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Stefanos Tsitsipas will meet Andrey Rublev in the first round of the U.S. Open. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Stefanos Tsitsipas will meet Andrey Rublev in the first round of the U.S. Open. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)|Associated Press
Tennis

U.S. Open 1st round 2: Abrams picks Kyrgios vs Johnson, FAA vs Shapovalov, Nishioka vs Giron, Pouille vs Kohlschreiber, Tsitsipas vs Rublev

Matches start Monday.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

Yoshi Nishioka over Marcos Giron

For pure competitiveness, this match should be a real winner. Yoshi Nishioka, the 23-year-old from Mie, Japan, is playing his very best tennis right now. Just two weeks ago Nishioka beat both John Millman and Joao Sousa to qualify for the main draw at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, and then beat Jordan Thompson, Kei Nishikori and Alex de Minaur in succession before he had to default to David Goffin in the quarters due to injury. He beat both Goffin and Dan Evans in Washington, D.C., and Denis Kudla, RBA, and FA2 at Indian Wells, as well as Cris Garin, Ryan Harrison and Andrey Rublev back in January in Sydney, Australia. Marcos Giron is a former NCAA champion from UCLA who is trying to make the transition from Challenger player to legitimate ATP Tour player. His best run this year was at Indian Wells where he knocked off Thomas Fabbiano and Miomir Kecmanovic to qualify for the main draw, and then had wins over Jeremy Chardy, and the Demon, before eventually going down to Milos Raonic 6-4 in the third. Although Giron is not quite at Nishioka’s level just yet, he’ll fight like hell to be competitive, and that’s what makes these matches so much fun to watch.

Lucas Pouille over Philipp Kohlschreiber

Lucas Pouille, a 2018 Australian Open semi-finalist, holds a ten year advantage and a 2-1 lifetime edge over the very tough German, Philipp Kohlschreiber. But they match up pretty evenly, and both players will fight to the bitter end. I love the way the German plays, as he mixes in attacking with defending, a style that seems somewhat quaint today, based on the power-baseline game that seems to prevail among today’s players. Pouille can attack too, and possesses a very good volley, it’s just we tend not to see that side of his game too frequently. But I like the Frenchman here, primarily because he’s 25 and Kohlschreiber is 35. At some point in time, especially on the hard courts in Queens, age matters.

Stefanos Tsitsipas over Andrey Rublev

For the most part, Stefanos Tsitsipas has had a terrific year. But he’s still just 21, having celebrated his birthday less than two weeks ago, and as he is completing what will be his first full annual schedule on the Tour, it appears that he has begun to tire a bit. The Greek God has dropped his first match in three out of his last four tournaments, while he had gone the entire year prior to that run never having had that kind of trouble. Tsitsipas began the year with a spectacular run at the Australian Open, having wins over Berrettini, Troicki, Basilashvili, Federer, and Bautista Agut, before being overmatched by Nadal in the semis. He got to the finals of Dubai, losing to Federer, won Estoril in late April, reached the finals of Madrid where he beat both Sascha Zverev and Nadal before going down to Djokovic, beat Federer again in Rome, along with Sinner, and Fognini before losing to Nadal in the finals, and got to the Round of 16 at Roland Garros, where he went down to Wawrinka. By June, Tsitsipas seemed to tire, although he rallied in D.C. where he reached the semis before falling to Kyrgios 7-6 in the third. We’ll see how (or if) some rest has helped, as his first round encounter with the tough Russian Andrey Rublev should be a stiff test. Rublev is playing his best tennis of the year right now, having just reached the quarters of the Western and Southern in Cincinnati where he beat Tomic, Kukushkin, Basilashvili, Wawrinka, and Federer before going down to countryman Daniil Medvedev in straight sets. Rublev also had a terrific week in Hamburg in July when he beat fourth ranked Dominic Thiem on way to his appearance in the finals there. Rublev will bring a really tough serve and devastating groundies into this clash, but as I pointed out before, he tends to get caught up standing in one spot while getting into baseline rallies, and his point of contact therefore varies so greatly that he eventually gets wild and misses long and wide. With that said, I like Tsitsipas to win this, but I expect Rublev to fight like a fish on a hook.

Nick Kyrgios over Stevie Johnson

What more can I say about Nick Kyrgios that I haven’t already said? He probably possesses the most physical attributes of any player on Tour, but those gifts are often overshadowed by his ten-cent head. He’ll be fun to watch, because he plays high risk tennis and often produces near-miraculous shots, yet he can blow up at any time, and like fans who go to prize fights to see a fighter knock the other out with bloody head shots, tennis audiences wait for the next Kyrgios eruption. When it comes it can be gentle or violent, but either way, it’s interesting and exciting for those lucky enough to see it up close. In between waiting for him to blow his stack, Kyrgios will serve howitzers, demolish forehands, hit a few balls between his legs and behind his back, and may serve underhanded, hit killer drop shots, and throw in winning volleys to boot. Meanwhile, Johnson will try to weather the storm, but his lack of a topspin backhand will spell the end, because when Nick attacks down the backhand side, Johnson lacks the ability to pass effectively. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the man from Down Under should pass this test, but it’s the journey of the match itself that is the real fun part.

Felix Auger-Aliassime over Denis Shapovalov

This should be a terrific match between the two best friends from Canada. Shapovalov is playing good tennis right now, and he’s particularly exciting to watch as he crushes both his topspin forehand and his topspin backhand with abandon. Shapovalov aims to attack, and his aggressiveness often takes him to net, which is the Holy Land for male pros. But once there, the blonde has trouble closing out points, as his wrist is far too loose to effectively stick his volleys for consistent winners. He may play a wonderful progression of shots in a given point and then find himself donating the point to his opponent as he drops a volley into the net, or tries to hit a drop-volley that ends up traveling to the service line, which is just way too off the mark to be effective. FA2 won’t let his buddy get away with that. The teenager (FA2 just turned 19 on August 8) is far too solid to let drop volleys beat him, and although I think Shapovalov’s groundies are stronger, and I know that Shapovalov’s groundies are more exciting to watch, FA2 is strong, determined, and consistent—a trio of attributes that combined, should allow him to overcome Shapovalov’s baseline bashing. Auger-Aliassime often has some trouble with his serve (particularly his toss), and if he does here his friend will make him pay for that, but all in all, I think FA2 is further along in his development, and should win this match, although I’d expect a very tight contest. Make sure you earmark this match as one to see, because if you miss it, you’ll regret it.

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