What we do know in this unpredictable tennis season is that the 2014 US Open, for the sixth consecutive year, will not have a repeat men’s singles champion. Defending Open champion Rafael Nadal’s withdrawal due to a right wrist injury earlier this week made that a certainty.
Someone will overcome steep odds to win seven matches in the next two weeks, but predicting who that will be is a far more difficult call.
Top seed Novak Djokovic aims to make his fifth men’s final in as many years, yet he’s won it all in New York just once – and he'll have to navigate a particularly nasty top half of the draw this year just to get to final round once again. No. 2 seed Roger Federer enters Flushing on a roll and owns five Open titles, but he hasn’t been to a New York final in five years. And another former champion, Andy Murray, hasn’t won reached a singles title since winning Wimbledon last year.
This year offers an opportunity for a breakthrough for a young buck such as Milos Raonic, the newly minted Emirates Airline US Open Series champion, or a veteran like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who beat Djokovic, Federer and Murray in the same tournament just two weeks ago at the Rogers Cup in Toronto. Both have enjoyed standout summer hard-court seasons.
Previewing the men’s field, here’s a look, broken down into favorites and challengers, at just who might hoist the men’s singles trophy on Sept. 8:
Previous Best: Winner, 2011
Career US Open Record: 45-8
The resilient Djokovic, 27, comes to New York carrying a streak of 13 Grand Slam events dating back to the 2011 French Open in which he has either a) won the tournament (five times) or b) lost to the eventual winner. He’s been a sure bet for at least one thrilling five-setter at every Open in recent years – and with Stanislas Wawrinka, Raonic, Murray, Tsonga and top-ranked American John Isner as potential adversaries before any date with a final, he may be due for a few more in the Open’s second week.
Previous Best: Winner, 2004-08
Career US Open Record: 67-9
A record-breaking sixth US Open crown has eluded the 33-year-old Swiss since his otherworldly 40-match winning streak at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was snapped by Juan Martin del Potro in 2009. Federer has proved increasingly vulnerable at the Open in recent years, as he was bounced in the semis in 2010 and 2011, the quarterfinals in 2012 and the fourth round last year. The optimistic view is that Federer is healthy and arguably the hottest player on tour at the moment, with victories in Cincinnati and Halle and runner-up finishes at Wimbledon and in Toronto in his last four events.
Previous Best: Winner, 2012
Career US Open Record: 33-8
Murray gets the nod over Wawrinka, the reigning Australian Open champion, based on his past success in Flushing Meadows. Murray admitted that a bad back (he underwent surgery following the Open) hindered his performance in New York last year, when he lost Wawrinka in the quarterfinals, and he has been slow to get back to full strength. He’s been showing signs of his 2012-13 form in recent events, though, and if he can win a few matches in the gauntlet that is the top half of this draw, he could build the confidence necessary to punctuate his 2014 Slam season with a second US Open title.
Previous Best: Semifinalist, 2013
Career US Open Record: 23-9
Wawrinka, 29, wrested the designation of No. 1 player out of Switzerland from countryman Federer earlier this year thanks to his triumph in Melbourne, when he became the first non-Big Four player since Juan Martin del Potro in 2009 to take a Grand Slam title. Federer has since reclaimed top Swiss status but Wawrinka has remained a Top 5 fixture. “Stan the Man” came oh-so-close to an Open final last year, with Djokovic outlasting him 2-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, in a semifinal which was, to many, the match of the tournament.
Previous Best: Semifinalist, 2012
Career US Open Record: 27-11
Before a second-round exit at Wimbledon this year, Ferrer, 32, ran a streak of 10 quarterfinal-or-better appearances in majors dating back to the start of 2012. With Nadal out, Ferrer assumes the role of top Spaniard in the draw, competing in the bottom half with Federer, Grigor Dimitrov and Tomas Berdych. Ferrer is routinely one of the toughest outs in any tournament, but conventional wisdom would dictate that Ferrer should hope hard that Federer falls before a potential semifinal clash: Ferrer is winless in 16 career matches against the 17-time Grand Slam champion.
Previous Best: Round of 16, 2012-13
Career US Open Record: 6-3
The 23-year-old Canadian rose to a career-best No. 6 in the world in July and has maintained the ranking through the summer with strong play, starting with his first major semifinal appearance at Wimbledon. In his next tournament, Raonic took the title at the Citi Open in Washington D.C., and he backed that up with a quarterfinal in Toronto and a semifinal in Cincinnati. A dramatic five-set loss to Richard Gasquet knocked Raonic out in last year’s Open, and he’ll have to prove that he can overcome the competition with tools other than his powerful serve.
Previous Best: First Round, 2011-13
Career US Open Record: 0-3
Dimitrov’s early career has been one of considerable hype – not just any rising star is dubbed “Baby Fed” – which the 23-year-old Bulgarian has backed up in 2014. He has won three titles this year – on three surfaces, no less – and at Wimbledon he dethroned Murray and gave Djokovic a test before bowing out in the semis. He has struggled at the US Open as a pro, but his 2008 boys’ singles title in Flushing and a run to the quarterfinals in Melbourne earlier this year attest to his hard-court ability. Whether he can navigate a potential quarterfinal with Federer, however, is a bigger question.
Previous Best: Quarterfinalist, 2011
Career US Open Record: 12-5
Tsonga, 29, can be wildly inconsistent, but at his best he is capable of defeating anyone in the draw, as evidenced by a strong run in Canada where he beat Djokovic, Murray, Dimitrov and Federer in succession to take the Rogers Cup. The bad emerged last week in Cincinnati, when Mikhail Youhzny tripped Tsonga in the first round, 6-1, 6-4. He’s beaten the best – and many times on a Grand Slam stage, too – but he will need to add a touch of consistency if he is to run through a draw that includes potential matches with Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka.
THE QUESTION: All right fans, your turn. Who did we miss? Who do you think will win the 2014 US Open?