After five long months, men’s tennis finally returns this weekend for the re-located Cincinnati event. The tournament, which will be held in New York, marks the first ATP stop since March when the coronavirus abruptly shut the tour down on March 8 at Indian Wells.
There were many times when it didn’t look like any tennis would or even could happen. With the virus relentlessly circulating through all corners of the globe, the numbers increasing daily, tennis and other forms of entertainment were left to the imagination. But imagine here we are.
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who himself contracted the disease two months ago, enters as the clear favorite after the Masters tournament lost Roger Federer to surgery and Rafael Nadal who opted to train on the clay.
When we last left Djokovic, the Serb was heading to Indian Wells with a gaudy 18-0 mark after ATP Cup, Australian Open and Dubai titles to start the year. Oh what could have been…
Australian Open finalist Dominic Thiem is the second seed with defending champion Daniil Medvedev third and Stefanos Tsitsipas fourth.
Andy Murray also returns but old dogs Stan Wawrinka, JW Tsonga, Gael Monfils joined the list of those opting out. And Kei Nishikori just tested positive for the virus. So with nine of the Top 16 seeds under the age of 25, the event has a futuristic feel.
Despite all the withdrawals, the draw is a sight for sore eyes. And it’s a pretty good one.
NOVAK DJOKOVIC QUARTER
Djokovic should cruise in the semifinals. He could face the Canadian phenom Felix Auger-Aliassime in the third, maybe former champion Marin Cilic or 2019 finalist David Goffin in the quarters. Cilic collides with Denis Shapovalov in one of the better opening matches. Borna Coric and Alex De Minaur could provide some fireworks early on, but Djokovic is in his own class.
The Pick: Novak Djokovic
DANIIL MEDVEDEV QUARTER
Mr. Medvedev opens his biggest title defense in unusual circumstances, in an unusual time. And it’s hard to know how these young kids will handle all that’s going on. Same could apply for the older generation like Roberta Bautista Agut who figures to be a factor in this section. The Spaniard, we know, always puts up a fight and with five qualifiers in the section, it’s either going to be Bautista Agut getting through the Russians Karen Khachanov and then Medvedev, or the Russians. I’ll go with the experience of Bautista Agut who has won almost half of his nine career titles in the few two weeks of the year. So he knows how to start fast after a layoff.
The Pick: Roberto Bautista Agut
STEFANOS TSITSIPAS QUARTER
American towers John Isner and Reilly Opelka plus Kevin Anderson won’t be overshadowed by the top seeds of Tsitsipas and Matteo Berrettini in the third quarter. The section is wide open and could go any direction. Who has been training, who hasn’t? Isner and Anderson are getting up there in the years, but they have had success on these North American hard courts. So too has Tsitsipas who broke through two years ago in Canada, and now finds himself on the edge of becoming a Top 5 regular. Berrettini quietly showed his force last year on these courts powering his way to a stunning run to the semifinals in New York. It’s another choice between youth or experience. I’ll go young guys here as I don’t know how in-shape Isner and Anderson will be. Opelka should be fine, but Tsitsipas has the highest level of the bunch.
The Pick: Stefanos Tsitsipas
DOMINIC THIEM QUARTER
One could make the case that Thiem played more during the suspension than he would have had the tour been active. It seemed every weekend the Austrian was at this exo or that exo, and making the most it. The 26-year-old may have been on his way up before the virus hit. He had just reached the Australian Open final pushing Djokovic to the brink before his momentum was halted. I love his early draw with qualifiers and Grigor Dimitrov in the third round (the Bulgarian landed Thursday, which puts him afoul of the rule requiring players to be in town four days prior to the start of play). Then it could be Milos Raonic, Alexander Zverev or Andrey Rublev, perhaps, from a very tough little section. Raonic opens against Sam Querrey, Rublev got Dan Evans and Zverev awaits the Andy Murray-Frances Tiafoe match! Thiem should be fit (maybe even fatigued, lol) and I think he’ll take down the big serve Raonic to make the semifinals. And let’s see how Murray fares with the metallic hip.
The Pick: Dominic Thiem
Djokovic d Bautista Agut: Djokovic outlasts the tricky Spaniard in 3.
Tsitsipas d Thiem: Tsitsipas shows his stuff.
Djokovic d Tsitsipas: In a minor revenge for Canada two years ago, Djokovic stays perfect in 2020 heading into the big event.
If there was ever a toss-up Masters event, this is it. After five months away — not one month or two, but FIVE — it’s hard to know where anyone’s game as it. We don’t know how Djokovic or Dimitrov have recovered from the virus, or how it’s impacted them and others. The lack of team members able to travel may affect players, and with no fans, from where will those players who rely on emotion find that energy.
It’s all a great big puzzle, but a welcome one. And one we should be really, really, really thankful for. That’s what ultimately matters here. Tennis is back.
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