With the first round of the US Open in the books, it's time to highlight which players are on the rise and which ones look most vulnerable heading into the next round. Players who have been eliminated are of little interest to fantasy players as the tournament unfolds, so this column is meant to take a look ahead based on what's happened so far rather than reflect on the past.
Both the men's and women's draws are missing some top players, creating opportunities for others to step up and make some deep runs. Novak Djokovic did little to cast any doubt on his status as the heavy favorite on the men's side in his first ever Grand Slam that doesn't also include either Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer, while some next-gen stars have an opportunity to take the next step in their careers with most of the old guard not here to block them. The women's draw is wide open, as six of the top 10 players aren't here. The seeded players who are participating are doing all they can to make the most of this opportunity, as the top 24 women's seeds all got through the first round.
Hubert Hurkacz - Hurkacz has been victimized by some tough Grand Slam draws in the past, as two of his last four exits at slams have come at the hands of Djokovic. Things are looking up for the 23-year-old Pole this time around, though, as the 24th-seeded Hurkacz won't need to face another seed until the Round of 16 at the earliest thanks to Diego Schwartzman's first-round exit. Furthermore, Hurkacz cruised through his first-round match 6-3, 6-4, 6-4 over Peter Gojowczyk while the other three players in his section all needed five sets to get through the opening round. One of the ATP's least talked about up-and-coming young players is set up beautifully for his first run to the fourth round at a major, and he should take care of business against 99th-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in the second round.
Alexander Zverev - Zverev got through arguably the trickiest first-round matchup facing any top player, pulling out a 7-6(2), 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 win over 2017 US Open finalist Kevin Anderson, who finally looked to be in good form after battling the injury bug for most of the past year. The serving problems that had plagued the fifth-seeded German recently were nowhere to be found, as he made 67 percent of first serves and finished with 18 aces versus only six double faults. Hurkacz is the highest-ranked player standing between Zverev and his first career US Open quarterfinals appearance, but Zverev needs to take things one match at a time, and up next is 223rd-ranked San Diego native Brandon Nakashima.
Andrey Rublev - Rublev is a legitimate contender to make a run to the final here, as the talented Russian avoided Djokovic's half of the draw. The No. 10 seed's draw opened up even further when Benoit Paire pulled out of the tournament, so Rublev won't have to face another seed until the Round of 16 at the earliest. He took care of business 6-4, 6-4, 6-3 against Jeremy Chardy in the first round, and Rublev should stay on cruise control against 93rd-ranked Gregoire Barrere in Round 2.
Felix Auger-Aliassime - Auger-Aliassime failed to create any separation from 83rd-ranked Thiago Monteiro in the first round, ultimately escaping in four sets with a 6-3, 6-7(7), 7-6(6), 7-6(6) victory. Coming off that subpar performance, he'll face the second-most accomplished player in the draw in Andy Murray. Murray showcased his trademark perseverance in the opening round, pulling about a dozen rabbits out of his hat to escape with a 4-6, 4-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(4), 6-4 win over Yoshihito Nishioka. While Murray's far from his old self after major hip surgery, few players are better at finding ways to win, as FAA might learn firsthand if he doesn't pick up his level.
Mikhail Kukushkin - Kukushkin has a nice opportunity to make his best US Open run at age 32. The 90th-ranked Kazakh has made the third round here five times, and the man standing between him and another such appearance is 13th-seeded Cristian Garin. While Garin seems like the favorite on paper, his superior ranking is derived mostly from clay-court success, and the Chilean has never been past the second round at a Grand Slam. Kukushkin's also the fresher player, as he beat Attila Balazs 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 in the first round, while Garin had to dig out of a two-set hole against 244th-ranked Ulises Blanch. The winner of the Kukushkin-Garin match will face an unseeded opponent in Round 3, in the form of either Egor Gerasimov or Jordan Thompson.
Sofia Kenin - There were questions about Kenin's form after she dropped her first match at the Western & Southern Open, but she looked much better Tuesday in a clinical 6-2, 6-2 win over Yanina Wickmayer. The Australian open champ and No. 2 seed should be considered one of the favorites for this title, and Kenin looked as dialed in as any other top player in the first round. Look for more of the same from the American against 104th-ranked Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez in the second round.
Sloane Stephens - Stephens has had a rough year, but perhaps returning to the site of her 2017 US Open title will elicit some better tennis from the 26th-seeded American. That certainly seemed to be the case in the first round, where Stephens improved to 2-7 in 2020 with a 6-3, 6-3 win over Mihaela Buzarnescu. Stephens will be favored over 130th-ranked Olga Govortsova in the second round ahead of a potential third-round clash with Serena Williams. Williams hasn't looked particularly sharp, and Stephens has a Grand Slam win over Williams under her belt (2013 Australian Open).
Naomi Osaka - Osaka was viewed as the favorite here just a few days ago, but she pulled out of the final at the Western & Southern Open this past weekend due to concerns about her hamstring, then let 81st-ranked countrywoman Misaki Doi push her to three sets (6-2, 5-7, 6-2) in the first round. In addition to the injury concerns, the fourth-seeded Osaka is dealing with a tricky draw. Her second-round opponent, Camila Giorgi, is one of the streakiest players on tour and can be very tough when she's on her game, as evidenced by Giorgi's nine career wins over players ranked in the top 10 at the time. Should Osaka get through Giorgi, her third-round opponent would likely be 2018 US Open semifinalist Anastasija Sevastova. Sevastova has played some of her best tennis at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and the 31st seed is battle-tested after knocking out Coco Gauff in the first round.
Aryna Sabalenka - This is more about Sabalenka's draw than anything in her control, though her 7-6(1), 6-4 win over 115th-ranked Oceane Dodin was a little closer than the No. 5 seed would have liked. Her second-round opponent will be fellow Belarussian Victoria Azarenka, who's a two-time hard court Grand Slam champion and displayed her best form in years last week, dropping only one set en route to the Western & Southern Open title. If Sabalenka gets through that one, she would likely draw up-and-coming 19-year-old Iga Swiatek, who has reached the fourth round in two of the past four Grand Slams.
CiCi Bellis - Bellis made the second round here as a 15-year-old in 2014 and the third round at age 17 in 2016, and now the American is hungry for an even deeper run at age 21. She played well at the Western & Southern Open last week, falling 7-5 in the third set to No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka after winning two matches in qualifying and two more in the main draw. Bellis also showed great mental toughness in the opening round, rebounding from a heartbreaking first set loss to beat Tamara Korpatsch 6-7(13), 6-3, 6-2. She'll now set her sights on upsetting No. 28 seed Jennifer Brady, whom Bellis beat in their only previous meeting at the Sydney International qualifiers in 2018. Should Bellis win that match, she'd likely draw No. 1 seed Karolina Pliskova in the third round, giving her the opportunity to pull a truly memorable upset.