Everything Novak Djokovic does right now is viewed through the prism of history. With victory at Wimbledon, the Serbian pulled himself level with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal on 20 Grand Slam titles and to within one more major of a calendar-year Grand Slam. Glory at the US Open would make Djokovic the greatest of all time, at least numerically.
Indeed, the 34-year-old’s focus is clear. He arrived at Flushing Meadows to prepare for the final Grand Slam of the season almost a full week before play starts. The US Open is a tournament Djokovic has won three times before, most recently in 2018, but what unfolds over the next two weeks could define his entire career.
However, Djokovic’s preparations haven’t been ideal. He missed the chance to win a historic Golden Grand Slam at the Olympics, suffering a shock defeat to Sascha Zverev in the semi-finals despite being a set and a break up. The Serbian didn’t even pick up a bronze medal as he was beaten by Pablo Carreno Busta in the third-place match.
— Western & Southern Open (@CincyTennis) August 22, 2021
That was the last time Djokovic took to a tennis court and so there is doubt over the 34-year-old’s condition. Nonetheless, the world number one has a habit of producing the goods when it matters most, even when he is physically struggling, and nothing has ever mattered more to Djokovic than winning the 2021 US Open to push his Grand Slam tally up to 21.
Federer and Nadal (both injured) won’t be in New York to put up a fight, but Zverev could present the biggest threat to Djokovic. As already referenced, the German dramatically beat Djokovic in Tokyo on his way to winning an Olympic gold medal and backed this up by winning the Cincinnati Masters last week.
Of course, Zverev also made last year’s US Open final and held a two sets to love lead over Dominic Thiem before the Austrian turned things around. The 24-year-old has found a way to channel his natural power and aggression in the right way but has still to prove he can translate his strength in the best-of-three-set format into consistency at the Grand Slams, where he frequently finds himself in five-set slogs.
Daniil Medvedev had been building momentum, as he tends to do over the American hard-court swing, but was stopped in his tracks at the Cincinnati Masters by Andrey Rublev. Even still, the number two seed has the defensive game to go far at the US Open and is one of the few players who can stick with Djokovic from the baseline.
Stefanos Tsitsipas is another looking for his Grand Slam breakthrough while Matteo Berrettini tends to keep his best form for the American hard courts. With the exception of three-times Grand Slam winner Andy Murray, who is starting to find fitness again after a long injury layoff, men’s tennis is currently split into two halves – Djokovic and everyone else who is still working out how to beat him at a Grand Slam.
On the women’s side, Ash Barty enters the 2021 US Open as the Cincinnati Masters champion. The Australian, who didn’t drop a single set in five matches, was mightily impressive in her victory at the Ohio event and must be considered the favourite to win at Flushing Meadows having also won at Wimbledon nearly two months ago.
Enjoy the grind….and the sunshine ☀️🎾💪🏽 pic.twitter.com/xQOsiyvYrA
— Ash Barty (@ashbarty) August 20, 2021
Naomi Osaka mustn’t be discounted in the list of potential challengers, but the two-times US Open champion has endured a difficult summer both on and off the court. The 23-year-old pulled out of Roland Garros amid mental health concerns, didn’t participate at Wimbledon and suffered an early exit at her home Olympics.
There appeared to be some signs of recovery in Osaka’s comeback victory over Coco Gauff at the Cincinnati Masters, but she was then upset by Jim Teichmann in the third round. Nobody knows what to expect from Osaka at the final Grand Slam of the year, but Flushing Meadows could be something of a comfort zone for her. She knows the place well.
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 24, 2021
Serena Williams was due to arrive in New York with history in her sights, but the 39-year-old won’t have the chance to win a historic 24th Grand Slam title after pulling out of the tournament through injury. Even if Williams had played, it’s been four years since the legendary American last pulled herself over the line at a major with many now doubtful that Williams can play seven matches in two weeks. Her recent fitness struggles support this argument.
Simona Halep has teased that she could participate at Flushing Meadows despite missing the last few months of action due to injury, but even if the Romanian does turn up she surely won’t have the match sharpness to go all the way. Aryna Sabalenka, however, could be a real threat, such is the momentum the Belarusian has built over the summer months. A first Grand Slam title is getting closer for her.
The dynamic on both the men’s and women’s sides of the draw is remarkably similar, with a dominant world number one being pursued by a dangerous pack of challengers. The threat to Barty is spread more evenly across a number of different players who have already won multiple Grand Slam titles, but the Australian remains the woman to beat as the 2021 season moves into its final phase.
Fans will be back inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, and all other courts, at Flushing Meadows this year after an eerily silent tournament in 2020. In fact, the 2021 US Open will be the first full-attendance Grand Slam since the 2020 Australian Open. This will add another dimension to the event, with some players emboldened by the atmosphere (see Medvedev) and others burdened by it.
One way or another, history will be made over the next two weeks. Djokovic will either have his coronation moment, or the next generation will make another breakthrough after Thiem’s triumph at last year’s US Open. There is certainly no shortage of storylines to follow as the final Grand Slam of 2021 gets underway.