US Open draw takeaways: Serena Williams could make a run; Rafael Nadal gets ideal matchups

The first thing most of the tennis world looked for Thursday when the U.S. Open draws came out was where Serena Williams landed in her final tournament.

As it turns out, not in a bad spot at all.

Williams, the six-time U.S. Open champ, theoretically will have a chance to make a bit of a run facing 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic in the first round and the very vulnerable No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit after that.

The question is whether Williams’ body will hold up well enough to put consecutive matches together — something she hasn’t had much success with since returning to tournament tennis at Wimbledon.

In reality, since the 40-year old Williams announced on Aug. 9 that she was transitioning away from professional tennis, her form has not been good. Though she did score one win in Canada over Nuria Parrizas-Diaz, she got handed pretty thorough defeats by top-15 players Belinda Bencic and Emma Raducanu while struggling with what seemed to be knee soreness.

Serena Williams prepares to serve during the Western & Southern Open on Aug. 16.

It’s hard to know what to expect from Williams, but the New York crowd will be a huge asset. And she ended up in a fortunate section of the draw alongside Kontaveit, No. 14 seed Leylah Fernandez and No. 23 seed Barbora Krejcikova who have all struggled in the past few months to come back from health setbacks. On paper, one of those three should be in the quarterfinals. But given their current form, it’s kind of anyone’s ballgame.

Expecting something special to happen for Williams at this event is too high a bar to set. But given the draw, it looks far more realistic now for her to sneak through into the second week.

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Here are five more takeaways from the men’s and women’s draws:

Most wide open Open in recent memory

This is the rare circumstance in tennis where you could have as many as a dozen different men holding the trophy and maybe twice as many women and not be terribly surprised by the result.

With unvaccinated Novak Djokovic sitting at home because he can’t get into the U.S., Rafael Nadal’s health a significant question mark and both No. 1 seeds showing vulnerability in their last few tournaments, this will be a huge opportunity to see first-time Grand Slam winners in both draws.

No. 1-ranked Daniil Medvedev, the defending champion, seems to enjoy the conditions in New York more than anywhere else in the world. He’s 18-2 at the U.S. Open since 2019, with both losses coming against the eventual champions. But since his heartbreaking loss to Nadal in the Australian Open final this year, Medvedev’s play just hasn’t been quite as sharp as we’ve come to expect.

Medvedev looks like he’ll have a tough path back to the final, too. In the fourth round, he could face Nick Kyrgios, who is having a career year and just beat Medvedev in Canada earlier this month. The quarterfinals would likely pit him against Canadian Open champion and two-time U.S. Open semifinalist Pablo Carreño Busta or No. 8 Felix Auger-Aliassime. For entertainment’s sake, a semifinal between Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas — who don’t particularly like each other going back to a famous incident in Miami five years ago — would be a pretty fun matchup.

For women’s No. 1 seed Iga Swiatek, it’s been a bit of a struggle since the end of her 37-match winning streak, which included the French Open title. Swiatek recently complained about the Wilson balls being used by the USTA, which are a bit lighter and subsequently more difficult to control with her heavy topspin game.

If that’s in her head, Swiatek could be vulnerable to an early upset.

Nadal got a near-perfect draw

Rafael Nadal returns a shot during the Western & Southern Open on Aug 17.

Rafael Nadal returns a shot during the Western & Southern Open on Aug 17.

Though the calendar-year Grand Slam possibility died when Nadal withdrew from the Wimbledon semifinals, nobody has beaten him this year in the majors. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of Nadal since then as he’s tried to recover from an abdominal muscle tear.

Nadal got just one prep match under his belt in Cincinnati, losing in three sets to the eventual champion Borna Coric. The big issue for Nadal with that injury was serving, and it’s still unclear how much that affects him now and whether it will flare up again playing a string of best-of-five set matches.

Having said that, there aren’t any obvious speed bumps in his quarter of the draw. If he’s relatively healthy, it’s hard to see the four-time U.S. Open champ being seriously challenged until the quarterfinals where he would be theoretically lined up against No. 7 seed Cameron Norrie. If the tennis gods are looking upon us favorably, we’ll get Nadal in the semifinals against fellow Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year old who made his first big Grand Slam run at last year’s U.S. Open and thrilled the New York crowds all the way to the quarterfinals.

Huge stakes for last year’s surprise finalists

The women’s tournament a year ago captivated hardcore and casual fans alike as charismatic teenagers Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez ended up in a final nobody could have predicted.

That result launched both of their careers into a different stratosphere, but the downside is that they return to the U.S. Open with a lot at stake in the rankings, which are calculated on a rolling 12-month basis. Raducanu, for example, is currently No. 11. But if she were to lose in the first round to Alizé Cornet — and that’s certainly a match she could lose — all those points she got for winning the title last year would come off and she’d tumble all the way down to around No. 80. Likewise, Fernandez would slip from No. 14 to around 45 if she lost in the first round.

Fernandez got a much more favorable opening matchup against Oceane Dodin and landed in Williams’ quarter, which doesn’t look that daunting on paper. But the foot injury Fernandez suffered at the French Open has been an issue during the hard court season, as she’s just 1-2 since coming back.

Plenty of breakthrough possibilities this year

When you consider the likeliest candidates to win their first Grand Slam title, you have to start with 21-year old Italian Jannik Sinner. He has always had the raw tools and massive power, but his game has gone up a level this year since Darren Cahill (who also works as an ESPN analyst) joined his coaching team. Sinner is starting to consistently go deeper in the majors, including Wimbledon, where he beat Alcaraz and was up two sets on Djokovic in the quarterfinals before his inexperience showed. He could end up facing Alcaraz again here in the quarterfinals in what should be one of the premier rivalries of the next decade.

There’s also a case to be made for the top-ranked American, Taylor Fritz, who has a draw he can work with here. Fritz looked very good in Cincinnati until he met Medvedev in the quarterfinals, collecting victories over Kyrgios and Andrey Rublev. In the U.S. Open, he lands in the same quarter as No. 5 seed Casper Ruud and No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, who are both more comfortable on clay than a fast hard court. Tsitsipas, for some reason, has never advanced past the third round in New York.

On the women’s side, you could almost pick names out of a hat at this point. Jessica Pegula, the top American, has had such a consistent year but no singles titles to show for it. Coco Gauff can look like the best player in the world one match, then fail to keep her forehand in the court the next. Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia has been an incredible story, climbing from No. 80 at the end of last year to No. 15 on the back of some terrific results, including the Canadian Open finals. Carolina Garcia has also been red hot, winning 26 of her last 30 matches. She could face 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu in the third round.

Not many sexy first-round matchups

Two-time U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka comes into this event on one of the worst runs of form in her career with just a 1-3 record during the North American hardcourt swing. It’s hard to know whether she’s even healthy, having battled an Achilles problem this spring and more recently a back issue. She’ll face this year’s Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins, who has likewise struggled with a neck injury and hasn’t posted many good results lately.

If you like hard hitting, two-time Grand Slam champion Garbiñe Muguruza against Danish teen Clara Tauson will be a match where neither one of them holds back. Though her sister has gotten all the attention, Venus Williams is also back in the U.S. Open for perhaps the final time, facing the solid Alison Van Uytvanck.

The men’s first round with the most star power is 2020 champion Dominic Thiem against Carreño Busta. Thiem is trying to get back to the top after two injury-plagued seasons, but it’s been slow progress, and it would be a pretty big upset if he beats an in-form Carreño Busta.

There are some excellent second-round possibilities including Auger-Aliassime against the exciting 20-year old British prospect Jack Draper, a potential matchup of young Americans in Tommy Paul vs. Sebastian Korda and Coric against Jenson Brooksby, who made the fourth round last year.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open draw: Serena Williams to face Danka Kovinic in first round

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