It feels like tennis fans were only just removed from the hostage situation that was the monotonous grind of Tall-Boy Tennis at the latter stages of Wimbledon, but it’s all OK now, because the final Grand Slam of the year is fast approaching. The U.S. Open, which begins on Monday, bookends another compelling year on the tennis circuit (Serena back!), despite a certain air of inevitability about the proceedings. To wit: It’s been two years since a man not named Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, or Novak Djokovic captured a Grand Slam, and it’s a safe bet one of these men will win the U.S. Open in a couple weeks’ time.
But the most entertaining Grand Slams usually bring a few surprises from players who are on the rise—it was last year’s Open that served as Kevin Anderson’s coming-out party and top-10 ascendance, after all. Here are six players who could use the tournament to showcase breakout performances, or spectacular returns to form.
The 20-year-old American made waves at last year’s Open, playing a tight first-round five-setter against Federer (before losing, because it’s Feds), and offering glimpses of his distinctive potential. Tiafoe, unlike the tall boys, is mobile. He has an assured two-handed backhand and a bizarre corkscrew of a forehand which looks like it could snap his wrist at any moment. But hey, it works.
Tiafoe’s had his best-yet season on tour, winning a 250 Series title in February and reaching a career-high ranking of 38 (he sits at 42 heading into the Open). At Wimbledon he made his deepest Grand Slam run to date: a third-round berth, punctuated by a first-round win over 30th-seeded Fernando Verdasco. Perhaps another opportunity on American soil—and an opening matchup that doesn’t pit him against one of the greatest tennis players of all time—will take Tiafoe even further.
After winning two NCAA singles titles while at the University of Virginia, Collins has found success only very recently on the pro tour—she didn’t even make it past the qualifying rounds of this year’s Australian Open. However, Collins has gone on to round up impressive wins in a short span of time on her way to cracking the WTA top 50. In addition to capturing a 125K Series title in January, the American made it to the semifinals of the Miami Open in March after thoroughly dominating Venus Williams in the quarters.
Collins is a dynamic baseliner, capable of hitting powerful groundstrokes that can paint the lines. (She also has elite self-motivation skills, producing arguably the loudest and most frequent utterances of “COME ON!” on the women’s circuit.) Collins has never advanced past the first round at a Grand Slam. However, currently sitting at no. 36 in the world and with a first-round matchup against Aryna Sabalenka, she’s got an opportunity to beat that small benchmark on home soil.
What happens when you combine the wizardry of Fabrice Santoro with the irritable temperament of Nick Kyrgios? You get someone like Benoit Paire. The Frenchman has consistently been one of the most entertaining players on tour—he freezes opponents with deft drop shots, and an amalgam of groundstrokes that can be parabolic or flat as a slab of concrete. He is also prone to memorable temper tantrums, like when he smashed three rackets and all but quit on match point against Cypriot king Marcos Baghdatis at the Citi Open last month. Paire was playing poorly, but perhaps his frustration was accentuated by the fact he was getting schooled by a guy that looks like he’d hopped off the couch after devouring a Chipotle burrito bowl.
Is it just wishful thinking on my part to suggest that Paire might put it all together and reach the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time in his career? Probably, given that he is set for a second-round clash with Roger Federer. But to go full Galaxy Brain for a moment, even Marat Safin—the lord of tennis tantrums in the early aughts—won two Grand Slams. (I’m not saying Benoit freaking Paire is going to win a Grand Slam, but still.)
There’s no player on the men’s tour entering the tournament riding a hotter streak than Stefanos Tsitsipas. En route to appearing in the final of the Rogers Cup, Tsitsipas defeated four top 10 players in a row—in order: Dominic Thiem, Djokovic, Alexander Zverev, and Anderson—before ultimately falling to Nadal. He’s solid in just about every facet of the game, and has a flair for the dramatic when he’s at the net. (He dives a lot.)
Already the 15th-ranked player on the ATP circuit, Tsitsipas could potentially enter the top 10 with a deep run at the Open—a tournament he’d never previously qualified for. L’Oréal should be offering to sponsor his fabulous hair before it’s too late.
It was just two years ago that Victoria Azarenka was a top-five WTA player. After taking a hiatus for the birth of her son, the Belarusian was mired in a custody battle with her child’s father, which subsequently derailed her return at the U.S. Open last year. It’s been a steady climb for Azarenka since, and after ending 2017 outside the top 200 she enters the tournament ranked 80th.
The two-time Australian Open champion and former world no. 1 plays her best tennis on hard courts. It’s not much, but she did make it to the quarters of the Silicon Valley Classic earlier this month before retiring against … Danielle Collins. A better result at Flushing Meadows—she plays no. 56 Viktoria Kuzmova in the first round—could be a springboard for Azarenka to rise up the rankings.
Stan the Man is the last player outside of the ATP’s big three to win a Grand Slam, but that was a long time ago—back when he won the U.S. Open in 2016. The Swiss’s fortunes cratered when a knee injury last year briefly knocked him out of the top 200. He’s been slowly rounding back into form since. His best results of the year came in the two tournaments earlier this month preceding the Open: he made it to the third round of the Rogers Cup before losing to Nadal, and took Federer to three sets in the quarters of the Cincinnati Masters. Rest assured: The Stanimal’s one-handed backhand is still kissed by god.
This half volley backhand by Stan #Wawrinka pic.twitter.com/cXTj9TdhmV— We Are Tennis (@WeAreTennis) August 1, 2018
If Wawrinka, who’s still just outside the top 100, wants to make a deep run, he’ll have to get past world no. 8 Grigor Dimitrov in the first round. It’s a tall order—and undoubtedly the best opening-round match of the Open—but given Wawrinka’s recent form, an upset isn’t outside the realm of possibility. We’ve seen for years what that glorious backhand can do.