US Open 2018: Nadal begins New York defence; Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka face big challenges
Marianne Bevis looks ahead to the men's draw at the 2018 US Open, where Rafael Nadal is the defending champion
A year is a very long time in tennis. For proof, one has only to look at the men’s draw for last year’s US Open.
Until just a week before the start of the Open, Andy Murray was notching up his 41st week as No1. But by the time the seedings were announced, Rafael Nadal had overtaken him—with Roger Federer at No3, only five points behind.
But the rankings during that run-in to New York hid some very different undercurrents. For Murray had struggled with a hip injury since the clay swing, and had not played a match since losing his quarter-final at Wimbledon. And he would pull out of the US Open just two days before the tournament began—too late, however, to promote Federer to the No2 seeding.
The Swiss would remain in the half topped by Nadal, and No5 seed Marin Cilic moved into Murray’s place at the bottom of the draw.
But that was not the only false picture painted by the rankings. Both No4 Stan Wawrinka and No5 Novak Djokovic—the two finalists in the previous year—were never even in the draw, both also injured since Wimbledon.
Nadal and Federer lead the way—thus far
Fast forward, then, to this year’s draw. By the end of 2017, Nadal and Federer held all four Majors and five Masters. They would claim the first two Majors of this year, too, and exchange the No1 ranking half a dozen times through to this summer.
Nadal then went on to reach the semis at Wimbledon, won the Toronto Masters, and as defending champion in New York, is now in the frame as one of the title favourites again. Perhaps the toughest part of his early draw will be facing old friend and compatriot David Ferrer in Round 1: It is likely to be the popular Ferrer’s last Major appearance.
Federer, however, is perhaps not the favourite he was entering Wimbledon, for there have been signs that his grip on the trophies of the last 12 months has loosened. He failed to defend in Halle and at Wimbledon, did not attempt to defend his final points in Toronto, and lost his Cincinnati crown despite reaching the final.
It may be no coincidence that the mighty Swiss turned 37 this month. And it may be no coincidence that, while one rival has extended his lead at the top, another rival, Djokovic, was been making his own run back to form. And after their recent high-profile title tilt—won by the Serb—they could be thrown together unseasonably early in New York, drawn in the same quarter. As if that was not enough of a challenge for the Swiss, he could meet Nick Kyrgios in Round 3, and all their previous matches have gone to deciding tie-break sets.
Djokovic—back, and writing a new storyline
After a long period in the shadows of elbow injury and lost confidence after winning his Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 2016, Djokovic finally turned a corner this spring. His form began its upward turn at Rome, Roland Garros, and then Queen’s before crowning his comeback with a Wimbledon victory.
He played both singles and doubles in Toronto to hone his fitness, and went on to achieve a unique tennis milestone by winning the Cincinnati Masters: the first to win all nine Masters. Back to No6 in the ranks, he returns after two years as one of the favourites for the title—but could face Federer in the quarters. Before that, he has a favourable draw, and will surely be confident about any Swiss showdown, too.
Can unseeded Murray and Wawrinka upset the apple cart?
It was almost a year before Murray returned to the fray following Wimbledon last year. After resorting to hip surgery seven months ago, he ventured into just four events, bypassing this year’s Wimbledon, and arriving in New York with only four match-wins from seven matches.
He is now down at No378, and plays with a protected ranking—a dangerous unseeded floater waiting to disrupt the path of anyone drawn in his way, as he proved with a gritty, middle-of-the-night run to the quarters in Washington. One of those could be 2009 champion Juan Martin del Potro in Round 3—plus Wawrinka in the quarters should both men recover their former title-winning ways.
Wawrinka was just recovering from double knee surgery this time last year, made stop-start returns during the first six months of 2018, before making some headway during the US Open Series. In Cincinnati, he beat this week’s No13 seed Diego Schwartzman, fellow returner Kei Nishikori, and then took Federer to a marathon three sets in the quarters.
So Stan the Man is back—almost. And although he needed a wild card to make the US Open draw, ranked at No101, he poses a big danger to the seeds—and in the first instance, to No8 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who was on the unhappy receiving end of one of the Swiss man’s few 2018 wins in Round 1 of Wimbledon.
Former champs del Potro and Cilic armed and dangerous
US Open champions del Potro and Cilic—in 2009 and 2014 respectively—are the No3 and No7 seeds, an indication of the form each has shown this year.
The big Argentine, almost a decade after that precocious New York victory and after multiple wrist surgeries, is currently enjoying a new career-high ranking. And this resurgence began, arguably, with his gut-bursting effort at the US Open last year, when he beat Roberto Bautista Agut, Dominic Thiem, and Federer before giving up a set lead to Nadal in the semis.
He went on to lose to Federer in the Shanghai semis and Basel final, won Stockholm, and then this year, back on North American hard courts, won Acapulco, his first Masters in Indian Wells—again beating Federer—and made the semis in Miami. He even reached the semis at Roland Garros. Do not be surprised if he is around on final weekend, even given his tough quarter.
Cilic, too, has broken new ground in the last 18 months, also reaching a career high No3 in January following his second Major final in the space of six months. He made the semis at both the Rome and Cincinnati Masters, losing out to eventual champions Nadal and Djokovic, though he beat the latter on Queen’s grass for the title. And if he feels at home anywhere, it is at this tournament.
Is the new generation ready to step up?
It is easy to forget that Washington champion Zverev, owner of three Masters titles and the most match-wins this year, is still among the #NextGen brotherhood, age just 21, and he has certainly earned his No4 seeding in New York despite failing to go beyond Round 2 so far in his short career.
He looks to add that extra edge with the recruitment of Ivan Lendl to his camp—a man who made such a difference to Murray—but Zverev is no longer alone among a new wave of young players.
In Washington, the other three semi-finalists were even younger. Andrey Rublev had one title from two finals before injury knocked him back this season—but his run to the semis in Washington was memorable.
Alex de Minaur, age 19 and Washington runner-up, was ranked 208 in January and hit 43 this week while Tiafoe broke inside the top 40. Teenage Shapovalov made the semis of the Madrid Masters, is the youngest player in the top 100, and seeded 28 from a ranking of 140 a year ago.
Karen Khachanov, still only 22, won his first title in 2016, won Marseille earlier this year and made the fourth round at both the French Open and Wimbledon. With an impressive semi run in Toronto, he is seeded 27.
At just 21, Borna Coric beat Federer in the Halle final, having made the semis in Indian Wells, and despite knee surgery at the end of 2016, is now seeded 20.
But it is the charismatic Tsitsipas who has stood out in recent months. From No91 at the start of the year, he made the final in Barcelona, the fourth round at Wimbledon, the semis in Washington and the final of his first Masters in Toronto, where he beat four top-10 players. He is seeded at a Major for the first time, at No15.
Among these promising stars there could be a couple of stand-out matches in the draw: a second meeting in Round 2 between Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev, with the winner possibly meeting Coric in Round 3; De Minaur could also meet Tiafoe in Round 2; and Shapovalov could meet Rublev in Round 3.
Expect deep runs from…
In-form Kevin Anderson, who reached No5 after his outstanding second Major final at Wimbledon; his first was in New York last year.
Nishikori, who has been building up his fitness and form steadily since his comeback from injury—and he is a former US Open finalist.
Make the most of these 36-year-olds…
Ferrer, regarded as one of the hardest workers in tennis, has said he intends to retire on home clay next spring, and that this will be his final Major. He won his first title in 2002, and the Paris Masters in 2012, made the final of the French Open in 2013, and reached five further Major semis and 11 more quarters. As he enters his 63rd Major—and he has missed only one since 2003—this most modest of men knows his first match in New York will probably be his last: He faces Nadal in Round 1.
Julien Benneteau is 10 times a bridesmaid, never the bride, but he is heading out the door to take up the captaincy of France’s Fed Cup team. He has caused some of the best players plenty of problems in his long career, just never in the right [ie the last] matches.
The facts and figures
Former champions in draw: Federer x5, Nadal x3, Djokovic x2, Murray x1, Wawrinka x1, Cilic x1, del Potro x1
Hard-court champions since Wimbledon: Isner, Zverev, Fabio Fognini, Nadal, Djokovic
Missing injured: Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Pablo Cuevas
Britons in draw, and first opponents:
Kyle Edmund (16) vs Paolo Lorenzi [NB withdrew Winston Salem]
Murray (PR) vs James Duckworth
Cameron Norrie vs Jordan Thompson
Draw size 128; 32 seeds; 16 qualifiers; eight wild cards
Top half, Nadal quarter
R1 David Ferrer
R2 Lukas Lacko or Vasek Pospisil
R3 First seed Khachanov (27)
R4 Seeds are Jack Sock (18) and Edmund (16)
QF Seeds are Thiem (9), Bautista Agut (19), Shapovalov (28), Anderson (5)
SF Del Potro and Dimitrov top seeds
Top half, Del Potro quarter
R2 Matteo Berrettini or Denis Kudla
R3 First seed Fernando Verdasco (31) [NB Murray is an alternative]
R4 Seeds are Coric (20) and Tsitispas (15)
QF Seeds are John Isner (11), Damir Dzumhur (24) [NB injured in Winston Salem], Milos Raonic (25), Dimitrov (8)
SF Nadal and Anderson top seeds
Bottom half, Zverev quarter
R2 Jiri Vesely or Corentin Moutet
R3 First seed Filip Krajinovic (32)
R4 Seeds are Schwartzman (13) and Nishikori (21)
QF Seeds are Cilic (7), Adrian Mannarino (29), Marco Cecchinato (22), David Goffin (10) [NB injured Winston Salem]
SF Federer and Djokovic top seeds
Bottom half, Federer quarter
R1 Yoshihito Nishioka
R2 Benoit Paire or qualifier
R3 First seed Kyrgios (30)
R4 Seeds are Fabio Fognini (14) and Hyeon Chung (23)
QF Seeds are Djokovic (6), Richard Gasquet (26), Lucas Pouille (17), Pablo Carreno Busta (12)
SF Thiem and Zverev top seeds