Brad Gilbert, the former World No. 4, isn’t positive which players will shine as the ATP Tour returns in New York for the Western & Southern Open and the US Open. But if he has any advice for fans, it’s this: Expect the unexpected.
“It’s a little bit like the NCAA Tournament in basketball. You might get somebody who is a really low seed to make the semi-finals or a deep run,” Gilbert told ATPTour.com. “I just have a feeling that without a crowd, without a couple guys who are always there not being there, the opportunity is there.”
The former coach of Andre Agassi, Andy Murray and Andy Roddick among others, Gilbert says you can wrack your brain about who will get off to a quick start to the Tour’s resumption. Seven of the Top 10 players in the FedEx ATP Rankings are poised to come out of the gates firing and reestablish themselves. But given nobody has competed in more than five months, it is tough to predict. The stakes will be high, since the first tournament back is an ATP Masters 1000 event.
“Who’s going to take advantage of a situation where maybe we get an opening in the draw to a semi-final where nobody’s made a semi or you have nobody who’s ever made a final?” Gilbert wondered. “If a couple upsets happen maybe there’s a section where nobody’s won before. There is going to be opportunity.”
World No. 1 Novak Djokovic will have a chance to tie Rafael Nadal’s record of 35 Masters 1000 titles at the Western & Southern Open, which is being held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center due to COVID-19.
“There are a lot of unknowns, but if he is 100 per cent healthy, on this surface, he’s a huge favourite,” Gilbert said.
Who else could be in the mix to start the return to tennis off on the right foot? Will players with a certain playing style be able to adapt quicker after more than five months off?
“It’s a tough call, it’s just really hard to know. Maybe [it will benefit] someone like a big server. All of a sudden if someone like John Isner, if his serve is fine, the guy can hold serve and you never know,” Gilbert said. “It’s hard to put your brain around it. Especially if someone plays a tough five-setter, how will they recover and manage it? That part I’m most curious about. I’m not sure who it helps the most or hurts the most. But I do think there’s going to be somebody who I say, ‘Whoa! I didn’t see that coming.’”
Gilbert likens this situation to when a player returns with a protected ranking following an injury. Except in this case, everyone has been off. There will also be added elements like not having a crowd, which could potentially reduce nerves for players competing on big courts like Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest tennis-only stadium in the world, during the US Open.
“I do think we’re going to see some crazy results,” Gilbert said. “But let’s say even if the Big Three was playing after all this time, I just don’t think that after something like this you’d expect it to be business as normal… I do think somebody’s going to make a semi or final who is going to be a real surprise. I do think the biggest surprise is going to be somebody who maybe you don’t think about and doesn’t play that well on a big stadium or a big crowd.”
Since this is an unprecedented moment, it’s impossible to isolate exactly what will be most important for the players to succeed. But according to Gilbert, one of the most critical things will be to simply get off on the right foot.
“Sometimes after a long period of time, you come back and you seem like you have no confidence when you haven’t been playing. I do think a lot of people will be in the same boat, so I do think winning that first match, just boom, getting that out of the way [will be key],” Gilbert said. “It’s the same for everybody because everybody’s been missing this time, but the main thing is what you did during this time. Did you make an improvement in your game?