Roger Federer’s recurring knee injury has cast a cloud of uncertainty over his participation in the American hard-court season beginning in a few weeks. Needless to say, this is a huge setback for him and his fans. Fitness concerns have had a toll on the Swiss’s relentless pursuits to stay on top of his game lately. Over the last two decades, tennis fans have had the privilege of witnessing an entire era–the almost bygone “Roger era”–when the Swiss played intense sets with his arch rivals Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Those were sets that felt like a full match in their own right.
That has changed now. Only three or four years ago, it was not easy to dismiss Federer’s prospects at a Slam. But one of the three most successful men at the Arthur Ashe Stadium now has an outside chance of leaving Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors behind to become the sole owner of the record for most US Open titles in the Open Era (they have all won five). Federer has a daunting task ahead if he is to add one more to the tally of 20 slams. His quarterfinal exit at Wimbledon may not be the last he will ever play at a Slam, but he certainly continues to grapple with his fitness and form.
Dominic Thiem doubtful due to injury
Meanwhile, reigning champion Dominic Thiem is going through a bleak phase this year. In addition to poor form through the first half of 2021, the Austrian suffered a major setback when he was forced to retire from the French Open with a wrist injury. He is unlikely to recover in time for the US Open.
Will Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal get to #21 First?
So, who will take the US Open crown in 2021? For the first time ever, the “Big 3” are tied at 20 slams apiece. This also marks the first time since 1978 that three or more men are tied for the most Slam titles. The last time this happened Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, and John Newcombe were all tied at five Slams apiece, the most (Open Era Major winners) at the time.
The three masters of distinct yet brilliant playing styles were separated unfairly by a statistical divide for much of the 15 years of tennis between them. With that wall having crumbled down now, there is an air of fresh anticipation and absolute awe surrounding the trio. And yet, the same monumental statistic also serves as a reminder of the possible precipice that the sport stares at. What promising talents can salvage tennis from a new era of mediocrity when the three legends have drifted away?
Now, with Nadal and Djokovic still at the peak of their careers, it is not easy to imagine one of the younger players denying them a few more Majors. The two great athletes have such a huge appetite for winning in the longer version of the sport. Despite the fact that several “NextGen” players are in commanding form and coming off impressive performances through the first half of 2021, the two stalwarts of the sport, Rafael Nadal and Novak Dokovic, still remain overwhelming favorites to walk away with the US Open and break the three-way tie in so doing. Unlike the eldest of the three, the Spaniard and the Serb still have some years of elite tennis left between them, before time eventually runs out on them too.
Which of the two front runners has better odds of breaking the tie?
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal
Over the years, Nadal has proved that he is an exceptional fighter on and off the court. He has fought back from the throes of injury six times over a long career. Nadal has held a Top 10 ATP ranking for 900 weeks and counting-a record in the Open era–a supreme testament to that. He is the finest embodiment of skill, consistency, and athleticism. Together with eventual champion Novak Djokovic, Nadal made the recent French Open semifinal an immortal classic.
The Spaniard produced tennis of the highest quality along with the World #1. Nadal, however, after getting off to a solid start, cracked mentally in two or three critical points in the third set that almost upended the match.
This is where Djokovic’s unmatched mental strength sets him apart from others. Not only is his physical flexibility out of the world, but he seems to command an unprecedented level of mental adaptability.
The Spaniard, though, has a long and fruitful affair with New York, and is always a fan favorite. His withdrawal from the last edition was unfortunate, but not something that he could have helped in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and a very short transition to the rescheduled French Open.
While Nadal has a slightly more defensive and persevering playing style of the two, Djokovic is a tad more likely to hold his nerve in the most crucial of moments. Djokovic is synonymous with flexibility, but the Spaniard is no less athletic. He has retained his astounding ball retrieval skills, even to this day. The Serb, like Andre Agassi in the preceding era, is regarded the best returner of serve. If Bjorn Borg pioneered the topspin forehand and elevated it beyond an occasional “passing shot aid,” Rafael Nadal reinvented the topspin forehand, transforming it into a symbol of power, precision, and perseverance.
Following tremendous success this year, Djokovic is better favored coming into the hard-court season. But if Nadal can put his French Open loss and foot injury behind, he has a good shot at leveling with Jimmy Conners, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer at five US Open titles. On the other hand, while the Serb may have been the adorable runner-up at several Slam finals, including an astounding five times at the US Open, he has deservedly freed himself of the “losing finalist” tag long ago. Like at the French Open, Djokovic remains Nadal’s worst impediment to another Slam title.
Will it be “21 in ’21”? Or are we to wait for the Australian Open to see one of the three men take the lead? Will either Nadal or Djokovic claim their 21st Slam? Or will either of the in-form Daniil Medvedev or Stefanos Tsitsipas claim their first major at Flushing Meadows? Nadal’s run in Cincinnati next month might give a few answers as we await a historic US Open in September.
Main Photo from Getty.