Is this the weakest grand slam in recent history? Sizing up the US Open field

After a pandemic stopped play in March, the strangest tennis season in memory jumps back into full swing with the US Open, starting tomorrow.

Well, sort of full swing.

The New York major, typically the final of the big four tournaments in the tennis year, is the second of three grand slams in 2020. Nearly as notable as who will be there is who won’t, with scores of talented men and women staying at home.

The 2020 US Open will mark the first grand slam tournament without both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal since the 1999 US Open. Since 2000, Nadal and Federer have combined to win 39 grand slam titles out of a possible 81.

But it’s the women’s side that has seen more quality players drop out, and the field has opened right up more than any time in recent memory.

So how might the US Open shake out and who are the players to watch?

Has the draw opened up for Serena?

The withdrawals came nearly as hard and fast as the confirmations, with the top two players on the WTA Tour (including Australia’s Ash Barty) and defending champion Bianca Andreescu pulling out.

Serena Williams finishes playing a shot in a black and green outfit wearing a headband and purple streaks in her hair

Serena Williams finishes playing a shot in a black and green outfit wearing a headband and purple streaks in her hair

The US Open draw has potentially opened right up for Serena Williams.(AP: Timothy D Easley)

So far, 29 female players have pulled out — including replacements for other withdrawn players. Fourteen women’s seeds will be missing — the largest number in the last 30 years.

Arguably the biggest beneficiary of the mass absences on the women’s side of the draw is Serena Williams, who is still searching for her record-equalling 24th singles grand slam title. Coming into New York with the number nine ranking, the withdrawals of players above has rocketed her into the third seed slot and a far more favourable draw.

Naomi Osaka is similarly fortunate, jumping from 10th up to be the fourth seed. However, her participation is in doubt with a hamstring injury at the Western and Southern Open last week.

If both play, they will escape seeing a top-eight player until the quarter-finals — if they make it that far. Williams’ form has been patchy since tennis has resumed, with losses to Shelby Rogers and Maria Sakkari in the past month. But she has always risen for the big tournaments, and is still able to blow away any opponent on her day.

While her power has dropped slightly over the past few years, Williams’ serve still dominates play.

With the top two players in the world and the reigning champion opting out of the tournament, the potential for a surprise winner is greater than ever. Sofia Kenin, winner at this year’s Australian Open, was arguably the form player of this year’s World Team Tennis competition during the shutdown, and might be the favourite, despite her early loss to Alize Cornet last week.

Elsewhere, number two seed Karolina Pliskova’s only previous grand slam final was in New York, while Petra Kvitova, Garbine Muguruza and Angelique Kerber have all clocked up wins at grand slam level.

Coco Gauff leans back and hits a shot

Coco Gauff leans back and hits a shot

Super starlet Coco Gauff remains one of the most exciting talents on the women’s circuit.(AAP: Michael Dodge)

But perhaps the biggest draw will be youngster Coco Gauff, who has played some of the most electrifying tennis of the past two years despite only being 16 years old.

Ajla Tomljanovic shapes as the most likely of the Australian hopes, albeit with a tough draw against Kerber in the first round.

Can anyone stop Djokovic?

Despite conducting perhaps the most disastrous tennis event in recent memory — the Adria Tour — and contracting COVID-19 during tennis’s longest break, Novak Djokovic lines up as the heavy favourite to take out his 18th grand slam title.

So far, 14 players have withdrawn from the tournament — the most since the 2018 French Open. It’s rare to see so many players opt out, but especially so many stars.

A male tennis player puts a finger to his mouth as he looks to the sky at the Australian Open.

A male tennis player puts a finger to his mouth as he looks to the sky at the Australian Open.

Novak Djokovic has shaken off any doubts to the negative effects of his COVID-19 recovery.(AP: Dita Alangkara)

A key reason why more top players are choosing to sit out has to do with the financial structures of professional tennis. With prizemoney in tennis steeply slanted to reward the top players — the stars and players with longer pro tenures — have more flexibility to take a financial hit.

Having just won the first big tournament since the resumption (the Western and Southern Open), Djokovic has shaken off any doubts to the negative effects of COVID-19 recovery so far.

Unlike many other top players, who often take cheap and quick points on serve to maintain an advantage, Djokovic excels in winning longer points.

According to Jeff Sackman’s Match Charting Project, Djokovic has sported one of the most potent forehands in the game — either ending points or setting up the kill.

While his biggest weapon is historically his forehand, in the last 12 months he has been improving the backhand stroke to match.

The biggest threat to Djokovic’s run to the final might come in the form of young Austrian, and fellow Adria Tour vet, Domenic Thiem. Djokovic met Thiem in this year’s Australian Open final and eked out an extremely tight five-set win. But in their recent meetings, Thiem is one of the few players with the upper hand on Djokovic.

Thiem is willing to deploy the backhand slice to take the pace out of points and improve his positioning.

With two of the big three absent, there is a host of youngsters such as Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger Aliassime and Australia’s Alex De Minaur lining up to make their mark. For veterans like David Goffin and Grigor Dimitrov, the US Open represents perhaps their best chance to finally take home a grand slam gong.

But whoever wins, on either side, still needs to beat seven players on the way.

That part hasn’t gotten easier, and the winner will still be worthy.