Who will win the US Open?

If Novak Djokovic captures the US Open, he’ll snap a three-way tie with fellow legends Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 major titles each. Even more historic, the 34-year-old Serb will consummate the first men’s Grand Slam since Rod Laver’s way back in 1969. Among the women, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, the Wimbledon champion, and Naomi Osaka, a four-time major winner and two-time US Open titlist, will likely rate as the betting favourites. And it could presage the start of the rivalry of the decade.

Just like the 31-year-old rod Laver in 1969, Novak Djokovic boasts the technique, tactics, athleticism, and experience to consummate the Grand Slam.   -  AFP

For the first time in tennis history, a superstar can break the most cherished record in his sport and achieve the sport’s Holy Grail at the same time.

If Novak Djokovic captures the US Open, he’ll snap a three-way tie with fellow legends Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at 20 major titles each. Even more historic, the 34-year-old Serb will consummate the first men’s Grand Slam since Rod Laver’s way back in 1969. Don Budge became the only other man to pull off this rare feat in 1938, while three women — Maureen Connolly in 1953, Margaret Court in 1970, and Steffi Graf in 1988 — have withstood the immense pressure to conquer the competition.

On this formidable challenge, Court recalled, “More than anything, winning the Grand Slam is a battle within yourself. It really gets down to how you handle the pressure, more than how you handle anybody else.”

A September 12 US Open final featuring Djokovic would prove the most momentous of his storied career and the most eagerly anticipated match in decades.

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Let’s evaluate Djokovic’s chances along with the top contenders determined to stop the rampaging Serb and make their own mark in tennis history.

Stefanos Tsitsipas — Nicknamed “The Greek Freak” and “The Great Greek,” he broke through with a stunning upset over defending champion Federer at the 2019 Australian Open. Tsitsipas lived up to both monikers at the 2021 French Open with big wins over No. 2 Daniil Medvedev and No. 6 Alexander Zverev before he lost a five-set heartbreaker to Djokovic in the final. He rebounded from a shock first-round Wimbledon loss to Frances Tiafoe by making the semis in Toronto, where his vulnerable one-handed backhand was overpowered by Reilly Opelka. The exciting shotmaker will reach the second week, but on the fast hard courts, he’ll succumb to another fearless Next Gen slugger.

Matteo Berrettini — Although his girlfriend, tour player Ajla Tomljanovic, has criticised him for not taking his tennis seriously enough, Berrettini disproved that at Wimbledon. All business, the 25-year-old Italian pummelled serves and forehands with ruthless efficiency to reach his first major final where Djokovic stopped his run. A thigh injury has sidelined world No. 8 Berrettini since then. An inspirational player, rather than a pure stroker — his backhand is the weak link — Matteo has only a career 7-14 record against top-10 opponents, including an abysmal 1-6 this year. Berrettini will lose early at the Open.

Daniil Medvedev — The wiry, 6’6” Russian lost a gruelling five-setter to Nadal in the 2019 US Open final and was thrashed by Djokovic in the 2021 Australian Open final. Medvedev parlayed his improved serve and smart counter-punching to capture his fourth Masters 1000 title recently in Toronto. “His movement and everything he does becomes so much better on hard courts,” says Andy Roddick, the 2003 US Open champion and the last American man to win a major singles title. Even so, a mediocre net game and a lack of stamina will prevent Medvedev from taking his first Grand Slam crown.

Nicknamed “The Greek Freak” and “The Great Greek,” Stefanos Tsitsipas has the game to make it to the later rounds of the U.S. Open.   -  AFP

 

Reilly Opelka — This 6’11-3/4” tower of power has steadily improved as his mental game matured to complement his rocket serving and punishing groundstrokes. Versatility and mobility make Opelka more dangerous than 6’10” John Isner, another super-serving American giant. Winning 25 of 31 points at net, Opelka displayed both attributes during his three-set upset over No. 3 Tsitsipas at Toronto before he lost to Medvedev in the final. Previously known for getting down on himself when the going got tough, Opelka, now a career-high No. 22, said, “I have learned a lot about myself [at Toronto]. I learned that the difference between some matches is so small, you’ve just really got to be optimistic.” The big guy should notch some big wins at the Open.

Felix Auger-Aliassime — In a short video on the ATP website https://www.atptour.com/en/news/felix-topcourt-august-2021 Felix the player becomes Felix the instructor. He advocates fine-tuning one’s serve to achieve precision and strives to hit 60% to 70% of his shots with his forehand. That winning formula has carried the 21-year-old Canadian to his current No. 17 ranking, but he has yet to enjoy a breakthrough at the majors. His most impressive showing came at Wimbledon in July when he upset No. 6 Zverev 6-4, 7-6 (6), 3-6, 3-6, 6-4 to make the quarterfinals where he lost to Berrettini. FAA is always tough to figure because of his inconsistency and puzzling losses, such as to No. 198 Max Purcell at the Tokyo Olympics. But lithe 6’4” Felix has so much athletic ability and dedication that he’s due for a breakthrough, and he could easily reach the semifinals in New York.

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Andrey Rublev — The ATP Tour’s Most Improved Player in 2020, Rublev rose from No. 23 to a season-ending No. 8 after winning five titles, more than anyone else on the tour. The 23-year-old Russian consolidated his gains this season by making first the Australian Open quarterfinals and Wimbledon fourth round, then by winning Rotterdam, and lastly by reaching the finals at Monte Carlo and Halle. But he scored only two top-10 wins, over a rusty Nadal at Monte Carlo and Tsitsipas at Rotterdam. His all-out power game is suited for the fast hardcourts at Flushing Meadows, so the current world No. 7, barring a tough draw, should make the quarters.

Jannik Sinner — Make no mistake: Sinner is a winner. Dedicated off the court and supremely focused on it, the just-turned-20 Italian this year has captured the Melbourne 1 and Washington tournaments, reached the Miami Masters final, and risen to a career-high No. 15. A former ski champion, Sinner didn’t concentrate on tennis until he was 14. Coached by the estimable Riccardo Piatti, he is learning he must add variety to his formidable straightforward power game. When Sinner does that, he may fulfill this lofty John McEnroe prediction: “His potential is to win numerous Grand Slams. He’s one of the most talented kids I’ve seen in 10 years.” The slender, 6’2” comer will make the second week for sure.

Alexander Zverev — During Wimbledon, the 24-year-old German soberly reflected on his unwanted status as one of the best male players yet to win a major title. “When I win one, people are going to ask, I don’t know, ‘Why don’t you win 10?’ Or something like this,” Zverev said. “There is always going to be something that will be a question.” The good news for the ambitious world No. 5 is that he keeps getting closer as attested by the gold medal he won at the Tokyo Olympics. “Winning that medal is the biggest thing that can happen in any sport, because the Olympics are very special,” he said. “[But] I am extremely hungry. I’m not satisfied yet.”

The 6’6” Zverev lives and dies with the serve — he usually averages over 130 mph on first serves but has won only 46.2% of his second serve points, ranking 109th this season on the ATP Tour. My crystal ball says he’ll reach his second straight US Open final.

Sebastian Korda — “I wasn’t expecting all this success so early,” confided Korda, 21, after advancing to the Wimbledon fourth round. “My parents were always so big into just baby steps, baby steps. [They said] You have a different journey than everybody else.” The 6’5” American boasts textbook strokes and effortless power, but needs to strengthen his serve, which ranks only 49th on the ATP Tour. Seb, whose father Petr won the 1998 Australian Open, clearly has the potential to win a major himself this decade. He lacks the experience, though, to make it happen at this US Open.

Novak Djokovic — In his 2013 book, Serve to Win, Djokovic recalled a life-changing event when he was only six and had never played tennis. “I watched Pete Sampras win Wimbledon, and I knew: One day that would be me.” Twenty-eight years later, Djokovic captured his sixth Wimbledon and 20th Grand Slam title. The same ambition Sampras ignited burns just as fiercely today, and the 34-year-old Serb knows that a US Open title will likely cement his GOAT status.

During Wimbledon, he said, “I consider myself best and I believe that I am the best, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking confidently about winning Slams and making history.”

Statistics back up Djokovic’s confidence. He owns the best Open Era record after winning the first set (95.8%), the best record among active players after losing the first set (43.3%), the second-best record in five-set matches among active players (77.8%), the best tiebreaker record from 2011 to 2020 (65.4%) and, critically, the second-best Open Era record in finals (70.0%).

Just like the 31-year-old Laver in 1969, Djokovic boasts the technique, tactics, athleticism, and experience to consummate the Grand Slam. And on September 12, as the Ashe Stadium crowd roars, he’ll make more history than he could have ever envisioned as a captivated six-year-old in the remote mountain town of Kopaonik in rural Serbia.

Darkhorses — Ugo Humbert, Aslan Karatsev, Taylor Fritz, Denis Shapovalov, and Carlos Alcaraz.

The Missing Legends and The Missing Defending Champion — Sadly, Roger Federer announced on August 15 on Instagram that he will undergo his third knee surgery in the past 18 months and miss the tournament he’s won five times. The Swiss, who turned 40 on August 8, said, “I’ll be on crutches for many weeks and also out of the game for many months.” Roger re-aggravated his right knee at Wimbledon where he reached the quarterfinals.

Just five days later, another ageing giant in the triumvirate that has ruled pro tennis for nearly two decades, also withdrew from the US Open and ended his 2021 season. “The [right] foot is not the proper way today,” said Nadal, 35. “I am confident that I will recover myself 100 percent, and I will be able to fight again for the most important things.” Since losing a four-set semifinal to Djokovic at Roland Garros, Nadal skipped Wimbledon and the Tokyo Olympics, and played only two matches, barely beating No. 192 Jack Sock in Washington before No. 50 Lloyd Harris upset him.

A year ago, Dominic Thiem realised his childhood dream when he seized his first and only Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows. On August 18, the former world No. 3 announced that he will miss the rest of the season due to a wrist injury. “Unfortunately I’ve had to withdraw from the US Open and will miss the rest of the 2021 season,” Thiem wrote on Twitter. The 27-year-old Austrian last competed on June 22 when he suffered a detached posterior sheath of the ulnar side of his right wrist at the Mallorca Championships.

The women: Parity or a rivalry?

Parity is the watchword in women’s tennis for the final major of 2021. Amazingly, 16 women reached the semifinals at the last four Grand Slam events. And the “anyone can beat anyone” trend continued at the Tokyo Olympics where No. 12 Belinda Bencic beat No. 42 Marketa Vondrousova to win the gold medal.

But what about rivalries, what’s it that tennis loses when there’s too much parity? “It’s an exciting time in the women’s game, but we need more rivalries,” former superstar Justine Henin told The Telegraph (UK). “The fans love rivalries. It’s the perfect story when you have three or four women consistently at the top like there has been in the men’s game over the last 10-15 years.”

At this US Open, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, the Wimbledon champion, and Naomi Osaka, a four-time major winner and two-time US Open titlist, will likely rate as the betting favourites. And it could presage the start of the rivalry of the decade.

Will the athletic Australian or the powerful Japanese prevail this year? Or will the US Open showcase yet another surprise champion like Barbora Krejcikova, the 125-1 longshot French Open winner?

Let’s check out the top contenders and size up their chances to grab the last major of 2021.

Aryna Sabalenka — The 23-year-old Belarussian harnessed her power game and her volatile emotions this year enough to achieve a career-high No. 3 ranking. Two key stats also explain her improvement. Sabalenka broke her opponents’ serve an impressive 40% of the time, and she played the big points better than ever, converting 49.9% of her break-point chances. Leaner, fitter, and faster, she’s also playing the best defence in her six-year pro career. It paid off as she captured the Madrid Open on clay, upsetting Barty in the final, and reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon. With her newfound confidence and perhaps also greater calmness, she’ll make her first US Open semifinal.

While Ashley Barty’s major titles have come on clay and grass, she’s already won two hard-court events this year, including the Miami Open.   -  AFP

 

Barbora Krejcikova — Acclaimed as a doubles star, ranking No. 1 with longtime partner Siniakova, Krejcikova, for years, had little to show for singles. Indeed, the 25-year-old Czech finished 2019 ranked a lowly No. 135 and 2020 an improved but still-nondescript No. 65. Then, out of the blue, she won the 250 event at Strasbourg and shocked the sports world by upsetting five seeds, including coming from match point down to beat Maria Sakkari in the semifinals, to capture the French Open. “Krejcikova could be the strongest, most mentally tough player I have ever witnessed,” praised former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. Since her tour de force in Paris, Krejcikova has won 13 of 16 matches. Her athletic, high-percentage game should take her to the quarterfinals in New York.

Belinda Bencic — The Swiss Miss has experienced as many ups and downs as an elevator during her injury-plagued career. But the 24-year-old Bencic, who had never advanced to a major final, reached the top floor at the Tokyo Olympics. After toppling four seeded players (all in three sets), including Krejcikova, she won the singles gold medal. “I really don’t know how it worked out for me,” said a tearful Bencic. “I really had a lot of belief in myself. I gave it my best, I gave it my all, and I’m really proud now.” Regrettably and inexplicably, WTA rankings don’t count results at the Olympics because the No. 12 Bencic should rank considerably higher. In any event, the solid-stroking Swiss, who upset Osaka to reach the Open semis in 2020, should advance to the quarterfinals this year.

Coco Gauff — It’s hard to believe Coco is still only 17. This American prodigy has already captured two singles and three doubles titles (with Caty McNally) and racked up wins over Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty, Aryna Sabalenka (twice), Jennifer Brady, and Maria Sakkari. Gauff nearly upset Osaka again when she led 6-4, 3-1in a second-round clash at Cincinnati before succumbing 4-6, 6-3, 6-4. “Her on-court maturity went up so much in the last year,” noted former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. Coco still has to improve her second serve and forehand consistency, but she’s a can’t-miss bet to win majors — just not quite yet.

Iga Swiatek — After the 19-year-old Swiatek shockingly trounced the 2020 French Open field, Eurosport’s Mats Wilander said, “We know she is a great clay court player with the style of game she has. The next question is how, on the faster courts and the grass courts, does her top spin work? And what can the other women do to her, can they take time away from Swiatek?” The versatile Pole has answered these two questions with respectable results, reaching the round of 16 at the Australian Open and Wimbledon before faltering with a second-round loss to No. 29 Paula Badosa at the Tokyo Olympics. The world No. 7 isn’t ready for a major title on hard courts, but she has enough game to make the quarterfinals.

Camila Giorgi — Despite her thin, 5’6” stature, the Italian “pocket rocket” can belt serves nearly 120 mph and groundstrokes as hard as anyone. Until recently, though, 29-year-old Giorgi was recklessly error-prone. “She’s really learned how to play [tactical] tennis and break down her opponent’s weaknesses,” said Davenport during Giorgi’s upset over No. 4 Karolina Pliskova in the Montreal final. “She’s playing the most sensible tennis of her career.” Improved footwork, more topspin on her groundstrokes, and a newfound patience resulted in 16 wins in her last 20 matches and make Giorgi the form horse going into the Open. Barring a brutal draw, she’ll advance to the quarters.

How the extremely shy and sensitive Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old Japanese, handles probing media questions at Flushing Meadows may turn out to be as important as how she handles aggressive shots from her opponents.   -  AFP

 

Bianca Andreescu — The surprise 2019 US Open champion recently told CNN about her ambition to win more Grand Slam titles than Serena Williams. Two years ago, when the Canadian teenager also captured Miami and Toronto and skyrocketed to No. 4, the quest appeared plausible. After all, Andreescu won her first eight matches against top-10 players, a feat not even Serena had achieved. But a rash of serious injuries — to her shoulder, meniscus, and foot — derailed her career. Although Andreescu has just one victory in the three majors this year, she flashed much of her old form to make the Miami final. Her clever, versatile but rusty game needs more high-pressure matches, though, before she can take another major title.

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Ashleigh Barty — “Some days you feel like you’re eight-foot-tall and can’t miss the box. Other days you feel like you’re three-foot-nothing, just getting over the net is a bit of a battle,” confided Barty, describing her serving struggles after an uneven second-round win over Anna Blinkova at Wimbledon. The humble world No. 1 went on to grab her first Wimbledon and second major title with a 6-3, 6-7, 6-3 victory over Karolina Pliskova in the final. While her major titles have come on clay and grass, she’s already won two hard-court events this year, including the Miami Open. Barty will use her potent serve, the best volley on the tour, and smart tactics to make the US Open final.

Naomi Osaka — It’s tough to figure out the defending champion’s mental state, but her playing level has clearly dropped since winning the Australian Open in February. Osaka withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon, citing mental health issues, and then showed predictable rust, losing early at the Olympics and Cincinnati.

How the extremely shy and sensitive, 23-year-old Japanese handles probing media questions at Flushing Meadows may turn out to be as important as how she handles aggressive shots from her opponents. “I always try to push myself to speak up for what I believe to be right,” she told TIME magazine. “But that often comes at a cost of great anxiety.”

In any event, no contender comes close to her record on hard courts where she’s captured four of the last six majors. Like a young Serena, Osaka deals with the pressure marvellously in Grand Slam finals where she’s never been beaten. During a relatively controversy-free fortnight, Osaka will seize her fifth major title with Serena-like overwhelming power.

Darkhorses — Clara Tauson, Paula Badosa, Marta Kostyuk, Karolina Muchova, and Elena Rybakina.

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