It’s been nearly seven months since there was a Grand Slam tennis event, but now the wait is finally over. The US Open will shortly be underway and with the outright odds now available on Pinnacle, Mats Wilander has shared his thoughts on what might unfold at a major event featuring no fans and players sporting minimal preparation. Read on to find out more.
The last six months have been incredibly difficult for everyone, for reasons beyond the absence of sport. It’s been tough, but things are beginning to look a bit better and we’ve now got some tennis to help raise our spirits.
There are so many questions to answer after so much has changed since the Australian Open concluded back in February. I hope my experience on the court can shed some light on how players might be feeling and what we can expect in terms of their performance at the upcoming US Open.
How fit and ready will the players be?
The first big question that everyone is going to ask will be about the players’ fitness and, more importantly, their match fitness. These men and women are elite level professionals, used to training throughout the year and playing competitive tennis for almost 12 months straight. So how will they handle six months without playing a proper match and with limited access to training facilities?
Expect to see shorter rallies, shorter games and shorter sets at this year’s US Open.
The Western and Southern Open is obviously the best gauge we have of assessing players and one of the few opportunities these players have had to get their game up to scratch. Naturally, it would be foolish to think that one event is enough to get the players up to a level they would have been at on a normal tennis calendar. While they have actually played more competitive matches than people might think, they’re still going to exhibit nowhere near the fitness levels we would normally see at this point of the season.
If we know that players are going to struggle for fitness, it’s clear that they will be well aware of this and try and prepare for it as much as possible. I think the most obvious way this translates into performance on the court is how and when these players conserve energy. At the top level of tennis, you want to fight for every point in every game. However, there are times when you also have to play it smart and know when to deploy your energy reserves and give yourself the best chance of reaching the end goal and winning the match.
It is reasonable to expect that we will see shorter rallies, shorter games and shorter sets at this year’s US Open. You can’t rush into a five-set format and expect to battle it out for every point on reduced fitness, and anyone that tries to do this will likely struggle in the latter stages of the tournament.
How is tennis going to work in a bubble?
We know that the likes of Rafael Nadal have tried to continue playing tennis throughout the global lockdown, attracting some controversy in the process. While some players will have had external facilities they could access or a decent setup at home, others will have struggled for opportunities to hit a ball properly with a racket for about six months.
The likes of Djovokic will not have access to his usual extensive set of support staff during the tournament.
Now that they are back and playing again, they have to get used to the “bubble” approach that is being used to protect the safety of everyone involved in the competition.
How this bubble works probably isn’t that interesting for someone reading this article and I don’t know all the finer details on this front. What I do know is that players are limited to having only three people with them in the tournament hotel and only one person on site when competing. This probably doesn’t sound that important, but I can assure that it will have a major impact on players, some more than most.
The likes of Novak Djokovic who play to such a high level are accustomed to being surrendered by two coaches, a fitness specialist, a physio, a nutritionist and whoever else he deems necessary to keep him playing at the top level. Some people want the game to be played on more of a “level playing field” and I guess now we’re going to see what that looks like with the limitations of on-site player staff.
It’s difficult to predict what kind of impact a reduced support staff will have on the players who can afford it, but I think any period of adjustment can be difficult, meaning it could prove interesting to observe.
What impact will no spectators have on performance?
I can certainly say from experience that having fans at a match can be a double-edged sword. It’s great when things are going well for you and you’re getting cheered on to see the match out or complete a dramatic comeback, but you do sometimes wish the fans weren’t there if you’re on the other end of it.
It’s one of those things that is going to be incredibly difficult to measure, especially when it’s so new and something we have never really experienced at a major event. The bigger players normally benefit more from fans getting behind them, although when you’re playing at such a high level I don’t think it will make too much of an impact.
The biggest detriment could be on players lower down the rankings who would have been playing in front of a home crowd and could therefore potentially benefit from a bit of a boost to pick up their performances and try and cause an upset.
Who are the main contenders for the title?
While the US Open is being played with limited preparation time, reduced on-site support staff for players and no fans, I don’t think changes much in terms of the contenders with a chance of winning. In the end, experience will be key and we know the level that someone like Novak Djokovic (1.847*) can play and how consistent he is. Of course, he’s going to be the favourite to win.
Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev are in the running to win their first Grand Slam.
It’s when you look further down the men’s draw that you realise there is a great chance for one of these players to win a Grand Slam, especially in the absence of Federer and Nadal. Of the top ten players in the world, seven are still taking part, meaning Djokovic will have plenty of challengers ready to take advantage of any slip-up.
If Djokovic can play at the level he is capable of for seven matches and not let one slip away then the tournament is his to lose, but we’ve realised over the years that there is chinks in his armour, and someone who previously seemed unwaveringly focused and tuned in to his tennis has shown emotional fragility.
Dominic Thiem (6.770*) is the obvious challenger for me. He’s played a lot of exhibition matches during the down time and has progressed well over the last three years while developing his game. We’ve seen issues with him on hard courts before, but he’s worked on those weaknesses and could and maybe should have won the Australian Open.
There are then a couple of younger contenders who have shown they can operate at the level of Djokovic for more than just a few games or matches. Stefanos Tsitsipas (6.250*) is just 22, but has a great head on his shoulders and possesses palpable ability. Not far behind is Daniil Medvedev (5.990*), and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those two has won their first Grand Slam title come September 13.
As has been the case for a few years now, for the women it is a world of uncertainty. We still don’t even know who’s actually going to be competing, let alone have a chance of winning.
The most obvious name in the hat is Serena Williams (6.500*). She’s pushing for the all-time Grand Slam record, going to be fitter than she ever has been and will be facing a severely weakened field of competitors to get through. Anything can happen in tennis but if Williams doesn’t emerge as the winner of the women’s US Open 2020, it will be quite the shock.