The first thing most tennis players looked for on Thursday when the US Open draws came out was where Serena Williams has landed in her final tournament.
As it turns out, not in a bad place at all.
Williams, the six-time US Open champion, theoretically has a chance to make a small run in the first round against 80th-ranked Danka Kovinic and after that against the very vulnerable No. 2 Anett Kontaveit.
The question is whether Williams’ body will hold up well enough to put together back-to-back matches – something she hasn’t had much success with since returning to tournament tennis at Wimbledon.
In reality since the 40-year-old Williams announced on August 9 that she was transitioning from professional tennis, her shape was not good. Despite scoring a win over Nuria Parrizas-Diaz in Canada, she was pretty thoroughly defeated by top 15 players Belinda Bencic and Emma Raducanu while struggling with what appeared to be sore knees.
It’s hard to say what to expect from Williams, but the New York audience will be a huge asset. And she ended up in a lucky stretch of the draw alongside Kontaveit, No. 14 seed Leylah Fernandez and No. 23 seed Barbora Krejcikova, who have all struggled to bounce back from health setbacks in recent months. On paper, one of those three should be in the quarterfinals. But given their current form, it’s kind of everyone’s ball game.
Expecting something special to happen for Williams at this event is too high a bar to set. But given the draw, it now looks much more realistic for them to sneak through to week two.
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Here are five other takeaways from the men’s and women’s draws:
Most open Open in recent memory
This is the rare circumstance in tennis where you can hold the trophy for up to a dozen different men and maybe twice as many women without being terribly surprised by the result.
With Unvaccinated Novak Djokovic is sitting at home With his inability to travel to the US, Rafael Nadal’s health a big question mark and both No.1 seeds having been vulnerable in their recent tournaments, this will be a huge opportunity to see first-time Grand Slam winners in both draws.
Defending No. 1 champion Daniil Medvedev seems to be enjoying the conditions in New York more than anywhere else in the world. He is 18-2 at the US Open since 2019, both coming defeats to the eventual champions. But since his heartbreaking loss to Nadal in the Australian Open final this yearMedvedev’s game just wasn’t quite as sharp as we’d expect.
Medvedev also looks set to have a tough road back to the final. In the fourth round, he could face Nick Kyrgios, who is coming off a career year and defeated Medvedev in Canada earlier this month. In the quarterfinals, he would likely face Canadian Open champion and two-time US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreño Busta or No. 8 Felix Auger-Aliassime. For entertainment’s sake, a semi-final between Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas – who don’t particularly like each other, looking back on a famous incident in Miami five years ago – would be a pretty fun matchup.
It’s been quite a struggle for women’s No. 1 Iga Swiatek since her demise 37-match winning streak including French Open title. Swiatek recently complained about the USTA’s use of the Wilson ballswhich are a bit lighter and therefore harder to control with their heavy topspin game.
If that’s on her mind, Swiatek could be prone to an early upset.
Nadal has a near-perfect draw
Although the calendar year’s Grand Slam opportunity died when Nadal pulled out of the Wimbledon semifinals, no one has beaten him at the majors this year. Unfortunately, we haven’t seen much of Nadal since then as he’s been trying to recover from a torn ab.
Nadal had just one preseason game in Cincinnati, losing in three sets to eventual champion Borna Coric. The big problem for Nadal with this injury was serving and it’s still unclear how much that’s affecting him now and if it will flare up again when he plays a series of best-of-five set matches.
However, there are no obvious speed bumps in his quarter of the draw. If he’s relatively healthy, it’s hard to imagine the four-time US Open champion being seriously challenged until the quarterfinals, where he would theoretically face No. 7 Cameron Norrie. If the tennis gods take a positive view of us, we’ll get Nadal in the semifinals against compatriot Carlos Alcaraz, the 20-year-old who made his first major Grand Slam run at the US Open last year and wowed the New York crowds en route to the quarterfinals .
Huge stakes for last year’s surprise finalists
The women’s tournament a year ago captivated hardcore and casual fans alike as charismatic teenagers Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez ended up in a final no one could have predicted.
That result took both of their careers into another stratosphere, but the downside is that they return to the US Open with a lot at stake in the rankings, which are calculated on a rolling 12-month basis. Raducanu, for example, is currently No. 11. But if she were to lose to Alizé Cornet in the first round – and it’s certainly a match she could lose – all the points she got for winning the title last year would be gone She would drop to number 80. Likewise, Fernandez would slip from 14th to 45th if she lost in the first round.
Fernandez had a much more favorable opening match against Oceane Dodin, ending up in Williams’ quarters, which doesn’t look that daunting on paper. But the foot injury Fernandez picked up at the French Open has been a concern throughout the hard-court season as she’s only 1-2 since her return.
Lots of breakthrough opportunities this year
If you consider the most likely contenders for winning her first Grand Slam title, you have to start with 21-year-old Italian Jannik Sinner. He’s always had the raw tools and tremendous power, but his game has improved this year since Darren Cahill (who also works as an ESPN analyst) joined his coaching staff. Sinner is starting to consistently go deeper in the majors, including Wimbledon, where he beat Alcaraz and was two sets ahead of Djokovic in the quarters before his inexperience showed. He could face Alcaraz again here in the quarterfinals in what would become one of the main rivalries of the next decade.
There’s also a case for top-ranked American Taylor Fritz having a draw to work with here. Fritz was looking very good in Cincinnati until he faced Medvedev in the quarterfinals and racked up wins over Kyrgios and Andrey Rublev. At the US Open, he ends up in the same quarter as No. 5 seed Casper Ruud and No. 4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas, both of whom are more comfortable on clay than fast hard court. Tsitsipas never got past the third round in New York for some reason.
In the case of the women, one could almost pull names out of a hat at this point. Jessica Pegula, the top American, had such a consistent year but no singles titles. Coco Gauff can look like the best player in the world in one game and not keep her forehand in the field in the next. Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia was an incredible story, rising to 15th from 80th late last year thanks to some great results including the Canadian Open final. Carolina Garcia was hot as well, winning 26 of their last 30 games. She could face 2019 champion Bianca Andreescu in the third round.
Not many sexy matchups in the first round
Two-time US Open champion Naomi Osaka comes into this event with one of the worst runs of her career with just a 1-3 record during the North American hard court swing. It’s hard to tell if she’s even healthy, having battled an Achilles tendon problem this spring and more recently a back problem. She meets this year’s Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins, who is also struggling with a neck injury and hasn’t had many good results lately.
If you like hard hitting, two-time Grand Slam champion Garbiñe Muguruza vs. Danish teenager Clara Tauson will be a match none of them will hold back. Though her sister has gotten all the attention, Venus Williams is back at the US Open for perhaps the last time, facing the solid Alison Van Uytvanck.
The first round of the men’s most star power is 2020 champion Dominic Thiem against Carreño Busta. Thiem is trying to get back on top after two seasons plagued by injuries, but it’s been slow progress and it would be quite a surprise if he beat an in-form Carreño Busta.
There are some excellent second round opportunities including Auger-Aliassime against exciting 20-year-old British candidate Jack Draper, a potential Young Americans matchup in Tommy Paul against Sebastian Korda and Coric against Jenson Brooksby, who reached the fourth round last year.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: US Open draw: Serena Williams meets Danka Kovinic in first round