Tennis Preview: Neal Abrams looks at the weakened men's field at the CoronavirU.S. Open – a great chance for Djokovic to win another major
In 1973, the fledgling ATP, in a reasonable reaction to an immoral disqualification of Yugoslavian player Nikki Pillic, flexed its muscles for the first time and organized a boycott of the Men’s draw at The Championships at Wimbledon. Of the original 16 seeds, only four competed, and the eventual champion, Jan Kodes, merely had to fight through India’s Vijay Armitraj, Britain’s Roger Taylor, and Russia’s Alex Metreveli to loft the hallowed trophy and meet the British Royalty attending the Finals. Defending champion Stan Smith, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Ken Rosewall, Tom Okker, Marty Riessen, Roy Emerson, Tom Gorman, Cliff Richey, Bob Lutz, and the rest of tennis royalty chose to honor their union, stand up for the rights of one of their players, and stayed away. That left the event with a decidedly second-tier cast, and it was the sport that was the loser, being robbed of the excellent play of the missing players.
This year’s U.S. Open has a bit of the feel of that Wimbledon. Gone are defending champion Rafa Nadal, icon Roger Federer, 9th ranked Gael Monfils, 11th ranked Fabio Fognini, 3-time Grand Slam Champion Stan Wawrinka, talented bad-boy Nick Kyrgios, French stars Jo-Willie Tsonga and Lucas Pouille, and former champion Martin Del Potro. Who can Americans root for? Well, the top Americans entered include 21st ranked John Isner, 24th ranked Taylor Fritz, 7-foot Reilly Opelka, Stevie Johnson, Frances Tiafoe, and a few ex-college players that should be worth watching, the best of which appear to be Brandon Nakashima and J.J. Wolf. Oh yeah, Andy Murray, playing on a replaced hip, was also given a wild card, and we’ll be able to see him crash and burn in real time. Five sets on hard courts in Gotham City? Fuhgetaboutit.
So, who is there to watch in the Covid Open? Luckily, the depth of today’s tennis is so deep that there are still plenty of top, gifted players who are planning to brave the virus and enter into the Open’s bubble for the right to lift the hallowed United States Open trophy. No. 1 ranked Novak Djokovic will be in New York with the intent of moving closer to Federer and Nadal in Grand Slam championship count. He’ll be joined by last year’s finalist, Russian villain Daniil Medvedev, 3rd ranked Dominic Thiem, and a few other players who stand to benefit from the loss of Nadal and Federer: Stephanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, and possibly Matteo Berrettini. Roberto Bautista Agut, the Russians Andrey Rublev and Karen Khachanov, along with the Canadians Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Alliasime might also have a shot. Last year’s semi-finalist Grigor Dmitrov appears to have been effected too much from contracting the virus to be able to make a credible run this year, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he pulled out before the tournament started.
But who, really, is ready to play seven five-set matches in the heat and humidity of New York City, after nary a warm-up tournament to their resume? Yes, the Cincinnati Western and Southern Open has been moved to The City to serve as a sort-of warm-up tournament for the Slam, but I’d suspect to see more withdrawals, defaults, injuries, and patchy play than much else in this one, even with it presenting only best-of-three set matches, with only the survivors able to show a smile entering The Open itself. I wouldn’t expect to see the players in top shape, nor would I expect to see the scintillating play from Day One to The Finals that we’ve grown accustomed to, but the event will give those patiently waiting in the wings to enter the Public’s Consciousness a distinct opportunity to do so.
The bettors should put big money on Djokovic, and just playing in the tournament will have many affixing the “opportunist” tag on the world’s number one, but you can’t fault a guy for trying to win, and you can only beat those players entered and put in front of you in the draw. Still, the tournament should be wide open, since no one has really seen what players have to put forth at this time, and more from my heart than my brain, I think we’ll see a changing of the guard.
If you want to see the next champion, however, be sure to watch it on TV, as the CoronavirUS Open won’t allow spectators.