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In An Otherwise Unusual US Open, Serena And Other Big-Name Americans Have Opportunity To Shine

By Chrös McDougall | Aug. 31, 2020, 12:03 p.m. (ET)

Serena Williams looks on prior to her Women's Singles fourth round match of the 2019 US Open on Sept. 1, 2019 in New York City.

 

Little about this year’s US Open will be as usual. Though the schedule remains in line with the typical dates, this year’s tournament running Monday through Sept. 13 will be played in front of empty seats at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and with more than a handful of the sport’s biggest names having withdrawn due to concerns about travel and the coronavirus.

While the raucous New York crowds will be silenced this year, the first Grand Slam since the sport shut down in March has lots to like, especially from an American perspective. Both the women’s and men’s fields are loaded with U.S. athletes, with several on the women’s side coming in as bona fide contenders.

Here are some stories to watch as play gets started.


Serena’s Quest For 24 Continues
Serena Williams is by this point the greatest. She’s won an Open Era-record 23 Grand Slam singles titles in a career that’s now into its third decade. She’s one win shy of the all-time record of 24. And in 2018, she came back from life-threatening complications during childbirth to redeem her positioning among the women’s elite.

That 24th Grand Slam is proving elusive, though.

Though Williams has reached four Grand Slam finals in the last three years, she hasn’t won since she took the 2017 Australian Open crown while discreetly 2-months pregnant.

Seeded third, Williams, 38, will have her next opportunity this week. With six of the top eight players having opted out, her path might be a little clearer, though it could include a gauntlet of talented Americans. Williams is set to open play Monday against fellow American Kristie Ahn, and the soonest she could meet another seeded opponent would be the third round against another American, No. 26 Sloane Stephens. Rising American star Amanda Anisimova, seeded 22, could be waiting in the fourth round. And might a quarterfinal meeting with No. 7 Madison Keys be waiting after that?

Following a six-month break Williams returned to the court at the Top Seed Open in Kentucky in early August, reaching the quarterfinals, and then reached the final 16 at the Western & Southern Open, which took place in New York this year instead of its usual home in Cincinnati.


Sofia Kenin Leads Seven Seeded U.S. Women
The women’s field is expected to be wide open with so many missing stars, among them top-ranked Ashleigh Barty of Australia, No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania and defending champion Bianca Andreescu of Canada, who is ranked sixth. The rash of withdrawals puts an already deep U.S. women’s contingent in even stronger position, with 31 Americans taking part and seven of them seeded among the top 32.

Youth Olympian Sofia Kenin, who is coming off her first Grand Slam title in February in Australia, leads the way as No. 2. The Russia-born Kenin, 21, became the youngest U.S. woman to win a Grand Slam since Williams in 2002.

Williams and Keys, a 2017 US Open finalist, join Kenin in the top 10, while Alison Riske (13), Anisimova (22), Stephens (26) and Jennifer Brady (28) round out the seeds for the U.S. women. Williams had won the US Open six times, while Stephens won her lone Grand Slam singles title at the 2017 US Open, beating Keys in the final. The others are all going for their first win at Flushing Meadows.


One More Run For Venus? Another Coco-Osaka Showdown?
Among the notable unseeded Americans is seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams and teenage sensation Coco Gauff.

Williams, 40, hasn’t won a Grand Slam since 2008 or made a deep run since 2017, when she made the US Open semis and the finals at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. The four-time Olympic gold medalist can’t be ruled out, though. She opens with a tough test against No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic.

On the other end of her career is Gauff, a 16-year-old from Florida who has already reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam twice in her young career. One of her defining moments thus far was upsetting Venus Williams at the opening round of last year’s Wimbledon. At this year’s Australian Open she beat Williams again in the first round and then upset defending champion Naomi Osaka of Japan in the third round. That came after Osaka memorably ended Gauff’s 2019 US Open run in the third round.

This year’s US Open draw leaves the possibility for another third-round meeting between Gauff and No. 4 Osaka. First, though, Gauff will have to get past No. 31 Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia.

Isner And Fritz Lead U.S. Men In Field With Only One Of The Big Three
Men’s tennis’ big three is down to one as defending US Open champ Rafa Nadal of Spain announced he’s skipping New York to focus on the upcoming French Open, and 20-time Grand Slam champ Roger Federer of Switzerland ended his season in June to undergo knee surgery. That leaves top-ranked and top-seeded Novak Djokovic of Serbia as the favorite to claim Grand Slam title No. 18, which would tie him with Nadal.

Could the pieces also be in place for an American man to make a run, too?

John Isner (16) and Taylor Fritz (19) are the lone seeded Americans among 21 in the men’s field.

Isner, 35, has gotten as far as the quarterfinals at the US Open twice, most recently in 2018. He opens against fellow American Steve Johnson, though his path in Flushing Meadows involves a potential fourth-round meeting with Djokovic. Up-and-comer Fritz, 22, has a slightly more favorable draw, though it too could feature a showdown with Djokovic, his in the quarterfinals.


Doubles Competitions To Feature A Bryan-Sized Hole
In a different version of 2020, twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan would have ridden off into the sunset after this year’s US Open, concluding the best men’s doubles career in the sport’s history. Instead, the 2012 Olympic champs announced Wednesday that they’re wrapping up early rather than saying their farewells in an empty stadium.

“We weren’t in this last year to just play the matches and to get points or to make money,” Bob Bryan told the New York Times. “It was to really say our thank-yous to everybody and feel the atmosphere one last time.”

The charismatic Californians, now 42, put together an unrivaled resume in their 22 years together, winning 16 Grand Slam titles together along with 119 tour titles. Both are records for men’s doubles. In addition, they competed together at three Olympics from 2004 to 2012, also winning a bronze medal in 2008.

In their absence, there are no all-American teams among the seeded men’s and women’s doubles competition, though Rajeev Ram will team with Great Britain’s Joe Salisbury as the No. 3 seed on the men’s side. They won their first Grand Slam title earlier this year at the Australian Open.

Nicole Melichar and China’s Xu Yifan are seeded third on the women’s side, while five-time Grand Slam doubles champion Bethanie Mattek-Sands and partner Zhang Shuai of China are fifth.


Wheelchair Competitions Are Back
To ensure social distancing at the venue, the U.S. Tennis Association pared down some competitions at this year’s US Open, including dropping singles qualifying as well as the mixed doubles, junior and legends tournaments. Also on that list of cuts were the wheelchair competitions.

Outcry from some of the top wheelchair players quickly resulted in those events being reinstated, however, and they’ll be played Sept. 10-13. Competition will include men’s and women’s singles and doubles, as well as quad singles and doubles, with fields expected to be similar to those in previous years.

The draws for these events have not yet taken place. Among the potential contenders in the quad competitions is David Wagner, a four-time U.S. Paralympian and eight-time medalist.

Chrös McDougall

Chrös McDougall has covered the Olympic and Paralympic movement for TeamUSA.org since 2009 on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. He is based in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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John Isner