The U.S. Open is the Slam above all others that has seen non-Big Four players break through. Other than Stan Wawrinka’s triumphs the last couple years, no one other than the Big Four has won Australia, Roland Garros or Wimbledon since Marat Safin took Australia back in 2005. However, the U.S. Open has seen the torrid title runs of both Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic and the door is wide open for another out-of-nowhere champ this year, including for those two again.
A look at the most open men’s Slam in years:
NOVAK DJOKOVIC  QUARTER
Contenders: Novak Djokovic, Marin Cilic, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, John Isner
Big name, little chance: Richard Gasquet (even if healthy, we’ve seen his movies), Kevin Anderson (workable draw to defend quarterfinal points, just hasn’t been his year), Jack Sock (American outlets hype his serve+forehand combo, but the flaws are too extreme to overcome)
Notable others: Martin Klizan (seeded), Jiri Vesely, Mikhail Youzhny, Frances Tiafoe, Kyle Edmund, Yoshihito Nishioka, Taylor Fritz
Best first round matches: Isner/Tiafoe, Anderson/Nishioka, Sock/Fritz
Just like Serena Williams on the women’s side, this quarter is all about Djokovic’s health and there’s just no way to know what he’ll look like without seeing him play. The first three rounds should be a breeze for him, starting with Jerzy Janowicz, whose meteoric rise into a Masters 1000 final and Wimbledon semifinal was coupled with a crash that was even faster. Still only 25, now he’s struggling in Challengers and has played just three Tour level events this year (Australia, Olympics, U.S. Open).
If Djokovic isn’t up to the task, it’s not a prisoner of the moment reaction to say Marin Cilic could build off his Cincinnati title in New York, especially if Jo-Wilfried Tsonga still isn’t healthy either. If this were a best of three tournament, John Isner might like his chances to sneak out of this quarter, but even a compromised Djokovic should be able to tame the Isner serve over five sets,
RAFAEL NADAL  QUARTER
Contenders: Rafa Nadal, Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils, Pablo Cuevas
Big name, little chance: Roberto Bautista Agut (played a full week in Winston-Salem and doesn’t beat top players)
Notable others: Lucas Pouille (seeded), Albert Ramos (seeded), Benoit Paire (seeded), Andreas Seppi, Thomaz Bellucci, Andrey Kuznetsov, Brian Baker, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Gilles Muller, Nicolas Almagro, Marcos Baghdatis, Ryan Harrison, Dustin Brown
Best first round matches: Monfils/Muller and…that’s about it
The thinnest quarter in terms of intrigue, this section is all about those first three names. Nadal’s draw is a breeze and it’s tough to envision him being troubled before the second week, even with his recent struggles at majors.
These three all shared a quarter in Australia with Stan Wawrinka, and Nadal losing in the first round coupled with Raonic upsetting Wawrinka led to the first of three meetings between he and Monfils, all on hardcourt. Raonic’s serve was too overwhelming for La Monf down under and in Indian Wells, but the Frenchman scored an impressive upset in Raonic’s home tournament in Canada. Raonic will likely have to beat Monfils and Nadal (both fan favorites in New York) back-to-back just to get to the semis.
STAN WAWRINKA  QUARTER
Contenders: Stan Wawrinka, Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios, Steve Johnson, Juan Martin del Potro (unseeded)
Big name, little chance: David Ferrer (lost eight of last nine versus top 50 players, only win was over Feli Lopez at French Open), Bernie Tomic (self-explanatory), Sascha Zverev (hit the wall)
Notable others: Sam Querrey (seeded), Fernando Verdasco, John Millman, Pablo Carreno Busta, Janko Tipsarevic, Fabio Fognini, Alex Dolgopolov
Best first round matches: Wawrinka/Verdasco, Ferrer/Dolgopolov, del Potro/Schwartzman
The Wawrinka quarter of the draw is essentially a complete free-for-all. Wawrinka is probably being doubted too heavily, especially with the trendy upset pick of Verdasco knocking him off in round one, but he’s certainly vulnerable and has not been his clutch self at top tournaments this year. Is it a decline, a stretch of bad luck or regression of being able to summon “clutch” play at the right times? Still hard to say.
The other headliner here is unseeded, and that’s because it’s Juan Martin del Potro, the former champ coming off a shocking run to silver in Rio. Like other contenders, Delpo didn’t play Cincinnati, plus this is best of five, so he’s another unknown quantity. If he can get past Steve Johnson in round two, he has two enviable seeded opponents in his projected draw, Ferrer and Thiem. Ferrer, 34, has completely crashed the last few months and Thiem has admitted his unfathomably dense schedule has taken the toll so many predicted it would.
Throw in Nick Kyrgios, Fabio Fognini and Sascha Zverev and this is the most explosive men’s quarter at a major in recent memory (Kyrgios is a trendy pick, but my rule of thumb: avoid trusting players who struggle to overcome their off-days; one or two are guaranteed over a two-week event like this).
ANDY MURRAY  QUARTER
Contenders: Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov
Big name, little chance: Philipp Kohlschreiber (coming off foot fracture), Gilles Simon (whether it’s a decline or merely an off-year, just isn’t a threat these days)
Notable others: Feliciano Lopez (seeded), Ivo Karlovic (seeded), Karen Khachanov, Nicolas Mahut, Donald Young, Viktor Troicki, Jared Donaldson, Borna Coric, Michael Mmoh, Jeremy Chardy, Radek Stepanek, Marcel Granollers, Juan Monaco, Lukas Rosol
Best first round matches: Murray/Rosol, Lopez/Coric, Simon/Stepanek, Chardy/Mmoh
After being all set to pick against Murray in the middle rounds, based on his current fatigue and recent results in Flushing Meadows, it’s just too hard to spot who he loses to. Nishikori has played just as much tennis as Murray and his only Slam semifinal (the final here in 2014) came when he didn’t play in Canada and Cincinnati due to injury. Nishikori has a kind early draw but he’ll have to prove he can be beat the elite again before he can be picked to topple a player like Murray on a hot streak.
It feels to weird to type Grigor Dimitrov as a contender, but — aside from the painful loss to Cilic in the Cincy semifinals — Dimitrob has looked like a renewed man with Dani Vallverdu in his coaching box.
Though the Bulgarian isn’t really elite at anything, his athleticism and competence off both wings coupled with the cracks in the men’s top 15 or so means he could continue his rise back up the rankings. A rematch against Lopez looms before facing Murray (Dimitrov saved match points to beat Lopez in Cincinnati), but if he can scrape past that, he’s historically given Murray some very tough matches.
Round of 16: Djokovic, Isner, Cilic, Tsonga, Nadal, Pouille, Monfils, Raonic, Querrey, del Potro, Kyrgios, Wawrinka, Nishikori, Karlovic, Dimitrov, Murray
Quarterfinals: Cilic over Djokovic, Nadal over Raonic, Wawrinka over del Potro, Murray over Nishikori. While Cilic has never beaten Djokovic, just not feeling Djokovic is fit enough to win this event. Nadal owns Raonic, though the two haven’t played this year. The Wawrinka is more about avoiding the “what have you done for me lately” bandwagon choice of Delpo.
Semifinals: Nadal over Cilic, Murray over Wawrinka
Final: Nadal over Murray. The theory: Murray is on empty, but there’s just no one capable of taking three sets off him in his half of the draw. Although the door is open for a surprise champ, here’s predicting a different surprise: the first Nadal-Murray Slam final.