For the last six months, the entire world has been on a desperate hunt for 'normal'. The COVID-19 pandemic threw life out of whack in a way that nobody could have possibly imagined, and right now all that anyone wants is for things to go back to what they once were.
The US Open taking place towards the end of August does, on the surface at least, hint at something resembling normalcy. That's how the tennis calendar has always been: North American hardcourt events leading up to a North American hardcourt Slam in a North American summer.
The fact that the New York Slam hasn't been cancelled altogether is, it must be said, a minor miracle in itself.
But that's about it, really; the occurrence of the event is the extent of normalcy that the tennis world has been able to achieve. For the next two weeks in New York, there will be no fans in the stands and no in-person press conferences. Some might even say there will be no outward sign that a supposedly lively thing such as a sports event is taking place.
We did get a glimpse of what a COVID-era tennis tournament looks like this week at the Western & Southern Open. Stony silences greeted glorious winners and players tapped racquets instead of shaking hands at the end of closely-fought battles. But what took the cake was Novak Djokovic doing his infamous boob-throw celebration in the sole direction of his remorselessly fist-pumping three-member team.
There really couldn't have been a better representation of what living in an awkward, cringe-inducing bubble is like.
It is what it is though, and you suspect that neither the players nor the fans will be complaining much once they get used to the new order of things. And that's the US Open promises, pandemic and all: a new order, that hopefully paves the way for a better future.
Sure, the men's draw suffered a big blow when defending champion Rafael Nadal as well as five-time champion Roger Federer pulled out. But Djokovic is present front and center, to keep the Big 3 flag flying high; the Serb's unwavering baseline consistency might well be the biggest link to 'normal' that tennis fans can hope for this year.
On that note, here's a look at how the men's draw is likely to unfold at the 2020 US Open:
1st quarter: Novak Djokovic and the also-rans
Expected quarterfinal: Novak Djokovic (1) vs David Goffin (7)
The top seed headlines the first quarter as per usual, and to be honest that might be all that anyone needs to know here.
Novak Djokovic would've been the favorite to win the tournament even in a normal year. But when you factor in his sizzling 2020 form (21-0 win-loss record at the time of writing), the absence of the defending champion from the draw, and the sheer lack of quality on the men's tour right now, everything apart from the Serb feels irrelevant.
Djokovic starts against the seemingly harmless Damir Dzumhur, after which he is likely to face the slightly less harmless Kyle Edmund or the volatile Alexander Bublik. You might have thought Jan-Lennard Struff in the third round could give the World No. 1 some trouble, but Struff was just turned inside-out by Djokovic in the Cincinnati quarterfinals.
John Isner is Djokovic's potential fourth-round opponent, and he could possibly take the Serb to a tiebreak or two. But the American would first have to get past Pablo Carreno Busta, which is a task that is often harder than it sounds.
At the other end of the quarter is David Goffin, who is seeded a surprisingly high seventh. The Belgian is known for his inconsistency, as is his potential fourth round opponent Denis Shapovalov, so either of them challenging Djokovic over five sets is highly unlikely.
The two could anyway be sent packing well before the quarterfinal, or even before meeting each other. Goffin faces Reilly Opelka first up and possibly the Thiem-crusher Filip Krajinovic in the third round, while Shapovalov could have his hands full with either Taylor Fritz or Gilles Simon.
Predicted quarterfinal result: Novak Djokovic def. Filip Krajinovic
Dark horse: Reilly Opelka
1st round match to watch: Denis Shapovalov vs Sebastian Korda
2nd quarter: Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev on a collision course
Expected quarterfinal: Stefanos Tsitsipas (4) vs Alexander Zverev (5)
Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev are two of the most successful members of the so far ill-fated 'Next Gen', and have developed something of an entertaining rivalry over the last couple of years. But entertaining only to the extent that you enjoy Zverev crumbling to pieces at the slightest hint that Tsitsipas is not actually going to roll over and die.
The German has been made to look like a petulant child every time he has run into Tsitsipas since the 2018 Rogers Cup, and it would take a brave person to bet on him if the two do meet in New York. But Zverev might not even get that far; he faces Kevin Anderson first up and possibly Diego Schwartzman or Hubert Hurkacz in the fourth round.
Tsitsipas on the other hand has a seemingly straightforward path. He will likely face the coronavirus-recovering Borna Coric in the third round and either Cristian Garin or Dusan Lajovic after that. And both of those matches seem eminently winnable given how good the Greek has looked this week at the Cincinnati Masters.
Predicted quarterfinal result: Stefanos Tsitsipas def. Diego Schwartzman
Dark horse: Hubert Hurkacz
1st round match to watch: Alexander Zverev vs Kevin Anderson
3rd quarter: Can Daniil Medvedev rediscover his 2019 form in time?
Expected quarterfinal: Daniil Medvedev (3) vs Matteo Berrettini (6)
Daniil Medvedev almost turned the men's tour into his own personal torture chamber during the second half of 2019. Driving all of his opponents into fits of insanity with his robotic consistency, the Russian was the man to beat at this time last year.
Medvedev won two Masters titles and reached six consecutive finals (including the US Open) in the period from July to September. For all practical purposes, he seemed to have cemented his place as the only worthy challenger to the Big 3.
Things haven't quite gone to plan in 2020 though. Medvedev suffered a dispiriting loss to Stan Wawrinka at the Australian Open, and this week he threw away his Cincinnati quarterfinal against Roberto Bautista Agut despite leading by a set and a break at one point.
The Russian's US Open draw should, however, give him reason to cheer. His first seeded opponent is slated to be Guido Pella who is currently under a coronavirus cloud, and after that he could face Grigor Dimitrov - who has been under a coronavirus cloud for two months.
Headlining the top half of this quarter, meanwhile, is surprise 2019 semifinalist Matteo Berrettini. The Italian has given a decent account of himself since his breakthrough run last year, but he will have his task cut out if he hopes to go past both Casper Ruud in the third round and Andrey Rublev in the fourth
Predicted quarterfinal result: Daniil Medvedev def. Andrey Rublev
Dark horse: Casper Ruud
1st round match to watch: Nikoloz Basilashvili vs John Millman
4th quarter: Dominic Thiem's road to redemption
Expected quarterfinal: Dominic Thiem (2) vs Roberto Bautista Agut (8)
To say that Dominic Thiem has had a rough few months would be an understatement. Despite playing - and winning - a lot of exhibitions during the lockdown period, the Austrian seemed to be losing fans with every public appearance he made.
First he alienated the lower-ranked players by refusing to contribute to a relief fund set up to help them tide over the pandemic-enforced suspension of the tour. Then he traveled all over Europe despite having been present at the coronavirus-infested Adria Tour, making a lot of people conclude that he had no common sense whatsoever.
Thiem would have hoped for things to get better when he got back to playing competitive tennis, but he was in for a rude shock at the Cincinnati Masters. The Austrian's first match after the resumption of the tour was a strangely lifeless affair, as he got hammered into oblivion by Filip Krajinovic.
What was looking like the flying last lap before the coronation at the start of 2020, has somehow turned into a leaden-footed trudge through a muddy swamp to nowhere. Thiem will be trolled mercilessly if he loses early at the US Open after all the unwanted headlines he's made recently, and unfortunately for him the draw he's been given isn't exactly easy.
The World No. 3 could face Marin Cilic in the third round, and one of Andy Murray, Felix Auger-Aliassime or Dan Evans in the fourth. A possible quarterfinal against one of the two Cincinnati semifinalists (as of this writing) Roberto Bautista Agut and Milos Raonic would be an extremely tough assignment too.
If Thiem was hoping for a road to redemption that was free of landmines, he hasn't gotten one.
Predicted quarterfinal result: Roberto Bautista Agut def. Dominic Thiem
Dark horse: Andy Murray
1st round match to watch: Karen Khachanov vs Jannik Sinner
Semifinal predictions: Novak Djokovic def. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev def. Roberto Bautista Agut
Final prediction: Novak Djokovic def. Daniil Medvedev
Follow Sportskeeda to get the complete 2020 US Open Schedule, latest news and morePublished 28 Aug 2020, 04:23 IST