A Surprising Year Could Culminate in a Surprising U.S. Open

Who is going to win the United States Open, which starts next week? Given the results over the weekend in an important warm-up tournament near Cincinnati, the answer seems like it could be “almost anyone.”

Though the fields were strong, both the men’s and women’s singles tournaments in Ohio were won by unseeded players. The men’s winner was Borna Coric of Croatia, ranked 152nd in the world last week after being injured for a year and returning in March. The victory made him the lowest ranked player ever to win a Masters 1000, the elite events rated just below the Grand Slams.

Along the way, he beat the 2, 4, 7, 9 and 15 seeds. Did he think there was a chance to win going in? “Absolutely not,” he said.

The women’s winner was Caroline Garcia of France, the 35th-ranked player last week. She became the first qualifier ever to win a WTA 1000 title and beat the 4, 6 and 7 seeds to do so. “It’s hard to believe I am standing here today; it’s been such a week,” she said in her post-match speech.

The results continue an unexpected year in tennis. The previous men’s Masters 1000 event, in Montreal, was also won by an unseeded player, Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain. The seven 1000 events this year have had six different winners. (Carlos Alcaraz won two but has never made the semifinal of a Grand Slam event.)

The men’s Grand Slam events have been won by the familiar duo of Rafael Nadal (Australian and French Opens) and Novak Djokovic (Wimbledon), but at ages 36 and 35 their dominance seems to be wavering. They each had to survive at least one five-set match on their way to their Grand Slam titles this year. And Nadal, who lost to Coric last week, has been dealing with an injury to his abdomen that led to his withdrawal from Wimbledon.

On the women’s side, Ashleigh Barty won the Australian Open as the top seed, then retired. Iga Swiatek of Poland seemed to take up her mantle, going on a run earlier in the year that culminated in a French Open win and the No. 1 ranking. Then she lost in the round of 32 at Wimbledon and the round of 16 in both Toronto and Cincinnati. The Wimbledon winner was Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, the second-lowest-ranked woman ever to win there at No. 23.

Caroline Garcia of France won the Western & Southern Open on Sunday. She became the first qualifier ever to win a WTA 1000 title.Credit…Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

At the U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 29, the bookmakers are keeping the faith with Djokovic as the men’s favorite at about 8-5. If he plays. His vaccine status means he may not even be allowed in the country. And the No. 2 player in the world, Alexander Zverev, is out after an ankle surgery.

Daniil Medvedev is the next choice at about 5-2, probably in large part because he is the reigning champion. He hasn’t won a big event this year and is the No. 1 player almost by default. After that come Alcaraz, Nadal and Nick Kyrgios. Coric is 35-1. Particularly if Djokovic is out, the tournament result looks much more uncertain than usual.

Despite her recent struggles, Swiatek is the 3-1 favorite on the women’s side, perhaps for lack of a better option. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. Most oddsmakers have Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, Coco Gauff and the defending champion, Emma Raducanu, all in the 7-1 to 16-1 range, plus at least another eight or 10 players with a real shot at 22-1 or less, including Rybakina and Garcia.

Generally, tennis fans put a fair amount of stock in the hardcourt warm-ups for the U.S. Open, if not to show the winner at least to point out players to watch. The upset-filled events this year could be a harbinger for a U.S. Open full of surprises.

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