Reem Abulleil takes a look at the storylines to follow during this year's US Open Series.
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: