By E.J. Crawford
The Emirates Airline US Open Series was launched in 2004, turning a number of well-regarded but disparate North American hard-court events into a unified, easy-to-follow season that culminates in summer's tennis finale: the US Open.
Twelve years later, the Series continues to grow strong. It has evolved into a can’t-miss experience for tennis fans and serves as a requisite for the best players in the world.
As the Series gets set to kick off its 13th installment on Monday, July 18, let’s take a look at some of the things to watch out for this summer:
What’s new and different for the Series in 2016?
Off the court, the most easily identifiable elements are a fresh ad campaign – “Serving Up the Best of Summer” – and new, fully responsive websites for the main Series site, emiratesusopenseries.com, and the accompanying U.S.-based tournament websites.
On the court, the biggest difference is the schedule. As it does every four years, the Series will take a week-long break to accommodate the Olympic Games, held this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As a result, rather than being played back-to-back, as has been done in recent years, the Rogers Cup in Montreal/Toronto and the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati will be split – with the Rogers Cup taking place prior to the Summer Games and the W&S Open being played afterward.
In other changes, the women will lead off the 2016 Series, with the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif., taking over for the men’s BB&T Atlanta Open as the first event of the Series season.
What are the intriguing storylines for this year?
One of the most interesting storylines to watch will be the emergence of the game’s rising stars. French Open champion Garbiñe Muguruza, 22, has limited experience in the Series, but she will have a chance to introduce herself to an American audience during the summer season – with an eye toward adding a second Slam title of 2016 in New York. And there is a large contingent of up-and-coming American teenagers on the men’s side – Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul, Stefan Kozlov, Frances Tiafoe and more – who will look to make their marks on home soil.
And as always, the stars will be out in force. Newly crowned Wimbledon champion Serena Williams will attempt to win an unprecedented fourth overall Series championship – and third in four years – while reigning Series men's champion Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, if healthy, will be looking to become the first men ever to win three Series titles.
Who are the top men’s contenders for the 2016 Series title?
This boils down to the usual suspects – Murray, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer – 2014 Series champion Milos Raonic of Canada, U.S.-based Kei Nishikori and those who play enough, and play well enough, to double their points for the summer.
As a refresher, 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 and the bonus prize money payout at the US Open, click here.
Some potential contenders in this regard are Americans John Isner and Sam Querrey, both of whom are skipping the Olympics to focus on the Series. Querrey captured the overall Series title in 2009, while Isner has finished in the Top 3 – thus qualifying him for bonus prize money at the US Open – in four of the last five years.
Potential contenders scheduled to play in Atlanta include Isner, Nick Kyrgios, Kevin Anderson and Fernando Verdasco, while defending champion Anderson will be joined in the Winston-Salem Open field by Querrey, fellow American Steve Johnson and Top 20 fixture Richard Gasquet, among others.
Who are the top women’s contenders?
Despite a few hiccups earlier this year, Serena remains the favorite in any tournament she plays, and she has been the dominant Series performer in recent years – with titles in 2011, 2013 and 2014, a second-place showing in 2015 and a fourth-place finish in 2012.
But currently, Serena is only entered into the Rogers Cup, which opens the door for the rest of the field – and possibly for a second consecutive surpise champion after Karolina Pliskova took advantage of the new points-doubling system to grab the 2015 crown.
As with the men, the vast majority of the top women are competing at the Rogers Cup and in Cincinnati, so the 2016 champion may come down to who can double her points. To that end, top contenders scheduled to play in Stanford are Venus Williams, countrywoman CoCo Vandeweghe and rising star Jelena Ostapenko. Those set for the Connecticut Open in New Haven, Conn., include two-time defending champion Petra Kvitova, fellow past Series winner Caroline Wozniacki and young Americans Madison Keys and Sloane Stephens.
If you’re looking for potential sleepers, keep an eye on former Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova and underalded Top 20 performer Johanna Konta, both of whom thrive on hard courts and are entered in both the Stanford and New Haven events.