The US Open, the final Grand Slam event of the tennis season, opens Monday with Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams the favored son and daughter of Arthur Ashe Stadium this year by virtue of their No. 1 seedings.
For some time now, they have been firmly among the racketed aristocrats of the sport, one that in recent years has become predictable in seeding and finish, with the Big Four of Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, and Andy Murray amassing some $250 million in career earnings on the men’s side and the women’s game oft-dominated — be it in earnings, headlines, or entrepreneurial meanderings — by Williams and Maria Sharapova.
However, it appears things could be changing as the game’s elite pull into Queens.
In particular, Federer (33) and Williams (33 next month) are growing gray in tennis years, with neither one yet to capture a Slams title this season, an interminable drought considering their gaudy bounty of 17 majors each.
Abundance of talent
Wimbledon, the most recent of the four Slams, showcased a number of new kids on the white-lined block, with emerging stars Grigor Dimitrov (23), a slick Bulgarian, and Milos Raonic (23), a broad-shouldered Canadian, making bold runs to the semis. Canadian ingenue Eugenie Bouchard (20) high-stepped her way across the AELTC’s emerald courts, all the way to her first Slams final, before being blown away by a turbocharged Petra Kvitova, who, at 24, finally looks ready to seize the stardom that escaped her after her other Wimbledon title in 2011.
“If you look at Raonic . . . and Dimitrov, [they] are the two most obvious guys ready to step in the void,’’ said former US star John McEnroe, sizing up the state of the men’s game in his role as ESPN analyst. And there are other would-be contenders, too, noted McEnroe, in the likes of Stan Wawrinka and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the hard-hitting Muhammad Ali-lookalike fresh off a virtuoso performance in Toronto where he bashed through a gauntlet of Djokovic, Murray, Dimitrov, and ultimately Federer to win the Rogers Cup.
“It’s difficult to say who would be that one person that would step in,’’ said McEnroe, noting the men’s side could be more wide open at Queens with Nadal’s withdrawal last week due to a wrist injury.
As for the women, McEnroe figures Williams, despite her lackluster London performance, will capture her third US Open title in a row, her sixth overall. He rates Sharapova, the No. 5 seed, with the next best chance to win. But overall, McEnroe noted the women’s game is dotted with a younger guard — he pointed to Kvitova, Bouchard, and 22-year-old Simona Halep, a Romanian — who’ve made bold, promising steps forward in recent months.
“It was one of the best matches I’ve ever seen played at the finals of Wimbledon,’’ said McEnroe, focusing on Kvitova’s 6-3, 6-0 annihilation of Bouchard that took a mere 55 minutes, “so it’s pretty difficult to say right now.’’
In the immediate aftermath of Kvitova’s win at Wimbledon, McEnroe said it was “hard to put into words how good she was’’ and that “she should just watch tapes of this the rest of her life.’’
Bouchard, who grew up in Westmount, Quebec, just blocks from the old Montreal Forum, could well be the sport’s emerging megastar, with the potential to move in on the rich turf shared by Serena Williams (approximately $57 million in career earnings) and Sharapova ($31 million). The attractive, blond Bouchard, fluent in both English and French, has struggled with her game post-Wimbledon, but has emerged as a Slams force overall, with semifinal finishes in both the Australian and the French this year.
“I’m very motivated to win a Grand Slam,’’ a somewhat sullen Bouchard said as she packed up after her Wimbledon pasting. “I feel like I’ve taken steps in the right direction to do that.’’
At one time inconceivable, the best young North American talent in the game today hails not from the United States but Canada, in the likes of Bouchard and the hulking (6 feet 5 inches), hard-serving Raonic, who was ousted by Federer in the Wimbledon semis (Djokovic dumped Dimitrov in the other semi).
The American game still boasts Williams and her sister, Venus, as the face of the women’s side, but the United States bid adieu to its sole remaining kingpin among the men when Andy Roddick called it quits in 2012.
Hard-hitting John Isner is the lone seeded (No. 13) Yank in the men’s draw at the US Open. Serena (1) and Venus (19) are the top US women, followed by Sloane Stephens (21) and Madison Keys (27). Unseeded Alison Riske, a strong and charging 24-year-old from Pittsburgh, takes on Ana Ivanovic (8) in the opening round. The US women have more able-bodied candidates in the mix than the men, but if it’s not Serena winning again, then Uncle Sam is most likely the father of a field of Ameri-can’ts.
“There seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel with some of the younger guys,’’ said McEnroe, noting the paucity of young US-raised male talent. “There are some guys, Stefan Kozlov . . . pushing each other, which is the type of thing we need.
“It seems like we’re headed back, hopefully in the right direction. Clearly there is a long way to go to sort of turn around and say, ‘Well, this is headed back to where Americans are winning a lot of majors. I don’t see that right now.’’
One big hurdle left
In the meantime, the up-and-comers on the men’s side are far more international in look. Long gone are the days of McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Aggasi, and Pete Sampras sprinkling their red, white, and blue pixie dust over clay, grass, and hardcourt.
The 6-3 Dimitrov, Sharapova’s love interest for the last two years, is known on the circuit as “Baby Fed,’’ his game reminiscent in style of that of Federer, the Swiss grand master. He forced Djokovic into a sensational five-setter at Wimbledon, ultimately to lose in a tiebreaker and fail to reach what would have been his first Slams final. He has pocketed just over $4 million in career earnings, or about enough to buy a limited partnership in his girlfriend’s burgeoning “Sugarpova’’ candy empire.
“We are already in that space, if you think about it,’’ Dimitrov said after his defeat by Djokovic, musing over what it will take for the new Racket Pack to muscle in on the Big Four. “Quarters. Semis. We are already in that space. It’s just a matter of jumping over that next hurdle. One more Slam to go. You know, I’m going to have high expectations.’’
Raonic, born in what was Yugoslavia and raised in southern Ontario, doesn’t have nearly the on-court grace, the silken style of Dimitrov. He has pocketed some $6 million in winnings with a pulverizing serve and durable, though stiff-legged, on-court will. As a youth he eschewed hockey, the preferred sport of Canada, but he is a mucker — first, last, and all five sets, if necessary.
“He wants to prove he’s not a one-trick pony,’’ said McEnroe, “that he just doesn’t have this awesome serve and big hitting.’’
Another name to keep in mind on the men’s side at the Open is Nick Kyrgios, a 19-year-old Aussie who stunned the estimable Nadal with a fourth-round upset at Wimbledon, then crashed and burned against Raonic in the quarters. The pencil-thin Kyrgios, his father Greek and mother Malaysian, plays it fast, loose, and fun, which had him delivering a winner through his legs vs. Nadal. He’s not quite in the Raonic-Dimitrov contending group, with but $640,000 in career earnings, but if the court is a casino, Kyrgios is the guy at the craps table with a hand on a drink and an arm slung over Lady Luck’s shoulder.
If Kyrgios can step his game up to the elite level, tennis might even find it’s way back on to the SI cover —