By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The chances of Asia producing a U.S. Open men's champion have plummeted with the withdrawal of former finalist Kei Nishikori, and even with a weak field at Flushing Meadows few of the region's best can even hope to reach the second week.
While the women's side boasts Japanese former champion Naomi Osaka and a slew of Chinese talents that could make the quarter-finals, the men's seeds lack a single Asian name.
Japan's Nishikori was the first man representing an Asian country to break through to a Grand Slam final at the 2014 tournament before Marin Cilic stopped him in the title match.
The 30-year-old said on Wednesday he had tested negative for COVID-19 after testing positive twice this month but had decided to skip the U.S. Open anyway.
Neither Nishikori nor any other Asian male has scaled such heights since, with the continent's emerging threats having suffered injury setbacks or failed to push on.
The ATP's former 'Next Gen' champion Chung Hyeon came closest when he bulldozed through to the Australian Open semi-finals in 2018, only to pull-out mid-match against Roger Federer due to painful foot blisters.
Once hailed as a future Grand Slam champion, the bespectacled South Korean has barely been seen since, with a litany of injuries dropping the 24-year-old well out of the top 100.
With former world number four Nishikori out of the picture, 48th-ranked Yoshihito Nishioka is the only top 50 player from Asia in the men's draw.
First up, Nishioka faces Andy Murray, a tough ask for the Japanese up-and-comer, but he will have some hope of knocking off the three-times Grand Slam champion whose rebuilt hip will be tested in a best-of-five sets format.
There will be no respite if the lefthander gets past Murray, however, with a likely second round match against Canadian 15th seed Felix Auger-Aliassime and Australian Open finalist Dominic Thiem a potential opponent in the fourth round.
Russia-born Kazak Alexander Bublik, ranked 51, will be one to watch in the men's draw, with the 6'-6" 23-year-old bringing an entertaining game laden with Nick Kyrgios-style trickshots.
But Bublik, who reached finals at Newport and Chengdu last year, is unlikely to see beyond the second round with Novak Djokovic on the horizon.
Mikhail Kukushkin, another Russia-born Kazakh, is about 40 places lower in the rankings but might have a better shot at breaking into the second week.
The world number 90 made the fourth round at Wimbledon last year and the last 16 at Melbourne Park in 2012.
Kukushkin trained in empty swimming pools and on wooden courts at an active prison in Volgograd to save money during his junior days so the surreal atmosphere of a locked-down Flushing Meadows without fans may not faze the rugged 32-year-old.
Kukushkin faces a kind draw until a possible fourth round encounter against Greek fourth seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)