The US Open draw is out. It’s time to enter the dangerous minefield of predictions.
US Open Men’s Dark Horses Including Grigor Dimitrov and Sascha Zverev
With three of the top 10 absent from Flushing Meadows and Federer, Murray and Cilic all nursing injuries, who are the dark horses set to take advantage?
- Grigor Dimitrov
Fresh off the back of his Cincinnati triumph, Dimitrov looks set to finally fulfil his much-lauded potential. Each of the Bulgarian’s best slam outings have been preceded by title-winning form, taking Queen’s before his run to the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2014 and Brisbane before he so nearly reached the final in Melbourne this year. Without a history of slam success to draw on, it seems a confidence booster on the regular tour is crucial to bringing out Dimitrov’s best tennis. Against Federer at Wimbledon, he looked beaten before a ball had been struck, a quivering teen rather than an established top 20 player of 26. ‘Baby Fed’ indeed. But his maiden Masters title and the numerous big-name absentees will surely invigorate him with the self-belief that has historically been so sorely lacking. His draw is certainly a very kind one, clay-court specialist Pablo Cuevas the nearest seed and David Goffin, who has only recently returned from injury, his closest top 10 compatriot.
Significant also is the world #9’s form on the hard this year, boasting a 24-6 win-loss record on the surface. “The medium-paced to medium-fast-paced courts in the summer are the best conditions for him,” Dimitrov’s coach Dani Vallverdu said, explaining his protégé’s US Open Series success to ATP Tennis Radio. “I think it helps his game. He can use his speed, he can use his slice, he can use the strength of his serve and his forehand and it pays off.” Vallverdu has moulded Dimitrov into a far more aggressive player over the past year, and so he arrives better equipped than ever for Flushing Meadows’ quick DecoTurf surface.
You might think this to be something of a left-field choice, but Anderson has quietly been building momentum since plummeting to 80 in the world earlier this year, the first time he had dropped out of the top 40 since January 2011. After reaching the last 16 at Wimbledon, the 6’8 South African notched impressive wins over Dominic Thiem and Jack Sock on his way to the Citi Open final, before claiming further top 20 scalps Pablo Carreno Busta and Sam Querrey to reach the quarter-finals in Montreal. Flushing Meadows has seen his best grand slam display, delivering a shock defeat to Andy Murray in 2015 to reach the last eight. The surface’s high bounce suits Anderson’s big serve, but equally he has the all-court game of a seasoned hard-courter, being a remarkably good mover and possessing a potent backhand. As his doubles record attests, he is also pretty handy around the net. Fellow big server John Isner has been tipped to have a deep run, but I fear his busy US Series schedule could catch up with him, especially with the tireless Hyeon Chung likely lurking in the second round. We shall see…
US hopes should rest on NextGen star Jared Donaldson. He has been thoroughly impressive throughout the US Open Series, reaching the last 16 of Montreal before going a step further in Cincinnati. Thanks to two and a half years’ training on the red clay of Buenos Aires, Donaldson combines the quintessentially American powerful serve and forehand with the stamina and heavy topspin of a South American clay courter. He takes the ball early, Agassi-like, but is cautious, avoids the extravagant. Expectation will be high, but coaches Jan-Michael Gambill and Mardy Fish certainly know a thing or two about that…
The stars have aligned for the 20-year-old’s draw. He defeated his first round opponent Nikolasz Basilashvili in straight sets in Cincinnati, and downed likely second round opponent Lucas Pouille just ten days before. Last year’s US Open saw the American make his breakthrough; this year could see him assert his status as a star of the future.
Seeded 4 and two-time Masters winner this year in Rome and Montreal, we’re probably stretching the definition of ‘dark horse’ with Alexander Zverev. Nevertheless, he has something to prove at grand slam level having crashed out of the opening round of Roland Garros and inexplicably thrown away a set and a break lead over a misfiring Milos Raonic at Wimbledon. There were signs of fatigue in his shock defeat to Frances Tiafoe in Cincinnati, but after a week’s rest expect the German’s all-court game to be firing on all cylinders, moving with the litheness and hitting with the ruthlessness of a lanky Novak Djokovic.
“At six foot six his movement is tremendous. He’s very solid off of both sides, hits the ball very heavy,” Brad Gilbert has said of the youngster. “But I do think his composure and belief at his age [are the key].” For proof of both, look no further than his victory over Richard Gasquet, saving one of three match points with a steely, lung-busting 49-shot rally.
There is a small caveat, though. Zverev has by far the toughest quarter, with the likes of Jiri Vesely, Gilles Muller, Jack Sock and fellow dark horse Kevin Anderson close by. The 20-year-old’s defensive qualities will receive a stern examination right from the off.
And the rest…
It’s been a fantastic year for Sam Querrey – triumphing at the Mexican Open and Los Cabos and reaching the first grand slam semi-final of his career at Wimbledon. Although the American has a dismal record at Flushing Meadows, his draw is crying out for a foray into the second week. The 17th seed could face Nick Kyrgios in the third round, but after retirements in three consecutive tournaments and flagging against Zverev at Montreal before his Cincinnati run, who knows what kind of physical state he is in. His potential fourth round opponent, Roger Federer, appears to be fully fit, ominously intimating that he is arriving at Flushing Meadows as good as he can possibly feel, and that his back injury has “significantly improved”. But having finally lifted the burden of a career of slam underachievement, Querrey could be a surprise package.
As much as his form has been wobbly in recent weeks, it’s difficult to write off 2009 champion Juan Martin Del Potro. The Argentine’s first two rounds look relatively comfortable, and potential third round opponent Roberto Bautista Agut’s flat strokes are ideally suited to his lethal forehand side. Dominic Thiem, the top seeded player in his eighth, is also a good match up. The Austrian looked lightweight in the face of Berdych’s high-pressing aggression at Wimbledon, and Del Potro could easily do the same to him on the fast hard courts of New York. 6’4 American Taylor Fritz might face Thiem in the second round, could the same apply to him?
Perennial dark horse Gael Monfils has been his erratic self in recent weeks, but the unique US Open atmosphere has brought out some of his finest tennis, not least last year when he equalled his best grand slam performance with a run to the semi-finals. Keep an eye out for him, if only for some marvellous showmanship.
With Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in frustrating form, the other half of Murray’s quarter looks startlingly open. Expect to see a lesser-known player come through that section – perhaps steady Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta, or native Steve Johnson if he can get past his tricky opener against Nicolas Almagro. There is also a certain Denis Shapovalov. Expect an upset if he comes up against Tsonga in the second round.
Who would make your list? Comment below.