Whatever happens in New York this weekend, there will be a new king of the city, or at least its most prestigious tennis court, the Arthur Ashe Stadium. One from Alexander Zverev, Pablo Carreño Busta, Daniil Medvedev or Dominic Thiem will win the US Open Men’s Singles title, and in the process they will become the first first-time Major winner in men’s tennis since 2014.
That will be a huge surprise after most observers had confidently predicted that Novak Djokovic would win the tournament. However, all those observers had reckoned without Djokovic’s self-destructive streak, which saw him being disqualified from the tournament after recklessly striking a ball into a female line judge’s throat during his fourth round match against Carreño Busta.
Whoever ultimately wins the tournament, they will join the list of “shock” or “surprise” winners of the US Open Men’s Singles title. Here are five other unlikely winners in New York, all of whom won their first (and in some cases only) Major in the Big Apple. They are all from the Open era (so, since 1968, when tennis became fully professional), starting with the most recent surprise champion and going all the way back to the start of the US Open itself.
- MARIN ČILIĆ (2014)
This weekend, Marin Čilić will cease to be the most recent first-time Major winner in men’s tennis. Remarkably, his triumph in New York in 2014 was the last time that someone other than a member of the Big Three (of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic) or The Slightly Less Big Two (Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka) has gone all the way to claim their maiden Slam.
Perhaps the most impressive match in Čilić’s run to the title in 2014 was not the Final itself, in which he defeated Japan’s Kei Nishikori in straight sets, but the semi-final, when he similarly dispatched the great Roger Federer without losing a set. After Nishikori had shocked the world by beating Novak Djokovic in the first of the two semi-finals that year, Federer’s path to the Final and what would have been his 18th Major title (and his first in more than two years, since winning at Wimbledon in 2012) seemed clear. But the big-serving Croat had other plans. As if inspired by the presence of the only other Croatian man to win a Major, Goran Ivanisevic, as one of his coaches, Čilić almost literally took the racket out of Federer’s hand, serving beautifully and powerfully to win 6-3, 6-4, 6-4. Federer would eventually gain revenge by triumphing in two other Major Finals (at Wimbledon in 2017 and at the Australian Open in 2018) against the same opponent, but New York in 2014 would forever belong to Čilić.
- JUAN MARTÍN DEL POTRO (2009)
If most of the men on this list only ever won just one Major, that was because it was probably all they were capable of – a single succession of seven superb matches in careers that were otherwise far less spectacular. By contrast, when Juan Martín del Potro won the US Open in 2009, it seemed likely that it would just be the first of many Majors for the Argentinian giant, who combined the incredible power-serving of a Čilić with the deft finesse of a Federer. Alas, it was not to be, as numerous injuries took their toll on Del Potro, who would reach another US Open Final (in 2018, when he lost to Djokovic) but would never again win a Major.
So, Del Potro’s 2009 win in New York stands alone as his single Major win. But what a win it was, as he became the first man to defeat Federer and Nadal at the same tournament, and at a time when both of those great players were arguably at their absolute peak. His semi-final triumph against Nadal was surprisingly straightforward, as he beat the Spaniard in straight sets. However, the Final against Federer was a classic, as he eventually won in five sets, 3–6, 7–6(7–5), 4–6, 7–6(7–4), 6–2, and twice came from a set down. Thus, Del Potro joins the ranks of the most illustrious “one-time winners” in sport, alongside the likes of Simon Jones in cricket, the great England fast bowler (who was actually Welsh) who only ever played one full Test series. However, just as Jones’s one full series was the triumphant 2005 Ashes win, which is arguably the greatest series in the history of Test cricket, so Del Potro’s lone Major triumph was one of the most remarkable in the history of tennis.
- ANDY RODDICK (2003)
2003 was probably the last time that men’s tennis had a major changing of the guard, as one set of great champions (including Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi) gradually began to give way to a new set of stars. At the time, however, if most astute tennis observers and writers had been asked to choose a new “Big Three” to dominate men’s tennis, they would not have chosen Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, especially as Nadal had yet to turn professional and Djokovic was just starting out on tour. Instead, they would probably have added to Federer the names of Juan Carlos Ferrero and Andy Roddick as the likeliest members of any triumvirate that would rule men’s tennis in the future.
That only goes to show how hard it is to make predictions, especially in sport. Federer, who won his first Major at Wimbledon that year, would go on to win another 19 Majors. However, both Ferrero and Roddick would only ever win one Major apiece, both in 2003. Ferrero had won the French Open earlier that year and seemed likely to dominate the tournament for many years, until another Spaniard – Nadal – came along to rule the red dirt. Similarly, Roddick only ever won one Major, that year’s US Open, in which he actually defeated Ferrero in straight sets with some of the finest serving ever seen in New York. Although Roddick and Ferrero would go on to have good careers (Roddick, for example, reached three Wimbledon Finals, but lost them all to Federer), neither of them would win another Major, which of course makes their sole Slam triumph all the more precious.
- MARAT SAFIN (2000)
Like Roddick and Ferrero, Marat Safin is one of the great “might-have-beens” of men’s tennis. Now, that might seem an odd way to describe a man who won two Major titles – the US Open in 2000 and then the Australian Open in 2005 – but it is nevertheless accurate, because when Safin won his maiden Major in New York it seemed that he would replace the man he beat, Pete Sampras, as the next great champion and dominant World No.1. However, that was not to be, not least because Safin’s self-confessed semi-playboy lifestyle could not begin to compete with the consummate professionalism and sheer single-mindedness that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic would all bring to men’s tennis over the next decade.
However, that should not detract from the seismic nature of Safin’s triumph in New York 20 years ago. Although the Russian was ranked sixth going into the tournament, almost all of the smart money was on the top seed (Andre Agassi, who was also the defending champion) and the fourth seed (Pete Sampras, who had already won the title five times previously). But after Agassi suffered a shock second-round loss to France’s Arnaud Clément, it was Sampras and Safin who made it through to the Final. In the end, Sampras virtually blew Sampras off court, for probably the only time in Pistol Pete’s career, winning in straight sets, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3, and effectively doing to Sampras what he had done to almost all his other opponents throughout his career. And if, ultimately, Safin could not really build on that triumph, the memory of the young Russian bear mauling the ageing American eagle will surely continue to delight him even in his dotage.
1.ARTHUR ASHE (1968)
No.1 on this list, and not just chronologically (as it was the first of these surprise triumphs), is Arthur Ashe, who won the first ever US Open in 1968, after the US Championships had been officially renamed to mark the start of the Open, or fully professional, era in tennis. The reason why Ashe’s triumph was so surprising was that although he was the fifth seed, the four men seeded above him – Rod Laver, Tony Roche, Ken Rosewall and John Newcombe – were not only all Australian but were all Major-winners already. Laver in particular was virtually ravenous for another Major success, after he had been banned from competing at the sport’s four great showpieces since 1962, when he had completed the Grand Slam of winning all four Majors in one calendar year before turning professional.
Laver, of course, would win another Grand Slam in 1969, making him the only man to complete that remarkable achievement twice. But 1969, at least in New York, belonged to Arthur Ashe. As the more highly ranked Australians fell, one by one, Ashe found himself in the Final against an even less heralded player, Holland’s Tom Okker, who was inevitably nicknamed “the Flying Dutchman” of tennis. Ashe eventually won an epic five-set Final 14–12, 5–7, 6–3, 3–6, 6–3, two years before the introduction of the tie-break. In the same year that James Brown proclaimed “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their black power salute at the Mexico Olympics, Ashe made it a unique hat-trick of African-American artistic and sporting achievements. The only shame is that, more than half a century on, the world in general and America in particular is still waiting for another black man to win a tennis Major.