NEW YORK — Tennis’s biggest, loudest and glitziest spectacle will have plenty new to offer when the gates to Billie Jean King National Tennis Center open Monday for the U.S. Open, the season’s final Grand Slam.
There is a new $200 million stadium, for one. The event will debut a totally redone, 14,000-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium complete with a retractable roof that will serve as a second host alongside Arthur Ashe Stadium for the tournament’s signature night matches.
The tournament, celebrating its 50th anniversary in the Open era, will celebrate the milestone with tributes, including a photo exhibit of its first Open champion, Arthur Ashe, on the grounds. Players will celebrate a richer purse — $53 million, with $3.8 million each for the men’s and women’s singles winners — the most prize money in the history of the sport.
But for tennis fans, perhaps the most exciting aspect of this year’s U.S. Open is a reunion on the men’s side of the draw. For the first time since Wimbledon in 2017, the “Big Four” is back together at a Grand Slam.
“Tennis has been waiting for this for a long time,” No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev said Friday.
The participants have arrived in New York at varying levels of health: Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are just about in peak form, Novak Djokovic is sprinting back to the summit, and Andy Murray is just hoping his body can hold up at his first best-of-five-set tournament in more than a year.
Murray is unseeded in the main draw of a Grand Slam for the first time in 12 years after sitting out 11 months following hip surgery, and he is the only one of the foursome who isn’t considered a favorite to win the title.
Still, having the quartet back on the sport’s biggest stage should make for a fascinating two weeks in Flushing Meadows.
“You’re talking about an historic time in our sport for the past 10 years,” said John McEnroe, who won four U.S. Open titles before joining the ESPN booth. “Certainly the excitement level should be high knowing how few times in the future you’re going to see a situation where the top three guys are all expected to get . . . deep runs in the tournament. Murray obviously is working his way back.
“This is the situation where the No. 1 ranking is going to be at stake. It’s got a lot of ramifications for where the fallout is in the future for those guys. If Rafa were to win this, he’d be closer to Roger. If Djokovic were to win, he’d be closer to Rafa. If Roger would win it at 37, he would set a new standard, add to his record of slams. This is a pretty exciting tournament for us.”
Murray, the 2012 champion, is ranked No. 378 in the world and faces Australia’s James Duckworth in the first round. The U.S. Open is only his fifth tournament this year, and the 31-year-old is pragmatic about his chances.
“It feels slightly different, this one, because for the last 10 years or so I’ve been coming and trying to prepare to win the event, whereas I don’t feel like that’s realistic for me this year,” Murray said. “It’s a slightly different mentality for me coming in than what I have had the last 10, 11 years of my life.”
On the women’s side, there are a bevy of big-name players that fit the bill as favorites. Third-seeded Sloane Stephens returns to New York as a defending champion for the first time after entering last season’s event unseeded. Top-seeded Simona Halep is coming in on a roll, having won the tuneup tournament in Montreal and making it to the final in Cincinnati, and fourth-seeded Angelique Kerber, the reigning Wimbledon champion, remains a threat.
None of them have as juicy a draw as No. 17-seed Serena Williams, the six-time U.S. Open champion returning to the event for the first time since giving birth this past September.
Williams was seeded higher than her ranking of No. 26 in the world and drew a possible matchup with sister Venus in the third round. Should Serena advance in that match, she could meet Halep in the fourth round.
The list of favorites is shorter on the men’s side.
Most of the focus will be on the power trio of top-seeded Nadal, the defending champion in New York, second-seeded Federer and sixth-seeded Djokovic.
“It’s hard to make that case outside of top three that someone legitimately has a shot to win this whole thing,” said Patrick McEnroe, who will spend time in the ESPN booth with his brother.
They have neatly split the year’s majors so far — Federer won in Australia, Nadal won in France, and Djokovic captured Wimbledon — but Djokovic carries the most momentum into New York.
The Serb is coming off his first title at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, where he did something not even Federer and Nadal have accomplished: He became the first singles player to win all nine Masters events on the ATP tour.
It’s a long way to have come for the 31-year-old in such a short period of time. It was only June when, after struggling to recover from a right elbow injury and getting upset in the quarterfinals of the French Open, an exasperated Djokovic mused that he might skip the grass-court season altogether. Then he won Wimbledon.
“He probably still has more, more left in him,” Federer said. “He’s playing well, but I think he can play even better.”
Federer would know; it was the Swiss whom Djokovic defeated in Cincinnati. There is a possibility they could play in the quarterfinals in New York in what would be their first Grand Slam meeting since the Australian Open in 2016.
Nadal has No. 3 seed Juan Martin del Potro in his half of the draw, so a meeting with Djokovic or Federer would come only in the final — a potential fitting end for a reunion of heavyweights.
“It’s a special time, because we definitely got spoiled. Now we have a chance to get spoiled again,” Patrick McEnroe said. “Let’s hope Murray can get back in the mix.”