By E.J. Crawford
The road to the US Open is paved with hundreds of good players playing great tennis – and it is almost always a wild ride.
The 2015 Emirates Airline US Open Series kicks off with the BB&T Atlanta Open on July 27. That sets off five exciting weeks of tennis' top stars jockeying for position and competing for a Series title, with the grand prize being a Series crown and the opportunity to compete for $1 million in bonus prize money at the 2015 US Open.
The winners of the Series are decided through the Emirates Airline US Open Series Bonus Challenge, which awards points at each event depending on how far a player advances in that tournament. If a player earns points at three or more events, his or her total points in the Bonus Challenge are doubled. For more on the Bonus Challenge, click here.
Next week we’ll take a stab at predicting who will prevail in 2015 – a difficult task, considering the Series has seen 18 champions (nine men, nine women) in its 11 years – but first, let’s look at the prime contenders on the men’s and women’s sides.
Men: The Big Four and the Big Servers
The men’s contenders boil down to this: the best players in the world and those who will score well in at least three events to potentially double their points.
Let’s start with the favorites. Based on their play this year, it is hard to overlook Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. They are the three best players in the world and also the three best on hard courts. Leading the pack is Djokovic, who has swept the U.S. fall hard-court swing of Indian Wells and Miami each of the last two years and who has won five Australian Opens and played in five US Open finals, winning the title in 2011. Federer and Murray, meantime, are past US Open champions as well as past Series champions and Series runners-up. And while his recent results have not been strong, Rafael Nadal is the lone two-time Series champion among the group, and he swept Cincinnati and the Rogers Cup in 2013 before missing last season with a wrist injury.
Still, as great as they are, none have dominated Series play as of late. Surprisingly, Djokovic has not won an individual Series event since 2012, and neither Federer nor Murray has finished in the Top 3 of the Series standings since 2010. And while Nadal remains dangerous, his results this year have not been up to his usual high standard.
So if not the Big Four, then who? The obvious candidates are two of the biggest servers in men’s tennis, Milos Raonic and John Isner. Raonic is the defending Series champion and Isner the runner-up each of the last two years. What's more, they are both are good bets to play in three Series events, improving their chances of doubling their points.
Looking for a possible sleeper pick for the 2015 title? Try Kevin Anderson, another tall talent with a booming serve. The 6-foot-8 Anderson, who is enjoying a career year in 2015, hails from South Africa but lives in Florida and is a frequent competitor in Atlanta, also giving him a chance at doubling his points. Also keep an eye on two rapidly improving North American talents: doubles partners Jack Sock (U.S.) and Vasek Pospisil (Canada).
Women: Serena Versus the Field
While it is true that nine different women have won the overall Series title, the caveat is this: eight have won it once, Serena Williams has won it three times. The most dominant player in women’s tennis – and perhaps in women’s tennis history – had done little in the Series until 2011, not once finishing in the Top 5 of the final standings in the first seven years of the Series. Since then she has won three Series championships (2011, 2013-14) and finished fourth in 2012. And not only is she dominant, she is also a frequent player at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, meaning she is likely to earn points in the three events required to double her points.
If Serena does stumble this summer, keep an eye out for some other top hard-court players who are also solid picks to double their points. This list includes 2012 Series champion Petra Kvitova, who won the Connecticut Open title in 2012 and 2014, and current world No. 3 Simona Halep, the champion in New Haven in 2013. Four-time New Haven winner and 2010 Series champion Caroline Wozniacki (pictured above) has played her best tennis on hard courts and is entered into the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif., for this year, and those who have excelled in Stanford in recent years include recognized hard-court standouts Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber and Agnieszka Radwanska. Also keep an eye on Maria Sharapova, who has played in Stanford in the past and remains one of the world’s best on cement.
A potential sleeper among the women is up-and-coming American Madison Keys, whose big game is built for hard courts and who is already entered into Cincinnati, Toronto and New Haven. Also look out for Keys’ countrywoman Sloane Stephens, whose game is rounding into shape and who certainly has the game to excel on home soil.