Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: There couldn’t have been a better time for tennis’s top brass proceeding for a head-on collision in the final Major of the season — US Open — on the courts of New York from August 26 (Monday).

Escalating things towards a more than exciting summit is the Australian Nick Kyrgios, the ‘bad boy’ of tennis.

Sports, moreso the individual varieties like tennis, thrive on characters and Kyrgios has consistently gone out of his way to prove that he is not someone who can be kept down for long.

I’ve not lost too many matches in my career [while] playing night session. So I really do enjoy that loud atmosphere that happens in there. You just adjust to it. You adapt to it.

- Novak Djokovic

More than his bursts of brilliance, it is the recent barbs and antics from Kyrgios that have threatened a polarisation of opinion between the top three in men’s tennis — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and the elder statesman Roger Federer.

Kyrgios started a feud with Djokovic earlier this year by claiming that the Serbian world No. 1 has a “sick obsession” with wanting to be liked.

This was not the first time that the Australian had tried to wind up the 16-time Grand Slam champion.

Ahead of the Wimbledon final this year, Kyrgios had tweeted: “Federer please win” — rooting for the Swiss master wishing the fall of the Serbian.

$3.85m

For each winner of men’s and women’s singles title

Last week, Kyrgios was at it again when he aimed another subtle dig at Djokovic following the world number one’s defeat by Daniil Medvedev in Cincinnati Masters.

So, how does Kyrgios play a role in probably deciding a winner at Flushing Meadows on September 8?

The champion’s ego in Djokovic must have been hurt by the Aussie’s loose comments and he will arrive in New York for a defence of his crown on the back of his semi-final loss against Medvedev in Cincinnati.

The hunger is very much there for the Serb, as he targets his fifth major title out of the last six — and beating him on a hard court in five sets is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks in contemporary tennis.

$57m

Total prize pot at US Open

Djokovic, who launches his 2019 campaign on Monday against Spain’s 76th-ranked Roberto Carballes Baena, says his success at night before the loud and raucous fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium has helped him thrive in New York.

“I’ve not lost too many matches in my career [while] playing night session,” he said. “So I really do enjoy that loud atmosphere that happens in there.

“You just adjust to it. You adapt to it. You accept it. You embrace it. I do embrace it because I think it’s good for our sport to have various different atmospheres on the centre courts of four different Slams.”

Nadal, on the other hand, will be fresh, fit and confident after his win at the Rogers Cup. The Spaniard last won the US Open in 2017 but last year, his march was only stopped by a knee injury when he was forced to retire in the semi-finals against the absent Juan Martin Del Potro.

Quite in contrast to the top two, Federer has been vulnerable after crashing out of Cincinnati in the third round to Andrey Rublev. The ageing star is likely to expose his frailties against an ever-growing army of big hitters such as Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and even Kyrgios in his quest for a 21st Grand Slam.

Nadal needs to have his knees intact and Djokovic will be looking at doing what he does best to make a final meeting between the two an engrossing one on September 8.

It will be also worthwhile to watch out for Kyrgios, who was waylaid by the ATP last week with a total fine of $113,000 (Dhs 413,000) on the Australian for a series of offences and violations including ball abuse, verbal abuse and several instances of unsportsmanlike conduct.

The sport does need characters like the Australian to eventually shine on the court too!

The Big Five

Novak Djokovic: The elbow injury of 2017 is long past Djokovic, so are his off-court travails that witnessed a drop in form. The Serbian is back at the top of his game, given the fact that he has won four of the last five Grand Slams that he’s played. The World No. 1 and his coach Marian Vajda, along with fitness expert Gebhard Gritsch, have one solid team and can certainly look forward to be the last man standing.

Rafael Nadal: As the current French Open champion, Nadal is back to where he belongs at the top of men’s tennis. A supreme warrior on the court, the Spaniard would be looking to grab his fourth US Open title and his 19th Grand Slam overall. Nadal has been on and off court due to his injuries but if he can hold form over two weeks, Nadal is the one to watch out for.

Roger Federer: The master’s fans will be hoping he bags a sixth US Open title after a 10-year gap [his last victory having come in 2008]. The factor going against him is the fact that he didn’t have a proper build-up following his early loss in Cincinnati.

Marin Cilic: Cilic may not be an automatic fan favourite at the US Open, but the lanky Croatian can give the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic a run for their money. A champion in New York in 2014, Cilic has had a decent season and traditionally the big-serving Croat has always been a formidable opponent at Flushing Meadows.

Alexander Zverev: In a recent interview with Gazetta dello Sport, Zverev spoke about many things German — prominent among them the fact that he has to circumvent the achievements of other greats such as Boris Becker and Steffi Graf. When it came to him, the German star said: “It’s true that we’ve had these amazing players in the past, but now it is my time and I don’t see any reason why I cannot win the US Open this time.”