It’s not often that the tennis tour comes into a manic city like New York with so many buzzy and seemingly frantic storylines. But with the U.S. Open beginning Monday at the National Tennis Center in Queens, the biggest stars in the sport are providing for a dramatic end to the Grand Slam season worthy of a Broadway plotline. There is no promise that the players will break into song to culminate the show ... but one can hope!
So what should fans be on the lookout for? Below, we raise the curtain on 10 storylines you need to know, from Roger’s fading—er, burnt out?—star to a showdown worthy of a lit-up Times Square marquee and more.
There’s No Chance Roger Will Win. None.
No, the number next to Roger Federer’s name isn’t a smudged “1,” it really is a “7.” Federer came into the 2012 U.S. Open as the reigning Wimbledon champion and world’s top-ranked tennis player, but since then the “Greatest of All Time” (GOAT) has been plainly mediocre, registering a 32-11 win-loss record in 2013, losing early at Wimbledon and winning only one title this year. Federer did show signs of tennis life two weeks ago in Cincinnati, taking Rafael Nadal to three sets in a competitive semifinal. But on match point Nadal nailed an up-the-line forehand that landed close to the line and was called in. Federer chose not to challenge the call, which TV replays revealed had been just wide. It was a call that perhaps is a metaphor for the current state of Sir Rog: the talent is still there, but the oh-so-close effort is just off, and perhaps for Federer, over.
Serena and Vika: A Rivalry
Remember the Serena Williams–Jennifer Capriati drama of yesteryear? OK, perhaps not, but it was women’s tennis at its melodramatic peak, when the New York Post’s Page Six was as much a part of the tournament as the sports section. Serena’s new foe from afar is Victoria Azarenka, a Belarusian with a booming game and a shrieking grunt that would have her instantly cut in any Broadway audition room. But what matters is this: these two have a genuine rivalry, with Serena storming back from a third-set deficit in the final to beat Azarenka for the U.S. Open title a year ago. Since then, Vika (with boyfriend Redfoo, formerly of LMFAO, watching courtside) has notched two wins against the perennial powerhouse, including a recent slugfest in the Cincy final just over a week ago that has tennis insiders drooling for a rematch final—and perhaps a few across-the-net, New York–tough glares.
They Might as Well Play the Open on Clay
Because Rafael Nadal is performing that well. The Spaniard didn’t make the trip to New York last year, instead hanging out on his boat on the coast of the Spanish island he calls home as he rehabbed a knee injury that had him dismissed in the first week of Wimbledon. This year there was another early Wimbledon exit, but since then Rafa has been a man among tennis boys this summer, winning big events in Montreal (beating Novak Djokovic) and Cincinnati (Federer and John Isner) to collect 10 straight wins. Fans could see a rematch of the 2011 final between Nadal and world No. 1 Djokovic, a match that saw Djokovic cap a year of superlatives with a third major. They both have one Grand Slam this season coming into the Open. So, who gets his second?
No Maria? Sharapova’s Strange Few Weeks
There will be no second U.S. Open trophy for Maria Sharapova, whose plot twists and turns only need a few catchy ballads set to them to fill a Broadway theater to capacity. Sharapova, who lost to Serena in a well-played French Open final in June, fell flat at Wimbledon, where she lost to a player ranked outside the top 100. She then split ways with a longtime coach to hire outspoken tennis legend Jimmy Connors and promptly fired him after losing the only match she played under his direction a handful of days later. Two weeks on, Sharapova withdrew from the U.S. Open due to a shoulder injury, but not before the Russian beauty made a few red-carpet appearances and was even considered changing her last name to match her candy line—Sugarpova—for the span of the tournament. The shoulder injury is a red flag for the 2006 U.S. Open winner, who needed shoulder surgery in 2009 that forced her to rebuild her serve from the ground up.
The Bryan Brothers Chase History
Twin brothers Mike and Bob Bryan are as successful as any modern team in sports, with the American duo owning all three majors in 2013, a feat that had never been achieved in men’s tennis before this year. The pair will go for the Grand Slam in New York, attempting to add to their trophies from the Australian Open, French Open, and Wimbledon. The Bryans already have 15 major titles in total, a record for a men’s pair and own four out of the last eight U.S. Opens, including last year’s.
Hey You, Sloane Stephens!
There hasn’t been a more tabloid-friendly ongoing feud (and faux friendship) in tennis than that of Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens, the young American who shocked her at the Australian Open earlier this year. First they were friends, then they weren’t, then Serena sent a cryptic tweet, then Sloane went public with her frustration with Serena, then they made up, then more stuff Sloane said came out. Phew! Exhausting. But the 20-year-old has showed plenty of promise on the court as she’s risen to world No. 17. Who is her projected fourth-round opponent? That would be five-time U.S. Open champ Serena, in a match many have waited for since January and should feature plenty of fireworks.
Take a Good Look at Flushing
There have been a few minor tweaks—especially the new and utterly enjoyable Court 17—to the USTA’s Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (please try saying USTABJKNTC five times fast ...) in the last 15 years, but over the next five the tournament will undergo a massive face lift, which includes a long-awaited roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, a remodeling and roof for Louis Armstrong Stadium, a new Grandstand and elevated fan viewing for those hard-to-see practice courts. The tune of those upgrades? A cool $500 million-plus. And while the Open won’t go anywhere while the hard hats work away, this might be fans’ last chance until 2019 to have a dust-and-work-zone-free experience.
American Men Do Play Tennis
Shocking, but true. Yes, Andy Roddick is gone and no, John McEnroe hasn’t taken a wild card into this year’s tournament, but there are American men to watch—and they could do damage. Namely it’s John Isner, the 6-foot-10 North Carolina native who at age 27 continues to surprise after a career in college tennis. While 2013 has largely been a lackluster year for the former Georgia Bulldog, Isner made the Cincinnati final, where he pushed Nadal to the brink and now looks to bring his epic serve back to New York. Other names to watch: Sam Querrey, another big server who could give Federer trouble in round three; Jack Sock, a 20-year-old Nebraska boy with a dangerous forehand; and James Blake, a former quarterfinalist from the era of Roddick who is (in a perfect world) due for one last fairy-tale run in the city where he was born.
Murray Back, but It’s Not in the Cards
Last month, Britain’s Andy Murray captured the heart of a nation by winning Wimbledon, becoming the first homegrown men’s champion in 77 years (Fred Perry, 1936). It was all-out Andymonium across the pond, but it was also an energy-sapping saga for Murray, who comes to the U.S. Open as the defending champion and is just 3-2 in the summer swing, losing to lower-ranked players in Montreal and Cincinnati. Murray could face Djokovic in the semifinals, which would be a repeat of the 2012 championship duel.
So Long, Venus
While Federer is still holding on to top-10 billing, it’s Venus Williams who has faced a harder fall, the elder Williams coming into the Open having not won a major in more than six years (Wimbledon, 2007), ranked 60th in the world, and with a dismal 10-8 record this year. A nagging back has been after Venus for the last three years, and she could go out to seed Kirsten Flipkens, a Wimbledon semifinalist who beat her two weeks ago in Toronto. But while singles doesn’t look too promising for the now-33-year-old, she and Serena will go after a third doubles crown in New York.