At first glance, this U.S. Open might appear as unpredictable as any.
From recent injuries to players such as Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep, to a bit of pre-tournament shakiness from Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, to Rafael Nadal’s issues on hard courts, to the group of up-and-coming men’s issues at Wimbledon, it’s difficult to predict what will unfold at Flushing Meadows over the next two weeks.
And yet this much is clear with main-draw action set to start Monday: If they’re healthy, then the expected champions will come from a small group of women that includes Williams, Osaka and Halep and the members of the men’s Big Three.
“It seems like the same guys are the favorites again this time around,” said Federer, who won five of his men’s-record 20 Grand Slam singles championships at the U.S. Open, although the last came in 2008. “It will be a surprise if anybody else won.”
Williams has won six of her 23 major singles trophies in New York, most recently in 2014. Since then, she lost in the semifinals twice, missed the 2017 edition because she gave birth and was the runner-up a year ago to Osaka in a match that stood out more for Williams’ conflict with chair umpire Carlos Ramos than the tennis itself.
The key for the 37-year-old American, as it’s been throughout her return since having a daughter, is her health and fitness, because her serve and other strokes are capable of being just about as dominant as ever. Williams reached the final at three of the past five Grand Slam tournaments; she lost each time, leaving her still just one major singles title away from equaling Margaret Court for the most in the sport’s history.
“The years are passing, and she’s not getting any younger,” said 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez, who coaches 2016 U.S. Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova. “But she has a shot.”
Probably only if her back is fine, though. Williams stopped playing in the final of the Rogers Cup hard-court tuneup this month after having back spasms, then cited that same problem when she pulled out of the following week’s tournament.
Williams has withdrawn or retired from all of her non-Slam events in 2019. Unlike other top players, she didn’t hold a pre-tournament news conference at the U.S. Open, but both Osaka (left knee) and Halep (left Achilles) declared themselves OK.
Djokovic did the same after having a trainer check on blisters on his right foot while he practiced Saturday. He and Federer went a combined 4-2 in hard-court matches after their historic five-set Wimbledon final. Nadal, meanwhile, has a long history of injury setbacks on a surface that is unforgiving, including retiring from his U.S. Open semifinal last year.
Still, there’s a reason one needs to go all the way back to Andre Agassi in 2003 to find someone other than Djokovic, Federer or Nadal seeded No. 1 in New York.