The final Grand Slam event of 2022 promises to be historic, but the storylines over the next two weeks in Flushing Meadows will extend beyond tennis’ expected farewell to one of the greatest players in history, Serena Williams.
The U.S. Open always provides its share of grandiose and unexpected moments during its yearly fortnight takeover of the New York sports scene, such as the runs of two first-time winners Emma Raducanu and Daniil Medvedev one year ago.
This year’s tournament also is significant for a big name — unvaccinated Novak Djokovic — not in attendance, potentially opening the door for a major breakthrough by others near the top of the rankings (looking at you, Nick Kyrgios!) or one of a cluster of men seeking to break a 18-year American title drought here.
Here’s a snapshot of those and other potential storylines to watch beginning Monday in Queens.
Serena’s swan song
Clearly, the Open is opening with a bang with its first night session. Many hope it’s the start of one final deep run by the 40-year-old Williams, possibly even all the way to her elusive, record-tying 24th Grand Slam title. That historic accomplishment has grown increasingly unlikely over the past several years — since her last major victory in Australia in 2017 — due to a maternity break and various injuries. She was ousted in the first round at Wimbledon earlier this summer.
Serena’s first-round opponent Monday night is unseeded Danka Kovinic of Montenegro, ranked No. 80 in the world. But with No. 2 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia likely awaiting in the second round, Williams will have to somehow rediscover the magic that propelled her to six Open singles titles, beginning with her breakthrough in 1999 at the age of 17.
If not, Serena and older sister Venus also will be teaming up as a wild-card entry in doubles, playing together at a Grand Slam event for the first time since the 2018 French Open. They have won 14 Grand Slam doubles titles overall, including twice in New York in ‘99 and 2009.
It’s been a bizarre year for Djokovic, the former No. 1 player in the world, beginning with his deportation from Australia in January over COVID vaccination/border issues. After rebounding with a Wimbledon title in July — his 21st major victory, one behind all-time leader Rafael Nadal — the 35-year-old Djokovic was forced to withdraw from the Open due to U.S. travel restrictions regarding his unvaccinated status. Second-ranked Alexander Zverev of Germany also is out of the tournament after suffering a gruesome ankle injury in the semifinals of the French Open.
Can Rafa get to 23?
Nadal copped the first two majors of 2022, including his record 14th title at Roland Garros in June, but he’s played just one match since bowing out before the Wimbledon semis due to an abdominal tear. The four-time Open champ can’t ever be ruled out, especially in a diminished field, beginning with a first-round match Tuesday night against 198th-ranked Rinky Hijikata. But the men’s draw certainly has opened up further with Nadal’s iffy injury status.
The returning champs
Last year’s tournament gave us two first-time winners in Medvedev and Raducanu, the first qualifier in men’s or women’s tennis in the Open Era (since 1968) to score a Grand Slam title.
The 19-year-old Brit hasn’t enjoyed much success since, however, aside from the viral video of a young fan asking her to marry him during a stoppage in play at an exhibition match in London in November. Raducanu didn’t make it past the second round in any of the first three Grand Slam events this year, and has a 13-15 overall record in 2022.
Still, she downed Serena Williams in the opening round in Cincinnati earlier this month and also defeated Victoria Azarenka in that tournament to perhaps build some momentum this week in her quest to defend her title.
The top-seeded Medvedev is the favorite to take the men’s singles trophy following his breakthrough win one year ago with a straight-sets win over Djokovic in the finals. The 26-year-old star and other Russian players were banned from playing at Wimbledon due to the war in Ukraine. He lost to Nadal in the Australian Open final and in the fourth round at the French Open to Marin Cilic.
The days of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, are long gone. But it’s crazy to think no American male has won in singles at any of the four majors since Andy Roddick hoisted the trophy in New York in 2003.
Such has been the three-headed greatness of Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer over the past two decades — with a combined 63 Grand Slam titles.
There are seven Americans currently ranked in the top 52 — Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Maxime Cressy, Jenson Brooksby, John Isner and Sebastian Korda — and the New York crowds gladly would get behind any or all of them making extended runs.
On the women’s side, the top-ranked American is No. 8 Jessica Pegula, the daughter of Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula. Jessica Pegula’s best Grand Slam results were quarterfinal appearances at the Australian and French this year, but she’s never advanced past the third round at Flushing Meadows.
Today’s back page
All props to owner Steve Cohen, team president Sandy Alderson and alumni ops head Jay Horwitz for the first Mets Old Timers’ Day since 1994, most notably the make-good promise to New York baseball icon Willie Mays with the surprise retirement of his No. 24.
Sure, some fans might have preferred the Mets to have made Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, Gary Carter or David Wright the next former player so honored after Keith Hernandez’s No. 17 was retired last month. But the Mays gesture — making good on a promise made to the 660-homer slugger by long-ago owner Joan Payson after the former Giants star finished his career with the Mets in 1972-73 — was a nice touch by the organization for a true upper-echelon legend of the game who played in the golden days of New York baseball.
As it is, the number had been worn by just three Mets players in nearly 50 years anyway: Kelvin Torve (briefly in 1990), Rickey Henderson (1999-2000) and Robinson Cano (2019-2022, wrapped around his PED suspension).
As the 91-year-old Mays said Saturday in a statement released by the Mets: “I can never forget the way it felt to return to New York to play for all the loyal Mets fans. I’m tremendously proud I ended my career in Queens with the Mets during the ’73 World Series. It’s an honor to have my number retired in my two favorite cities — New York and San Francisco. New York was a magical place to play baseball.”
Ready for some football
As usual, my lone takeaways from any preseason game – especially Sunday’s finale between the Jets and Giants – are the injuries, far more than what one team’s third-string players were able to do or not do against the other team’s third-stringers.
Veteran backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor being carted off the field with a back injury in the first quarter was the last thing the Giants needed to happen Sunday, especially after last year’s disaster with Mike Glennon serving as Daniel Jones’ understudy.
Third-string QB Davis Webb then completed 30 of 38 pass attempts for 202 yards and a touchdown against the Jets’ lower-depth-chart defense, at least showing he has a grasp of coach Brian Daboll’s offense after they previously spent time together in Buffalo. But it’s hard to get excited over those numbers, just as it is with Jets receiver Denzel Mims’ seven catches for 102 yards and a diving touchdown a few days after his trade demand was revealed. (But maybe an opposing team will think differently re: Mims!)
Two weeks ahead of their regular-season openers, the Giants and Jets both have injury concerns to monitor in their quarterback rooms with Jets starter Zach Wilson also trying to work back from preseason knee problems.