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2021 US Open: Preview

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Roar Guru
25th August, 2021
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The year’s final Grand Slam tournament is just around the corner, with all eyes on men’s world number one Novak Djokovic to see if he can become the first man in over half a century to complete a Calendar Grand Slam.

The Djoker goes into the 2021 US Open having had his dreams of an Olympic Gold Medal dashed, when he fell to eventual Gold Medallist Alexander Zverev in the semi-final, after which he lost the Bronze Medal playoff to Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta.

With fellow rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal both calling time on their seasons due to injury, as well as defending champion Dominic Thiem withdrawing due to a wrist injury, 34-year-old Djokovic will start as the favourite to land a record-breaking 21st major men’s singles title in New York.

That would take him one clear of the joint record he holds with Federer and Nadal, and stake his claim in the ongoing GOAT debate which has raged on for a decade now.

In the women’s tournament, Naomi Osaka will be hoping that a return to New York sees a return to form, with the 23-year-old having struggled both on and off the court since winning her fourth major title at the Australian Open in February.

Top seed Ash Barty will also be among the title favourites, if not the outright favourite, after winning the prestigious warm-up tournament in Cincinnati last week, doing so without dropping a set en route to the title.

Her first-round Olympics flop aside, that was her first tournament since winning Wimbledon last month, and has justified her status has the world’s top-ranked player.

It also looms as the final chance for Serena Williams to equal the all-time Grand Slam singles titles record held by Margaret Court, the legendary soon-to-be 40-year-old American having not added to her tally since winning the 2017 Australian Open.

Her sister, Venus, has also been given a wildcard into the tournament, nearly a quarter of a century since she reached the final as a 17-year-old in 1997.

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Twelve months after fans were locked out of Flushing Meadows as the coronavirus smothered the United States, crowds will be let back in again, with this made possible because at least 70per cent of Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Those are just some of the major subplots ahead of the 2021 US Open, which begins on Tuesday morning (AEST). As always, we begin by previewing the men’s contenders, starting with top seed Novak Djokovic.

[1] Novak Djokovic (SRB)
US Open history
Best result: Won three times (2011, 2015, 2018)
Last year’s result: Fourth round (defaulted vs Pablo Carreno Busta)

Grand Slam results so far in 2021
Australian Open: Won (defeated Daniil Medvedev in the final)
French Open: Won (defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final)
Wimbledon: Won (defeated Matteo Berrettini in the final)

Tokyo Olympics result: Fourth place (lost Bronze Medal match vs Pablo Carreno Busta)

Titles won in 2021: Australian Open, Belgrade Open, French Open, Wimbledon.

Men’s world number one Novak Djokovic has history at his mercy at this year’s US Open; not only does he have the chance to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete a Calendar Grand Slam, he could also win a record-breaking 21st major men’s singles title.

That would pull him clear of the joint record he currently holds with career rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who are both sitting out the remainder of the season due to injuries suffered in the middle part of the year.

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The Djoker started the year in typical fashion, winning his ninth Australian Open title by defeating Daniil Medvedev in the final, but then faced sterner challenges to win the French Open and Wimbledon titles.

Novak Djokovic plays a backhand

(Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

After beating Nadal in the semi-finals at the former tournament, the 34-year-old overcame a two-set deficit to overhaul Stefanos Tsitsipas in the first French Open five-set final since 2004, while at SW19 he came from a set down to defeat Matteo Berrettini.

He therefore became the first man since Nadal in 2010 to win majors on three different surfaces in a calendar year, and the first since Laver 52 years ago to win these three titles in succession in the same year.

At the Olympics, the Djoker’s Gold Medal dream came to an end when he was beaten by Alexander Zverev in the semi-final; he then missed out on a Bronze Medal when he lost to Pablo Carreno Busta in the third-place playoff.

While he will get possibly his final chance to win a singles Gold Medal at Paris in three years, his focus now is to complete the sweep of majors this year, a task made easier by not just the absences of Federer and Nadal, but also that of defending champion Dominic Thiem.

This is a tournament he has won previously three times, most recently in 2018, but in his last appearance was defaulted for unintentionally injuring a linesman in his fourth round match against Spaniard Pablo Carreno Busta.

He thus became the first man in two decades to be defaulted from a major, after Stefan Koubek was defaulted from the 2000 French Open for “unsportsmanlike conduct”.

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Returning to the scene of the crime for the first time since then, Djokovic should make it a clean sweep of the majors this year, but not without a serious challenge from some of the contenders we’re about to look at below.

Prediction: Champion

[2] Daniil Medvedev (RUS)
US Open history
Best result: Runner-up (2019)
Last year’s result: Semi-final (lost to Dominic Thiem)

Grand Slam results so far in 2021
Australian Open: Runner-up (lost to Novak Djokovic in the final)
French Open: Quarter-finals (lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas)
Wimbledon: Fourth round (lost to Hubert Herkacz)

Tokyo Olympics result: Quarter-finals (lost to Pablo Carreno Busta)

Titles won in 2021: Open 13, Mallorca, Rogers Cup.

One of several major serious challengers to Novak Djokovic for the title in New York is world number two Daniil Medvedev.

The second seed arrives in the Big Apple fresh off winning yet another big title, winning the prestigious Rogers Cup in Toronto, followed up by reaching the semi-finals in Cincinnati where he was beaten by compatriot Andrey Rublev.

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Before that, he reached the final at the Australian Open in February, only to suffer a meltdown in a straight-sets loss against Novak Djokovic, while he also fell to Stefanos Tsitsipas and Hubert Herkacz at the French Open and Wimbledon, respectively.

Daniil Medvedev

Daniil Medvedev. (Photo by Andy Cheung/Getty Images)

His good form over his past two tournaments has him primed for a deep run at Flushing Meadows, where he reached his first major final two years ago, losing to Rafael Nadal in a thrilling five-setter.

Last year, he fell short in the semi-finals, losing to eventual champion Dominic Thiem who is missing this year due to a persistent wrist injury.

If he were to go all the way, then he’d become the first Russian man to win a major title since Marat Safin saluted at the 2005 Australian Open, notably at the expense of local favourite Lleyton Hewitt. His other major title, here in 2000, also came at the expense of a local in Pete Sampras.

As he is the second seed, Medvedev cannot face Novak Djokovic until the final, though he could face German fourth seed Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals, and that’s where I think his run might come to an end, but that’s not to suggest he’s not a chance of reaching the final.

Prediction: Semi-finals

[4] Alexander Zverev (GER)
US Open history
Best result: Runner-up (2020)
Last year’s result: Runner-up (lost to Dominic Thiem in the final)

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Grand Slam results so far in 2021
Australian Open: Quarter-finals (lost to Novak Djokovic)
French Open: Semi-finals (lost to Stefanos Tsitsipas)
Wimbledon: Fourth round (lost to Felix Auger-Aliassime)

Tokyo Olympics result: Gold Medal (defeated Karen Khachanov in the Gold Medal match)

Titles won in 2021: Acapulco, Madrid, Olympic Games, Cincinnati.

Fresh off an Olympic Gold Medal and winning the title in Cincinnati, fourth seed Alexander Zverev will hope to cap off a strong American summer with his maiden Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows.

The German returns to New York for the first time since falling agonisingly short of winning the US Open when he fell to Dominic Thiem in a thrilling five-setter that was ultimately decided in a final-set tiebreak.

With Thiem, Federer and Nadal out of the way, the 24-year-old will fancy his chances of going one better, having become the first man since Andre Agassi in 1996 to achieve the Gold Medal-Cincinnati double.

His form at the majors has been modest at best, reaching the quarter-finals at the Australian Open where he lost to Novak Djokovic, before suffering five-set losses against Stefanos Tsitsipas and Felix Auger-Aliassime at the French Open and Wimbledon, respectively.

Dominic Thiem of Austria

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

En route to winning the Gold Medal in Tokyo, he came from a set and a break down to defeat Djokovic in the semi-finals, ending the Serb’s hopes of completing a Golden Calendar Slam, before thrashing Russian Karen Khachanov in straight sets in less than an hour to top the podium.

He then defeated Andrey Rublev in the final to triumph in Cincinnati, and now arrives in the Big Apple on a clear mission – to thwart Djokovic’s Calendar Slam bid and become the first German man since Boris Becker at the 1996 Australian Open to claim a major title.

Given the good form he’s enjoyed since Wimbledon, I can see him reaching the final, where he is likely to be matched up against either Djokovic or Medvedev.

Prediction: Finalist

Also watch out for: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev, Matteo Berrettini.

Absent: Dominic Thiem, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka.

We now turn our focus to the women’s draw, where Ashleigh Barty is the top seed and goes into the tournament fresh off winning the prestigious title in Cincinnati, becoming the first Australian woman to do so in nearly half a century.

Defending champion Naomi Osaka also returns to New York hoping to make it back-to-back titles, after coming from behind to defeat Victoria Azarenka in last year’s championship match.

However, the Japanese star will enter the Big Apple having been bumped down to third in the rankings, following recent strong form from Aryna Sabalenka, who this week achieved a career-high ranking of world number two.

This will also be the last major tournament contested by Serena Williams before she turns 40, and it’s fair to say that time is ticking on her bid to equal Margaret Court on a record 24 major singles titles, her tally having remained stalled since the 2017 Australian Open.

Let’s now take a look at some of the women’s contenders, starting with Barty.

[1] Ashleigh Barty (AUS)
US Open history
Best result: Fourth round (2018, 2019)
Last year’s result: Did not play

Grand Slam results so far in 2021
Australian Open: Quarter-finals (lost to Karolina Muchova)
French Open: Second round (retired hurt vs Magda Linette)
Wimbledon: Won (defeated Karolina Pliskova in the final)

Tokyo Olympics result: First round (lost to Sara Sorribes Tormo)

Titles won in 2021: Yarra Valley Classic, Miami, Stuttgart, Wimbledon, Cincinnati.

A decade after countrywoman Samantha Stosur stunned home favourite Serena Williams to win this very tournament, current world number one Ashleigh Barty can create her own history with a win at the only major tournament where she’s yet to reach the quarter-finals.

The 25-year-old Queenslander arrives at Flushing Meadows fresh off winning the title in the Ohio capital, which helped to ease the pain of her shock first-round defeat at the Tokyo Olympics, though she and John Peers did team up to win the Bronze Medal in the mixed doubles component.

Ashleigh Barty of Australia celebrates

(Photo by TPN/Getty Images)

It was her fifth title of the year from six finals contested, with the only defeat being to Aryna Sabalenka in Madrid. She had also previously won the Yarra Valley Classic, Miami and Stuttgart.

But the most important of them all was the Wimbledon title, which she won by defeating Karolina Pliskova in three gruelling sets in the championship match last month.

At the other majors, the Ipswich native lost a controversial three-set quarter-final against Karolina Muchova, while she was forced to retire from her second round match against Magda Linette due to injury at Roland Garros.

Her record at the US Open doesn’t make for pleasant reading; in her last appearance here, in 2019, she lost to Qiang Wang in the fourth round, while she also lost to Pliskova at the same stage in 2018.

But if there’s ever a time for Barty to rectify her poor record in the Big Apple, it’s right here.

Prediction: Semi-finals

[2] Aryna Sabalenka (BLR)
US Open history
Best result: Fourth round (2018)
Last year’s result: Second round (lost to Victoria Azarenka)

Grand Slam results so far in 2021
Australian Open: Fourth round (lost to Serena Williams)
French Open: Third round (lost to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova)
Wimbledon: Semi-finals (lost to Karolina Pliskova)

Tokyo Olympics result: Second round (lost to Donna Vekic)

Titles won in 2021: Abu Dhabi, Madrid.

Despite copping an early loss against Paula Badosa in Cincinnati, second seed Aryna Sabalenka has plenty to celebrate this week after reaching a new career-high ranking of world number two, but doing so at the expense of reigning US Open champion Naomi Osaka.

It means that the Belarussian, who is the first woman from her country to be ranked this high since Victoria Azarenka all those years ago, will not be drawn to face top seed Barty until the final, well, that’s if both players get that far.

The 23-year-old has enjoyed a solid season so far, winning two titles, including defeating Barty to win the WTA 1000 title in Madrid, as well as reaching the semi-finals of a major for the first time at Wimbledon, where she fell to Karolina Pliskova in three sets.

Aryna Sabalenka

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Prior to that, she’d lost to Serena Williams and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at the Australian and French Opens, respectively, continuing what was, to that point, a poor record at the majors.

She also suffered disappointment at the Tokyo Olympics, losing in the second round of the singles component to Croat Donna Vekic; that was followed by a semi-final loss to Pliskova in Montreal and then the aforementioned loss to Badosa in Cincinnati.

Sabalenka arrives in New York with only minimal points to defend from last year, after losing to Azarenka in the second round last year. Her best result was reaching the fourth round in 2018 where, despite leading by a break in the final set, she lost to eventual champion Osaka.

Because of her poor result last year, and the fact Osaka is defending maximum points, the Belarussian can consolidate second place in the WTA rankings with a strong run, and go a long way towards, potentially, challenging Barty for top spot come the end of the season.

Prediction: Finalist

[3] Naomi Osaka (JPN)
US Open history
Best result: Won twice (2018, 2020)
Last year’s result: Won (defeated Victoria Azarenka in the final)

Grand Slam results so far in 2021
Australian Open: Won (defeated Jennifer Brady in the final)
French Open: Second round (withdrew)
Wimbledon: Did not play

Tokyo Olympics result: Third round (lost to Marketa Vondrousova)

Titles won in 2021: Australian Open.

After winning the Australian Open in February, many tennis experts and commentators forecast more success for Japanese sensation Naomi Osaka.

But in recent months her fortunes have taken a turn for the worse, withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon due to mental health concerns, then having her dreams of an Olympic Gold Medal on home soil crushed when she lost to eventual Silver Medallist Marketa Vondrousova in the third round.

The 23-year-old also arrives for the defence of her US Open title in poor form, suffering a shock defeat at the hands of Jil Teichmann in the third round of the Cincinnati Open last week.

It’s the last thing she would want as she looks to defend maximum points, and regardless of how she fares in New York, she is next to no chance of regaining the world number two ranking; that is because Aryna Sabalenka only has second-round points to defend from last year.

While there are more questions to be asked than answered over Osaka’s form this year, perhaps a return to the US Open could be what she needs as she looks to rediscover the form that took her to titles in 2018, and of course last year.

Despite her recent troubles, I think she can make a good run at it this year.

Prediction: Semi-finals

Also watch out for: Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova, Elina Svitolina, Sofia Kenin.

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