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Australia’s Nick Kyrgios should be a crowd favorite at the U.S. Open. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
Australia’s Nick Kyrgios should be a crowd favorite at the U.S. Open. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)|Associated Press
Tennis

Tennis: Abrams previews the U.S. Open 1st round – Fognini vs Opelka, Tsitsipas vs Rublev, Kyrgios vs Johnson, S. Williams vs Sharapova, more

The tennis starts Monday.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

U.S. Open Preview

The 2019 U.S. Open main draw has been announced, and the matches in the last Grand Slam event of the year begin Monday. This whole week the qualies are being played, and going into today the only American man left in the third round, where a win would put him in the main draw, is last year’s Kalamazoo winner, Jenson Brooksby, a prospective frosh at Baylor, who is planning on matriculating starting in the January semester. I thought America’s best bet to come out of the qualies was Tommy Paul, but he went out to Pedro Martinez in the second round. Even so, the U.S. will be represented by at least 15 men in the Men’s draw, down from 64 in 1979, but about the average over the past four to five years as the United States’ dominance has waned and the sport continues to become a true global phenomena.

As we have grown accustomed to, the top three seeds for the Men are Novak Djokovic, the defending champion and the recent winner of Wimbledon, Rafa Nadal, the bionic Spaniard who won the French Open a record twelve (!!!) times, and Roger Federer, the 38-year-old wizard from Switzerland who currently holds 20 Grand Slam singles titles. Dominic Thiem, the French Open runner-up, is the fourth seed, and the two American seeds (out of 32) are John Isner (#14) and Taylor Fritz (#26).

First round encounters in the U.S. Open are very competitive and very dangerous. It’s no longer an exception to see two terrific players ending up in the same bracket, and as usual, a trip to the Open is usually far more entertaining in the first week when you can wander the grounds and take in the sights. The food is creative and of high quality, but New York prices prevail. A bottle of Evian water will set you back $10, and if you want a burger for you and your friend, be prepared to break a second $20 bill. But the entertainment can’t be beat if you’re a tennis fan. You get to see all the players entered if you’re there for the first three days, and it’s always worth catching a glimpse of your favorite players practicing. It’s interesting to see how they work on their shots and their games, and who they practice with.

Most of the highly ranked players have entourages that include practice partners, but even so, you might catch, say, Nick Kyrgios, the enigmatic Aussie who has no practice partner, hitting with Genie Bouchard, the glamour queen from Canada. I remember years ago watching Anna Kournakova (remember her?) practicing with her brother and was amazed at how precise she was hitting every shot in the exact dead center of her racket.

Wanna earmark certain first round matches to catch? There are a bunch, both on the Men’s side and the Women’s. In the Men’s draw, the first match that caught my eye was Fabio Fognini (#11)/Reilly Opelka. Fognini is a fantastic shotmaker, but the 7’ Opelka might be able to serve him off the court. Another match I’d like to see is Yank Taylor Fritz against the 37-year-old Spanish lefthander, Feliciano Lopez. That should be a great contrast in styles as well as age, and should be highly entertaining.

I’m real curious to see how 16-year-old Kalamazoo champion Zach Svajda will return serves from 16th seeded Kevin Anderson, last year’s Wimbledon finalist, and another interesting first round battle should be the Yoshi Nishioka/Marcos Giron matchup. Nishioka is playing his best tennis right now, having just taken a match from Kei Nishikori two weeks ago, and Giron is a former NCAA titlist from UCLA. I’m curious to see if 35-year-old German Philipp Kohlschreiber can tame Frenchman Lucas Pouill. And two clay court specialists, Guido Pella and Pablo Carreno Busta will square off on the hard court. Another top-half match to see would be Pierre-Hugues Herbert/Alex de Minaur. Different styles, but two warriors.

The bottom half is no less interesting. Stefanos Tsitsipas (#8) opens with tough Russian Andrey Rublev. And the one match that will draw loads of fans is the Nick Kyrgios (#28)/Stevie Johnson war. As always, Nick Kyrgios is the guy to watch because he’s so mentally ill that you never know what you’re gonna get. You might watch him implode, which can be a real treat to see if you’ve never seen an insane man play tennis, but you might see him play the best tennis of any player in the draw. That’s why that match will be crowded.

One of the most interesting matches of the first round will be the one between two best friends from Canada, Felix Auger-Aliassime (#18) and Denis Shapovalov. That could produce the best tennis, in terms of quality, in the first round, and when two best friends play there’s always a little more on the line. German Sascha Zverev (#6) opens up against Radu Albot, who could test Zverev. Big Foe (Frances Tiafoe) drew Dr. Ivo (Ivo Karlovic), and that one should be a lot of fun to watch. For tennis purists, Jan-Lennard Struff/Casper Ruud will produce excellent tennis and two contrasting styles, and Martin Klizan/Marin Cilic (#22) might tell us if the 2014 U.S. Open champion is done. Of the Big Three, only Rafa Nadal drew someone other than a qualifier (who have not been revealed yet pending the last round of qualies today), and that player is the very tough Aussie who beat Federer last year, John Millman.

But the thrills of the first round don’t belong exclusively to the Men. The Women also have some thrillers in store. The marquee first round match on the distaff side will be Serena Williams/Maria Sharapova. Both players are way, way past their primes, but the names alone require us to pay attention. Serena holds a 19-2 record over the Russian, with most of those matches having been played when they each were better players, but the respective styles remain, so the match should be as competitive (or uncompetitive) as the other matches between them. Another blockbuster first round match should be Aryna Sabalenka (#9)/Vika Azarenka. If Azarenka can walk away from that match victorious, it will do wonders for her confidence.

The Dashing Dane, Caroline Wozniacki (#19) plays China’s Yafan Wang in a match that could go either way. And I’m really anxious to see the match between this year’s U.S. Jr. Girls 18 champion, Katie Volynets, against the rising Canadian star, Bianca Andreescu (#15) who I would give a very good chance at winning this title right now. Elina Svitolina (#5) the wonderful Ukrainian athlete, plays 17-year old Yank wild card Witney Osuigwe in an intriguing matchup. American Sofia Kenin (#20), the pride of Pembroke Pines, Fla., drew Californian Coco Vandeweghe, in a match between two Americans, one of whom is coming (Kenin) and the other going (Vandeweghe). Lastly, but no less compelling a match is the one set up between slumping German star Angie Kerber (#14) and Kristina Mladenovic, who can be very, very dangerous. Ash Barty, the second seed, opens against Zarina Diyas, who will give the Aussie a tussle, while top-seeded Naomi Osaka plays Anna Blinkova.

If you decide to put off your trek to Queens until the holiday weekend, you’ll get some of the most competitive matches in the tournament. Next Saturday and Sunday feature the Round of 16 matches from both draws, and historically, those sessions are some of the most coveted to see. Unlike last year in which the players suffered through extreme heat and humidity, this year’s first week is predicted to be fairly comfortable, weather-wise. This should allow all of the players to exhibit their full repertoire of shots, and should be best for players and fans alike.

And let me take this opportunity to suggest that you not exclude the doubles (especially the very competitive and enjoyable Men’s) matches or the matches in the two Junior events from your list of must-see events. Most fans play doubles, and can relate to the play in a more realistic way, although the pros have perfected the game to a point we can’t. The Juniors draws are stocked full of terrific players from all over the globe and we will be watching them as pros in a couple of years. I’ve found that there’s nothing quite like “discovering” a young player and watching them bloom into a Tour star. It’s kinda like buying a stock when it’s 3 and watching it grow to 100, only not so profitable.

It’s always extremely tough to predict who will come out of which quarter or half of the draws, but it looks like The Big Three still will have a lot to say as to who is crowned the Men’s champion and walk away with the big check. In the Women’s, it would not surprise me if Bianca Andreescu takes out Wimbledon champion Simona Halep and Naomi Osaka to set up a finals matchup with Ash Barty, who I expect to beat either Svitolina or Kenin to reach the Finals. But, as always, you never know. And that’s why they play the matches. But be there to see it, or you’ll miss out on the one tennis spectacle in the States that is a “must-see” event.

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