Though the domino effect of Roger Federer’s absence prevented the Rio Olympics from being the most illustrious tournament in tennis history (the three best men’s players ever, the possible women’s GOAT in Serena Williams, plus Venus Williams, Andy Murray, Martina Hingis and the also-absent Bryan Brothers all together in one place, with many pairing in doubles), it’s still set to be an amazing spectacle as the legends of the sport join Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and other athletes who hold claims as the greatest ever in their respective sports.
Half of the 2012 singles medalists (Federer, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka) didn’t make it to Rio for very different reasons, along with the men’s doubles champs, the Bryans, and other stars like Stan Wawrinka, Simona Halep and Milos Raonic, but nevertheless, Serena and Venus are around for one more run at hoarding gold medals and Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal (recovered just in time) are bidding to add to their gold medal count, denying Novak Djokovic one of his own in the process, one of just two top prizes missing from his résumé.
Predictions for each event (save for mixed doubles, for which the draw will be formulated in a few days):
Notably absent: Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka, Dominika Cibulkova, Belinda Bencic, Karolina Pliskova, Maria Sharapova
Serena Williams quarter: Serena got the gift of having Roberta Vinci in her quarter (though it’s a seeding Vinci has in the first place because she beat Serena in New York last year). None of the 13-16 seeds could trouble her but Svitolina is by far the most punchless and stands no chance of upsetting the defending gold medalist. Unless Petra Kvitova finds peak form, this is smooth sailing for Williams.
Garbine Muguruza quarter: The most volatile quarter, Muguruza’s form is a mystery after she pulled out of Montreal minutes before her first match. Venus Williams was clearly not full strength in Montreal and Safarova is a dangerous floater. Seven or eight different players could emerge from this quarter.
Aga Radwanska quarter: The matchup to look/hope for in this section is getting another chapter in the intriguing Radwanska-Keys rivalry-that-isn’t-really-a-rivalry. The power of Keys versus the craftiness of Radwanska has made for compelling meetings even when the result is one-sided. Radwanska leads 5-1, but the pair haven’t met since October, long before Keys made her top 10 debut.
Angie Kerber quarter: The least interesting quarter, the best non-Kerber matchup is Stephens-Bouchard right off the bat. Though the winner will likely fall to Kerber, the loser will end up with a very disappointing loss less than 24 hours after the Games officially begin. Kuznetsova, Konta and Garcia could all reach the quarters, but none are players you’d feel safe putting a bet on.
Medal rounds: While this era of the WTA is rife with busted brackets early in tournaments, it’s hard to find reasonable upset picks outside of the Muguruza quarter. Getting a third Serena-Angie final out of four blockbuster events this year is far from a lock, it’s merely the most likely pairing.
Notably absent: Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Milos Raonic, Dominic Thiem, Richard Gasquet, Nick Kyrgios, John Isner, Sascha Zverev
Novak Djokovic quarter: Other than Djokovic, this is the “backhands optional” portion of the draw (Stevie Johnson should swap in for Roberto Bautista-Agut). Some think Sock or Tsonga pose danger to Djokovic, and while Tsonga has the “on the right day” potential, a Djokovic-Sock match would be complete one-way traffic. Djokovic’s opener against Juan Martin del Potro will be compelling even if lacking for drama.
Rafael Nadal quarter: Nadal is still working hard to feel right after his wrist injury and, thankfully for him, he should be able to play himself into rhythm by his first real test in the quarterfinals against David Goffin. Seppi and either Coric or Simon are the type of players Nadal typically doesn’t lose to.
Kei Nishikori quarter: Nishikori will be a big favorite in each match, but if you add up his win probabilities, his is the lowest of the top four. He should beat Ramos, Kohlschreiber and Monfils/Cilic/Dimitrov, yet any of them could beat him, especially with Nishikori going through a full week’s worth of matches in Canada.
Andy Murray quarter: A Murray-Ferrer quarterfinal would have been a fearsome match a few years ago, but after splitting their first ten matches, eight of the last nine (and six in a row) have gone to the Scot, and Murray has won 11 of 13 on hardcourts anyway. The least compelling quadrant by far.
Medal rounds: Unless Djokovic’s nagging ailments catch up to him, Nadal is no condition to beat him. Where it could catch up with the top seed is in the final. On even terms, Djokovic has dominated Murray, but Murray’s two recent wins (2015 Montreal, 2016 Rome) have come when Djokovic is worn down and Murray certainly has the rest/health advantages at the moment. That may not be true come the U.S. Open, but it could be enough to tip the scales next weekend.
Having seven of the eight seeds in the quarterfinals is pretty boring, but the top women’s teams have the built-in advantage of being regular partners. Combine that with higher skill to begin with and the Williams sisters, Garcia/Mladenovic, Makarova/Vesnina, Errani/Vinci and the others feel like safer bets than their male counterparts. If Coco Vandeweghe’s ankle is alright, her and Bethanie Mattek-Sands are the floaters who could do some real damage.
The one team that be downright shocking if they don’t medal is Herbert/Mahut, as they’ve been dominating the tour this year and have the easier half of the draw. Tennis fans everywhere have to be hoping for a Nadal/Lopez vs Murray/Murray semifinal, as not only is it star-studded, both teams can actually back up the fanfare. Nadal and Lopez have teamed for Indian Wells titles and the Murrays are Britain’s trump card in Davis Cup. Outside the medal favorites, Monfils and Tsonga will surely be a pair worth watching, regardless of how successful they are.