US Open preview 2019: No1 Djokovic the man to beat; Big Three lead field again
Federer drawn in Djokovic half; young challengers make top-10 assault
The question has changed seldom over the years. Who has a realistic chance of winning a Major title in the era dominated by Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer?
The three giants of the game own 54 Major singles titles between them—each with more than any other man in any era—and once again, they are the top three seeds.
They have won all the Majors since the start of 2017: Federer three, and Nadal and Djokovic four apiece. They have won 14 Masters titles over the same period, and apart from nine months at the top of the ranks by Andy Murray during 2017, The Three have held the No1 ranking for more than 15 years.
Djokovic and Nadal contested the Australian Open at the start of the year, Djokovic and Federer the Wimbledon final, and all three made the semis at the French Open and Wimbledon.
The problems for each of them are many and varied—there is no greater feather in the cap of any player than to beat one of them—but while some new names have elbowed their way to Masters titles in the last couple of years, none has yet broken through in the ultimate test, the best-of-five Majors. Indeed the greatest tests have remained each other as they notch up the most played and most compelling rivalries in their sport.
So the big question was—into whose half would Federer fall? In the three Majors thus far in 2019, he had fallen to Nadal, and they had split their two semi-finals. In New York, though, he was drawn with Djokovic. The significance being, it is rare even for them to manage to beat both their rivals in a single tournament. Nadal has done it at the French Open—though not since 2008—and Djokovic managed it at the US Open in 2011. Federer had two match points to do it at Wimbledon six weeks ago, but lost out in one of his greatest contests against Djokovic, 13-12 in the fifth set.
Which of them, then, arrives in the best form for the final Major of 2019?
The Three: Djokovic
Defending champion Djokovic is undoubtedly the favourite to win a fourth US title and close the gap on his rivals in Major titles to just one behind Nadal and three behind Federer. And as the youngest of the trio, he continues to threaten the overall record. He has won four of the last five Majors, and has a winning head to head over both rivals: 26-22 against Federer, 28-26 against Nadal.
In the latter case, the Spaniard has not beaten the Serb on anything other than clay since the US Open final in 2013. Against Federer, Djokovic has won nine of their last 11 matches, last losing to the Swiss at the ATP Finals in 2015. However, all Federer’s wins dating back to 2014 have been on hard courts, and their last two meetings could not have been closer, both decided in marathon matches in a final-set tie-break.
However, Djokovic’s fitness, speed, accuracy, flexibility and tactical nous—plus a six-year age advantage—may increasingly give the world No1 the edge.
Indeed, Djokovic may face tougher challengers before the anticipated semi showdown. Daniil Medvedev, arguably the form player of the summer, has beaten the Serb twice this year, plus four other top-10 rivals this season. He arrives in New York on the back of three US Open Series finals, including victory at his first Masters in Cincinnati. At a career-high No5, he could meet Djokovic again in the quarters.
And before that, Djokovic may meet former champ Stan Wawrinka. The 34-year-old Swiss beat Djokovic in their last meeting to claim the 2016 US Open title, and also downed the Serb in the final at Roland Garros the year before. On his day, Wawrinka has the fire-power to beat anyone, and produced some of that old magic at Roland Garros in June, but since then he has not got beyond the second round at any tournament.
The Three: Federer
The 38-year-old Federer has certainly put in a harder season than in recent years, playing a complete clay season, then going 11/12 on grass—including the Halle title—plus victory over Nadal and that five-hour final at Wimbledon. Indeed he has already won more matches than he had played altogether before the US Open last year.
He asserted in New York that the physical and emotional toll of Wimbledon had been banished during his family holiday in Switzerland, and while he seemed still to lack intensity in his early exit at Cincinnati, that may be a blessing in disguise. Last year, Federer suffered physically in the notorious hot and humid conditions at Flushing, and this year his preparation has started much earlier there.
If he wins his opening match against 22-year-old qualifier Sumit Nagal—who has played the Challenger circuit most of this season—Federer will seal his place at the ATP Finals for the 17th time. Then, after a string of players who bring variety and touch over power to the court, Federer’s projected fourth-round seed is the in-form David Goffin, then possibly Borna Coric in the quarters—both of whom have enjoyed high-profile wins over Federer in recent contests. Kei Nishikori and the unseeded Alex de Minaur could also halt a run to the semis.
The Three: Nadal
Nadal has played two more matches this year than either Djokovic or Federer—47 of them—but as usual, he has scheduled himself differently. An injury in Indian Wells forced him to miss Miami, but also allowed him to play his packed clay season where he won Rome and Roland Garros. And with just Wimbledon on his grass calendar, he took, not for the first time, a different route to the US Open via only the Rogers Cup, where he defended his 2018 title.
After all, he has won only four matches in Cincinnati since winning the title there in 2013, and so he headed from Montreal to New York with his body in good shape and plenty in the tank—vital for the Spaniard’s campaign on the gruelling hard courts. Perhaps, too, he had in mind his painful retirement during last year’s semi-final against Juan Martin del Potro, which ended a 2018 season already riddled with injury withdrawals.
Nadal has certainly proved that he can win in New York—has done so three times, twice against Djokovic—and with Federer in the other half, his draw could certainly see him into the final.
He is 17-3 against his first seed Fernando Verdasco, has lost only one match, by retirement, against Marin Cilic since 2009—and the former champion has struggled with form all year. The quarter-finals pose some tests in the shape of Karen Khachanov and Alexander Zverev, though the former, newly in the top-10, lost to Nadal in Indian Wells and at the US Open last year, a 0-6 record, and Nadal has a 5-0 lead over the latter.
Indeed one of Nadal’s toughest tests may be in his opener against the classy John Millman, who downed Federer in New York last year. Come the semis, and No4 Dominic Thiem has more than tested Nadal before, though his only wins have come on clay. But the Austrian very nearly upset Nadal in the quarters last year—probably a contributing factor to the Spaniard’s subsequent knee problem—and has beaten all of The Three this year. He also won Indian Wells and made his second Major final.
But Thiem could be in the toughest quarter of the draw, with the likes of Felix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov, and Gael Monfils looming for the fourth round, and Stefanos Tsitsipas, Nick Kyrgios, Andrey Rublev and Roberto Bautista Agut—who broke the top 10 for the first time this month—lining up for the quarters.
The rest: the young challengers line up
There has been a real sense that a phalanx of strong, young players is at last beginning to snap at the heels of the old guard, men younger than 25-year-old Thiem who is the only other man alongside The Three to have won three titles this year.
Chief young contenders are:
· Medvedev, age 23, has reached the most finals, six, and has the most hard-court match-wins this year. His three back-to-back finals in Washington, Montreal and Cincinnati, ended with his first Masters title and a top-five place. He has also beaten Djokovic (twice), Thiem, Tsitsipas, Nishikori and Khachanov.
· Khachanov is another Masters champion, also 23, who made the quarters at Roland Garros, and had a strong run to the semis in Montreal.
· Tsitsipas, age 21, also broke into the top five this season, reached the semis of the Australian Open via Federer, made his second Masters final in Madrid, and beat each of The Three before his 21st birthday. However, he has a tough draw, with the unpredictable Kyrgios scheduled for the third round, the irrepressible Gilles Simon possible in the second, and the latest Russian star, Andrey Rublev, in his opener.
· Rublev, age 21 and working back from injury, came through qualifying to beat both Wawrinka and Federer in Cincinnati, having reached the final in Hamburg via Thiem. Rublev’s title-winning promise of 2017, when he reached the quarters in New York, seems back in place.
· Zverev, still only 22, a three-time Masters champion and winner of the ATP Finals, may have struggled with form this season, but much of that can be laid at the door of personal and management problems away from court. Now tied up with Federer’s Team 8 group, perhaps the confidence will be restored.
· Augur-Aliassime has been one of the most impressive young players this season: the 19-year-old with the big game and bags of variety made the semis in Miami and at Queen’s to rise 90 places in the ranks this year. That the fates have drawn him against his close friend and rival, 20-year-old Shapovalov in the first round—for the second consecutive year—is unfortunate, but this time it is the younger man who is the seed while the flamboyant Shapovalov, despite a semi run at the Miami Masters, is unseeded.
Plus: de Minaur, age 20; Taylor Fritz, 21; Miomir Kecmanovic, 19; Cristian Garin, 23.
The facts, the figures, the contenders
Hard-court champions since Wimbledon
de Minaur (Atlanta); Runner-up Fritz
Kyrgios (Washington 500); Runner-up Medvedev
Diego Schwartzman (Los Cabos); Runner-up Fritz
Nadal (Montreal Masters); Runner-up Medvedev
Medvedev (Cincinnati Masters); Runner-up Goffin
Benoit Paire vs Hubert Hurkacz (Winston-Salem final)
Former champions in draw
Federer (five), Djokovic (three, defending), Nadal (three), Marin Cilic (one), Stan Wawrinka (one)
Former finalists in draw
Kei Nishikori (one), Kevin Anderson (one)
del Potro [plus former champion Andy Murray]
Round 1 highlights
Tsitsipas vs Rublev
Kyrgios vs Johnson
Berrettini vs Gasquet
Auger-Aliassime vs Shapovalov
Fabio Fognini vs Opelka
Hurkacz vs Jeremy Chardy
Fritz vs Feliciano Lopez
Grigor Dimitrov vs Andreas Seppi
De Minaur vs Pierre-Hugues Herbert
The draw: comprises 128, including eight wild cards, 16 qualifiers; 32 seeds
R1 Roberto Carballes Baena
R2 Querrey or Juan Ignacio Londero
R3 First seed No27 Dusan Lajovic
R4 Seeds are No23 Wawrinka and No16 Kevin Anderson
QF Seeds are No11 Fognini, No17 Nikoloz Basilashvili, No26 Fritz, No5 Medvedev
SF Top seeds are No3 Federer and No7 Nishikori
R1 Sumit Nagal
R2 Damir Dzumhur or Elliot Benchetrit
R3 First seed No25 Lucas Pouille
R4 Seeds are No19 Guido Pella and No15 Goffin
QF Seeds are No12 Coric, No21 Milos Raonic, No31 Garin, No7 Nishikori; also here Dimitrov, Jack Sock, de Minaur
SF Top seeds are No1 Djokovic and No5 Medvedev
R1 Thomas Fabbiano
R2 Alexander Bublik or Santiago Giraldo
R3 First seed No30 Kyle Edmund
R4 Seeds are No13 Monfils and No18 Auger-Aliassime
QF Seeds are No8 Tsitsipas, No28 Kyrgios, No24 Matteo Berrettini, No10 Bautista Agut; also here, Rublev, Simon, Richard Gasquet
SF Top seeds are No2 Nadal and No6 seed Zverev
R2 Thanasi Kokkinakis or Ilya Ivashka
R3 First seed No32 Verdasco
R4 Seeds are No14 John Isner and No22 Cilic
QF Seeds are No6 Zverev, No29 Benoit Paire, No20 Schwartzman, No9 Khachanov; also here Frances Tiafoe, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
SF Top seeds are No4 Thiem and No8 Tsitsipas
NB Due to personal circumstances, Marianne has been unable to travel to the US Open this year. Regrettably, coverage of the tournament will also be limited.