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Road to the Open: Five things we learned from Australia

August 31, 2015 - Novak Djokovic in action in a Men's Singles - Round 1 during the 2015 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, NY. (USTA/Pete Staples)

The opening leg of the 2016 season is over, with the best players in the world traveling between Australia, China, India, New Zealand and Qatar for a string of hard-court events. There is still seven months until the start of the US Open, but for the players dreaming of a magical 2016, the Open is already on their minds.

With one big step down on the road to the 2016 US Open, we take a quick break to reflect on what we’ve learned so far – and how it could affect Flushing Meadows come August.

There could be another Grand Slam on the line in 2016: Last year, Serena Williams came to the US Open pursuing the elusive calendar-year Grand Slam, last achieved by Steffi Graf in 1988 – which, prior to Serena, was also the last time any player, man or woman, had won the first three legs of the Slam in a single season. There could be a repeat performance in 2016, only this time on the men’s side. Novak Djokovic has been positively dominant in recent years. He came within a single match – a loss in the French Open final to Stan Wawrinka – of winning the Grand Slam last year, and he was nothing short of extraordinary in winning his record-tying sixth Australian Open title this past weekend. He whipped Roger Federer in the semis, straight-setted Andy Murray in the final and even won a match (against No. 14 seed Gilles Simon) in which he committed 100 unforced errors. Djokovic is the best player in the world on all surfaces, and if he continues his current run – the Serb has won the last seven tournaments he has entered and five of the last seven Slams contested – he has a very good chance to arrive in New York in position to make history.

There's a new women’s title contender: Over the course of her career, Angelique Kerber has earned a reputation for playing well in smaller events but underwhelming in the Slams, and she nearly fell into that same trap in Melbourne, coming within one point of losing to Misaki Doi in the opening round. Kerber survived that match point, and from there, the German was in top form. She did not drop another set on her way to the final and played the match of her life against Serena Williams in the title tilt, denying the world No. 1 a record-tying 22nd Grand Slam singles title to earn her very first. Kerber staged her international breakout at the 2011 US Open, when she reached the semifinals, and the steady lefty has always been at her best on hard courts. If she can build on her performance Down Under, the 28-year-old will be a very real contender – and perhaps even a favorite – come this summer.

Vika is back: In 2012 and 2013, Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams staged two of the best US Open women’s singles finals of this century, with Azarenka emerging as the biggest threat to Serena’s stranglehold on the title. Injuries have hampered the Belarusian the last two years, but she appeared to regain her old magic to open 2016. She kicked off the year by storming through the draw at the Aussie Open tune-up in Brisbane, surrendering just 17 games in five matches – including a convincing win over Kerber in the final – en route to, stunningly, her first tour title since Cincinnati in 2013. She then demonstrated excellent form, fitness and mental fortitude in Melbourne, competing like the tournament favorite until running into a red-hot Kerber in the quarters. Continued play like that, which seems more likely than not, will place Vika in the elite heading into this year’s Open.

Raonic primed for an Open run: Milos Raonic has been solid if unspectacular at the US Open, reaching the round of 16 in three of his past four attempts, but this is starting to look like the year the Canadian finally breaks through. Armed with an improved ground game and the same howitzer serve, he defeated Roger Federer to win the Australian Open tune-up in Sydney and knocked off 2014 Aussie champ Stan Wawrinka in five heady sets on his way to the Melbourne semifinals. Raonic’s big serve-big forehand are tailor made for Flushing’s hard courts, and if he continues to build on his recent progress, the 25-year-old could be a Top 5 contender by the time the US Open rolls around.

The American contingent is growing: The bad news for Americans in Melbourne is that only three players advanced to the second week – Serena Williams, Madison Keys and John Isner – and only Serena advanced past the fourth round. The good news is that the U.S. had 29 combined players in the men’s and women’s singles draws, 10 more than any other nation, and a number of its younger players showed well to open 2016. Sloane Stephens won Auckland for her second WTA title and Jack Sock reached the Auckland men’s final behind wins over Kevin Anderson and David Ferrer; Keys looked sharp and had a good road to the Australian Open semis before she was felled by a leg injury; and 18-year-old Taylor Fritz, the world No. 1 junior in 2015, continued his ascent toward the Top 100 by winning three matches to qualify for the Australian Open main draw – his first Grand Slam main draw.

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