Alcaraz and Djokovic prepare for New York battle as Swiatek leads women's draw

All eyes will be on Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic in the men's draw at the US Open, while Iga Swiatek looks to defend her women's crown.

Carlos Alcaraz of Spain speaks to press during US Open player media day ahead of start of tournament at Billy Jean King Tennis Center in New York on August 25, 2023. (Beat Media Group via Reuters subscription)
Carlos Alcaraz of Spain speaks to press during US Open player media day ahead of start of tournament at Billy Jean King Tennis Center in New York on August 25, 2023. (Beat Media Group via Reuters subscription)

By Oli Dickson Jefford, Sportsbeat

It was once sung that New York is a concrete jungle where dreams are made, a sentiment that surely resonates with Carlos Alcaraz.

As a young boy, tennis’ new superstar dreamt of winning Grand Slams and being ranked number one in the world; but surely not even he could have imagined ticking both boxes as a teenager.

Alcaraz’s run to the US Open title 12 months ago was a ‘Star is Born’ moment, a maiden Slam victory that will surely prove to be the first of many - if he could make it there, he could make it anywhere.

He returns to Flushing Meadows with a Wimbledon title in tow, having defeated Novak Djokovic in a five-set final - a result that could stand him in good stead ahead of an anticipated rematch.

Their fledgling rivalry is the talk of Manhattan and, while the excitement surrounding Alcaraz is understandably at fever pitch, it would take a brave – and probably foolish – punter to write off the Serbian.

No one arrives in New York with such a renewed sense of purpose as Djokovic, his mission of a historic 24th Grand Slam title still unfulfilled.

Beat Alexandre Muller in round one and Djokovic will end the tournament top of the rankings, no matter what happens next. But being ranked number one will not necessarily make him the world’s best player.

With Alcaraz holding the US Open and Wimbledon titles, and Djokovic winning the Australian Open and French Open this year, realistically there is little between the two.

Should they face off in the final, that contest would surely determine who is the world’s best - Alcaraz prevailing in a second straight major final against his older adversary, or Djokovic successfully sweeping three of the four Slams in one year once again.

Pressure has marginally eased off Djokovic with no calendar Grand Slam talk, and lower expectations can only help after a tumultuous few years in Flushing Meadows.

His third crown in 2018 was followed by an injury-enforced retirement in 2019, an infamous default in 2020 and a heartbreaking final defeat in 2021, while he was not allowed into the country last year due to his Covid vaccination status.

Restrictions now eased, he marked his US return by downing Alcaraz in a Cincinnati slugfest where the distance between them and the rest seemed more than apparent.

Their head-to-head record is level at two wins apiece and, while Part V seems inevitable to most, we should savour it will we can.

This will not develop into a classic dual, such as Djokovic's rivalries with Federer or Nadal; the Serbian will simply not be around long enough. Alcaraz’s legacy will more likely be defined by whatever rivalries eventually do materialise, Jannik Sinner and Holger Rune perhaps the obvious candidates - two men some hope break through this fortnight.

Sinner and Rune, both of Alcaraz’s generation, have established themselves inside the top 10 and have won maiden Masters 1000 titles across the past 12 months.

Talent is undeniable when it comes to them but unlike Alcaraz, five-set consistency is an issue; Rune is yet to reach a Grand Slam semi-final, Sinner was beaten easily by Djokovic in his first last-four contest at Wimbledon.

Young guns may have trouble breaking through in the men’s game, but look to the women’s draw for an entirely different story. Iga Swiatek, 22, is already targeting a fifth Grand Slam title.

The world No.1 is the defending champion after beating Ons Jabeur in last year’s final, and is followed into the draw by Aryna Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina - dubbed the new ‘Big Three’ by some.

Their skill is evident but any notions of newfound consistency in the WTA were banished at Wimbledon where unseeded champion Marketa Vondrousova threw a Venus Rosewater Dish-sized cat among the pigeons.

A first major final between the top two seeds, Swiatek and Sabalenka, is expected by some and could produce a show worthy of Broadway, though similar such predictions were made for Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

Vondrousova and three-time Slam finalist Jabeur spearhead a sizable chasing pack who know they have the ability to also win this title; the former proves you don’t even need to be seeded to have a chance.

Home hopes will look to Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff to pick up silverware, potentially in the doubles as partners - though preferably in the marquee singles events.

Seeded third and sixth respectively, Pegula and the resurgent Gauff have sent out huge statements of intent in recent weeks; Pegula won Montreal, Gauff prevailed in Cincinnati.

But Pegula is a dismal 0-6 in major quarter-finals and Gauff’s serve can still crumble under pressure - if there is work to be done for Swiatek and Sabalenka, there’s still learnings for these two too.

Ultimately Swiatek is still the safest pick, even if the field has drawn closer to her, and repeat champions in both the women’s and men’s draw would come as no surprise.

She is perhaps a little more experienced - and has double the number of major wins - than a year ago but there are definitely parallels between her and Alcaraz.

The pressure on them is greater than ever, with the Spaniard defending a Slam for the first time, and the Pole facing more scrutiny than before with her dominance now in question.

It would be brave to bet against Swiatek, or one of Alcaraz and Djokovic, but even the most unexpected of faces are capable of tasting sweet success in the Big Apple.