NEW YORK -- This US Open began under a gray cloud of suspicion, with fans, as well as pundits, talking about asterisks and the coronavirus-mandated prohibition of fans. In the absence of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic was expected by many to cruise to the title. Serena Williams had looked vulnerable during the tune-up events, as she had before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the game in mid-March.
Guess what? This has been one of the most unpredictable, colorful and, in some ways, inspiring Grand Slam tournaments in recent memory. It showcased, among other things, nine mothers -- three of whom (Williams, Tsvetana Pironkova and Victoria Azarenka) are in the quarterfinals -- and a great sense of solidarity with a nationwide American call for social justice.
Instead of winning the title, Djokovic added to his legacy as an icon of this era, but not in a good way. He was defaulted from the tournament during his fourth-round match after a ball he smacked in anger inadvertently hit a line judge. It was the first time a top seed had been defaulted from a major event in tennis history. There will be a newly minted Grand Slam champion in men's tennis for the first time since Marin Cilic interrupted the dominance of the Big Three in 2014. Canada, not traditionally known for being a tennis hotbed, placed three men in the fourth round.
So, the lack of fans and the absence of a number of the elite men and women have not really hurt this tournament. The competition has been fierce and of high quality -- with more promised in the coming days. Here are our experts' answers to some of the key questions about what still lies in store.
James Blake: Djokovic being defaulted was a no-brainer
Chris McKendry, James Blake and Chris Evert discuss Novak Djokovic being defaulted from the US Open with Blake saying it was a no-brainer decision given the rules.
What do you make of Djokovic's default?
Jerry Bembry: Is it wrong for a player to hit a ball and strike a line judge? Yes. Did Novak hit that ball with malicious intent? No. The rule says the referee may declare a default for a single violation. That means there's some discretion. Discretion should have been used in this situation. The officials went too far in their ruling, and now the biggest name on the men's side is gone.
Peter Bodo: You could see this coming through most of that first set. Djokovic seemed distracted, discontent, perhaps even a touch bored. He seemed to totally forget his mission statement to win Grand Slam singles title No. 18. His vaunted self-discipline and that self-knowledge he's always droning on about entirely deserted him. And when they did, he kind of panicked. Seeing Pablo Carreno Busta win five straight points to dig out of a love-40 hole when serving at 4-5 clearly frustrated Djokovic, who took that angry swipe at a ball at one point, prefiguring the shot that would get him ejected from the US Open.
Cliff Drysdale: Djokovic beat himself.
Jason Goodall: It was absolutely the right decision. Once the ball made contact with the lines person and it became obvious that she was hurt and in considerable distress, it was taken out of their hands.
I was surprising it took the officials over 10 minutes to eventually declare their decision, but I think everybody knew that was going to be the only outcome.
In a tournament that has already had so much drama and excitement, this becomes one of the biggest stories in sport and allows everybody else in the draw a golden opportunity to add their names to the illustrious list of champions here.
D'Arcy Maine: Clearly, what Djokovic did wasn't intentional, and thankfully the line judge wasn't significantly hurt, but the officials followed the rule and made the right call. As devastating as it was for the world No. 1, he should have known better.
That said being said, it's exciting to think we will finally have a new winner on the men's side. I can't wait to see who capitalizes on this opportunity in the absence of the Big Three.
Alexandra Stevenson: I was never defaulted from an angry shot. Make no mistake. Novak was angry from losing the advantage in the set.
Once, I hit a ball hard at the fence in a USTA ITF tournament. My opponent saw the ball coming and ran into my ball. She started yelling, "She hit me!" However the supervisor was watching my court. She saw what the girl did and stood up for me. The girl was given a warning, and I got a warning for ball abuse.
The rules are clear. Novak hit the ball at the back fence. He knows there are line judges and ball persons. It didn't help that Novak hit an angry ball earlier on the side of the court, and in USTA language, the rule is the rule.
From a sociological viewpoint, I've thought Novak has been acting "presidential" most of the tournament. He is without Federer and Nadal and trying to be political and make a midnight run for a new players' association. Federer and Nadal are not too pleased with the way he's handling going after players while they are not here.
Perhaps he got too big for his britches, and look what happened.
Serena survives tough battle vs. Sakkari to advance to quarters
Serena Williams overcomes Maria Sakkari 6-3, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3 to move on to the quarterfinals of the US Open.
What does Serena need to do to lock up her record-tying 24th Grand Slam title?
Bembry: Find the fountain of youth? With the exception of 31-year-old Azarenka and 32-year-old Pironkova, all of the remaining players on the women's side are in their 20s. The young players no longer appear to be intimidated by Serena since her return. It's going to be a grind, and the question is: Does Serena have the endurance to grind for four more matches?
Bodo: Serena needs to keep doing what has brought her this far: wallop the serve and return, conserve energy and keep tapping into the determination that enabled her to bounce back against in-form former US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the third round. Getting into the second week was a great achievement for a player who has had trouble building momentum in recent events. The sky is the limit now.
Drysdale: Serena needs to start strong and stay focused.
Goodall: Williams needs to keep her service games nice and comfortable. She needs to win a high percentage of first serves, which will allow her to relax and return more aggressively.
She also needs to keep the rallies short and play them on her terms to keep building up her confidence. If she wobbles, she needs to stay positive and remember who she is.
Maine: After she dropped the first set to Stephens in the third round, Serena went to her chair, regrouped and never gave Stephens a chance to win it. When Maria Sakkari fought back to force a decider during their fourth-round clash, she dug deep yet again to pull out the victory.
We all know she has the game, the talent and the drive to win No. 24, and if she can keep the same level of mental clarity and fortitude that she has shown in her past two matches, this truly might be her time to put her name in the history books.
Stevenson: Serena? She has to bring her serve just like she did against Stephens. When Serena's serve is working, her forehand is strong. She doesn't like players coming at her with better shots.
Not having the crowd is huge for Serena. It allows her brain to just work on the court. She plays her shots as if the crowd is her symphony, and sometimes the crowd interferes with her focus, as shown in all of Serena's US Opens.
Can she do it? I believe in her genius. She has a lot on her plate.
Osaka beats Kontaveit in straight sets
Naomi Osaka wins 6-3, 6-4 to take down Anett Kontaveit and advance to the US Open quarterfinals.
Who are the players with the most momentum going into quarterfinals?
Bembry: Alexander Zverev, and it's almost by default. He elevated to become the favorite in the top half of the men's bracket with Djokovic being disqualified from the tournament.
Williams appeared flat in dropping the first set in her third-round match against Stephens but dug deep to crush Stephen's spirit in winning the next two sets.
Bodo: With Djokovic out and Nadal absent, the biggest challenge for three-time Grand Slam finalist Dominic Thiem will be the pressure he might begin to experience as a tournament favorite. This is not just a wide-open men's draw, it's also loaded with quietly dangerous players, including Alex De Minaur and Andrey Rublev.
On the WTA side, I'm torn between Williams and Naomi Osaka but will go with Osaka because she seems to have taken her fitness and defense to another level. She also seems genuinely inspired by her activism, as if she now has a greater, higher reason to play. That can be a powerful emotion.
Drysdale: Daniil Medvedev has the momentum. With Djokovic out, he becomes the favorite and has cruised to easy wins so far.
On the women's side, Osaka is enjoying the limelight and is hitting with power and grace.
Goodall: Jennifer Brady. After winning the Top Seed Open in August, she is super confident.
Maine: JENNIFER BRADY. All caps definitely warranted here. The 25-year-old has dominated her opponents and is running through this draw like she's got somewhere to go. With a win at Lexington to restart the season and having not dropped a set over the past week, she has gone from a nice story to an actual contender.
On the men's side, it feels like suddenly every player has the extra motivation, so it will be interesting to see who uses that to their advantage and doesn't buckle under the pressure. Zverev has held off some tricky opponents and some strange circumstances thus far. He made a statement with a straight-set win over Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the fourth round, so it seems momentum is on his side.
Stevenson: On the women's side, Brady jumps out as the women's player with the most momentum. She beat the three-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber. Although Kerber's ranking has dropped, anytime you play quality, nothing is certain. Brady brought her forehand -- heavy with a spin -- and her serve, and Kerber couldn't answer.
For the men, Denis Shapovalov is a fan's dream player. Only one can come through and prove the momentum worked. Thiem is a work in progress who brings excitement all of the time -- and his blonde highlights are pretty strong. I love Zverev. He can do whatever he wants as long as he brings his serve.
Jennifer Brady reaches first Grand Slam quarterfinal
Jennifer Brady's set streak continues at the US Open as she knocks off Angelique Kerber 6-1, 6-4 to advance to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Which player has surprised you the most in the men's and women's draws?
Bembry: Brady on the women's side. Brady hasn't dropped a set in reaching her first Grand Slam quarterfinal, and the ease in which she defeated Kerber, a three-time Grand Slam winner, on Sunday was surprising.
Frances Tiafoe. While Tiafoe, 22, faced a huge obstacle in Monday's match against Medvedev in the round of 16, give him credit for reaching the fourth round of the US Open for the first time, becoming the youngest American male to reach the round of 16 since 2011.
Bodo: Quite honestly, the player who surprised me the most on the ATP side is Tiafoe. He seemed to be floundering when the game went into hiatus, not able to handle the pressure that came along with his rise to prominence in 2019. But he has played great in this tournament and has been very upbeat and positive.
Among the women, the honor has to go to Pironkova, with an honorable mention to Brady. Pironkova, the 32-year-old mother from Bulgaria, was completely off the radar since her loss at Wimbledon in 2017. She was always a crafty grass-court player, but this is her finest result since she made the Wimbledon semis and quarters in successive years (2010 and 2011, respectively). I was especially impressed by her quality wins over No. 10 seed Garbine Muguruza and Donna Vekic, She didn't moonwalk into the quarterfinals.
Drysdale: Vasek Pospisil and Pironkova were the most surprising.
Goodall: Pironkova. What a story! What a comeback!
Maine: There were questions heading into the US Open about if this year's event needed an asterisk next to the champions' names. Now I think it's clear whoever wins this title needs to be lauded for their ability to get through an incredibly bizarre fortnight. Two players who have done well handling all of the circumstances -- and played some shockingly good tennis -- are Shelby Rogers and De Minaur. Both made in the quarters for the first time at Flushing Meadows, and it's clear they both spent the unexpected break working on their games.
Honorable mention here to the three Canadian men (Felix Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and Pospisil) who made the round of 16 and made sure the federation was properly represented even with the absence of defending US Open champion Bianca Andreescu.
Stevenson: Nothing surprises me in women's tennis. The whole draw is a surprise. Until the women strengthen their forehands and serves there will continue to be surprises. I think Brady's fitness and movement surprised me. I played her a couple of years ago. Her forehand was good but not what it is today with more shape and spin.
Pospisil was a surprise. Maybe all three Canadians. And certainly Jordan Thompson, an Aussie. I love the work Borna Coric did against Stefanos Tsitsipas. He just kept coming. That was a surprise in that match.
Serena is fired up after downing Sakkari for spot in quarterfinals
Serena Williams outlasts Maria Sakkari in a three-set battle, 6-3, 6-7 (6-8), 6-3 to move on to the quarterfinals of the US Open.
Who will be the men's and women's US Open finalists, and who will win?
Bembry: Thiem over Zverev for men's final.
Bodo: I believe Azarenka and Osaka will play the women's final, with Azarenka winning the title. Given the way things have been going lately in the WTA, this scenario might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Azarenka is an experienced former No. 1 and a former Grand Slam champion who has just demolished everyone in her way at this event.
Thiem has looked good but not great at this event, but he's good enough to handle Zverev. An Austrian three-time Grand Slam finalist. He is comfortable playing hard-serving baseliners. He will run Zverev ragged.
Drysdale: Osaka beats Serena, and Medvedev beats Zverev.
Goodall: Osaka will play in the women's final. Medvedev will be one of men's finalists.
Maine: Saving the hardest question for last, I see. As of right now, I think the women's final will feature Williams and Brady (who will narrowly defeat Osaka in the semis), and Serena will cement her spots in the record books.
As for the men, I started to type Djokovic's name out of habit, but it is fun to be able to write some different names here. I'm going with 2019 runner-up Medvedev and Zverev in the title match, and Medvedev winning it all, further enamoring himself to the New York crowd that will hopefully be able to return next year and show him the belated love.
Stevenson: Anything is possible in the men's draw, as Coric showed. Now that Novak is out, they all have the chance.
My men's final prediction is Medvedev vs. Zverev, and Zverev will win his first Grand Slam. The women's final will be Serena vs. Brady. Serena will win big to tie Margaret Court's 24 Grand Slam titles.