With the 2019 U.S. Open set to kick off Monday in New York (11 a.m. ET), SI's tennis experts and writers Jon Wertheim, Stanley Kay, Jamie Lisanti, and Kellen Becoats pick winners, discuss this year's top storylines, highlight must-watch matches and more.
What did you learn from the lead-up hardcourt events?
Jon Wertheim: We've learned that...Bianca Andreescu is for real...Daniil Medvedev is for real, at least in best-of-three matches...that Nick Kyrgios is still susceptible to visits from the Demi-gorgon...that Rafa Nadal can really play on hard courts...that Serena Williams is both dangerous and delicate...the majors are of such paramount importance that players (especially those who have prioritized prolonging their careers) treat all other events as tuneups.
Stanley Kay: On the men’s side, the obvious place to start is Daniil Medvedev: He reached the final in all three leadup tournaments he played, culminating in a title in Cincinnati. Along the way, he beat the likes of Novak Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, Marin Cilic, Karen Khachanov and David Goffin. Can he keep the momentum going in New York? I also learned—or re-learned, more accurately—that when everything clicks for Nick Kyrgios, as it did in Washington, he can win titles. Then again, he also has an unrivaled ability to self-combust, as we saw in Cincinnati. Which Nick will show up in New York? As for the contenders: Rafael Nadal impressed in Montreal, but will his excellent form carry over to Flushing Meadows? And if so, will that prove enough to overcome reigning champion Djokovic? Roger Federer, meanwhile, looked rusty in a loss to Andrey Rublev in Cincinnati. But it’s hard to say whether that’s an aberration or a harbinger.
On the women’s side, there’s no clear favorite, but I like the chances of last year’s finalists, Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. The big concern: both players are dealing with injuries. I still think at least one of them will return to the semifinals. And while success in Cincinnati doesn’t always carry over to New York—see Dimitrov, Grigor—it’s hard to ignore Madison Keys’s title run, including a three-set win over Simona Halep. While we’re on the subject of Americans, I’m looking forward to seeing how Sloane Stephens fares after reuniting with coach Kamau Murray, who was in her box during her U.S. Open championship run in 2017.
Jamie Lisanti: Defending champion Osaka sustained a knee injury in Cincinnati and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t affect her in Flushing. “I would say I’m a fast healer so I’m banking on that,” said Osaka about the injury at the draw ceremony. I appreciate the candor, but it only takes one small movement or quick cut on the court to exacerbate a nagging soreness into a full-blown injury.
For the defending champ on the men’s side, it doesn’t concern me too much that Djokovic fell to young Medvedev in the semifinals in Cincinnati. Considering Djokovic’s level the past few months and the lack of true challengers outside of the Big Three, I think the World No. 1 won’t be truly contested until the later rounds. But when those matches do arrive, I do believe that his future opponents can learn from Medvedev’s quick adjustment of tactics during the Cincinnati match (including the addition of a booming second serve).
More from Cincy: a possible second round matchup between Sloane Stephens and Svetlana Kuznetsova is intriguing, considering that the Russian vet beat Stephens in an hour. And speaking of Sveta: Madison Keys rallied to beat Kuznetsova on Sunday for her second title of the season—can this good fortune continue in New York? Keys certainly has a love-hate relationship with the U.S. Open, so it will be interesting to see how she carries this result into the final Slam of the year.
Kellen Becoats: A whole lot of the same from the men. Frankly there’s just not a lot that I saw that is going to influence my pick for the winner on the men’s side, as the Big 3 have a stranglehold on the major titles until further notice. It was awesome to see Kyrgios win in Washington and Medvedev earn his first Cincy title but something tells me that this still still the Big 3’s—Hell, more like Novak Djokovic’s—title to lose.
On the women’s side, I’m mightily interested in seeing where Keys and Andreescu take their momentum. Each are coming off titles—Keys in Cincy and Andreescu in Toronto—and look capable of taking the next steps in their careers. With Serena potentially not quite herself after pulling out of the Rogers Cup final, and Osaka and others in the top 10 struggling for consistency, let’s see if Keys and Andreescu can capitalize after solid hardcourt seasons.
Which first-round matches are you most looking forward to?
JW: Serena v. Sharapova is an all-timer, for obvious reasons. But what about Azarenka v. Sabalenka in the Battle of Belarus, Felix v. Denis in the Battle of Canada and Kygios v. Johnson in the Battle of Contrasts?
SK: From a narrative standpoint, it’s hard to beat Serena vs. Sharapova. Aryna Sabalenka, the No. 9 seed, will take on a two-time finalist in Victoria Azarenka. The men’s draw delivered a pair of next-gen dream matchups: Felix Auger-Aliassime will meet his countryman Denis Shapovalov in the first round for the second straight year, and Andrey Rublev will face No. 8 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Frances Tiafoe will face 40-year-old Ivo Karlovic in a generational battle second only to Mayor Pete against Joe Biden.
JL: If the Serena-Sharapova match wasn’t enough for you, there are many other popcorn offerings: Sabalenka vs. fellow Belarusian and two-time U.S. Open finalist Victoria Azarenka; Canadian teen sensation Felix Auger Aliassime vs. Canadian 20-year-old sensation Denis Shapovalov; young Greek rising star Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. young Russian rising star Andrey Rublev; two-time (but not in a long time) Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza vs. Wimbledon 2019 quarterfinalist Alison Riske; 20-year-old American and World No. 20 (!!) Sofia Kenin vs. comeback kid and 2017 U.S. Open semifinalist CoCo Vandeweghe....the list goes on. Three cheers for the tennis gods!
KB: I mean, do we need to talk about anything other than Serena and Maria? The GOAT against a woman still trying to find her way back (as evidenced by her No. 87 rank). This one has plenty of potential to be great. Is Serena fully over her injury problems that have crept back up? Would a win over Serena, who dominates the rivalry 19–2, give Sharapova some momentum and see her make a deep run in Queens? I lean heavily toward the former.
Also, Felix-Denis. You hate to see it. We get a rematch between the two young Canadian sensations who collided in 2018 at Flushing Meadows. Then, FAA was a qualifier with a No. 117 ATP ranking while Shapovalov was the No. 28 seed. Now, Felix is the one coming in hot with a top-20 ranking and an impressive record heading into the U.S. Open. It’s always compelling watching two friends go against each other at the highest level.
Which player do you see as a sleeper/dark horse to make a run deep into the second week?
JW: As always, let’s define our terms. If Bianca Andreescu is a dark horse, we’ll take her. Same for the other teenaged Canadian, Felix Auger-Aliassime. Dayana Yastremska is another teen to watch. On the other end, how Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova (in the off chance she beats Serena), Vika Azarenka, and Svetsa Kuznetsova—16 majors among them, all in their 30s, all unseeded.
SK: Hear me out on this one: I think Nick Kyrgios could make a run to the second week. Wait! Please, allow me to explain. Kyrgios lived up to his immense potential in Washington, beating a slew of talented young players—Tsitsipas, Medvedev, Yoshihito Nishioka—en route to the title. Yes, he blew up in Montreal. But perhaps he needed to get that out of his system before New York. His draw isn’t exactly easy, and he’d have to face Tsitsipas in the third round, not to mention that Kyrgios tends to struggle against lesser competition. But it’s worth noting that he wouldn’t have to face someone from the Big 3 until the semis. It could really happen!....Or he’ll lose in the first round to Steve Johnson.
JL: Is Angelique Kerber a sleeper at this tournament if she’s already won it? Copy/paste from above, but 20-year-old American and World No. 20 (!!) Sofia Kenin is one to watch out for. If you’re a streaking top-20 player, you do not want to see Su-Wei Hsieh on the other side of the net.
Can World No. 11 Fabio Fognini drum up some Flavia Pennetta magic and make a run? On account of his recent title, Daniil Medvedev deserves a mention here. On account of his 2016 U.S. Open title and experience with best-of-five, No. 23 Stan Wawrinka also deserves a shout-out. I’ll also throw two young guns out there: Alex de Minaur and Andrey Rublev.
KB: I nominate Madison Keys, who has become a trendy pick to win the whole thing. The American is more than capable of going on a run, as she showed in 2017 when she reached the final. Her win in Cincinnati might have given her all the momentum she needs to make a deep push. For a less traditional pick, I’d also choose Andreescu, who impressed in the Canadian Open and has no problem rising to the occasion when the pressure is on.
Look, I think most of us would agree that tournaments are better with a little Kyrgios—antics always included—so I’d choose him to make a surprising run. He won the Citi Open despite going a little wild at times and it might be just what he needed. When the lights turn on and he seems overmatched, there’s no one better to tune into. My second vote would go to Frances Tiafoe, who looks about due for another star turn. (Also the world needs more LeBron-inspired celebrations.)
Give us one offbeat storyline to follow.
JW: Nick Kyrgios. 'Nuff said.
SK: Last year, 12 men retired from matches during the first two rounds, citing injury or heat exhaustion. This year’s forecast doesn’t look quite as warm, but will we still see a similar level of attrition? How tournaments respond to a warming climate—and the increasing likelihood of dangerous heat waves—is something to watch going forward.
JL: How about an off-site storyline? While the rest of the tennis world will have eyes and ears focused on New York and the U.S. Open, Andy Murray will be playing at the ATP Challenger in Mallorca at the Rafa Nadal Academy as he searches for some more match play in his return from surgery on his right hip. (Fun fact, h/t @JMeis_: Murray will be the first former World No. 1 to compete at the Challenger level since Thomas Muster in 2011.
Here’s a (somewhat) off-court storyline: Sloane Stephens reunited with her former coach Kamau Murray ahead of this year's U.S. Open, which will hopefully help her turn things around—she’s put up a 1-3 record since Wimbledon.
KB: Not sure how offbeat this is considering he’s currently No. 5 in the world but Daniil Medvedev is having a wonderful August. The big Russian won Cincy and went to the finals in Washington and Montreal. After an incredibly successful few weeks, it will be interesting to see if Medvedev can keep his star rising high or if all the wear on his body from going so deep into so many tournaments sees him tired.
Who wins the women's tournament?
JW: The women’s draw is (all together now) wide open. Serena Williams is tops with the oddsmakers, but she hasn’t won an event of any size in more than 30 months. Simona Halep won the previous major, but regressed in the two events she’s played since. Naomi Osaka, the world No. 1 and defending champ, has struggled for the last six months. We’ll take a flyer on Madison Keys who won Cincinnati. Perhaps her self-belief has finally caught up to her power game.
SK: The favorite is Serena Williams, and the trendy pick feels like Madison Keys. But I’m going with Simona Halep. Last time I picked her to win the U.S. Open, she lost in the first round. But I she’s strong on every surface, and after her triumph on grass at Wimbledon, I think she’s due for her first hard-court Slam title.
JL: Calm, cool and confident—that’s Simona Halep right now, and she has every right to be feeling that way after her performance at Wimbledon. Everything seems to be clicking for her and it shows in her free-flowing game and carefree attitude. Add a third Grand Slam trophy to the case for the Romanian.
KB: For all the reasons mentioned above, I’m going with Madison Keys here. I think she really turned a corner in Cincinnati and some of the bigger names in the draw— Osaka, Ash Barty, Serena—are suffering from bouts of inconsistency and injury. The women’s game has been so wide open this year and I think that Keys can put everything together just long enough to lift the trophy in Arthur Ashe two years after being denied by Sloane Stephens.
Who wins the men's tournament?
JW: I don’t know how you pick against Djokovic. He’s the defending champ who has also won the previous major….and 33 of the last 34 singles matches he’s played at majors. And hard courts make for his best surface. But I’m sort of feeling Nadal….
SK: Don’t overthink this. Novak Djokovic, barring divine intervention, is the clear favorite at a hard-court major. He’ll win his 17th, and suddenly the GOAT debate will get a lot more interesting.
JL: The Big Three dominance continues, but it won’t come from the popular pick and defending champ: Rafael Nadal takes Grand Slam No. 19 at the 2019 U.S. Open. And the battle carries on.
KB: I’m sorry, did you think I was choosing anyone besides Novak Djokovic? I want to believe that Federer can overcome his heartbreaker at Wimbledon and take the trophy home, but Djokovic just looks unstoppable at this point. Djoker is on a roll and it will take something special to stop him.