Last year's U.S. Open champion won't be in the running for the tournament this year, as Rafael Nadal has been forced to withdraw due to a wrist injury. It's a major blow for fans of the sport and the tournament itself, but it's a huge opportunity for a few contenders.
And no, we're not talking about Novak Djokovic here, who arguably would have been the favorite even if Nadal was in the field, considering the Djoker just triumphed at Wimbledon. Rather, the players who may benefit the most from Nadal's withdrawal are Roger Federer and Andy Murray.
The former hasn't won a Grand Slam title since his Wimbledon conquest in 2012, though he did reach the final at this year's Wimbledon and the semifinals at the Australian Open. Still, it's hard to look past the fact that Federer's golden years are well behind him.
But at this year's tournament, the path to another title looks promising, per Lynn Zinser of The New York Times:
The withdrawal of the defending champion Rafael Nadal bumped Federer up to the second seed and guaranteed that he would not have to play Nadal at all and that he would not have to face No. 1 Novak Djokovic until the final, should they both qualify. The draw itself paved Federer an even smoother path. While Djokovic’s half of the draw includes the Australian Open champion Stan Wawrinka, erstwhile Big 4 member Andy Murray as well as No. 5 Milos Raonic and the frequent top-10 denizens John Isner and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer’s half looks decidedly less onerous.
Federer’s speed bumps? No. 4 David Ferrer, a tireless player who nonetheless rarely threatens to actually win a Grand Slam, and No. 7 Grigor Dmitrov of Bulgaria, frequently hailed as a potential champion who hasn’t done enough to shake the 'potential' tag just yet.
Heading into the U.S. Open, Federer gave a fantastic interview with Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated, which you should absolutely read. One of the topics he addressed directly was how differently he plays now that he's later in his career:
I know I can hit great shots. But it's something that goes against logic. One-in-10 [chance] back in the day, one was enough. But today one out of 10 is not enough.
That's where confidence comes in. Either we talk too much about it or not enough, but confidence is a huge thing in tennis, sports in general. It's a hard thing to explain, but it really does make you win or lose sometimes.
Last year, for instance, I lost my confidence. Instead of serving it out, you won't. Or instead of making that break point, you won't. You just won't get lucky because you've played too passive.
It's interesting to hear Federer both admitting he lost his confidence and to imagine that even a player of his talent and accomplishments can go through such rough patches. What has always been apparent about Federer is that he is self-aware and honest with himself, seemingly on and off the court.
That should help him as he continues to age. He knows his limitations. He knows when he can push and when he has to lay off. On the easier side of the bracket at the U.S. Open, that should serve him well.
Of course, avoiding the main foil of his career, Nadal, will also help.
Murray's path to the final is far tougher and will include a matchup against Djokovic in the quarterfinals, should both men get that far. That's probably a bad sign for a player who has yet to win a title this year.
In fact, Murray has struggled to even hold on to leads, blowing them against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Federer in his last two matches. He desperately needs to get back on track in New York, though his path to the final is laden with pitfalls.
But for anyone who isn't on Djokovic's side of the draw, Nadal's absence could be a blessing. Could this be the year Dmitrov finally breaks through? Could Ferrer top the tennis world without Nadal standing in his way? Will another surprising contender emerge?
Ultimately, we might be wasting our breath here. After all, Djokovic now has to be the prohibitive favorite. But with Nadal out of the running, a whole slew of contenders just saw their championship odds get a little bit better.
Let's see if any of them take advantage of that fact.
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