US Open 2021 preview: No1 Djokovic goes for Grand Slam glory as young stars give chase

Federer, Nadal, Thiem, Wawrinka absent, so Djokovic, Murray, Cilic only former champs in draw

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

The men’s draw for the extraordinary behind-closed-doors US Open last year was missing some key players—not surprising given that they could stay away without losing ranking points in consideration of fears over the impact of the Covid pandemic.

It was exceptional to be without five-time champion Roger Federer—kept away by knee surgery as well as family safety. Four-time champion Rafael Nadal, too, did not want to leave the relative safety of his island home, and other high-profile players also voted with their feet, whether because of Covid, personal affairs, or injury: Fabio Fognini, Gael Monfils, Nick Kyrgios, Stan Wawrinka, Kei Nishikori, and more.

This year, it is back to near-normal: full arenas, fewer travel restrictions, and a vaccination, though that has become one of the hot topics for this and for other tournaments. Many, it seems, are reticent to take the jab.

Yet there are still holes: Federer is undergoing a third knee operation; Nadal has a foot injury; 2016 champion Wawrinka is recovering from surgery; and defending champion Dominic Thiem, who broke through the glass ceiling last year to win his first Major—the first debutant since Marin Cilic in 2014—is the latest to withdraw injured.

Along with Cilic, who has yet to win another Major, and is now seeded at 30, that leaves just two other former champions in the 2021 draw.

Andy Murray, who won in 2012, is ranked 114 following years of rehab after repeated hip surgery, and this year was also hit by a Covid infection and other injuries. And in a particularly unkind twist, he has been drawn in his opener against one of the top players in the draw, No3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas.

The other former champion is world No1 Novak Djokovic, who won the first of his three US Open titles 10 years ago. This year, he comes to the tournament with a huge weight of expectation on his shoulders—and the kind of pressure on which he thrives.

Once he had the other three Majors in the bag, his focus—and all the associated attention—was on the Calendar Grand Slam, something only the iconic Rod Laver has achieved on the men’s side in the Open era, and not achieved on the women’s tour since Steffi Graf in 1988. Even the mighty Serena Williams, who had won the US Open in three straight years, could not win it for the fourth that would have given her the complete set in 2015.

It is a huge task, then, but one that few see Djokovic failing to achieve. He has made no secret of wanting to target the biggest records, and has already overtaken Federer’s tally of weeks at No1, has equalled the Federer/Nadal tally of 20 Majors—and would outstrip them with the US Open title—and has won all the Masters titles twice. Neither rival has managed it once.

Djokovic is, then, in a position to hold all the cards in the ‘greatest ever’ debate, but although many of his old rivals are absent, make no mistake: there are several younger challengers increasingly eager to be the fly in the Serbian ointment.

He opens against teenage qualifier Holger Rune—who may join those young stars in the near future—but it is on the next three men in the rankings that Djokovic will first focus.

No2 Daniil Medvedev won the Toronto Masters, his fourth 1000 level title, has twice been a Major finalist, and has 40 match-wins this season. It is his misfortune to face the dangerous veteran Richard Gasquet in his opener, have Cilic as his first seed, and be drawn in the same half as No3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and No5 seed Andrey Rublev, the friend and compatriot who denied him a run to the Cincinnati final. Yes, Medvedev beat Rublev and Tsitsipas to reach the Australian Open final, but then lost to Djokovic in straight sets.

No3 Tsitsipas is also a Major finalist, at this year’s Roland Garros, won his first Masters from his third Masters final in Monte-Carlo, leads the tour with 48 match-wins, but while he beat Medvedev and Alexander Zverev in Paris, he lost the final to… Djokovic, from a two sets lead.

No4 is Zverev, Cincinnati champion—his fifth 1000 title—and runner-up to Thiem in New York a year ago. The biggest feather in his cap this year, however, was his win over Djokovic on his way to Olympic gold—though he also fell victim to Djokovic in Australia.

He it is who falls into the Serb’s half, though the German faces Sam Querrey in his opener, and has Jannik Sinner and Gael Monfils as Round 4 the seeds. Zverev is then scheduled to face No7 seed Denis Shapovalov in the quarters, but unseeded sleepers may also upset the apple cart—Lorenzo Musetti, Nikoloz Basilashvili, Lloyd Harris among them.

Sinner, who turned 20 just last week, is another young player making his presence felt this season. He was ranked 74 when he played a superb five-setter against Karen Khachanov at last year’s US Open, but finished 2020 with his first title, in Sofia, began 2021 with the Great Ocean Road title in Melbourne, and reached a first Masters final in Miami. By the time he won his next title, the 500 in Washington earlier this month, he had broken into the top 20.

With Nadal, Thiem and Federer missing, Djokovic is joined in the top 12 by seven men around a decade younger than he is. His possible quarter-final opponent, 25-year-old No6 seed Matteo Berrettini, is one of them, and the man he beat in the Wimbledon final. However, the Italian’s segment also contains No10 Hubert Hurkacz, the quietly-spoken 24-year-old Pole who won Miami, Delray Beach, and reached the semis at Wimbledon.

Before he can meet either of them, though, Djokovic faces Rune, then possibly No27 seed David Goffin, who has been a shadow of himself since the start of the season: eight round-one exits. So it could be Nishikori, unseeded after multiple injury problems, who continues his solid return to form to emerge in the third round.

Round 4 may bring Aslan Karatsev, who was a bolt from the blue at the start of the year, reaching the semis the Australian Open via qualifying, then winning Dubai, and making the final in Belgrade. But there has been a dropping off in his form since then, as there has been for 22-year-old Alex de Minaur since Eastbourne in June.

All in all, then, Djokovic has a relatively straight-forward run to the quarters, where Berrettini would bring two straight Major losses to the table. The Serb is also well rested after his astonishing title runs through Belgrade, Roland Garros and Wimbledon. He fell one win short of a medal in Tokyo, but bypassed both Toronto and Cincinnati to recuperate, so will be ready for all-comers.

Djokovic has not lost in the first round of a Major since the 2006 Australian Open, and he looks unlikely to do so now. The big question is, can he stay one step ahead of the hungry chasing pack, first Zverev—or Sinner, or Reilly Opelka, or Shapovalov—then Medvedev, Tsitsipas or Rublev?

The safe money says yes.

Britons in Round 1

No24 seed Dan Evans vs Thiago Monteiro

No26 seed Cameron Norrie vs Carlos Alcaraz

Andy Murray vs No3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas

Draw top half

Djokovic quarter

Round 1 Rune; Round 2 Jan-Lennard Struff/Tallon Griekspoor; Round 3 First seed Goffin; Round 4 De Minaur/Karatsev; Quarter-finals Berrettini/Hurkacz/Lorenzo Sonego/Fognini; Semi-finals Zverev/Shapovalov

Zverev quarter

Round 1 Querrey; Round 2 Lucas Pouille/Albert Ramos-Vinolas; Round 3 First seed Alexander Bublik; Round 4 Sinner/Monfils; Quarter-finals Pablo Carreno Busta/Opelka/ Khachanov/Shapovalov; Semi-finals: Djokovic/Berrettini

Bottom half

Tsitsipas quarter

Round 1 Murray; Round 2 Adrian Mannarino/Pierre-Hugues Herbert; Round 3 First seed Norrie; Round 4 Cristian Garin/Ugo Humbert; Quarter-finals Felix Auger-Aliassime/Roberto Bautista Agut/Filip Krajinovic/Rublev; Semi-finals: Casper Ruud/Medvedev

Medvedev quarter

Round 1 Gasquet; Round 2 Quentin Halys/Dominik Koepfer; Round 3 First seed Cilic; Round 4 Evans/Grigor Dimitrov; Quarter-finals Diego Schwartzman/John Isner/Alejandro Davidovich Fokina/Ruud; Semi-finals: Tsitsipas/Rublev

MORE: US Open 2021 preview: No1 Barty and defending champ Osaka face hard roads to title

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