For ESPN’s US Open experts, the competition isn’t only on the court

Novak Djokovic (L) and Darren Cahill on set during the 2012 US Open. (Scott Clarke / ESPN Images)

Novak Djokovic (L) and Darren Cahill on set during the 2012 US Open.
(Scott Clarke/ESPN Images)

At the US Open, most fans will have their eyes on the likes of Serena Williams, Simona Halep, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and all the other top players in New York – beginning today – for the final Major on the tennis calendar.

But for the ESPN tennis team – television and online – the real competition takes place in a fierce year-long battle for bragging rights based on correct Grand Slam predictions.

Before each of the sport’s biggest four events – Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open – the ESPN experts make a selection for the men and women in six categories: Winner, Sleeper (player lower than 16th seed to go furthest in the tournament) and Toughest Road (player in top eight seeds who loses first)

“This all began as a cheesy attempt at page views by bringing the TV ‘talent’ into our preview stories on ESPN.com,” says Greg Garber, tennis writer and frequent contributor on SportsCenter and Sunday NFL Countdown. “The rules have evolved over the years, mostly because of Brad Gilbert and the sheer force of his personality as he kept complaining.”

Gilbert’s rebuttal? “I pushed for rules and clarity. . . it’s not helping me win, but it’s a better game.”

2014 Standings
(through Wimbledon)

1. Kamakshi Tandon – 75
2. Cliff Drysdale – 70
3. Matt Wilansky – 69
4. Mary Joe Fernandez – 67
5. Chrissie Evert – 43
6. Pam Shriver – 38
7. Brad Gilbert – 36
8. Patrick McEnroe – 34
9. Darren Cahill – 32
10. Howard Bryant – 27
11. Greg Garber – 20
12. Steve Weissman – 19
13. Melissa Isaacson – 16
14. Jim Caple – 11

The result is a system that rewards risk (see sidebar for current standings). A successful selection of the champion earns 16 points, but for the other two categories, the lower one’s Sleeper pick the more points are won, and, conversely, the higher one’s Toughest Road pick is seeded, the more you are rewarded.

Now in its seventh year, the contest brings out the natural competitive nature of the former top players, as well as the writers!

“These hopelessly competitive people take it very seriously,” Garber said. “They talk about it on air and snipe back and forth and trashtalk.”

To wit, here’s what the dean of the group, Hall of Famer Cliff Drysdale, has to say about the friendly competition: “It is about keeping the young bucks and fillies in their place. There is no substitute for experience. And I love how Chrissie (Evert) is fit to be tied when she moves down the list! But the best fun of all is when the contest founder, Garber, has to take my smack annually concerning his weak performance.”

Check out the US Open picks, so you can follow along and see how the battle for bragging rights supremacy turns out.

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