In 1999, at just 17 years old, Serena Williams won the first of her legendary 23 Grand Slam titles at the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, Queens, stunning world-number-one Martina Hingis. Tonight at 7 p.m., she plays the first match of what’s likely to be her last professional tennis tournament against Danka Kovinic of Montenegro—who, while ranked only 80th in the world, made it through to the third round of both the Australian Open and the French this year, knocking off the reigning U.S. Open champion Emma Raducanu at the former. Expect the atmosphere to be electric and emotional, no matter who comes out on top—but if Serena wins that match, she’ll likely face the Open’s second seed, Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, in round two. Kontaveit might not be quite as formidable as she comes off on paper, though: She’s struggled to return to the tour after a bout of COVID. Anything’s possible here.

Whether or not Serena makes it through the early rounds, we’ll thankfully be seeing more of her: Over the weekend, the Open granted her and sister Venus a wild-card entry to play doubles—and though they haven’t played doubles at the Open since 2014, and haven’t teamed up in a Grand Slam since 2018, they’ve won 14 Grand Slams (and three Olympic gold medals) together. Doubles play begins on Wednesday, with Serena and Venus’s first match—against the Czech pair of Lucie Hradecka and Linda Noskova—on Wednesday or Thursday (if Serena wins her first match, let’s assume this will be Thursday, hopefully during prime time, making this perhaps the most-watched doubles match in history). 

Beyond that—and that’s a lot—who’s going to win this year’s Open? Honestly, it’s anybody’s guess: The field is as wide-open as it’s been in recent memory, with so many of what should be the key contenders either nursing minor injuries or simply off their form in the lead-up to the tournament. Coco Gauff might be the exception to that trend, finding her form and her focus at the perfect time—though seeded 12th, she’s easily capable of pulling off a win here, provided that the ankle injury she suffered in Cincinnati isn’t still nagging. Top-seeded Iga Swiatek would seem to be the clear favorite, but has had a less than stellar season so far; seventh-seeded Simona Halep has been playing lights-out, but seems to be nursing a thigh injury (and simply doesn’t have a stellar record in New York in general); eleventh-seeded Raducanu, after her Cinderella-story title run here last year, hasn’t been playing nearly as well since the spotlight’s been firmly fixed on her, but she had a stellar hard-court warm-up to the Open, so nothing’s impossible (though she may have to dig deep to get away from her first-round opponent, the tenacious Alize Cornet). Then, there are Ons Jabeur, Maria Sakkari, and Paula Badosa—again, all of them are capable, but none of them have given us reason to favor them heading into the Open’s first week.

Let’s go out on a limb here: This is Serena’s tournament, but we’re tapping Coco Gauff to win it this year—she’s been perfecting her game, her off-court prep, and her nerves for exactly this moment. With the crowd on her side and a favorable route to the later rounds, this is her time.

As for the men, first things first: There’s no Federer (injury), no Alexander Zverev (injury), no Djokovic (confounding and continuing refusal to get vaccinated, thus taking himself out of contention for possibly history-making Grand Slam titles). There’s a host of contenders, if not quite so many as on the women’s side: Defending champion Daniil Medvedev has only one title to his name in 2022, but is still the top seed here and could pull it off; Rafael Nadal, seeking a record 23rd Slam, is still nursing the abdominal injury that made him withdraw from Wimbledon, but—as previously noted in this space—you can simply never, ever bet against Nadal, whose will to win deserves its own Hall of Fame entry. Carlos Alcaraz? Last year’s Open is when the world really started paying attention to him, and he had a fiery start to this year’s season before playing more like a mortal in recent months, but a win here (or frankly, anywhere) is absolutely within his wheelhouse; like Gauff, a next-level victory isn’t really a matter of if, more of when.

There’s a handful of potential spoilers, of course—from Stefanos Tsitsipas (who seems to be getting in his own way lately) to Casper Ruud (at his best, a giant-killer; at his worst, a perplexing also-ran) to Jannik Sinner (also ready for that next-level win) and Pablo Carrena Busta, a two-time semifinalist here. But we’ll be keeping our eye on Nick Kyrgios, who—after seasons and seasons of mind-blowing on-court pyrotechnics mixed with dramatic on-court meltdowns and self-immolations—has strung together a beyond-impressive summer. Can he keep his focus through to the later rounds, maybe even a final? We’ve been burned before, so we can’t entirely go there—but we’ll be watching.

Brass tacks: Whoever wins the Alcaraz-Nadal semifinal, should it come to that—and which could be an era-defining contest—will win this tournament.

So, yes: This year’s Open is marking one final star turn for a player who has defined her sport for a generation. It will also mark a changing of the guard and point the way toward the game’s next superstars. So hop on the 7 train, hit the BQE—or watch on the many ESPN options and the Tennis Channel. This is history.

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