US Open 2020: The setting is strange, but it’s a familiar story for Novak Djokovic

Cameron Norrie downs No9 seed Schwartzman; Osaka and Kerber into Round 2

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

There is no getting away from it: this year’s US Open has a very different look. No fans, no hubbub, and VIP boxes around the Arthur Ashe stadium occupied by players and their teams—an unusual perk for seeds and former champions.

It is, of course, all down to the coronavirus pandemic, but the USTA has worked a near miracle in hosting the event at all. It is not many weeks ago that there were still doubts about how viable it was for players from around the world to convene in New York. And of course, a good number of big names have opted to stay away.

So here are draws without either of the defending champions Rafael Nadal and Bianca Andreescu, without six of the top-10 women, including top-two, Ash Barty and Simona Halep, and without either former Swiss champions, five-time winner Roger Federer and 2016 winner Stan Wawrinka.

There are precious few officials, media and photographers, with all press conferences held remotely, lines called by Hawkeye, and restricted access to locker rooms. Players are learning to handle their own towels, and to comply with hotel and transportation ‘bubbles’: No heading into Manhattan for dinner or a show this year.

Yet even amid all the precautions, one seed has fallen foul of a COVID-19 test, No17 seed Benoit Paire: He is out and a lucky Marcel Granollers is in, and some players who had interacted with Paire may count themselves lucky to still be in the draws, albeit with even stricter access to facilities.

Yet amid such peculiar conditions, some things remain entirely normal. Among the women’s seeds who took to court on the first day of play on Monday, all but one advanced to the next round. The solitary loser was Rebecca Peterson, ranked 48 but seeded No32 after so many higher-ranked women pulled out. The Swede lost to former top-20 player Kirsten Flipkens.

Among the familiar faces into Round 2 is former champion Naomi Osaka, who pulled out of the Cincinnati final on Saturday with a hamstring injury. And she had to work harder than she may have wished against Misaki Doi to win 6-2, 5-7, 6-2, after two hours. She will next face Camila Giorgi, but any hopes of a third Major third-round meeting in a row with the brilliant teenager Cori Gauff were dashed when the young American lost to No31 seed Anastasija Sevastova.

There was precious little trouble for top seed and former finalist Karolina Pliskova, nor for former Wimbledon champion and No6 seed Petra Kvitova. And making a welcome return to competition for the first time since the Australian Open, No17 seed and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber beat Ajla Tomljanovic, 6-4, 6-4.

But perhaps the hottest favourite in the entire tournament is top men’s seed Novak Djokovic. For a start, he has won five of the last seven Majors, while in his last 12 US Open appearances, he has fallen short of the semis only once, winning three titles from eight finals.

Last year, exceptionally, he lost in the fourth round, and that too could work to his advantage—he can add points to a tally already boosted by winning the title in the ‘Cincinnati Masters’ on Saturday. He cannot be overtaken at the top of the ranks in New York, and will thus move past Pete Sampras in the all-time list of weeks at No1.

He also has in his sights set on overtaking Federer’s tally at the top, and on closing the gap on both Federer and Nadal in the all-time list of Major titles: Djokovic is targeting his 18th in New York, Nadal has 19—though will be favourite to make that 20 at Roland Garros in early October—and Federer has 20. The Swiss, absent for virtually the entire 2020 season following double knee surgery, can only sit back and watch.

It is certainly hard to see who can stop the mighty Serb. With his first-round win over Damir Dzumhur yesterday, he continued his unbeaten run in 2020 to 24-0, for he began the truncated season with titles at the ATP Cup, the Australian Open, and Dubai. Then the Cincinnati title made him not just the only man to win the complete set of nine Masters, but the only one to do so twice.

It is a truly formidable prospect for the rest. However, some of the younger players in the draw also made good starts. No5 seed Alexander Zverev had a very tough opening match in the shape of Kevin Anderson, but battled to a four-set win.

In the same quarter, No4 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas lost only four games in beating Albert Ramos-Vinolas, and is scheduled for an intriguing meeting with No27 seed Borna Coric in the third round. And No7 seed David Goffin overcame a mountain of a task, a man who stands a full foot taller than himself, Reilly Opelka, but another tall American No16 seed John Isner, lost to compatriot Steve Johnson, after 3hrs 50mins and a fifth-set tie-breaker.

Another seed to fall was No9 Diego Schwartzman, who was beaten by the 76-ranked Cameron Norrie, one of two British men to make it through to Round 2 on the first day. Norrie was impressive in coming back from two sets down to seal a 7-5 fifth set after four hours, though there were swathes of errors and breaks on both sides.

Norrie told the BBC:

“The tennis and the level wasn’t that great but I had a good attitude throughout and I was happy with that… I’m lucky to get through that one. It was a tough one.”

Fellow Brit Kyle Edmund, also came back from a lost opening set to beat the tricky Alexander Bublik, 2-6, 7-5, 7-5, 6-0, but his reward is to face Djokovic, who has beaten him in five of their six previous meetings—and Edmund’s only win came on Madrid’s clay.

On hard courts, Djokovic has not dropped a set, though he was complimentary about the Briton’s game:

“He has a really good serve and forehand, two really big weapons. I had some good matches against him in the past, a tough four-setter at Wimbledon… I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a really hard worker, puts a lot of hours on and off the court into perfecting his game. His results were up and down a little bit, but I think he does have the game and potential to be in the top 20… So it’s going to be a tough one.”

For Edmund, though, it is sure to be even tougher.

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