The Top Storylines Ahead of the 2016 US Open
It's a year of change for the U.S. Open, the last Grand Slam on the tennis calendar.
A sparkling $150 million retractable roof now adorns Arthur Ashe Stadium, adding an extra dose of panache to this glitzy event. And that's not all. The newly built Grandstand Stadium boasts beautiful contours and an intimate environment that seats up to 8,125 fans.
Beyond those renovations, there's also a shake-up with who'll be there this year. Notable players on the sideline include Maria Sharapova (suspension), Victoria Azarenka (pregnancy), Tomas Berdych (appendicitis) and reigning women's singles champion Flavia Pennetta, who retired at the end of 2015.
But the biggest name not in attendance is Roger Federer, who'll miss the event for the first time since 1998 as he rehabilitates his ailing left knee.
Without the sport's most iconic star, there'll be a hole that others will have to fill. Fortunately, there are several intriguing factors at this year's U.S. Open that can help mitigate Federer's loss.
The battle for the No. 1 ranking is alive on both the men's and women's sides as Novak Djokovic tries to defend his title and Serena Williams goes after a couple more slices of history. Attempting to steal their thunder are Andy Murray and Angelique Kerber, two players who've had prosperous summers.
Can they continue to shake up the hierarchy at the top of the game?
Elsewhere, Monica Puig and Juan Martin del Potro are hungry to capitalize on their heroics at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Both are unseeded, making them players who can cause early havoc.
As the opening round draws near, the following slides will provide a deeper look at what to watch for in Flushing Meadows.
Milos Raonic Targets Grand Slam Title
With Roger Federer out, Rafael Nadal ailing and Stan Wawrinka in a slump, Milos Raonic has picked up the slack lately, showcasing his potential to be a Grand Slam champion.
He came close at Wimbledon, ousting Federer to reach his first major final. A timid performance against Andy Murray in the championship match kept Raonic from achieving his goal, but he nevertheless took another big step forward.
Working with John McEnroe on a part-time basis since the start of the grass-court season, Raonic is making a concerted effort to improve his net game and attack. So far, so good. Besides that showing at Wimbledon, he also made the final at Queen's Club and the semifinals at the Western & Southern Open.
On all three occasions, Murray ended his campaign. That's a roadblock the hard-serving Raonic has to prove to himself that he can overcome on the big stages in order to complete his mission.
Surprisingly, Raonic has never advanced beyond the fourth round at the U.S. Open. But with his game coming together, this year seems like his best chance to reach the latter stages and challenge for the title.
Garbine Muguruza Hopes for 1st Taste of US Open Glory
Garbine Muguruza already has what Milos Raonic desires: a Grand Slam title.
Since conquering Serena Williams in the French Open final, Muguruza has had a difficult time replicating that magic. She's only 6-4 since leaving Paris, and notable results include a second-round loss at Wimbledon to Jana Cepelova and a third-round exit from the Olympics at the hands of Monica Puig.
Muguruza advanced to the semifinals in Cincinnati last week, but a listless performance against eventual champion Karolina Pliskova sent her packing.
Her progress has stalled the last few months, but she can right the ship with a strong performance in New York.
There's nowhere to go but up for Muguruza, who's never gone beyond the second round at the U.S. Open. For as much power as she possesses, those courts haven't been too friendly to her yet.
Will things change for her this time around?
Can Marin Cilic Parlay His Cincinnati Success?
We already know what Marin Cilic is capable of at the U.S. Open.
In 2014, he shocked the tennis world by winning his first major there after pulverizing Roger Federer in the semifinals and cruising past Kei Nishikori in an unexpected final matchup. Out of nowhere, Cilic found a zone and occupied it all the way to the title.
Flash forward to this summer. After an up-and-down start to 2016, Cilic has made steady progress the last few months, reaching the semifinals at Queen's Club and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, where he lost a two-sets-to-love lead against Roger Federer.
Those results marked progress for Cilic, but he officially turned back the clock in Cincinnati.
Pounding forehands and huge serves, Cilic stormed to the title, joining Stan Wawrinka as the only non-Big Four players to have won both a major and Masters Series event. Along the way, he defeated an impressive array of opponents, including Tomas Berdych, Borna Coric, Grigor Dimitrov and Andy Murray.
While Murray may not have been at full strength, Cilic still held his nerve and played the big points better. A tight match, the outcome was decided by the unforced errors that Cilic's power coaxed out of Murray.
Riding high from that victory, Cilic is capable of making another deep run in New York with his brand of first-strike tennis.
Is Juan Martin Del Potro a Dark-Horse Title Contender?
Andy Murray won the gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, but Juan Martin del Potro stole the show on his way to claiming silver for Argentina.
After all of Del Potro's wrist surgeries and extended absences from the game in recent years, it became questionable whether we’d ever see him at his best again. He answered with a resounding yes when he knocked out Novak Djokovic in the first round and Rafael Nadal in the semifinals at the Olympics.
Hammering forehands and serves, Del Potro channeled his vintage form, frustrating both Djokovic and Nadal with his lethal power. The magic ran out in a four-set loss to Andy Murray in the final, but the week signified a monumental success for a player some had already written off.
That run helped the 142nd-ranked Del Potro secure a wild card into the U.S. Open, where he captured the title in 2009 as a 20-year-old. With his history there and current form, he’s a dangerous floater in the draw whom no player will want to face.
When Del Potro participated at Wimbledon this summer, it marked his first Grand Slam appearance after missing the previous nine. He’s racked up a trio of top-10 wins since then—not a bad way to make up for lost time.
If there’s one X-factor to keep an eye on in New York, Del Potro is it.
How Will Monica Puig Respond After Olympics Run?
Before the Rio Games, Puerto Rico had never won a gold medal.
It turned to an unlikely source to end that drought: Monica Puig.
What Puig lacks in size (at 5'7") she makes up for in heart and grit. Those attributes were on display at the Olympics, where an improbable run saw the 22-year-old soar to the top of the podium.
Defeating higher-ranked (and bigger) players such as Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova and eventually Angelique Kerber in the final, Puig caught lightning in a bottle, authoring an unforgettable week of tennis that will change her life forever.
Ranked No. 92 at the start of the season, Puig has soared all the way to 34th. Because no points were awarded for the Olympics, however, she just barely missed out on being seeded for the U.S. Open.
There'll probably be something of an emotional hangover from that success in Rio de Janeiro, but Puig can take the court with the knowledge that she can beat anyone now. No matter where she lands in the draw, she'll be full of confidence.
Rafael Nadal's Health
Pulling the ripcord, Nadal withdrew from the French Open prior to his third-round match, an injury to his wrist the culprit.
Over two months would pass before Nadal suited up for action again. As he sat out Wimbledon and Toronto to rehab, he earmarked the Olympics for his return.
He didn't even start hitting until a few days before traveling to Rio de Janeiro, but you wouldn't know it by the way he played. Entered into all three events, Nadal wound up winning gold with doubles partner Marc Lopez and survived until the semifinals in singles.
He lost to Juan Martin del Potro there and to Kei Nishikori in the bronze-medal match, running out of steam at the end.
Tired, Nadal decided to immediately travel to Cincinnati for the Western & Southern Open to further solidify his chances of qualifying for the year-end finals.
After racing past Pablo Cuevas in his first match, a flat Nadal was steamrolled by 19-year-old Borna Coric 6-1, 6-3 in the third round.
At one point, the trainer came on to work on Nadal's arm. That's probably a hint that he's still dealing with some residual pain and isn't yet 100 percent.
Will he be healthy enough in New York, or did that Olympics experience take too much out of him?
As always, Nadal's body is very much a question mark.
Angelique Kerber Aims for the No. 1 Ranking
With the No. 1 ranking at stake, Angelique Kerber played a despondent match in the Western & Southern Open final, falling prey to a red-hot effort from Karolina Pliskova.
So close to snatching the top spot away from Serena Williams, Kerber had to settle for second place. She suffered a similar fate earlier this summer at Wimbledon and the Olympics.
But just being in the position to become No. 1 in the world speaks to how consistently well the German veteran has played during a breakout 2016 campaign that’s seen her compile a 47-14 record. Defeating Williams and lifting the title at the Australian Open seems to have imbued her with a new sense of confidence as she solidifies herself as an elite player.
Unseating Williams in the rankings would be the icing on the cake and would represent the pinnacle of her career. It all hinges on how she performs at the U.S. Open.
Currently, she sits 190 points behind Williams. That means their results in New York are more or less tied together when it comes to determining the No. 1 ranking. Although Williams will hold on to her spot with a championship, she’ll need to at least reach the final if Kerber even goes so far as the quarterfinals.
To the victor go the spoils.
Andy Murray Continues His Campaign to Unseat Novak Djokovic
No one has been on more of a tear in recent months than Andy Murray.
Winning 37 of his last 40 matches and reaching the finals in seven straight tournaments dating back to the Madrid Open, Murray is enjoying the best stretch of results in his career.
Reunited with coach Ivan Lendl after finishing as runner-up at the French Open, Murray’s gone into hyperdrive, winning Queen’s Club along with his second Wimbledon crown and becoming the first tennis player to successfully defend a gold medal at the Olympics.
Though he was dealing with shoulder pain at the Western & Southern Open, Murray extended his win streak to 22 matches before falling to an inspired Marin Cilic in the final. Traveling straight from Rio to Mason after capturing the gold, Murray put together another quality week on short rest, a testament to his drive and ambition.
With each passing event, the Scot keeps chipping away at Djokovic’s enormous rankings lead. In the year-to-date race, he’s only 1,215 points behind his chief rival. It’s not an unrealistic scenario that he could surpass Djokovic for No. 1 by the end of the season.
To do so, 2012 U.S. Open champion Murray needs a deep run in New York. He's already reached the finals of the first three Grand Slams of 2016, so confidence won’t be an issue as he looks to continue his run of domination.
Serena Williams' Quest for History
The heat is on Serena Williams.
Having narrowly avoided losing her No. 1 ranking to Angelique Kerber, she’ll have to press her foot firmly on the pedal in New York if she hopes to keep that honor. Three agonizingly close weeks shy of surpassing Steffi Graf’s record of 186 consecutive weeks at the top, Williams likely needs to make the final (at least) to stave off Kerber.
But is she healthy enough to get there?
After falling in the third round of the Olympics to Elina Svitolina, Williams took a last-minute wild card into the Western & Southern Open. She withdrew from the event before playing a match, with a nagging shoulder injury to blame.
Hopefully that extra week of rest is what she needed to get back to 100 percent. Eyeing a seventh U.S. Open title, which would be the most in the Open era and her 23rd overall (vaulting her past another Graf record), Williams is eager to not only hold on to her ranking but also avenge a shocking upset to Roberta Vinci in last year’s semifinals, a defeat that kept her from a rare calendar Grand Slam.
With so much on the line, expect nothing less than a fully motivated Williams to descend upon the Big Apple as she sets out to make history.
Novak Djokovic Tries to Maintain His Throne
Novak Djokovic can relate to the pressure Serena Williams is facing. Like her, his hold on the No. 1 ranking is becoming tenuous.
As Andy Murray charges hard at him, Djokovic suddenly has a lot to prove at the U.S. Open as he seeks to defend his title and win his 13th major, an achievement that would further bolster his GOAT case as he chases after Roger Federer’s mark.
We’ve become accustomed to seeing nothing short of perfection from Djokovic the last few years, but since completing the career Grand Slam at Roland Garros, his aura of invincibility has taken a hit.
First, there was that stunning third-round defeat to big-hitting Sam Querrey at Wimbledon, his earliest exit from a major in over seven years. An uncharacteristically sluggish Djokovic hinted that an injury impacted his performance, though it’s unclear to what extent he was physically hampered.
Despite not playing his best, Djokovic soared to the finish line in Toronto, taking advantage of a field without Murray, Federer or Rafael Nadal to win his 30th Masters Series crown.
That victory seemed to be the perfect preparation for Djokovic as he began his quest for a career Golden Slam in Rio de Janeiro. But he caught an unlucky break, running into Juan Martin del Potro in the first round. For the second consecutive Olympics, Djokovic lost to the powerful Argentine.
Tears flowing down his face as he walked off the court, Djokovic soon after withdrew from the Western & Southern Open, citing a left wrist injury.
What transpires in New York could now be tied to the state of Djokovic’s health.
During his last nine visits to the U.S. Open, Djokovic has made at least the semifinals every time, reaching the final on six occasions. Clearly, the title runs through him, the sport’s most accomplished hard-court savant.
But with Murray and a deep field of contenders like Del Potro, Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic in his path, any lingering pain in that wrist is the last thing Djokovic needs as he tries to regain his mojo.
Joe Kennard is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.