Last year at the US Open, Juan Sebastian Cabal and Robert Farah won their second Grand Slam title of the year, beating Horacio Zeballos and Marcel Granollers in the final. On the women’s side, Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka claimed their first major, topping Victoria Azarenka and Ashleigh Barty for the title.
For both of the defending champions, though, there will be no room for error at this year’s tournament: With the smaller draw sizes due to the efforts to compete during the pandemic, each match will have the feel of a final—for them and the rest of the fields.
In Cabal and Farah’s opening-round match, they face Jurgen Melzer and Edouard Roger-Vasselin, each of whom have won Grand Slam doubles titles in the past. The winner of that could possibly see Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau in the second round, the pair that won the title only three years ago.
Difficult paths to the title abound as only eight teams are seeded in the 32-player draw, leaving former Grand Slam winners on the outside looking in, ready to pounce. And there are also duos who have had some strong showings in the past year that will be trying for a major breakthrough: For example, Sander Gille and Joran Vliegen, who won three titles in 2019, will take on Lukasz Kubot and Marcelo Melo, the second seeds.
Probably the hottest team in the draw, though, is Neal Skupski and Jamie Murray, semifinalists at the US Open last year who are coming off a final-round showing at the Western & Southern Open over the weekend. The Brits are unseeded and face the No. 4 seeds, Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek, in a match that shows just how difficult the road to the title will be.
Kveta Peschke and Demi Schuurs, the women’s champions at that tournament, will be looking to extend their winning ways. It was a strong showing by the pair, who just teamed up this year, and marked a return to form for Schuurs. After a tremendous 2018 that saw her win seven titles with multiple partners, she took a step back last year, going winless in five finals.
Mertens and Sabalenka were playing well last week before withdrawing from the tournament and enter the US Open as the second seeds. They open up against Sabrina Santamaria and Arina Rodianova, and could eventually see Azarenka again, this time in the quarterfinals and playing with Sofia Kenin.
The top seeds at the tournament are Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic, former US Open finalists who won their third Grand Slam title together at the Australian Open to start off the year. In their first match, they’ll be facing Kaitlyn Christian and Giuliana Olmos.
While the two top teams face what might seem like manageable opening-round challenges on paper, other seeds could be in for a tough day right from the first ball. Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Shuai Zhang, the fifth seeds, play Asia Muhammad and Taylor Townsend, this year’s Brisbane winners, in the opening round. Peschke and Schuurs face Sharon Fichman and Darija Jurak—a pair of solid veterans—to open up play.
With the draw fairly wide open, perhaps it’s the youth that will be served?
Coco Gauff and Caty McNally—the Americans who won two titles last year and had a solid run at the US Open—take on their countrywomen, Hailey Baptiste and Whitney Osuigwe, in the first round. It’s a match involving three 18-year-olds (McNally, Baptiste and Osuigwe) and one 16-year-old (Gauff), all vying for a chance to move on at their home Slam.
Gauff lost her singles opener to Anastasija Sevastova in three sets on Monday, but her motivation is still intact.
"Right now my plan is just to play as many tournaments as I can, to get matches under my belt," she told press. "I mean, I'm still in doubles here, so I'll be here hopefully till the end. That's the goal. Then off to Europe we go."
With the US Open the way it is this year, it’s truly anyone’s ballgame.