The US Open 2021: a changing of the guard in men’s tennis?


There will be no Roger Federer, no Rafael Nadal, and no Stan Wawrinka at this year’s US Open. Injury has led to their withdrawals: the five-time champion Federer is to undergo a third knee surgery; his greatest rival, Nadal, has an ongoing left foot injury; and the three-time Grand Slam champion Wawrinka is recovering from surgery on his left foot. Andy Murray is likely to participate but, burdened with a metal hip, will be nowhere near the level which won him the title in New York nine years ago. 

So, out of what has sometimes been described as the ‘Big Five’, the five players who have dominated men’s tennis in the last ten to fifteen years, only Novak Djokovic remains at the top of his game. In fact, at thirty-four years old, Djokovic appears to have established an unparalleled level of dominance. At Flushing Meadows, Djokovic aims to become the first male player since Rod Laver in 1969 to complete the Grand Slam, that is, to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in a single year.

Djokovic is clearly the heavy favourite to win in New York, especially since there will be only two other Grand Slam champions in the men’s field: the partly robotic Andy Murray and Marin Cilic, whose form has dipped drastically in recent years. While Dominic Thiem, last year’s US Open champion and the first of the younger generation to win a major title, is also out of the tournament due to injury. 

At thirty-four years old, Djokovic appears to have established an unparalleled level of dominance

Despite the plethora of withdrawals, however, what is interesting about this year’s US Open on the men’s side is the distinct possibility of another first-time Grand Slam champion. Sitting below Djokovic in the are four or five players, recently labelled the ‘Mini-Big Four (or Five)’ (a label which, admittedly, needs some rethinking), who have competed for – and won many of – the major titles this season. 

Firstly, there is the Russian Daniil Medvedev, who won Toronto earlier this month and reached the Australian Open final at the beginning of the season. Second, there is the Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, who won Monte Carlo and reached the French Open final. Thirdly, there is the German Alexander Zverev, who won both Olympic gold and Cincinnati in August. Fourth, there is the Italian Matteo Berrettini, who won Queens and reached the final of Wimbledon. Fifth, there is the Russian Andrey Rublev, who reached the final of both Monte Carlo and Cincinnati. 

But does this mean that any one of these players will take the next step, that Neil Armstrong-esque giant leap, and finally win a Grand Slam in New York? Surely, if it is at any Grand Slam, it will be at the US Open. Since 2008, the US Open has been won by eight different players. To put that in context, the other three Grand Slams have each only had four different winners during that same period.

Since 2008 the US Open has been won by eight different players

Strange things happen under the bright lights of the Arthur Ashe stadium, in the hustle and bustle of New York, in the sweltering heat and humidity of the Big Apple. For instance, Serena Williams was a heavy favourite to complete the Grand Slam in 2015 yet she suffered a shock defeat to Roberta Vinci in the semi-finals. While last year Djokovic’s frustrated but seemingly innocuous swing of a racket ended with the ball striking the line judge in the throat, thus leading to his disqualification from the tournament. 

Djokovic is chasing history in New York, and the pressure of chasing history can do strange things. If Djokovic cannot deal with that immense burden, then it will almost certainly be one of Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Zverev, Berrettini, or Rublev who will capitalise, thus finally instigating a new era in men’s tennis.

Image: Raja Sambasivan via Flickr

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