It’s been a little while since we checked in on pro tennis, but the weeks immediately following the U.S. Open seem like the best time to do it. While there’s plenty of tennis that happens after the U.S. Open, including the year-end championships for both the WTA and the ATP, the Open signifies the end of the most popular portion of the tennis season, and essentially launches the beginning of the end of the calendar. It’s in this time period – between the Open wrapping up in early September and the season resuming at full speed in January – that we tend to stop and take stock of the sport.
That’s just what I’ll do in this article, as I look to assess the landscape via some key points as we move toward wrapping up 2018.
There’s A New Big Four In The ATP
People have been waiting for a shake-up in the men’s game, not with any kind of eagerness but simply out of the assumption that it has to happen eventually. And with Nadal feeling knee pain (again) and Federer slowing down in the second half of the season and suffering a bad upset at the Open, some will be inclined to say that shake-up is happening. But this is probably an overreaction.
The favorites among the men for the U.S. Open were Nadal, Federer, and Novak Djokovic, and there’s no reason to suspect they won’t be the favorites for the 2019 Australian Open as well. Federer does better early in the season than late at his age, and Nadal gave no indication his injury is serious. Djokovic is back on top of the tennis world. The only change will come with the fourth spot, which no longer belongs to Andy Murray. It appears that Open runner-up Juan Martin del Potro now has the chance to consistently round out the top four.
Serena Williams Will Win A Slam In 2019
In case you missed it, there was quite a bit of drama surrounding Serena Williams at the women’s final. Down a set and struggling against 20-year-old star Naomi Osaka, Williams got into a spat with the chair umpire that ultimately led to multiple penalties and a serious match disruption. It marred the women’s final, first because Osaka didn’t get the moment she should have in upsetting Williams, and second because it demonstrated poor behavior from the best of all time, and perhaps even worse behavior from an umpire who judged her unnecessarily harshly. The incident even led the USTA head to say there’s a double standard in men’s and women’s tennis.
Lost in the frenzy is the fact that Williams made it all the way to the final almost exactly a year after having her first child and nearly losing her life from the resulting health complications. She may be in the midst of an ugly controversy right now, but Williams showed that she’s well on her way back to challenging for slams. It would be shocking if she doesn’t win one in 2019.
Dominic Thiem Will Be The Next First-Time Winner
Dominic Thiem is a 25-year-old top-10 player from Austria who’s long been touted as one of the next big things in the ATP. Plenty of players receive similar hype, but Thiem is starting to live up to it in a big way. He lost in the quarterfinals to Rafael Nadal, but only after five grueling sets that lasted over five hours in high heat and humidity. Thiem was spectacular, and looked every bit the part of a Grand Slam winner, though he is not one yet. Whether or not it’s in 2019, he looks like a strong candidate to be the next player – on either tour – to win a Grand Slam for the first time.
The WTA May Stabilize
Particularly in the absence of Serena Williams, the WTA seemed a little haphazard. Simona Halep has held down the number one ranking for a while and even won her first Slam in 2018, but she’s not a consistent dominant force. Many might argue that Angelique Kerber is the most consistently threatening Slam contender aside from Williams. And plenty of young players have been in and out of Slam contention, giving the impression of a feeding frenzy as numerous players vie for supremacy either behind Williams or after she ultimately retires (which may not be for years yet).
Slowly but surely however a regular crop of contenders is emerging. Halep and Kerber belong in the conversation whenever healthy. Though she’ll have her roadblocks, Osaka is quite clearly here to stay. Sloane Stephens made another deep run at the Open, and countrywoman Madison Keys is pushing harder and harder to earn her first Slam also. These five, plus Williams when she’s back to full strength, appear to comprise the class of the WTA, and it may actually stay that way for a few years.
Alexander Zverev Faces A Make-or-Break Year
Alexander Zverev is probably the most talented player we’ve seen emerge on tour since Novak Djokovic. There are arguments for other players – Thiem, for one, and possibly Grigor Dimitrov – but none have shot up the rankings as quickly or convincingly as Zverev. The trouble is that the young German seems to hit walls in majors, and it’s clear that some experience is needed to complement his talent. This is not a suggestion that if he doesn’t win a Slam in 2019 Zverev will not be a good player. He still seems like a lock to be the top player in the world one day and is a fairly safe bet to contend in big tournaments for a decade or longer. However, a disappointing 2019 will change his reputation and put him into that Thiem/Dimitrov/Nick Kyrgios conversation – rather than above it.
Victoria Azarenka Will Demand Our Attention
She might not have gotten the same attention Williams did for her time away from the sport, but Victoria Azarenka had her own pregnancy and childbirth and even had to leave the sport to settle a custody battle. She’s now back and looked a little bit like her old self at the U.S. Open and rose 18 spots in the WTA rankings after falling to Sloane Stephens in the third round. She’s not all the way back, and we don’t know if she’ll contend for Slams again, but Azarenka is extremely talented, and has always drawn the spotlight rather naturally. She’s back at a level that suggests she’ll demand our attention in 2019.