The US Open Series is upon us with men’s action already underway in Atlanta this week, and the women kicking off proceedings in San Jose on Monday.
Comprised of seven tournaments taking place in North America in the build-up to the US Open, the series is in its 15th season.
In the past, players who performed well in these events and accumulated the most points on the series leaderboard were entitled to bonus prize money if they won the US Open.
That initiative was scrapped by the USTA last year though and the series is now more of a branding exercise than anything else, and is used to offer centralised TV coverage within the United States on ESPN platforms.
Here are the main storylines to follow on the men’s circuit this US Open Series…
OPPORTUNITY FOR DJOKOVIC
With momentum on his side thanks to his title run at Wimbledon, Novak Djokovic will be looking to keep things going on the North American hard courts. The Serb broke back into the top-10 after capturing a 13th major crown at the All England Club and has zero points to defend until the end of the year, having missed the last six months of last season with an elbow injury.
The 31-year-old is currently ranked No. 10 with 3,355 points. He is scheduled to play the Rogers Cup in Toronto, the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati and the US Open in New York. While he is nearly 6,000 points behind world No. 1 Rafael Nadal in the rankings, only 2,310 points separate Djokovic from third-ranked Alexander Zverev. We can expect another surge up the standings for the Serb over the next seven weeks.
After briefly returning to action during the grass-court season, contesting three matches across Queens and Eastbourne, Andy Murray opted out of playing Wimbledon and is now getting ready to make a proper comeback on hard courts. His first event will be the Citi Open in Washington DC, and has also accepted a wildcard into the Rogers Cup in Toronto.
Murray, who joked about his current position of No. 838 in the world by posting a screenshot of the rankings on his Instagram on Wednesday, along with the hash-tag ‘proud’, will be keen to put behind him the hip injury that kept him out of the game for nearly a year and required surgery last January.
Judging from the beach workouts he has been sharing on social media, the Brit appears to be moving well and can fancy his chances in making major moves up the rankings, with no points to defend for the next 11 months.
FEDERER’S LIGHT LOAD
Roger Federer announced on Tuesday that he will be skipping Toronto as he continues to get more and more meticulous with his schedule. After returning to the top ranking for the first time in six years last February, Federer has slipped to No. 2 and the gap between him and Nadal has widened to 2,230 points. The Swiss, who turns 37 in two weeks, skipped the clay season this year, and has played just seven tournaments so far in 2018.
He’ll be gunning for a record-extending 21st Grand Slam at the US Open next month, but won’t have much play under his belt in the build-up, with Cincinnati likely to be the only event he contests prior to New York.
Federer is 29-4 this season, with his most recent outing being a five-set defeat (after leading by two-sets-to-love) to Kevin Anderson in the Wimbledon quarter-finals earlier this month. He also fell to Borna Coric in three sets in the Halle final.
RAFA BACK ON HARD COURTS
Nadal, the reigning US Open champion, began his preparations for the America summer by hitting the practice courts in Mallorca on Tuesday after a well-deserved break in the Balearic Islands. Toronto will be the Spaniard’s first hard-court event since the Australian Open last January, where he retired with a psoas injury during his quarter-final against Marin Cilic. Nadal has lost just three matches all season – including a tight five-setter against Djokovic in the Wimbledon semi-finals – and will be a force to be reckoned with this hard-court swing.
PRESSURE ON DIMITROV
Down to No. 6 in the rankings after starting the year at No. 3, Grigor Dimitrov is having a mediocre 2018 and has a title to defend in Cincinnati in August. The Bulgarian is an indifferent 19-13 win-loss this season and is currently No. 15 in the Race to London. He will lose 1,500 points if he doesn’t manage to make the top-eight and qualify for the season finale in London. If he plans on picking up the pace, now will be the perfect time to do so.
EYES ON SASCHA
Alexander Zverev has won a tour-leading 36 matches this season so far and added a third Masters 1000 crown to his resume with victory in Madrid in May. He reached his first-ever Grand Slam quarter-final at the French Open shortly after but had a forgettable grass-court stretch, with an opening-round loss to Borna Coric in Halle and a third-round Wimbledon exit to Ernests Gulbis, while suffering from a stomach virus. The 21-year-old German is ranked No. 3 in the world and is the defending champion in Toronto. He had no issues handling his Rome title defence earlier this year, as he reached the final before losing to clay monster Nadal and will need more of the same in Canada next month. He’s still young, but with expectations high, Zverev will be searching for that first big Grand Slam result to go with his ATP tour achievements.
AMERICANS TO WATCH
Top American John Isner is fresh off a semi-final showing at Wimbledon which has taken him back up to No. 9 in the world. In the build-up to last year’s US Open, Isner won the title in Atlanta, and made semis in Cincinnati, but suffered a third-round exit to Mischa Zverev at the Open. The 33-year-old has made the US Open quarter-finals just once in his career, in 2011, and will be looking to change that this time around. With a first Masters 1000 title triumph achieved in Miami earlier this year, Isner is improving with age and will be the main American to watch this upcoming stretch.
His compatriot, 20-year-old Frances Tiafoe became the youngest American ATP title winner since 2002 when he won in Delray Beach in February and the world No. 42 will also have the home crowd watching closely these next few weeks. Tiafoe’s last two US Open appearances were five-set opening-round defeats to Federer last year, and Isner in 2016. He’ll no doubt be hoping for a better draw this year.
THE DELPO SHOW
Back-to-back titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells, semis in Miami and Roland Garros, and quarter-finals in Wimbledon – Juan Martin del Potro’s 2018 is going smoothly and he enters this US summer ranked No. 4 and ready to roll. The Argentine has the third-highest winning percentage on tour this season (80%) behind just Nadal and Federer. The 2009 US Open champion has a residence in Miami and considers the United States his second home. Some of his best results were posted there and he’ll be one of the top contenders in New York if his body holds up.
THE UNDERRATED STARS
Marin Cilic and Kevin Anderson are two players with incredible credentials and huge games no one likes to face. Between them, they’ve made four finals in the last five majors and are expected to shine on the North American hard-courts this summer. Discount them at your own peril!
Australian Open semi-finalist Chung Hyeon is back from a 10-week right ankle injury-forced hiatus in Atlanta while Stan Wawrinka will be looking to resume his comeback from knee woes that required two surgeries last August and kept him out of action for six months in 2017, and another three months this season.
19-year-olds Denis Shapovalov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alex de Minaur have all caught the attention of the masses over the past 12 months or so. Shapovalov will have some pressure on his shoulders when he returns to his home tournament in Canada, where he made a stunning run to the semis last year, taking out Del Potro and Nadal along the way. He made the fourth round at the US Open shortly after. Tsitsipas is fresh off of a fourth-round appearance at Wimbledon, while De Minaur lost to Nadal in the third round there, and has made noise during the Australian summer early this year.
US Open Series schedule and defending champions:
An eventful Championships has concluded at Wimbledon with Angelique Kerber claiming a maiden title at SW19, and third major overall, and Novak Djokovic winning a first Grand Slam in more than two years by lifting the Wimbledon trophy for a fourth time.
Here are things we learned from the action in south-west London these past two weeks.
As Djokovic said during the trophy ceremony, there is no better place to announce that he’s finally “back” than on Wimbledon Centre Court, as a Grand Slam champion for a 13th time. His two-year major drought included many moments of doubt but just like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and other stars, Djokovic proved that you should never discount the greats. He’s back in the top-10, has a tight win over Nadal under his belt, and has clinched his first title in 13 months.
KERBER’S A BIG MATCH PLAYER
In each of the four Grand Slam finals she has contested so far in her career, Kerber has managed to bring her A-game, even in the one she lost to Serena Williams at Wimbledon 2016. The German is a big-match player and her straight-sets rout of Williams in Saturday’s final was further testament to that.
“I really look forward to these matches, because these are the matches where I know I have to play my best tennis. These are the matches when I’m practicing and working hard, I always have these matches in my mind,” says Kerber.
NADAL FINDS HIS GRASS TOUCH
It had been seven years since Nadal last made it past the fourth round at Wimbledon and the Spaniard finally ended his tough run at the All England Club by making the semis this fortnight. His five-set win over Juan Martin del Potro in the quarters and his five-set defeat to Djokovic in the semis were arguably the best two men’s matches contested this season. Beyond the result of reaching the last-four, it’s the aggressive way he was playing on grass that must be the most encouraging for him.
“Normally I am very critical with myself. But I hit a great shots. I played aggressive. I missed balls, not too many, but I missed some ones. When you play with that intensity, with that level of risk, that level of passion, sometimes you go over, no? Nothing to complain. I think I played a great match. I have not much more inside me. I give it my best,” was his assessment of his loss to Djokovic.
SERENA’S JUST GETTING STARTED
Reaching the Wimbledon final in just her fourth tournament back is an incredible feat for Williams, who has already spent two decades raising the bar and defying all odds.
“I’m literally just getting started,” said the 36-year-old, who had her first child, Olympia, last September.
She was improving with every match throughout the fortnight, and came up short against an incredibly fit and in-form Kerber. Watch out for Williams at the US Open!
OLD IS GOLD
Both the men’s and women’s finals were contested by players aged 30 or older – a first for either draw in the Open Era. Just when you think the younger generation will start to make its move, the veterans reassert their position at the summit.
BIG FOUR DOMINATION AT SW19
The ‘Big Four’ stranglehold on the Wimbledon men’s singles title continues for a 16th consecutive year with Lleyton Hewitt being the last man outside that group to triumph here back in 2002.
Making back-to-back quarter-finals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, 21-year-old Russian Daria Kasatkina is having a statement 2018, having also placed runner-up in Indian Wells and Dubai this season. With strong results on hard courts, clay and grass, she’s proving to be an all-court threat and gaining more confidence on the big stage by the minute.
GOOD FORTNIGHT FOR THE MOMS
Besides Williams’ run to the final, Wimbledon has been a triumphant tournament for several mothers in the draw. Tatjana Maria shocked fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina in the first round, Evgeniya Rodina made it all the way to the fourth round as a qualifier, and Victoria Azarenka reached the final in mixed doubles alongside first-time partner Jamie Murray.
— Jamie Murray (@jamie_murray) July 13, 2018
WATCH OUT FOR TSITSIPAS AND DE MINAUR ON GRASS
Two 19-year-olds, Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece and Alex de Minaur of Australia, showed some impressive grass-court credentials at Wimbledon as well as in the build-up. Tsitsipas, who had only ever won just one main draw match at a Grand Slam coming to the All England Club stormed into the fourth round before falling to John Isner. De Minaur, who won 13 of 16 matches this grass-court season including a Challenger title, fell to Nadal in the third round at Wimbledon.
“He’s going to be a guy that’s going to love playing on grass for his whole career. These type of balls, nightmare, so flat,” said Kyrgios of De Minaur.
After losing in the first round of her title defence at Roland Garros just a few weeks ago, 21-year-old Jelena Ostapenko bounced back in the best way possible, reaching the semi-finals at Wimbledon, where she won as a junior just four years ago. Within a span of 13 months, Ostapenko has won Roland Garros, reached the final in Miami and made semis at Wimbledon. She’s here to stay!
Novak Djokovic laughs when he’s reminded how he brought the band back together three months ago by rehiring his former coach Marian Vajda and fitness trainer Gebhard Phil-Gritsch.
“Yes, the boy band,” he says with a big grin on his face after capturing a fourth Wimbledon title on Sunday.
Djokovic had parted ways with Vajda in April last season, after spending nearly a decade together, but they reunited ahead of the clay swing this year, and their partnership has already paid dividends, with the Serb snapping a two-year Grand Slam trophy drought with victory over Kevin Anderson on Sunday.
“We talked actually post-match. It seems like he [Vajda] is planning to keep on working with me, which is great news,” announced Djokovic in his post-match press conference.
“We are going to keep on working till the end of the year for sure, then we’ll see after that.
“Obviously I’m so grateful to Marian, to GG [Gritsch], as well, for coming back. After a year of not working with them, them continuing with their lives, doing different things, leaving that aside and coming to join me again, help me to get to where I am at the moment, it’s really nice of them. I love these guys very much.”
An ecstatic Vajda admits he never would have expected Djokovic to be crowned champion this fortnight and that the semi-final victory over Rafael Nadal took him by surprise.
“I didn’t expect to win Wimbledon, this is the biggest surprise from all the years I was with him. All the years we were practicing, I was expecting he can be No. 1, he can win Grand Slams, but this was very unexpected,” said Vajda.
“Queens [where he reached the final] helped him a lot, giving him slight confidence, but he was always doubting how he would be at Wimbledon.
“I think the biggest improvement here was his serving, patterns were fantastic, and the most improvement was on the return. He couldn’t find returns in Paris and in other tournaments but he found it just in time this tournament.
“I didn’t believe so much during the semi-finals he would beat Rafa, because Rafa was mentally much better and winning Grand Slams and coming into the semi-finals much better. But mentally it was something amazing that happened in the fifth set.”
Djokovic had to make changes to his serve due to the long-term elbow injury he suffered from – he eventually had surgery in February this year – and he made adjustments to the specs of his racquet end of last season. At Wimbledon, his serve saved him in the tightest of moments, and he finished the tournament winning 80 per cent of his first-serve points and holding in 104 of 115 service games.
“Amazing, amazing how he found himself really, really under pressure,” said an astonished Vajda.
“He hasn’t had experience against opponents like Nadal in a long time, I don’t know how he found it, but he just went for the balls, he had more courage to go for it and he made it simple. He commanded himself just very simply and then it happened.”
Vajda hesitates to take any credit for Djokovic’s resurgence but the fact remains, the 13-time Grand Slam champion almost only wins when they are together.
“No, no… yeah sure,” Vajda says laughing. “It’s fine. I bring him the routine, I bring him the calmness, the positivity, the confidence in what he’s doing. I see him in his eyes.”
It came as a bit of shock to many when Djokovic split with his whole team last year in April, parting ways with Vajda, Gritsch and his physio Miljan Amanovic, who now works with Milos Raonic.
The Serb hired Andre Agassi and later added Radek Stepanek but the relationship didn’t last. When Djokovic called Vajda for help in April, the decision wasn’t difficult.
“I didn’t feel bad about myself at all. I was actually excited to call him, very much. It didn’t take long. Actually the same night he called me back and said, ‘Okay, let’s do it, when should I come for practice?’ A few days later he was there,” said Djokovic.
Vajda spent time with his family during the period away from Djokovic and he insists there were no hard feelings.
“I felt good being with my family back home, I take it easy, I’m an easy person, I don’t fuss about anything. I really enjoyed the time and I was happy to take time off,” said the 53-year-old Slovakian.
“His decision was made and he just had to deal with it. I am very close to him but he made the decision. I didn’t want to be involved for a time, he made a decision not to be with us as a team, and he had to take it all. I really thought that Andre and the other team would help him. You can make a bad decision but you don’t have a bad intention with anything.
“It was his choice and I used my time the best way possible.”
When they teamed up again, did he have any doubts that Djokovic would reclaim his former glory?
“Sure, every day,” confessed Vajda. “Since I started working with him again I was every day doubtful. Because you never go back, and you have to bring the new Novak. I was thinking critical, negative, which I’d never been as a person. What happened here, for me, I still cannot understand why it happened.”