By Arthur Kapetanakis
With the 2018 US Open Series just days away from its first serve, here are five storylines that are sure to dominate the tennis world in the buildup to the US Open. From all-time greats to rising stars, the summer hard-court season will be packed with action on both the men's and women's tours.
1. Serena Williams' U.S. return
Absent from the 2017 US Open Series and US Open ahead of the birth of her daughter, Williams is set to return to the American hard courts this summer. After a runner-up finish at Wimbledon provided the first deep run of her 2018 comeback, the 36-year-old will be hungry to claim her first title as a mom.
The 23-time Grand Slam champion, who is currently ranked No. 28 in the WTA rankings, has committed to play the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, which begins on July 30 in San Jose, Calif. It will be her first appearance in the Bay Area since she won the tournament, then known as the Bank of the West Classic, in 2014.
2. Men on the mend
Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic will be looking to back up his London title with a solid US Open Series performance, as he looks to put his injury woes firmly behind him. The Serb missed the entire American swing in 2017 with an elbow injury that lingered into 2018.
Like Djokovic, Andy Murray's 2017 season also ended with a Wimbledon quarterfinal defeat, as a hip injury forced him to sit out the remainder of the year. Despite appearing in two U.K. grass-court events ahead of Wimbledon, the Briton pulled out of the main event and has only recorded one win in three 2018 matches to date.
His lone victory came against Stan Wawrinka, another top player who did not compete beyond Wimbledon in 2017. In 10 events, the Swiss has managed to string together two consecutive victories just once so far in 2018.
The US Open Series could provide the perfect buildup for the former US Open champions, as they seek to prove their fitness and round into form ahead of the year's final major.
3. Breakout Performance of the 2018 US Open Series
New in 2018, the US Open Series will officially recognize one man and one woman in the beginning stages of their careers for a signature performance over the course of the summer.
As the five-week series nears its conclusion during the week of Aug. 20, a pre-established voting panel will determine which two players had the official Breakout Performance of the 2018 US Open Series, based on overall results from all tournaments played. This vote will include a fan vote, to be conducted via Twitter.
4. Home-court advantage
Americans John Isner and Madison Keys took advantage of playing on home soil last summer, as Isner won the BB&T Atlanta Open, and Keys took home the trophy at what is now the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic. Canadian phenom Denis Shapovalov also made the most of playing in his native country with a semifinal run at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. Then just 18 years old, the precocious lefty defeated Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal en route to the semifinals as he put his name on the tennis map.
Rising Americans, like Frances Tiafoe, Jennifer Brady and Sofia Kenin, will be looking to follow in his footsteps with some statement victories this year.
5. Defending US Open champions
All eyes will be on Rafael Nadal and Sloane Stephens as they gear up to defend their 2017 US Open singles titles, with both slated to compete in the Toronto/Montreal and Cincinnati Masters events. Stephens, who reached the semifinals in both events last year, returns to the U.S. as the top-ranked American woman, thanks to her French Open final run. For the first time in her career, the world No. 3 will have to cope with the added pressure that comes with that well-earned distinction.