Monday marks the start of the 2014 U.S. Open, the last chance for tennis' best to make a splash in a Grand Slam tournament. A couple prominent stars such as Rafael Nadal and Li Na are unable to compete, but there are plenty of other noteworthy names in action at Flushing Meadows in New York.
The beginning stages of any tennis tournament, however prestigious, aren't always the most exciting. Yet, there are several matchups on tap for the first day that are worth tuning in to.
Some players are worth watching for their skill alone, while others ought to have at least some difficulty advancing past their respective opening matches.
Here is a look at the showdowns that figure to be the best from Monday's impending action.
Note: For complete match schedule, visit USOpen.org.
Maria Sharapova (5) vs. Maria Kirilenko
The hard court is no longer Sharapova's forte. Her serve isn't quite what it used to be due to a shoulder injury that hampered her progress for a number of years.
Since winning the French Open, Sharapova hasn't been quite as sharp on the faster surfaces. That is something Kirilenko could take advantage of to make this match extremely competitive.
A former top-10 player, Kirilenko has suffered health setbacks that have prevented her from accomplishing more. Her best finish at a U.S. Open came in 2011, when she advanced to the fourth round.
Other than a trip to the semifinals in 2012, Sharapova has gone that deep in the U.S. Open just once since her win in 2006. Therefore, this showdown between the Russian compatriots could be closer than expected.
At least Sharapova didn't go down in Cincinnati to Ana Ivanovic without a supreme effort, per SI Tennis:
Whereas it takes three sets for the men to secure a win, the results can be a little more volatile when two sets are required to claim victory. There is reason to believe Kirilenko can compete, especially since she knocked out gifted American Sloane Stephens in the first round at Wimbledon.
But Sharapova's fiery style of play will allow her to prevail in two, hard-fought sets. Kirilenko hasn't played in a WTA event since Wimbledon, so it's hard to expect too much out of her in rising to the occasion and knocking off yet another premier talent.
Prediction: Sharapova wins, 7-6, 6-4
Novak Djokovic (1) vs. Diego Schwartzman
This is an instance where Djokovic needs to prove something after some underwhelming showings on the hard-court surface as of late. The Serbinator may just be having a letdown after a hard-fought Wimbledon triumph over Roger Federer.
Djokovic lost in the third round in Toronto to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and then fell to Tommy Robredo at the same stage in Cincinnati.
The five-time U.S. Open champion Federer just won the title at the Western & Southern Open, but ESPN analyst John McEnroe still feels Djokovic is the favorite, via The Times of India:
Obviously not having to deal with (Nadal) is a huge positive for him potentially down the road if he's at a stage at the end of the event...I would give a slight, slight [favorite] to Djokovic based on it being best-of-five. He's younger and he can go the distance perhaps a little bit more easily than Roger at this stage. A little bit.
Unless he suffers a shocking Monday loss, which he won't, Djokovic's form will be tougher to detect until he takes on higher-quality opponents. Nevertheless, this opening tilt with Schwartzman will offer some idea of how Djokovic is feeling about his game.
The Argentine Schwartzman may not put up much of a fight, yet he does have some momentum to draw on after securing his second ATP title in Prague just two weeks ago. He evidently has enough game to at least make Djokovic break a sweat.
This is perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Djokovic, who has been a bit flat since coming out on top at the All England Club. After a tighter first set, Djokovic will cruise to a three-set victory and enter the second round with considerable confidence.
Prediction: Djokovic wins, 6-4, 6-2, 6-1
Sloane Stephens (21) vs. Annika Beck
The 21-year-old Stephens seems to elevate her game in the biggest tournaments, but she has still failed to win a WTA title and has just one ITF title to her name.
Stephens fell to Kirilenko to start Wimbledon, too, adding to a disappointing 2014 campaign that has seen her post a 20-18 overall singles record. That is too pedestrian for a player of Stephens' exceptional skill set that translates to all surfaces.
Ben Rothenberg of The New York Times believes Stephens' countenance has changed since joining forces with new coach Thomas Hogstedt:
Having defeated the likes of Serena Williams in the past at the 2013 Australian Open to reach the semifinals, there is no reason Stephens can't catch fire and make a big run. It's a matter of doing it, though, and that bid could be derailed right away if Stephens isn't careful.
Beck won a match in Cincinnati before falling to Jelena Jankovic. The German youngster is just 20 years of age herself and is bound to break out. She already has seven ITF titles under her belt, so Beck has demonstrated a knack for winning at a high level before.
Now it's just a matter of translating that to the WTA. Stephens is a vulnerable opponent who is facing a lot of pressure and needs a strong result. Meanwhile, Beck is more of an up-and-coming player whose prowess on the ITF circuit bodes well for her outlook moving forward.
A lot is at stake for both players, but Stephens' superior talent should surface in what could be a big momentum boost. Then again, Stephens may win this and come out flat for her second-round match. Other than Williams, there aren't many better hopes to take up the mantle as U.S. women's tennis' next big thing.
The power Stephens has ought to produce her best Grand Slam result after three disappointing efforts at the other majors this season. Whether it's enough to vault her career forward will be determined as the U.S. Open goes on.
Prediction: Stephens wins, 6-3, 2-6, 6-4