THE 2017 US Open starts on Monday in New York and this year’s tournament looks the most open in years with many of the world’s best players not taking part.
There’s no Stan Wawrinka, Novak Djokovic, Milos Raonic, Andy Murray or Kei Nishikori, while Marin Cilic hasn't played since Wimbledon due to injury so five of the top 11 in the world are missing this year.
And as well as Cilic the likes of Roger Federer, Kevin Anderson and Nick Kyrgios are also injury doubts, while David Goffin is still on the comeback trail from injury and Dominic Thiem and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga have been in poor form, so the draw is a bit of a minefield, and Murray's late withdrawal complicating matters further.
Alexander Zverev backers will be pleased to note Pete Sampras, Lleyton Hewitt and John McEnroe all won the US Open before their 21st birthdays and indeed Sampras was only just 19 when he landed the 1990 title.
Federer would become the oldest winner since Ken Rosewall in 1970 and only two men in the history of the game have won it when aged older than Federer’s 36 years and one month (Bill Tilden in 1929 and William Larned in 1911).
Only three times since Sampras’ 1990 win has the champion been seeded lower than six and they were Pat Rafter in 1997, Sampras in 2002 and Cilic in 2014, while Sampras’ 2002 win when seeded 17th makes him the lowest-ranked player to win it in the Open era.
And it’s not as if there have been many surprise losing finalists either, with only unseeded Mark Philippoussis in 1998 not being seeded in the top 10 (he was ranked 22 and there were only 16 seeds in those days) in the last 19 years.
Draw and form – top half
Our two market leaders, Federer and Rafael Nadal, are drawn in the top half and the only two players that could conceivably test Nadal in his quarter appear to be Tomas Berdych and Grigor Dimitrov.
Fabio Fognini beat Nadal here in New York in a classic encounter two seasons ago but the Italian would have to get past Berdych, which seems unlikely over the best of five on a hard court, and to then ask him to beat Nadal here again seems too much of a stretch.
Berdych has a tricky start against Ryan Harrison and then probably Alexandr Dolgopolov and it's not a certainty the Czech will make it as far as a round four clash with Rafa but I’d expect him to do so.
The Berdman has a dismal record against Nadal but has beaten him on hard at a major before and 9-1 about the Czech winning the quarter is an option but surely 4-1 about Dimitrov winning it is too short.
The inconsistent Bulgarian took advantage of a weak field to win his first Masters 1000 title in Cincy but I wouldn’t describe at as a breakthrough with 19th ranked John Isner the best player he faced that week.
His record against top-10 opposition is poor and I wouldn’t fancy him at all in a major quarter-final against Nadal – the gap in mental strength between the pair is a yawning chasm and surely Rafa would find a way to win as he did in Melbourne against a peak Dimitrov.
The rest of that quarter looks weak, with Goffin some way from the player he was earlier this year after that accident at the French Open and subsequent injury lay off.
Gael Monfils made the semis here a year ago but was last seen with both knees taped up and he’s another fitness doubt in what’s been a disappointing season for the Frenchman.
Pablo Cuevas is another who’s been struggling badly for form after injury at the French Open and with a new baby in the Cuevas household too I can’t see him being a factor this fortnight.
It's not ideal conditions for Nadal and he's too short in price for me to back outright but he still looks the likeliest winner of quarter one.
The second quarter is all about the fitness of Federer, whose back seized up on him in Montreal and the threats to Fed in this section seem to be Nick Kyrgios and Juan Martin Del Potro, two players whose fitness is also highly questionable.
Kyrgios looks miles away, both mentally and physically, from winning a major, while Delpo is similarly afflicted with injury of one sort or another and doesn’t look capable of going all the way in slams these days.
Dominic Thiem is a possible option but on his hard court form this year the Austrian looks a hopeful wager at best, with his last two defeats this swing coming against Ferrer and Diego Schwartzman.
Ferrer walloped him in Cincy and Roberto Bautista Agut looks the best value pick if you are going against Federer in that section although his price has been cut from 250-1 to 150-1.
RBA has beaten Thiem all three times they’ve met and beaten Delpo at a hard court major, plus he has wins over Dimitrov and Berdych, so while he wouldn’t beat a fit Federer or Nadal he looks well placed to take advantage should the favourites fall early.
Draw and form – bottom half
The bottom half looks really open and had I published this article on Saturday it would have recommended Lucas Pouille at 150-1, Ferrer at 250-1 and Tsonga at 75-1 but now Cilic has moved in the draw from the top of quarter three and taken Murray's place at the bottom of quarter four and Sam Querrey (luckily for him) moves from Federer's quarter to Zverev's.
Cilic will be happy about it as well, seeing Murray out and not having to face Gilles Simon in round one (1-5 head-to-head) and instead getting Tennys Sandgren.
Zverev, who has the possibility of facing his brother in the quarter-finals, (although that seems fairly unlikely) should be winning this quarter, with a nice early draw that may see him face Kevin Anderson, who the German has outclassed twice in recent weeks, and the other possible dangers include Querrey, Gilles Muller, Jack Sock, John Isner and maybe Karen Khachanov.
If this was a best-of-three event Zverev would be a very warm order but his record over the longer format isn’t good yet, with a 6-4 record this season, including losses in matches he should have won against Milos Raonic and Steve Darcis.
The latter defeat cost me a perfectly good wager on Germany winning the Davis Cup at a nice price and maybe the help of Juan Carlos Ferrero may be a factor now, as he plots Zverev's course to Grand Slam success.
He’s certainly the form player and it’s just that questionable record over the longer format and the number of matches he’s played lately that make me doubt his stamina here.
Isner has probably his best opportunity of going deep in his home major this time around but his chances for me are not helped by being scheduled to play night matches when conditions are slower.
Muller looks wiped out after a tough grass swing, while Sock flatters to deceive and doesn’t look to me to be fit enough to go deep in majors and perhaps Querrey can ride his luck and finally produce at his home major.
His confidence should be high after two titles this season already and a semi-final run at Wimbledon too, so if he's ever going to produce here in New York this looks the year with so many of the big names either out or with big question marks against them.
Murray's late withdrawal has seen the prices on my original selections cut to 150-1 on Ferrer, 120-1 on Pouille and 60-1 on Tsonga, but obviously their chances of making the semis now increase and instead of an injured Murray as the high seed it's now Cilic who has had an abductor injury and didn't think he was fit enough to defend his title in Cincy only a fortnight ago.
We can still back Ferrer, who’s had a fairly spectacular renaissance in recent months, and is worth a point still at 150-1 with a view to hedging later in the fortnight.
Pouille is the other one that could be value, as his form has been poor this summer since winning Stuttgart, so his price is still big at 120-1, given his performances in big matches and his run to the last eight here a year ago. He could well get inspired this fortnight and a strong performance isn't out of the question.
He gets the chance to avenge a defeat to Jared Donaldson in round two and perhaps the American could be a real wild card in this section, as he has been in form lately, and played well here a year ago.
Pouille will be delighted to see Murray withdraw, with the Scot beating the Frenchman easily in all four of their career meetings, and so Pouille's chances improve considerably without Murray in the draw.
Tsonga has struggled since winning Rotterdam and Marseille back-to-back and then picking up another title in Lyon earlier in the season, and he seems lacking in confidence as a result.
His draw looks perfect for a return to form though and he’s a regular quarter finalist in New York, losing only to US Open champions in four of his last five visits here.
With the principals Nadal and Federer both in the top half most of my interest lies in the bottom half of the draw, with Murray now out and Cilic rated as a fitness doubt, while Zverev remains a stamina doubt.
Bizarrely, after looking ready for retirement for the last year or so, Ferrer looked back to great form in Cincy and small wagers on the Spaniard and the two Frenchmen Tsonga and Pouille look the value in the bottom half along with Querrey, whose draw is now much better.
I’d imagine Nadal or Federer will make the final from the top half but much depends on the fitness of a 36-year-old and half a point on Bautista Agut is all I’m prepared to wager in that part of the draw.
With so many doubts over the leading men's contenders it looks a US Open where my strongest fancies lie in the women's outright instead but it's worth taking on the injured with a few long shots.