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Opening day is deep in drama

Novak Djokovic
By Mark Preston
Sunday, August 24, 2014

As the 2014 US Open begins, 128 men and 128 women stand ready to play—and nearly as many storylines stand ready to play out. This year’s US Open will offer the game’s top talents a chance to declare their dominance in a sport that this year has seen myriad names claiming major titles. Indeed, the first three Slams of the season have thus far crowned six separate champions—Stan Wawrinka and Li Na in Australia; Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros; Novak Djokovic and Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon. This tournament represents not only a chance for one of those half dozen to put an exclamation point on a super season, but also for former US Open champs such as Serena Williams, Roger Federer and Andy Murray to hoist some major hardware before the Slam season runs out of days. Over the course of these next two weeks, this tournament figures to produce more intrigue and plot twists than a season of "True Detective."

The first dose of that daily drama unfolds Monday, as men’s top seed Novak Djokovic and women’s second seed Simona Halep headline a lineup of luminaries that includes Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens and more.

Men’s top seed Djokovic is seeking to become the first man since Federer to reach five consecutive US Open finals. Of course, the five-time finalist would also like to add to his title total here, as the 27-year-old Serb has finished first in Flushing just once—taking the trophy in 2011. The world No. 1 has this year won four titles, including his seventh career Slam singles crown at Wimbledon. But in the two Emirates Airline US Open Series events he entered this summer, Djokovic won just two matches—not the sort of showing you’d expect from a player of his pedigree on the road to New York. Still, it’s tough to argue with his 45-8 lifetime record here on the hard floors of the National Tennis Center or his career record of 368-79 on cement. Tonight, Djokovic starts his title quest against Diego Schwartzman, a 22-year-old Argentine who has won one just one Grand Slam singles match in his brief career—at this year’s French Open. There, he drew Federer in the second round, so this won’t be the first time he’s shared a big stage with a big name. But he’s clearly the understudy here. In an easy three, the top seed advances.

The No. 2 next to Halep’s name represents the highest seed that’s ever accompanied the 22-year-old Romanian into a major event. Halep earned the bottom line of the women’s draw with a sizzling season that includes two tournament titles and a fistful of fine results at the Slams, including a run to the quarterfinals in Australia, a runner-up finish at the French and a semifinal showing at Wimbledon. This has been a breakout season for the big-hitting baseliner, now at a career-high No. 2, and certainly she would like nothing more than to make the US Open the place where she breaks through to her first Grand Slam singles title. She’ll take the first step toward that goal today against 20-year-old American Danielle Collins, who’s playing in her first career major, earning a wild card into this year’s Open by winning this year’s NCAA women’s singles crown as a sophomore at the University of Virginia. That’s a pretty impressive achievement, but now Collins is graduating into the big time against one of the game’s top talents. This figures as the very definition of a learning experience. In two, Halep moves on.

The 2006 US Open women’s champion, Sharapova added to her already impressive resume at the Slams this spring, winning her fifth career major singles crown at Roland Garros. But since that impressive run, the 27-year-old Russian, seeded No. 5 here, has had a so-so summer, losing in the fourth round at Wimbledon and the third round in Montreal. Sharapova looked more in form in reaching the semifinals in Cincinnati, losing a tough three-setter to Ana Ivanovic, a match in which Sharapova held two match points. But she’ll need to find better form here—and quickly—as she’s drawn a particularly tough first-round foe in countrywoman Maria Kirilenko, a former Top 10 player who has three career Slam quarterfinal appearances on her resume. Kirilenko, also 27, has missed a sizeable chunk of this season, sidelined by a knee injury. As a result, she doesn’t have much in the way of results, posting a meager 2-5 record on the year. Her single Slam win was a first-round victory at Wimbledon over American Sloane Stephens. The two Russians are good friends and familiar foes; Sharapova leads their career meetings, 5-2. I’m guessing she should add to that edge Monday night, but I’m guessing it won’t be easy. In a tough three, Sharapova is on to round two.

Tsonga, the No. 9 seed, put together a dream run at this summer’s Toronto event, knocking out Djokovic, Murray and Federer to take the title. That win showed just how much of a force Tsonga can be, but the challenge for the 29-year-old Frenchman is maintaining that level of consistency through more than a single event. When he’s on, the big-hitting Tsonga can go toe-to-toe with anyone. When he’s not, he can be readily stepped over, as evidenced by the fact that a guy with a game as explosive as his has never been past the quarters here in five tries. In his opener, Tsonga faces off with Juan Monaco, a 30-year-old Argentine who’s appearing in his 11th career US Open. Twice, the Argentine has been as far as the fourth round here; every other time he’s lost in the first round. This figures to be déjà vu all over again for Monaco. In three, Tsonga advances.

One of the day’s more intriguing matchups features veteran talents Venus Williams, 34, and Kimiko Date-Krumm, 43, two decidedly un-retiring types, each of whom are determined to show they’ve still got game. Williams, champion here in 2000 and 2001, is a seven-time Grand Slam singles winner, who captured her 45th career singles crown earlier this year at the hard-court Dubai event in February. Williams is seeded 19th here, but she shouldn’t be overlooked, coming in off a solid summer in which she knocked out sister Serena en route to the final at Montreal. Japan’s Date-Krumm, who has ranked as high as No. 4, is competing in her 13th career US Open, her best results to date are back-to-back quarterfinal runs in 1993 and 1994. Williams has won all three of their career meetings, but Date-Krumm has taken the American to three sets in two of those encounters, including on hard courts at the 2013 Miami event. Still, at this stage of their respective careers, and on the great stage of the US Open, expect the Slam-seasoned Williams to come through in two.