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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

US Open predictions: Is Novak Djokovic the biggest threat to Rafael Nadal's title chances?

The fourth and final grand slam of the season begins on Monday as the ATP and WTA Tours arrive at Flushing Meadows in New York

Rafael Nadal enters the US Open as the world No 1 and defending champion. Reuters
Rafael Nadal enters the US Open as the world No 1 and defending champion. Reuters

Graham Caygill, sports editor

MEN'S SINGLES

Champion – Rafael Nadal

If 2017 was his renaissance year, this has been the year that re-established Nadal as the top player in the men’s game. The Spaniard has matched last year's clay success, losing just one match on the surface, and included an 11th French Open title.

Nadal, 32, had his best outing at Wimbledon in seven years and probably still has nightmares about the chances he had to put away Novak Djokovic in their semi-final.

The world No 1 showed he is in good form going into the US Open by winning in Toronto and he is well rested, having sat out Cincinnati last week. A fourth title in New York is looking very likely for Nadal and will underline that when fit and healthy he is the man to beat.

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Read more:

That losing feeling: Isner leads American men looking to end 15-year US Open drought

Graham Caygill: Williams will have tough task in dethroning Halep as the queen of tennis

Jon Turner: Novak Djokovic: A remarkable champion who struggles to capture hearts of tennis fans

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Surprise package – Milos Raonic

Milos Raonic is showing signs of form after his battles against injury. AP Photo
Milos Raonic is showing signs of form after his battles against injury. AP Photo

Quietly, and without having a huge tournament result, Raonic is re-establishing himself towards the top of the game after his run of injury problems.

The Canadian had Djokovic in trouble in Cincinnati before his quarter-final loss to the eventual winner, and he looked good at Wimbledon before losing in the last eight. His big serve, when firing, always makes him a threat.

Raonic, 27, has never been past the fourth round of the US Open, but now back up to No 25, he has the game to better that this year.

Disappointment – Grigor Dimitrov

Grigor Dimitrov is struggling for form heading into the US Open. Getty Images
Grigor Dimitrov is struggling for form heading into the US Open. Getty Images

At this point I must confess to some personal feelings on this one. Back in January I backed on our Extra Time Tennis podcast the Bulgarian to win his first major at this event.

How misguided that has proved. That view was based on a strong end to 2017 and an encouraging start to 2018. But his form has disappeared and you have to question if he cares enough to remain a competitive top-20 player.

He has the talent, but little, it seems, drive, and younger and hungrier players are coming through. Dimitrov, 27, should be a contender this week. Instead getting though to the second week, on current form, would be a shock.

WOMEN'S SINGLES

Champion – Garbine Muguruza

Garbine Muguruza is aiming to win her third grand slam title at the US Open. Getty Images
Garbine Muguruza is aiming to win her third grand slam title at the US Open. Getty Images

A frustrating player in that when Muguruza is on top form she is near-unstoppable and she could easily be the sport’s next dominant force.

But the 24-year-old Spaniard struggles for consistency and continues to lose a lot of matches against lower-ranked opponents. It explains why she is now down to No 12 in the WTA rankings.

It has been an underwhelming year, but if the two-time grand slam champion can get deep into the tournament there is no reason why a third major cannot come her way.

Winning those early matches will be tough, but if Muguruza finds momentum she will be very hard to stop.

Surprise package – Dominika Cibulkova

Dominika Cibulkova prodiced a deep run at Wimbledon. Pawan Singh / The National
Dominika Cibulkova prodiced a deep run at Wimbledon. Pawan Singh / The National

The Slovakian usually slips under the radar but she responded well to losing her seeding at Wimbledon when Serena Williams was bumped up to No 25 for her past record.

Cibulkova, 29, reached the quarter-finals and was unlucky to lose to Latvian Jelena Ostapenko. Her best result in New York is the quarter-finals, but that was eight years ago.

The women’s draw at the US Open is usually wide open and the world No 29 has proven that she can rise above the chaos to be a factor in the second week of major tournaments. She has the game to do it again here.

Disappointment – Caroline Wozniacki

Caroline Wozniacki is a two-time finalist at the US Open. Getty Images
Caroline Wozniacki is a two-time finalist at the US Open. Getty Images

It is not uncommon to see an athlete struggle to capture their best form after reaching a key career milestone, and that seems to be the case with Wozniacki.

The Danish world No 2 finally won her first grand slam at the Australian Open in January but she has been underwhelming since, with only an Eastbourne title in the following eight months.

Wozniacki will always remeber this season fondly, given her achievements in Melbourne, but she does appear to have lost some drive. As a two-time runner-up at the US Open Wozniacki should be a real challenger, but a first-week exit seems more likely this year.

Jon Turner, assistant sports editor

MEN'S SINGLES

Champion - Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic enters the US Open as the Cincinnati Masters champion. Reuters
Novak Djokovic enters the US Open as the Cincinnati Masters champion. Reuters

It took a little longer than expected, but these pre-season predictions are starting to come to fruition. "Domination" was the key word when attempting to predict Djokovic's season once he had rediscovered his form.

Barely in the conversation heading into Wimbledon, Djokovic was in scintillating form to capture his 13th grand slam title at the All England Club. The 31-year-old Serbian has since become the first player to win all nine Masters 1000 titles when he took apart Roger Federer in the Cincinnati final last time out.

Now ranked No 6, Djokovic is fit, in form and simply the best hard court player in the world. There will be no stopping him in New York.

Surprise package - Stefanos Tsitsipas

Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the Rogers Cup final before losing to Rafael Nadal. EPA
Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the Rogers Cup final before losing to Rafael Nadal. EPA

The breakthrough player of 2018, Tsitsipas started the year ranked No 91: he enters the US Open as the world No 15. The 20-year-old Greek reached his first ATP Tour-level final in Barcelona, where he lost to king of clay Nadal.

Tsitsipas then reached his second final earlier this month, in Toronto, where he again lost to the world No 1, but the calibre of player he beat to reach the showpiece proves he has more than enough to mix it with the best. Dominic Thiem, Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, and Kevin Anderson were all toppled en route to the final.

The US Open will be the first time Tsitsipas will be seeded for a major and he will use it to his advantage to reach the second week. A run to the quarter-finals, perhaps the semis, could be on the cards.

Disappointment – Roger Federer

Roger Federer is a five-time US Open champion but has not won the tournament since 2008. AFP
Roger Federer is a five-time US Open champion but has not won the tournament since 2008. AFP

The world No 2, five-time US Open champion and arguably the greatest player of all time, but there are signs 37-year-old Federer is starting to show his age.

The Swiss has not won in New York since 2008, and even with his selective schedule this season, he has not looked as sharp as last year. The five-set defeat to Anderson in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, having led 2-0, was perhaps a warning sign of his fading powers, and he was comprehensively beaten in the Cincinnati final by Djokovic.

Federer should have few problems navigating the first week, but his US Open will end in the fourth round or quarter-finals when he comes up against the first player of real class.

WOMEN'S SINGLES

Champion – Sloane Stephens

Sloane Stephens defied expectations to win the US Open last year. AFP
Sloane Stephens defied expectations to win the US Open last year. AFP

In what was the most impressive performance of the 2017 season, Stephens defied all expectations to win her first grand slam title at the US Open. The American was ranked No 83 and had climbed more than 900 places in the month leading up to the tournament as she made her way back from a long-term foot injury.

Now nestled in at world No 3, expectations are somewhat bigger this year, but there is no reason why Stephens cannot successfully defend her title.

Stephens, 25, is in good form having reached the Rogers Cup final in Montreal, and she has proved to be a player for the big occasion, having reached the French Open final despite a previously mediocre record on clay.

Add in the fact she will have plenty of home support as well as confidence from last year, and Stephens should be the one to beat in New York.

Surprise package – Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka has risen to No 25 in the world rankings. EPA
Aryna Sabalenka has risen to No 25 in the world rankings. EPA

Like Tsitsipas as the men's surprise package, the women's equivalent has been reserved for another breakout star of the year.

Sabalenka, 20, began the year ranked No 71 and will head into the US Open at No 25, thanks to a series of impressive results in the second half of the season.

The Belarusian reached the Eastbourne final in June, beating Julia Goerges, Elise Mertens, Karolina Pliskova and Agnieszka Radwanska, before falling short to Caroline Wozniacki. More recently, Sabalenka made it to the title match in Cincinnati, where she again conquered a host of top players, including Pliskova again, Caroline Garcia, and Madison Keys. She came undone against world No 1 Simona Halep in the final.

Sabalenka packs plenty of power and if she can harness it, there is no reason why she can't make a deep run into the second week.

Disappointment – Karolina Pliskova

Karolina Pliskova is a former US Open finalist. AP Photo
Karolina Pliskova is a former US Open finalist. AP Photo

A former world No 1 and US Open finalist, but something seems to be missing from Pliskova's game this season.

In possession of arguably the best serve on the WTA Tour and the power to overwhelm most opponents, Pliskova's weapons have been comfortably nullified so far this year.

The Czech world No 6 has reached one final this season, where she was victorious on the clay in Stuttgart, but that was a rare highlight in a mediocre season.

Pliskova, 26, enters the US Open in rather ordinary form, with two second round showings on the North American hard courts, and there is little to suggest she will make any waves at Flushing Meadows.

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil, assistant sports editor

MEN'S SINGLES

Champion – Roger Federer

This could be the last realistic chance for Roger Federer to win the US Open title. AP Photo
This could be the last realistic chance for Roger Federer to win the US Open title. AP Photo

It is not often that the world’s greatest player arrives in New York as a relative underdog. Yes, he always was at the French Open, and there was a period during which Novak Djokovic lorded over him – even at his beloved Wimbledon. But he has made such a remarkable comeback to the game – starting early last year – that it is hard not to back him to win one more major tournament before he eventually quits the game. The usual suspects of Nadal and Djokovic are favourites to win the title this year, with Federer slated to face the latter in the quarter-finals – if they both reach that far. But the fact that he has had rest between Wimbledon and the US Open and that he reached the final of the Cincinnati Masters bode well for the Swiss master. Granted he lost to Djokovic in the final, but on a stage as big as the US Open, there can be no predicting which way the results go – especially when we are talking about Federer. This may be his last chance to win the trophy he last lifted in 2008.

Surprise package – Frances Tiafoe

Frances Tiafoe gas made improvements to his game in 2018. AP Photo
Frances Tiafoe gas made improvements to his game in 2018. AP Photo

There may be little to brag about for Tiafoe as far as recent form is concerned, save for a brilliant win over Milos Raonic at the Rogers Cup. But the American is one of the fast-improving players in the men’s game: just compare his forehand from last year to it has become this year. His best performance came in February, when he won a 250 series title, but he also reached the third round at Wimbledon, beating the more established Fernando Verdasco along the way. Ranked 42, but aged only 20, he has time on his hands. He will be playing in front of his home fans at Flushing Meadows and will likely be spurred by his epic performance against Roger Federer at last year’s US Open when stretched the greatest player of all time to five sets.

Disappointment – Grigor Dimitrov

After seemingly arriving close to his peak last year, Grigor Dimitrov's priorities seem to have shifted in 2018. AFP
After seemingly arriving close to his peak last year, Grigor Dimitrov's priorities seem to have shifted in 2018. AFP

This is an easy one to predict, and not such an easy one at the same time. Easy one, because when you look at the season that he has had and you wonder where he has disappeared to since his consistent performances in the clay-court season. Easy one, also because the Bulgarian has showed a tendency to succumb to pressure on the big stage, especially while facing the big guns. Recent reports suggest he is focused on starting a family and is not as committed to the game, so a first grand slam title can be written off for now. Why is it not an easy one to predict? Because he is Grigor Dimitrov, a class player who simply has to decide to show up and he will provide some remarkably entertaining tennis. For this reason, he is a tennis lover’s player and it is disappointing that he has not achieved more than he has in his career.

WOMEN'S SINGLES

Champion – Simona Halep

Simona Halep has dominated the women's circuit this year and may be ready to win her second major title. EPA
Simona Halep has dominated the women's circuit this year and may be ready to win her second major title. EPA

She is not only the world’s top-ranked player in the women’s circuit, she is also its most dominant one. Just look at the 2,000-plus point-gap between herself and world No 2 Caroline Wozniacki. She has won 46 of the 53 matches she has played this year, reached two major finals (Australian Open and French Open) and lifted one of them (French Open). Her best US Open performance came three years ago when reached the semi-finals, but the sense of pre-eminence about her and recent form – Rogers Cup title, plus a final appearance at the Cincinnati Masters – suggest the Romanian will be the one to beat at Flushing Meadows in 2018.

Surprise package – Kiki Bertens

Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands has shown great confidence against the world's best players. AFP
Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands has shown great confidence against the world's best players. AFP

One of the most powerful players in the women’s game these days, Bertens had a poor record against top-10 players – she was beaten in 11 straight matches – until Wimbledon this year. The Dutchwoman gained plenty of confidence in her run to the quarter-finals following which she has managed to knock off one star player after another. She not only beat Halep to win the Cincinnati Masters title, but along the way she knocked out CoCo Vandeweghe, Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina and Petra Kvitova. Her power and stamina have improved with time, making her a likely formidable player for any opponent at the US Open this year.

Disappointment – Garbine Muguruza

Spain's Garbine Muguruza has been blow hot, blow cold at the majors this year. EPA
Spain's Garbine Muguruza has been blow hot, blow cold at the majors this year. EPA

There is no knowing with absolute certainty how Muguruza will turn out at a major tournament. She is woefully inconsistent despite being one of the best players in the circuit. Her US Open outings have been puzzling – five wins and five defeats at Flushing Meadows – but what has been even more frustrating is her performance throughout 2018. This was meant to be the year she would break out and leave the rest of her competition behind her, instead Halep is the one who claims that mantle. The Spaniard is capable of improving in New York, but recent form is not encouraging. A quarter-final appearance will be impressive at this point.

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