New York: Novak Djokovic heads to the US Open for the first time since 2021 with his world No 1 ranking gone and a new rival intent on denying him a 24th Grand Slam title, but only the brave would write off his chances at Flushing Meadows.
The 36-year-old’s bid for a calendar year Grand Slam ended with a five-sets loss to Carlos Alcaraz in last month’s Wimbledon final, with fans, pundits and former players saying the result heralded a changing of the guard in men’s tennis.
Returning to the United States after his enforced absence in 2022 and the early part of this year due to his COVID-19 vaccination status, a refreshed Djokovic says his appetite for success has not diminished. “I like the feeling that I have after 20-plus years of professional tennis. There’s still a fire going,” said Djokovic, who won the Australian Open and French Open titles to leapfrog Rafa Nadal into top spot in the list of men’s major champions.
“There’s still that drive and motivation to really come at the biggest events in sport and try to win, try to win titles and try to bring some good sensation to the crowds.” Djokovic, who said he had “zero regrets” missing tournaments in America due to his vaccination stance, ramped up his preparations for Flushing Meadows by winning the Cincinnati crown after a draining final against world number one Alcaraz.
“This rivalry just gets better and better,” Djokovic said.
“Amazing player. Tons of respect. For such a young player to show so much poise in important moments is impressive.
“The feeling I have on the court reminds me a little bit when I was facing Nadal when we were at our prime of our careers.
“Each point is a hustle. Each point is a battle.”
If the chasing pack feel Djokovic’s days of dominance are numbered, the three-time US Open champion’s record on hardcourts should give them pause for thought.
The Serb’s willingness to push his body to its limits has not faded, as his younger rivals found out at this year’s Australian Open when he battled to the title playing with a torn hamstring.
Alcaraz takes tennis world by storm
Alcaraz has taken the tennis world by storm since becoming the youngest men’s world No 1 after his US Open triumph last year and he will look for another statement win at Flushing Meadows to cement his standing in the sport. The 20-year-old tightened his grip on top spot by capturing his second Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, becoming the youngest champion since Boris Becker in 1986 and only the third Spanish man to win the title after Manuel Santana and Rafa Nadal.
The bull-like Alcaraz, playing only his second Grand Slam final compared to Djokovic’s record 35, put on a show that left little doubt that he is leading a changing of the guard in men’s tennis.
Djokovic hit back, however, with a stunning performance in a gripping Cincinnati Open final last Sunday, saving a match point and overcoming stifling heat to beat Alcaraz 5-7 7-6(7) 7-6(4) and add more spice to a new rivalry in a sport that has recently waved goodbye to Roger Federer and Serena Williams and is preparing to do the same to Nadal.
Alcaraz’s battle with the experienced Serbian for the top ranking largely played out as a long-distance rivalry early in the year due to injuries and Djokovic’s enforced absence from the hardcourt swing in the United States. When they met for the second time in the French Open semi-finals in June, it was the inexperienced Spaniard who cracked under pressure and suffered from severe cramps as Djokovic, 36, prevailed.
Now they are level again after Wimbledon and Cincinnati, creating huge expectation for a possible US Open showdown.
“I’m really looking forward to returning to the US Open, which is a tournament that has given me so much and where I achieved my dreams,” Alcaraz said in Cincinnati.
“You can win and lose, nobody is invincible. Every match is a world and can change in many ways.
“The matches (against Djokovic) are very tight, they are very tough ... I’m really looking forward to playing in front of the New York crowd.”
Top coach Patrick Mouratoglou says Alcaraz will be a threat at Flushing Meadows but does not have the edge. “I think both players are very close in terms of level. I think Novak can play much better than he did in the Wimbledon final. He was very nervous,” Mouratoglou said in his video series ‘Eye of the Coach’ recently.
“I feel that being this ultimate favourite all the time and playing for history, it has to be a burden. So now in a way that Carlos is a favourite as well, Novak will feel more free the next time he plays him.” Mouratoglou said he had no doubts that Djokovic would eventually surpass Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slams but that Alcaraz would also win his share of the sport’s biggest prizes.
“Will he prevent Novak from winning any more Grand Slams? I don’t think so,” Mouratoglou added. “Will he take some and Novak take some? I think so.”
Medvedev back in his element
Former champion Daniil Medvedev may not have had the best lead-up to the US Open but if anyone is going to get in the way of a New York title clash between Alcaraz and Djokovic it could very well be the Russian.
The world No 3, whose sole Grand Slam title came at the 2021 US Open where he beat top seed Djokovic in straight sets, has made no secret of his preference for hardcourts and the ease with which he moves on the surface was on full display this year.
Four of his five titles were earned on hardcourts across a stunning stretch where he triumphed in Rotterdam, Doha and Dubai, reached the Indian Wells final and then lifted the trophy in Miami.
But Medvedev’s build-up to the year’s final Grand Slam, which begins on Monday, has not been nearly as fruitful, losing to Alex de Minaur in the Canadian Open quarters and to Alexander Zverev in the Cincinnati last 16.
Following his surprise loss in Canada, Medvedev took issue with the balls, which are supposed to last seven games, saying they lacked durability and went flat well before being replaced, leading to longer rallies. “And what is funny is I love these long rallies, but I love them when the conditions are fast, because then other players can’t handle these long rallies,” he said.
“When the conditions are slow, literally everyone can handle these long rallies because, well, it’s like you have no other choice. So, yeah, it’s my general feeling that the balls become slower on tour.
“But if it’s the case, well, I have to adapt. And to be honest, this year I did not adapt so bad, so I have to find a way again.” Medvedev’s best result at a Grand Slam this year came at Wimbledon where he reached the semi-finals before losing in straight sets to Alcaraz, who went on to beat Djokovic in the final.
Medvedev could encounter similar issues with the balls at the US Open but the Russian will not use them as an excuse and is ready to make adjustments to his game if needed.
“You know, we have guys like Novak. I’m sure that when he started 17 years ago winning Grand Slams, everything was different. The courts, the balls. He was still winning,” said Medvedev.
“So I just have to adapt. Again, as I say, I like faster balls. But if they go slower, I have to adapt and try to win with it.”
Sinner eyes deep run
A host of contenders, including Jannik Sinner, Andrey Rublev and Holger Rune have stepped up to eye a first Grand Slam victory at Flushing Meadows.
Sinner is most likely to upset the applecart after the Italian’s run to the Canadian Open title this month, winning the biggest trophy of his career in his third Masters 1000 final.
The Italian, who has reached the quarter-finals at all four majors, played on the front foot in Canada, with an aggressive style of tennis helping him beat Matteo Berrettini, Andy Murray and Alex De Minaur.
“For sure, it’s a good confidence boost, no? Especially going into the US Open,” said 22-year-old Sinner, who dropped just one set en route to the title.
“I feel like for sure the confidence is going to be a little bit higher, but also my expectations are going to be higher.
“I’m also getting stronger physically, I’m growing. And I guess the combination of being fluid and flexible but also getting stronger makes you hit the ball a little bit harder.”
Tsitsipas ready to deliver
Another contender who has reached two Grand Slam finals but fallen at the final hurdle is former world No 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Tsitsipas beat De Minaur in a final to win the Los Cabos Open this month. The final was the third of the year for the Greek after losses in Melbourne and Barcelona to Djokovic and Alcaraz.
The world No 7 said he was counting on his hardcourt to climb up the rankings.
“My season has been good. I think I played my best tennis at the Australian Open swing,” he said ahead of the Canadian Open.
“I have big standards in terms of finishing the year strong, and I want to deliver to that promise of mine.
“I want to finish the year and go on a nice vacation and say that I’ve tried my best these last few months to maximise as much as I can and have a big impact on the tour at the end of the year.” The title was also his first since splitting with his father-coach Apostolos and replacing him with Mark Philippoussis.
“My father right now, I gave him some time off. He hasn’t had time off since I’m 12 years old,” Tsitsipas said, adding that parents were prone to getting emotional during matches.
“So I think for him, I think it’s very healthy to take some time away from the court and feel refreshed again.”