NEW YORK -- This has been the Year of the Surprise in tennis, and with the US Open fast approaching, signs are that the final Grand Slam of the year might produce results as stunning as the ones delivered at the first major of the year, the Australian Open.
"The seedings won't matter much," Grigor Dimitrov told ESPN analysts Brad Gilbert and Chris Fowler on Sunday after he won the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, a top-tier ATP Masters 1000/WTA Premier 5 tournament. "Everybody can beat everybody. It's been like that in the past maybe two years."
Proof? Nineteen-year old Andrey Rublev won the tournament at Umag shortly after Wimbledon. Alexander Zverev (up to No. 6 in the ATP rankings) is just 20 but has won two tournaments, including the Canada Masters 1000, since the tour returned to North America. The Cincinnati final between Dimitrov and resurgent Nick Kyrgios was the first time since Toronto of 2002 that a Masters 1000 final was contested by two men who had never been to one before.
"Where I was three weeks ago, it wasn't good at all," the injury-plagued Kyrgios said after winning his semifinal over David Ferrer. "Now I'm in a Masters final. That's a very Nick Kyrgios thing to do. I don't know. It's crazy."
That word, "crazy," is an appropriate adjective. It applies to this year in tennis as well as to Kyrgios and his adventures. Why should sanity make a comeback at the US Open, especially with the state the usual suspects are in?
To fully appreciate the upheaval, rewind to that first major of the year. Top-ranked Andy Murray and deposed No. 1 Novak Djokovic were tipped to slug it out to establish the pecking order in the decimated Big Four, with "fifth Beatle" Stan Wawrinka standing by with hopes of his own. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal? They were thought by many to be aging out of contention after both of them were sidelined for most of the second half of 2016 due to injury.
Angelique Kerber was No. 1 and coming off a career year during which she had played three Grand Slam finals, winning two. She looked poised to dominate in January, while Serena Williams seemed bent on revenge. Garbine Muguruza? She appeared to be floundering, retreating from the pressure she brought upon herself by winning the French Open in 2016.
But by the end of the fortnight in Melbourne and in the months that followed, expectations were turned upside down. Williams left the building to prepare to give birth, and Kerber swooned. Among the men, Federer and Nadal rampaged. But events at Wimbledon and in recent weeks suggests that even greater volatility may lie ahead, particularly on the ATP side.
When Nadal reclaimed the No. 1 ranking on Monday (he last held it three years and 45 days earlier), it was with the lowest number of total rankings points since the ATP computer-based system was introduced in 2009.
But don't blame the 10-time French Open champion, who was unable to earn points that would still be in his total through the second half of last year. The real culprits are the slumping Murray and now-absent Djokovic, who have been hemorrhaging rankings points all year. Federer is in the same boat as Nadal: no points to defend.
Injuries further shook up the pecking order. Djokovic pulled the plug on his year after Wimbledon, the victim of elbow trouble. Murray's ragged play was compounded by a recent hip injury. Wawrinka is out for the year with a bum knee, and Federer tweaked his back at the Montreal Masters -- so much so that he lost for just the third time this year and then promptly withdrew from the Cincinnati event.
A note of caution to anyone assuming Federer won't be fit for the US Open: Following the spectacular success he's enjoyed since taking a big chance by skipping most of the second half of 2016, Federer is even more determined to play only where he wants, when he wants. It isn't like his résumé was crying out for him to win an eighth title in Cincy.
Seventh-ranked Marin Cilic, the Wimbledon finalist a month ago, withdrew from both North American Masters events due to a sore adductor, while No. 10 Kei Nishikori is out for the year with a wrist injury. Milos Raonic was still in the top 10 when he announced that a bad wrist forced him to pull out of Cincinnati. That made seven of the top 10 MIA in at the final Masters of the summer.
The good news for those hoping to break through at the US Open is that in addition to the decimated top 10, some familiar gatekeepers who have kept the younger generation oppressed are reeling. David Ferrer, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych -- all those reliable quarter and semifinalists -- have fallen out of the elite Top 10 category.
It's difficult to imagine a scenario more favorable to talented players who have long been denied the keys to the kingdom. Among them: Dimitrov, former US Open champ Juan Martin del Potro, Gael Monfils, Tsonga and Berdych.
But those men will have to beware of a fleet of 23-and-under (some of them way under) talents, including Zverev along with 22-year-old Kyrgios and the elder statesman of the group, No. 8 Dominic Thiem. Other talented youth who could impact the proceedings include Karen Khachanov, Borna Coric, Denis Shapovalov, Frances Tiafoe, and Daniil Medvedev.
There is no comparable youth movement in the WTA; it's almost an opposite scenario. Karolina Pliskova is 25, but she backed into the WTA No. 1 ranking this summer and has yet to win a major. Kerber, 29, has a good record at the US Open. She may salvage her year yet.
The most intriguing contender is 36-year old Venus Williams. Stepping up to represent the Williams family, Venus has contested two Grand Slam singles finals this year -- almost a decade after she played her last one. Don't put anything past her.
But Muguruza appears poised to assert her authority over her peers. She's 9-2 since winning Wimbledon and this time showing no signs of feeling the pressure. She knocked out Pliskova with little trouble in the Cincinnati semifinals. Reflecting on her past, the champion told reporters there, "The tough matches never go my way, so I want to change that. I want to find the recipe this year."
Muguruza not only found the ingredients and instructions, she's already baked the cake. Things aren't so clear-cut on the ATP side, where the operative word remains "crazy."