Serena Williams’ final Grand Slam, Rafael Nadal’s attempt at 23 majors and more to watch this year’s US Open

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A farewell to Serena Williams, one of the sport’s most legendary players. The involuntary absence of Wimbledon champ Novak Djokovic. The return of last year’s debut major champions Emma Raducanu and Daniil Medvedev.

The 2022 US Open truly has it all.

After an unexpected, unpredictable and at times chaotic tennis season, we’ve made it to the final major of the year. The first three Grand Slams were filled with remarkable competition, worthy champions and oh-so-much drama and the US Open looks to be more of the same — and then some.

Will we see another first-time winner, or two, at this year’s event? Will Williams conclude her astounding career by making even more history? Could Rafael Nadal make some history of his own? Does Nick Kyrgios have a chance to win it all? Here are the players and storylines you need to know about heading into the 2022 US Open.

End of an era

After one of the greatest careers in tennis history, Serena Williams is expected to play in her final tournament at the US Open. The 40-year-old won the first of her 23 major singles titles at the event in 1999 and now, 23 years after her Grand Slam breakthrough, it will come to an end.

In a first-person essay for Vogue, Williams detailed the mixed emotions she was having about her decision but explained she hoped to have another child in the immediate future.

“There is no happiness in this topic for me,” Williams wrote about her impending retirement. “I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain. It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not. I’m torn: I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.”

Since making her announcement, shared ahead of her second-round match at the Canadian Open, Williams has yet to win a match. She lost to Belinda Bencic in Toronto, and in her opener in Cincinnati against Raducanu. She still received standing ovations at both events and ticket sales for the US Open skyrocketed on the day her Vogue piece published online.

So while it remains unclear how Williams, a six-time US Open champion, will fare against Danka Kovinic in her first-round clash in New York, it seems certain there won’t be an empty seat in the house at Arthur Ashe Stadium for that match — or any she plays in.

Williams has not hidden her desire to match Margaret Court’s long-standing record for the most major titles (24), but has failed to do so since returning from childbirth in 2018. Per Caesars Sportsbook, she enters the tournament with 25-to-1 odds — which doesn’t exactly make her a favorite — but if anyone could pull off the miracle ending, it has to be Serena Williams.

As for Venus …

While Serena has been getting a hero’s send-off from her peers and fans alike since making her announcement, sister Venus has been silent on her future plans. She played in her first singles match in nearly a year at the Citi Open earlier this month, and has since played at both Toronto and Cincinnati. She has gone winless at all three events but received a wild card for the US Open.

It would be unfair to speculate if this will also be Venus’ final tournament, but it’s clear the end is nearing for the 42-year-old and one would imagine Venus too will receive a warm and adoring reception from the New York fans.

No Novak

After turning his season around with a title at Wimbledon — his 21st at a major — Djokovic finds himself sidelined yet again. The 35-year-old was forced to withdraw from the US Open earlier this week due to travel restrictions into the United States as a result of his unvaccinated COVID-19 status.

It’s been a strange and challenging year for Djokovic. He was one victory away from completing the elusive calendar slam at the 2021 US Open but ultimately lost to Medvedev in the final — and it only went downhill after that. He was deported from Australia in January ahead of the Australian Open and played in just one tournament before the clay season began. He lost the world No. 1 ranking, and he fell in the quarters at the French Open. Even the victory at Wimbledon came with a caveat because there were no ranking points awarded at the tournament. As a result, his ranking fell yet again and he currently sits at No. 6.

Having reached the final at the US Open in 2021, Djokovic will now lose 1,200 ranking points and will likely drop to the bottom of the top 10. He is next expected to play at the Laver Cup in September in London, but no ranking points are awarded there.

While Djokovic is certainly the most notable absence at the event, he’s not the only one. World No. 2 and 2020 tournament finalist Alexander Zverev, No. 28-ranked Reilly Opelka, 2022 Australian Open quarterfinalist and fan favorite Gael Monfils also withdrew.

The women’s draw remains remarkably intact with almost all of the top players remaining. Angelique Kerber, the 2016 US Open champion, announced she would be missing the event for “the best possible reason” on Wednesday, and former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova, currently ranked No. 47, withdrew earlier this month, but they are the biggest absences so far.

Nadal’s quest for 23

After winning the first two majors of the year, things have recently cooled for Nadal due to injuries. He had to withdraw ahead of his semifinal match at Wimbledon due to an abdominal tear and since then he has played in just one match: An opening-round loss to eventual champion Borna Coric in Cincinnati.

The four-time champion at the US Open seemed optimistic heading into the tournament.

“I need to move forward and just start to think about the energy that the crowd gives me in New York,” Nadal said after the loss to Coric. “I know it’s a very special place for me, and I enjoy it. [I have] unforgettable moments there, and I [am] going to try my very best every single day to be ready for that.”

If Nadal were to win yet another title, and assuming Serena Williams doesn’t do the same, he would match her mark for the most major titles in the Open Era, which might not exactly be the sweetest going-away present for Serena.

Ball controversy

Top-seeded Iga Swiatek made headlines in Cincinnati when she called the balls used by women at the US Open “horrible” and questioned why women used different balls than men at the event, unlike at every other Grand Slam.

“I don’t know why they are different than men’s ones,” Swiatek told reporters. “I don’t know, like, 15 years ago probably women had some elbow injuries because the balls were heavier and they changed them to women’s balls, but right now we are so physically well-prepared that I don’t think it would happen. Plus, we can’t get those balls in Europe, or actually, when we buy them at store, they are totally different than the tournament balls, so when I’m practicing with US Open balls at home [in Poland], I’m practicing with men’s ones.”

The balls are used throughout the summer hard-court swing in the United States and Canada. Swiatek, who had a 37-match win streak earlier this year, lost in the round of 16 at both events she played leading into New York.

Swiatek said the balls were “hard to control” and revealed she and Paula Badosa had previously complained about the situation to WTA CEO and chairman Steve Simon last year. Ashleigh Barty’s longtime coach Craig Tyzzer shared a similar sentiment after Barty won the Australian Open earlier this year, and said his star player (who has since retired from tennis) would never win the tournament with the current balls.

Tyzzer implied the balls were part of the reason so many unexpected women had won the US Open in recent years. Five of the previous seven women’s champions at the tournament, including Raducanu in 2021, have been first-time major champions.

The balls will certainly be a talking point throughout the fortnight and could face heavy scrutiny. In a statement to ESPN last week, the WTA said it “would continue to monitor and discuss further with both our athletes and our sports science teams,” and acknowledged it had received requests to change the balls from “a select number of our athletes.”

Repeat for Raducanu?

After stunning the world with her most improbable US Open title in 2021 — becoming the first qualifier in the Open Era to win a major — it has been a puzzling year on the court for the 19-year-old Raducanu. She failed to advance past the second round at any of the majors this season, and hasn’t reached a semifinal or final in any tournament since her Cinderella run.

But Raducanu does bring some momentum with her to Queens. After a quarterfinal appearance at the Citi Open earlier this month, she defeated Serena in Cincinnati in commanding fashion, 6-4, 6-0, and then followed it up less than 24 hours later with a 6-0, 6-2 victory over two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka. She ultimately lost to Jessica Pegula 7-5, 6-4 in the third round but received a much-needed confidence boost for what she was able to achieve.

“I think this week was a great step for me,” Raducanu said after the loss to Pegula. “In the past year, I think it’s probably like the first tournament or like one of the few tournaments that I have actually, you know, like started going for my shots more.

“I think that recently I was kind of playing and hoping they would miss, and I think I was pushing the ball around a lot more, rather than this week I kind of just was like, look, I’m just going to try, I don’t care if I make errors, like it’s fine, but I’m just going to like overhit if anything.”

Raducanu currently sits at No. 11 in the world, but will dramatically drop if she is unable to come close to replicating last year’s success. With 2,756 total points entering the event, and 2,040 points to defend, Raducanu would drop to around No. 80 if she were to lose in her first-round match against 2022 Australian Open quarterfinalist Alize Cornet.

Of course Raducanu was one of a handful of teenagers who made headlines at the tournament in 2021. Her cohorts — fellow finalist Leylah Fernandez, last year’s surprise quarterfinalist and now current world No. 4 Carlos Alcaraz and 2022 French Open runner-up Coco Gauff — will all be looking to take their success one step further.

Medvedev’s quest for No. 2

Like Raducanu, Medvedev returns to New York looking to defend his title and win his second major trophy. But unlike Raducanu, he is one of the favorites to do so and currently the No. 1 player in the world. It’s been an up-and-down summer for Medvedev, who was unable to play at Wimbledon when Russian and Belarusian players were banned. Since then he won the title in Los Cabos, lost his opener in Montreal and reached the semifinals in Cincinnati.

So, while certainly not the strongest hard-court season of his career, Medvedev sounded pleased about his current level following his quarterfinal victory over Taylor Fritz at the Western & Southern Open.

“In general, yeah, [I’m] happy with my level,” Medvedev said. “If I can continue to play this way, and especially during the match raise my level, I can beat anybody.”

The emergence of Kyrgios

After years of not quite living up to the sky-high expectations, Kyrgios is playing some of the best tennis of his career. Since the start of the grass-court season in June, he has reached his first major final at Wimbledon, won the title in Washington D.C., as well as two doubles titles and defeated top-10 players like Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.

During this period he’s also faced allegations of assault by his former partner in his native Australia, and legal proceedings are underway.

While he admitted his “tank [is] getting to the end” in Cincinnati last week and was routed by Fritz 6-3, 6-2 in the round of 32 in the final lead-in event, Kyrgios often thrives on the biggest stages and against the toughest opponents. Please watch the clip below, or frankly anywhere on the internet, for proof of this:

Now, knowing he’s capable of reaching a major final and with some strong hard-court results to bolster him, this could just be Kyrgios’ time for his biggest breakthrough yet. It won’t be easy, however. He’ll face his longtime friend and frequent doubles partner Thanasi Kokkinakis in the first round and then potentially could play No. 16 seed Roberto Bautista Agut in the third round and Medvedev in the fourth.

Who’s next?

Kyrgios isn’t the only player with a legitimate chance to win a maiden Grand Slam in New York. Here are a few others riding some momentum into the Big Apple — which, in case we haven’t made clear, has seen more than its fair share of first-time champions:

Caroline Garcia: The former world No. 4 is having a career resurgence this season. She nabbed her third title of 2022 last week in Cincinnati, becoming the first qualifier to win a WTA 1000-level event. The 28-year-old dispatched a trio of top-10 players in Maria Sakkari, Pegula and Aryna Sabalenka en route to the final, and then defeated two-time major champion Petra Kvitova for the trophy. Back in the top 20, there might be no one with more confidence and fire than Garcia right now.

Borna Coric: The other surprise Cincinnati champion stunned the field — including a shocking three-set upset over Nadal in the round of 32 — to win the first 1000-level title of his career. After shoulder surgery in March and a nearly 10-month absence, Coric had the best week of his career at the Western & Southern Open and surged 123 ranking positions to make his return to the top 30. “I was just believing that I can win the next match,” Coric said on Sunday. “That’s what I did for five days in a row.”

Daria Kasatkina: She reached the first major semifinal of her career at the French Open in June and then was unable to play at Wimbledon, but Kasatkina won her very next tournament after coming out at the Silicon Valley Classic. She reached a career-high ranking of No. 9 earlier this month.

Cameron Norrie: The top-ranked British player had his career-best result at a major with a semifinal run at Wimbledon — and has yet to slow down since. He reached the final at Los Cabos and the semifinals in Cincinnati and enters the US Open with the highest-ranking of his career at No. 9.

Jessica Pegula: One of the most consistent women on tour this season, Pegula advanced to the semifinals in Toronto and the quarterfinals in Cincinnati, and won the doubles titles in Washington D.C. and Toronto (with two different partners nonetheless!). Having reached the quarters in two of the three Grand Slams already this season, and now playing on home turf as an American, it could just be Pegula’s time to take the latest step in her unorthodox career.

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