dangerous veterans

With the women’s draw particularly wide open, the stage could be set for a redemption story of sorts. Here are five low or unseeded players with high-end US Open success on their respective résumés.

  • 1. Kerber (No. 17 seed)

  • 2. Sloane Stephens (No. 26 seed)

  • 3. Sevastova (No. 31 seed)

  • 4. Azarenka

  • 5. Venus Williams

Maybe the single most fascinating feature of the women’s draw is the history found within it. Thanks to the presence of the Williams sisters and two-time retiree Kim Clijsters, the field includes eight of the 12 US Open winners from 1999 to 2010 — Clijsters won in 2005, 2009 and 2010 (the latter two coming after her first retirement); Serena won in 1999, 2002 and 2008 (then 2012-14 as well); and Venus won in 2000 and 2001. Vera Zvonareva, a finalist in 2010, is another post-retirement entry in the field, and 2004 winner and 2007 runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova nearly was. The longevity here is incredible, especially considering Serena Williams remains a betting favorite.

That said, while the return attempts of Clijsters and Zvonareva are fascinating, and Venus Williams continues to play at a pretty high level at age 40, there are a few other redemption-esque stories to tell.

Kerber, now 32, has struggled with consistency since finishing 2016 ranked No. 1, but she bounced back to reach the Australian Open semis and win Wimbledon in 2018. The 2016 US Open champ reached the Aussie fourth round this past January as well. She remains a threat, particularly on hard courts.

So do Stephens and Sevastova. Stephens, the 2017 US Open champ, reached three more Slam quarterfinals in 2018-19 but has battled form issues of late, and Sevastova evidently just loves New York. She has reached the quarterfinals in Flushing three times, the semis once, and while she’s 18-21 lifetime in the other three Slams, she’s 17-7 at the US Open.

There aren’t as many US Open success stories on the men’s side — that’s what happens when three players win most of the Slams — but aside from Medvedev and 2019 semifinalist Grigor Dimitrov (the No. 14 seed), there are still some lower and unseeded players with solid histories here.

As with Sevastova, the US Open courts very much agree with the 29-year old Carreno Busta, who is 11-5 lifetime in Flushing but only 20-19 in the other three Slams. He reached the semifinals in 2017 and even reached the doubles finals with Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in 2016, though he’s won only three combined singles matches here in the last two years. If he finds a rhythm, he could challenge Djokovic in the fourth round.

Cilic, 31, also reached his career peak here, pummeling Kei Nishikori to win the 2014 US Open and then making the semifinals the next year (and the 2018 Australian Open finals on hard courts as well). He hasn’t made it past the fourth round in his past five Slams, but he could be a threat for Thiem in a potential third-round matchup.

Raonic hasn’t seen much success in New York (he hasn’t reached even a quarterfinal in Flushing), but his five Australian Open quarterfinal appearances (with one semifinal) show he’s capable of doing damage on hard courts, and he looked strong in the Western & Southern Open. The other two names here might be a bit wishful — both the 34-year-old Anderson and 33-year-old Murray are ranked outside of the top 100 — but they have three finals appearances and one title between them. Anderson gets a shot at Zverev in the first round and would likely have to survive both the in-form Yoshihito Nishioka and rising teenager Felix Auger-Aliassime just to reach the third round.

Under-25 American men with a shot

It’s been 17 years since Andy Roddick swept Juan Carlos Ferrero, hugged Mandy Moore, and lifted the US Open trophy. No American has won a Slam since, and aside from four finals losses by Roddick to Federer, no one has come particularly close. Without a few top names, is the field more open to an American run?

Not really. Caesars gives John Isner +6000 odds (equivalent to a 1.6% chance), while Tennys Sandgren is at +10000 and Sam Querrey at +15000. Isner, the No. 16 seed, could draw Carreno Busta in the third round, while both Sandgren and Querrey will have likely faced top-11 seeds by the second round.

While each of that trio is at least 29 years old, there are a few younger players who have flashed pretty high upside in 2020. They almost certainly won’t win the tournament, but this is a fantastic opportunity to make some noise.

At 22, Fritz officially reached Next American Hope status a while back. He broke into the ATP top 30 in 2019, beat Anderson and gave Thiem a tough match at the Australian Open. He then reached the finals in Acapulco in February before losing to Nadal. His draw is challenging — he could face No. 12 seed Denis Shapovalov in the third round, No. 7 seed David Goffin in the fourth and Djokovic in the quarterfinals — but he’s loaded with potential. So is the 6-foot-11 Opelka, aka John Isner Jr., who won the Delray Beach Open in February and wasn’t that far from getting a seed. He gets Goffin in the first round.

While Tiafoe’s development has stalled a bit and Mmoh is still looking for a breakthrough, Paul is very much worth watching. He drew Dimitrov in the first round, so his stay might not be lengthy, but he took Dimitrov down in five long sets at the Aussie and beat Zverev in Acapulco. He came close to making the “on the rise” list above and, if he gets past Dimitrov again, he could end up in a fourth-round battle with Medvedev.

Predictions

Grand Slams are as much about the journey as the destination. The smartest money is on Djokovic beating either Thiem or Medvedev on the men’s side and Osaka facing either Kenin or Serena Williams on the women’s side. So I’ll back up and rank the four players in each quarter of the draw who I think are most likely to reach the semifinals — or at least, the top three and a wild card.

Men:

  • Djokovic quarter: No. 1 Djokovic, No. 20 Carreno Busta, No. 7 Goffin, No. 19 Fritz

  • Tsitsipas quarter: No. 4 Tsitsipas, No. 5 Zverev, No. 24 Hubert Hurkacz, Anderson

  • Medvedev quarter: No. 3 Medvedev, No. 10 Rublev, No. 6 Berrettini, Paul

  • Thiem quarter: No. 2 Thiem, No. 8 Roberto Bautista Agut, No. 25 Raonic, Murray

Women:

  • Pliskova quarter: No. 1 Pliskova, No. 17 Kerber, No. 8 Petra Martic, No. 28 Jennifer Brady*

  • Osaka quarter: No. 4 Osaka, No. 11 Rybakina, No. 6 Kvitova, No. 31 Sevastova (Gauff takes her place if she wins their first-round battle)

  • Williams quarter: No. 3 Serena Williams, No. 7 Keys, No. 10 Muguruza, No. 26 Stephens

  • Kenin quarter: No. 2 Kenin, No. 5 Sabalenka, No. 21 Ekaterina Alexandrova, Azarenka

— * Brady, a 25-year-old former UCLA Bruin, won in Lexington a couple of weeks ago and reached the semis in Dubai. There are a lot of exciting American women at the moment, but one shouldn’t forget about her like this piece almost did.

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