Novak Djokovic enters the 2021 US Open searching for the Calendar Year Grand Slam. No man has accomplished that since Rod Laver in 1969. Djokovic may enter the tournament as the favorite, but let’s look at the men who can stop him.
The recently concluded Cincinnati Masters saw the top four seeds graciously occupy the semifinal spots. While Andrey Rublev appeared to be out of steam in his comprehensive defeat to Alexander Zverev in the one-sided final, both the semifinals were an absolute spectacle.
In an all-Russian semifinal, Rublev, who had not won a single set against his compatriot Daniil Medvedev on four occasions in the past, finally managed to get past the latter in three sets. In what was perhaps the match of the tournament, Zverev prevailed over Stefanos Tsitsipas 6-4 3-6 7-6(4) in 2 hours and 41 minutes. Coming into this year’s Western & Southern Open, Zverev had never won a single match at Cincinnati. However, the title triumph this year on the back of his Olympic Gold Medal victory earlier this month would provide the German a great impetus and a sense of self-confidence before heading to New York.
Even though Novak Djokovic’s dream of Olympic Gold was shattered, losing to Zverev in the semifinal and then to Pablo Carreno Busta in the Bronze Medal match, it is difficult to imagine anyone else, but him as the favorite at this year’s US Open.
After the debacle at Olympics, the 34-year-old Serb chose to rest ahead of the US Open, pulling out of both the Toronto and Cincinnati Masters.
Djokovic, who throughout his career has always chased his rivals Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, is now on the cusp of creating history as he aims to clinch a record-breaking 21st Major title at the upcoming US Open.
Despite Nadal and defending champion Dominic Thiem’s absence, this year’s US Open field is not at all depleted by any stretch of the imagination. Especially from what we witnessed at Cincinnati Masters, it appears that the younger generation is finally ready to take a huge leap and win a Grand Slam title.
Of all the four Grand Slams, the US Open has been the most unpredictable Major. In an era where “Big 3” have dominated their hold on Grand Slam titles like none other, US Open has witnessed various champions within the past 12-13 years. Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic, Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray, and Dominic Thiem have been victorious in New York in the past. That obviously makes this event the one where someone is most likely to dethrone Djokovic.
Overcoming Novak Djokovic over the course of five sets is an altogether different ball game as compared to taking him down in best of three. Stefanos Tsistsipas learned this lesson the hard way at this year’s Roland Garros final.
On that note, let’s take a closer look at the top five contenders who can conquer Djokovic at this year’s US Open.
Top 5 Contenders to Upset Novak Djokovic at the US Open
#1: Daniil Medvedev
If there is any player in the draw who can match Djokovic’s defense, it’s Daniil Medvedev. Playing on the hard courts is Medvedev’s forte, and he is like a brick wall behind the baseline. His court position deep behind the baseline while returning serve brought him rich dividends at Toronto and Cincinnati. That approach is conducive for the relatively slower hard courts at New York as well.
The 25-year-old Russian was quite exceptional in his title run in Toronto. He appeared invincible in his eight-match winning streak before falling to Rublev in the Cincinnati semifinals.
The World No.2 was the runner-up at the US Open in 2019 and a semifinalist last year. He has enjoyed most of his success so far on hard courts, winning ATP Finals last year. He was runner-up at the Australian Open to start this year, losing to Djokovic in the final.
Medvedev has a decent 3-5 record against the 34-year-old Serb so far on tour. However, the Russian is yet to defeat Djokovic at a Major, having lost twice at the Australian Open, earlier this year and in 2019.
Over the last couple of years, Medvedev has been one of the most consistent players on the tour, especially on hard courts. He is relentless, has a tremendous baseline game, and an equally attractive court coverage which makes him one of the top contenders who can beat the World No.1 and, in the process, claim his maiden Major title at the upcoming US Open.
#2: Alexander Zverev
Alexander Zverev has always been accused of succumbing to early exits at the Majors in the past. However, that seems to have changed over the last year or so. He was runner-up at last year’s US Open, losing to Thiem in the final in five sets, and was a semifinalist at this year’s Roland Garros and the 2020 Australian Open.
The tall German relishes playing on hard courts. He has won some of the most glamorous titles on tour, including the season-ending finals in 2018. After winning the recently-concluded Cincinnati Masters, he now holds five Masters 1000 titles.
The 24-year-old German has a tremendous first serve and an all-court game to trouble the best in the business. Since his Wimbledon debacle, Zverev is in scintillating form. He is currently on an 11-match winning streak, having captured Olympic Gold at Tokyo and his maiden title at Cincinnati.
After gaining a two sets-to-love lead, Zverev choked in the final of the 2020 US Open. He is obviously keen to surge a step further at this year’s edition at New York.
Zverev has a 3-6 head-head record so far against the World No.1 and most importantly stunned the Serb in their semifinal at the Tokyo Olympics in three sets, snapping Djokovic’s 22-match unbeaten streak that began in Belgrade, a week before Roland Garros got underway.
Two of Zverev’s three wins over Djokovic have come on hard courts. Despite the German not beating the Serb at any of the Majors, he is one of the top contenders to get over the line against Djokovic in the best of five sets.
Zverev is currently riding on a tremendous high. After Djokovic and Medvedev, he should be seen as the third favorite to win this year’s US Open.
#3: Stefanos Tsitsipas
Stefanos Tsitsipas has been one of the most exuberant and one of the most improved players on tour in recent years. The Greek reached his maiden Grand Slam final at this year’s French Open, and was a semifinalist at this year’s Australian Open and at the French Open last October.
After enjoying tremendous success on clay earlier this season, the Greek has been a little off-color since his French Open final. However, his twin semifinal appearances at Toronto and Cincinnati might just indicate that he is warming up well before the US Open.
Tsitsipas has always struggled to make an impact at Flushing Meadows in the past. In relatively good form so far this year, the Greek seeks to change his fortunes at New York this time around.
Having defeated Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021, respectively, and after pushing Djokovic to his extreme limits in both of his last meetings against the Serb in Paris, the 23-year-old Greek has developed a reputation of being a giant killer.
Tsitsipas is extremely fit and possesses phenomenal court coverage. His single-handed backhand is a slight weakness that opponents can expose. However, the slower nature of hard courts at New York will provide the Greek with some extra time to time his backhand a little better.
Both of Tsitsipas’ wins over the World No.1 have come on hard courts, and the Serb has always found the Greek a tricky opponent. Despite playing out of his skin in the last three meetings against Djokovic, Tsitsipas found himself second-best, failing to capitalize on the big moments. Nonetheless, that does not take anything away from the Greek. He is a definite potential contender in New York.
#4: Matteo Berrettini
Before a thigh injury forced him to withdraw from Tokyo Olympics and Toronto Masters, Berrettini was relentless during the grass-court season, winning Queen’s Club Championships and reaching the Wimbledon final, losing to Djokovic in four sets.
Putting his disappointments of 2020 behind, the 25-year-old Italian has been impressive this season, especially since the onset of the clay season.
Despite losing to Felix Augur-Aliassime in the second round of Cincinnati, one can expect Berrettini to hit top gear at the US Open. The Wimbledon runner-up has a huge serve and swashbuckling forehand, and is one of the few players who seems to be at home on all surfaces.
Berrettini was a semifinalist at the US Open in 2019. Though the Italian has never managed to beat Djokovic so far on tour, Berrettini’s game has all the ingredients to unsettle the Serb.
Berrettini needs to improve his backhand, though, if he fancies upsetting Djokovic. He is short of match practice since his heroics at Wimbledon, but that does not take anything away from the Italian. His game should be effective on the slower hard courts of Flushing Meadows.
#5: Andrey Rublev
Andrey Rublev has risen from strength to strength in the past couple of years, and had a coming of age season in 2020.
His run to the final at the Cincinnati Masters, where he consciously tried to mix things up to beat Medvedev in the semifinal, attests to the fact that the Russian is ready to step out of his comfort zone. He would need to do that in abundance, alongside displaying mental strength and willingness to take risks, if he wishes to have a deep run at this year’s US Open.
He does not start as a first-choice favorite. But on his day, can be a giant killer. His wins over Nadal at Monte Carlo and Medvedev at Cincinnati this year have shown us what Rublev is capable of. It remains to be seen if he can transcend such performances onto the grandest stages of the game over the course of five sets or not.
Interestingly, Rublev and Novak Djokovic have never locked horns so far on tour. That might spice up the contest if indeed they end facing each other at the US Open.
Can any of these men upset Novak Djokovic? Perhaps; perhaps not. But if anyone other than the Serb lifts the trophy at Flushing Meadows, it will likely be one of these men.