When imagining the post-big three era of men’s tennis amid their years of domination, there was a time where the picture of future grand slams would look and feel a little like this upcoming US Open. We are not in that era yet, of course, given the first three grand slams of the year have been split between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – the big three’s domination continuing – but if last year’s US Open was defined by Emma Raducanu’s stunning run from qualifying to the title, there is a feeling New York could produce another unlikely champion in the men’s tournament this month.
Djokovic will miss his second grand slam of the season as his hope for a change in Covid-19 vaccine rules for non-US citizens ended, as was always expected, without the good news he desperately held out for. Last year for Djokovic was all about the golden slam, and he came within a defeat to Daniil Medvedev from winning all four majors in a single season for the first time. Apart from his Wimbledon triumph, Djokovic’s emotional loss on Arthur Ashe last September led to what feels like a wasted year on-court, as he remains unmoved in his opposition to the vaccine.
It’s undoubtedly good news for Nadal, who has lost nine matches in a row against Djokovic on hard courts. The Spaniard comes into his first US Open in three years after a stunning season, and yet there are just as many questions over his fitness now as there were when he won the Australian Open in January. Unlike before Melbourne, Nadal has barely played. He has only had one match since pulling out of his Wimbledon semi-final against Nick Kyrgios, and lost it to the Cincinnati champion Borna Coric. The 36-year-old has described that abdominal tear injury and the scar it has left behind as “dangerous” and “risky”.
Nadal’s injury and Djokovic’s absence meant that in between the rather strange period of time between Wimbledon and the US Open, chaos ensued. The three major ATP tournaments leading into Flushing Meadows were all won by unseeded players. Kyrgios, continuing his Wimbledon form, first took the Citi Open in Washington. Pablo Carreno Busta won the biggest title of his career in Montreal. Coric, a player ranked outside of the top 100, defeated Nadal and then stormed to victory in Cincinnati to become one of the most surprising Masters winners in recent years.
At the same time, many of those who would look to line up behind Nadal as contenders for the US Open have struggled to convince. The form of defending champion Medvedev, back on surer ground after the Roland Garros clay and being unable to play at Wimbledon, has been patchy. Stefanos Tsitsipas, who remains on the hunt for his grand slam breakthrough, had a big victory over Medvedev in Cincinnati but could not follow it up when he was the favourite against Coric in the final. The Greek is still yet to progress further than the third round in New York.
Last year, he was stunned by Carlos Alcaraz, the victory that really announced the Spaniard onto the big stage. Now, 12 months later, he can become the youngest world No 1 in history if he wins the US Open, thanks to points accumulated largely due to his sensational lead-up to the French Open, when he defeated Nadal and Djokovic and won Miami and Madrid. The time since, though, has been marked by defeats that could prove to be just as valuable to his development – to Jannik Sinner at Wimbledon and Cameron Norrie in Cincinnati. There are signs players are figuring out how to stifle his explosive game, and there isn’t the same sense of the grand slam breakthrough being imminent as there was earlier in the season.
With Alexander Zverev also absent due to the ankle injury he suffered at the French Open, it throws the ring of contenders much wider than usual. Norrie is deserving of his place in those conversations after his Wimbledon run and he has the gritty, determined game to do well in New York. He, along with the likes of Sinner, Casper Ruud, Felix Auger-Aliassime and the leading American Taylor Fritz, have also shown flashes of form coming into the US Open, Meanwhile, Coric is a sign of the unpredictability of the past few weeks. Even if the best-of-five-sets is a different ball game, the list of potential winners now runs much deeper than usual.
It also, absolutely, includes Kyrgios. On the court, the Australian looks to be close to figuring it out and his title in Washington was his first in three years. A fourth-round meeting with Medvedev would be electric and potentially chaotic, after the fireworks of their second-round match at the Australian Open in January. This is a different Kyrgios, though, and it would be hard to say Medvedev, the tournament’s top seed, would be any more of a favourite.
As for that extended list of potential winners, it would be a stretch to suggest it would include Andy Murray. After his second-round exit to John Isner at Wimbledon, Murray said he was targeting a seeded ranking ahead of the US Open, but his run of form on the hard courts has meant that he has actually slipped places rather than made gains. Murray did push Norrie in Cincinnati, but muscle cramps were the prevailing concern of his pre-US Open warm-ups and will continue to be a worry if humidity strikes again in Flushing Meadows. Instead, why not include Jack Draper as an outside bet for a run – as the Briton bounces into the US Open with a career-high ranking of 53 (just two behind Murray) and having beaten Tsitsipas in Montreal.
The US Open has often been the scene of unpredictability, never more so than during Raducanu’s run last year. On the men’s side, there has not been a successful defence of the singles title since Roger Federer won five in a row between 2004 and 2008. Since then, there have been first-time grand slam champions in Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic and most recently Dominic Thiem in 2020 in a tournament that was suddenly blown apart by Djokovic being defaulted for striking a line judge with a ball smacked in frustration.
The reason for this year’s tournament being so open is not quite so dramatic, but it may produce another unexpected champion.