Last week at the Western & Southern Open was a tad frustrating in that I had to pass on Milos Raonic in the bottom half because I didn’t think his price of 40-1 was big enough.
Of course, Raonic went on to make the final and had that price been bigger we would have had a very nice winner on our hands in the first week of the tour's return.
We now know that this new Laykold surface put down at the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre is fast, clocking a CPI of 43 during the W&S Open and proving a lively, low-bouncing surface.
It may not be quite as quick this coming fortnight though, as it’s not expected to be as hot in New York over the next 10 days or so, with none of those days expected to be over 29C and most hovering around the 25C mark.
That will be good news for players that have suffered in the often-brutal combination of heat and humidity at this major and it may not be quite as much of a physical examination as it often is here.
Another possible factor to consider is that Ashe and Armstrong weren’t used during the W&S Open (not at the time of writing at least) and reports suggest they may not be as quick as the outside courts.
This looks about as good an opportunity as Novak Djokovic is likely to get to chalk up another Grand Slam title and move within one of Rafa Nadal’s haul and within two of Roger Federer’s, with both of those superstars missing this fortnight.
And an opening match against Damir Dzumhur and a mini-section with Jan-Lennard Struff as the high seed is unlikely to raise Djokovic’s blood pressure much either.
Kyle Edmund could present a challenge in round two, but that’s about it until round four when the world number one would most likely take on one of Denis Shapovalov, Taylor Fritz, Filip Krajinovic or David Goffin.
The big servers, John Isner and Reilly Opelka are unlikely to pose much of a threat over the best-of-five sets even in these conditions and Opelka looks injured anyway.
Maybe Goffin could go well this time, with conditions not expected to be super-hot, but he’s usually been the kind of player that needs plenty of matches to find his best level and he’s too often failed to show up in major matches against the elite.
Djokovic’s neck issues at the start of the week in ‘Cincy’ may be a concern, but at the time of writing his most recent match – a casual dismissal of Struff – showed no such physical problems for the Serb.
That said, he did quit here in the last-16 a year ago due to injury and he’s too short for me to back outright at a price of around the 1.80 mark.
Krajinovic might be the one to capitalise should anything happen to Djokovic, as these courts suit him and the lack of extreme heat will help him too, but it’s hard to see Krajinovic having the belief to beat his illustrious compatriot if Djokovic is fit.
Again, I think the slightly milder conditions this week will help certain players and Stefanos Tsitsipas is one of those for me.
The Greek has struggled in New York in the past when it’s been really hot and he’s yet to make any impression on the US Open, but he looks the most likely winner of Q2.
It’s hard to see anyone in his immediate section of the draw worrying him much unless Borna Coric has a really good day and right away this quarter appears like a straight duel between Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev.
Zverev has a potentially tough first round against Kevin Anderson and perhaps given the lack of big servers in Q2 (Anderson apart) Diego Schwartzman could be the one to possibly muscle in on the action in this quarter.
Schwartzman was bullied out of it by Opelka at the W&S Open, where the heat made the surface probably too fast for him, but don’t be surprised if the cooler weather and longer format allow Schwartzman to do something here.
Schwartzman beat Zverev here in New York a year ago and pretty comfortably in the end, too, so with Zverev’s form looking anything but solid at the W&S Open and also lacking regular wins against top opposition (lost 14 of his last 23 versus top-20 ranked players) I couldn’t back Zverev to win this quarter.
He’s 3-9 win/loss versus top-20 opponents in Grand Slams and if his game isn’t quite there you’d think that either Anderson or Schwartzman would expose any frailties.
The worry about Anderson is fitness and lack of matches after an injury-hit year and he had nothing left to five against Tsitsipas at the W&S Open after a three-hour battle the previous day, so this fortnight looks to be a big ask for Anderson.
Coric has only once made the last-16 at a hard court major and has lost 12 of his last 16 completed matches at main level, so I’m not seeing him as more likely to win Q2 than Schwartzman.
Clearly, the quicker surface isn’t what Schwartzman would have wanted, but he has beaten Tsitsipas on indoor hard (albeit a few years ago now) and in what looks a section of the draw lacking in quality hard court players for the most part I’m tempted by the 16-1 about him winning Q3.
Tsitsipas looks the player to beat here, but don’t discount Diego at a tempting price.
This section of the draw seems to be between last year’s finalist and semi finalist, with Daniil Medvedev and Matteo Berrettini holding the strongest claims.
I took a chance on Berrettini last week at the W&S Open, but he looked rusty and he’ll need much better this fortnight if he’s to back up his run to the semis a year ago.
His draw may well give the Italian the opportunity to play himself into the tournament, with only Ugo Humbert and maybe Aljaz Bedene likely to really test Berrettini ahead of a potential round four clash with Andrey Rublev, which would be a repeat of last year’s last-16 match-up.
Berrettini won that in straights and I just feel that it’ll be too fast for Rublev this fortnight, so there are chances for Berrettini to go deep and work his way into the tournament, but 40-1 is a bit short for me.
The obvious pick for Q3 is Daniil Medvedev, whose early draw looks kind and really only Grigor Dimitrov, Berrettini and Rublev are likely to cause concern for Medvedev, assuming he recovers his best form.
Dimitrov seems like he suffered quite badly from COVID-19 and this physical test has surely come too soon for him to be reprising his run to the semi finals here of 12 months ago.
This is a quarter that Medvedev should be winning and in this bottom half away from Djokovic the Russian has a nice opportunity here to get his form going and repeat his run to last year’s final.
This quarter looks wide open and I’m happy to take on the favourite Dominic Thiem here.
Far from a natural on quick courts Thiem was walloped by Filip Krajinovic at the W&S Open last week, which suggests two things to me: that it’s simply too fast here now for a player with the technique of Thiem and also that he needs matches.
Thiem has improved markedly on hard courts in the past year or so, but Krajinovic showed that he can still be rushed on the really quick ones, as did Berrettini at the Shanghai Masters last season.
The Austrian’s best hope here is that his comfortable-looking opening two rounds will play him into form and that he’ll be scheduled on the potentially slower Ashe more often than not after that.
But I’d still class him as one of those that needs a bunch of competitive matches to find his rhythm and as short as 2.75 to win the quarter he’s not for me this week.
There are plenty of alternatives to Thiem in this quarter and the best of these appear to be Roberto Bautista Agut, Milos Raonic, Karen Khachanov, Marin Cilic and one at a massive price.
RBA is perhaps the strongest of the ones mentioned above, with the Spaniard well suited to the quick low bouncing courts here, as he showed when beating Medvedev at the W&S Open.
Rarely has RBA gone well in New York, losing in round one the last two years and never passing the round of 16, but the faster courts and lack of crowds could play in his favour here.
He strikes me as someone that doesn’t enjoy pressure and this looks his best chance of making a major final. At 33-1 he’s worth a small risk to make the final.
Raonic is a contender based on his level at the W&S Open, but as a consequence of that his price is too short given also that his fitness over the best of five sets has a pretty big question mark over it.
Khachanov might go well if he gets past Jannik Sinner in round one, but he’s held by RBA at the moment in their career series and match-up, while Alex De Minaur will likely find this too quick and is another one that is talking of needing matches.
Instead, what about Sam Querrey at a huge 500-1 in that section? He’s another one that will surely relish the lack of pressure from the home crowds and his recent records in majors isn’t bad at all.
A quarter final at Wimbledon last year, beating Thiem, Millman, Rublev and Sandgren came after a quarter final here in New York in 2017 and a semi final at Wimbledon the same season.
Indeed, a tight loss to Kevin Anderson in that 2017 US Open quarter final stopped him from probably making the final, but in this quarter much is possible and 500-1 seems a bit big.
Conditions will suit him and Querrey for all of his frustrating tendencies could go well without crowds to put pressure on him.
Andy Murray surely hasn’t got the right physical condition to go all the way this time, while Felix Auger-Aliassime lacks the experience just yet for me, but maybe Marin Cilic could surprise again.
Having recently become a dad, Cilic has spoken about wanting to get back playing again after enjoying the unexpected six months off with his wife and baby.
“This summer, however, I have felt very eager to begin to play again because I was doing so much training and I just wanted to compete,” he said recently and I wouldn’t be too worried about a round one loss at the W&S Open to Denis Shapovalov.
Cilic didn’t play great at all up until his last three rounds in that memorable 2014 title run and he may have been written off to quickly by the layers here, having struggled with injuries for a while before the tour’s hiatus.
Dan Evans could have a say in affairs in this quarter, too, but at the prices I’ll take Cilic, Querrey and RBA as my picks in Q4.
It looks Djokovic’s tournament to lose right now, with a likely finalist being Medvedev, but we won’t be getting rich backing either of those two, so instead I’ll take on Thiem in Q4 with a few bigger-priced contenders.