US Open 2021: The Three Men Standing In The Way Of Immortality

It feels a lot like 2015 for younger generations of tennis fans. 

For older Australians, it feels a lot like 1969.

In 2015, younger tennis fans got their first taste of a unique thrill in the sport: seeing a player chase the Grand Slam, four major championships in the same calendar year, from Melbourne to New York.

Serena Williams came within two matches of the toughest feat in tennis, but Roberta Vinci stunned her in what is arguably the greatest single-match upset the sport has ever known.

In 1969, Rod Laver completed the Grand Slam for the second time, defeating fellow Australian Tony Roche in the final at the old West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills. 

The 1969 U.S. Open was a banquet of brilliance for Australian tennis: A Laver-Roche men’s final was accompanied by Margaret Court’s championships in women’s singles and mixed doubles. Ken Rosewall and Fred Stolle won the men’s doubles title. 

Over 50 years later, we finally arrive at another intersection of history and opportunity.

Novak Djokovic tries to become the first man since The Rocket to lift all four major trophies in the same year. This is the first time ever that a male tennis player will compete for the Grand Slam at the USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York. The U.S. Open relocated from Forest Hills to Flushing in 1978. In none of the previous 43 U.S. Opens held in Flushing Meadows has the men’s Grand Slam been up for grabs. Steffi Graf won the Grand Slam in 1988. Serena came close to it in 2015. Djokovic becomes the first man to fight for it in Flushing. 

History is in the air.

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If Djokovic is going to be denied a piece of elevated, exalted history – and an achievement Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal never accomplished in their careers – it probably won’t be a Vinci-over-Serena-style upset. No, it can only come at the hands of a few select individuals.

With Federer and Nadal injured, and with Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka absent from this tournament as well, the list of realistic upset candidates is relatively short. Three men (we could debate a fourth or fifth choice, but those are more peripheral) have a legitimate chance of stopping Djokovic.

Stefanos Tsitsipas led Djokovic by two sets in the Roland Garros final. He was about to stop the Grand Slam before it had a chance to become a legitimate possibility. However, in his first major final, Tsitsipas clearly felt the weight of the moment. He learned – and he said so after the match – that leading Djokovic two sets to love means nothing. 

Tsitsipas hasn’t been bad in the hardcourt summer run-up to the U.S. Open, but he also hasn’t displayed a killer instinct. He lost to Reilly Opelka in the Toronto semifinals and then squandered a double-break lead in the final set of the Cincinnati semifinals against Alexander Zverev. Tsitsipas keeps losing very close matches in important tournaments. That needs to begin to translate into huge wins. If the close losses keep piling up, Tsitsipas runs the risk of accumulating battle scars which will dent his confidence.

Is Tsitsipas really ready to hold down the fort and mentally stand strong against Djokovic? It’s hard to say he is in an ideal position entering the U.S. Open, but his game and his competitive swagger shouldn’t be ignored.

Alexander Zverev brings a very simple story to New York. He knows how to win three-set tournaments, having bagged Olympic gold in Tokyo before capturing Cincinnati, his fifth Masters 1000 championship. Three-set tennis brings an urgency to Zverev’s game. He doesn’t waste time. He doesn’t worry about conserving energy. He goes for shots and plays the direct, straightforward game he is capable of playing. 

In five-set tennis – for whatever reason – Zverev gets into a more conservative mode, playing deeper behind the baseline. He is an extremely fit athlete, but he gets into a mindset where he thinks his job is to outlast his opponent, not to get on top of points and crush winners. He plays passively and pays a severe price. His four-hour loss to Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round of Wimbledon was a perfectly imperfect illustration of his wrongheaded approach at majors. Whether he wins this U.S. Open or not, Zverev needs to start playing the right way at major tournaments. Until then, he will rightly be denied a significant measure of respect in the global tennis community.

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The man who has the best chance of standing in Djokovic’s path is Daniil Medvedev. 

He lost to Tsitsipas at the French Open, but clay is Stef’s best surface and Med’s weakest. The loss to Hubert Hurkacz at Wimbledon was more concerning, but not to a significant degree. Medvedev gets a consistent, true bounce of the ball on hardcourts. This remains his best surface by a large margin. 

Medvedev reached the final of the Australian Open earlier this year. He won Toronto and made a deep run in Cincinnati. Last year, he ran into an in-form version of Dominic Thiem in the U.S. Open semifinals. There was no shame in that loss. Two years ago, he made a memorably daring run to the 2019 U.S. Open final. Rafael Nadal prevailed in a highly compelling fifth set to deny Daniil a first major title.

Medvedev will turn 26 early next year. He is a year older than Zverev, two and a half years older than Tsitsipas. He has had more than enough tastes of failure, the teachable moments which enable a player to finally attain a major title.

Much as Thiem finally called upon all his resources last year at the U.S. Open to cross the major-tournament threshold, Medvedev – even more than Zverev – is under immense pressure to do the same this year in New York.

Novak Djokovic will probably be waiting for him in the final, with history beckoning.

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Matt Zemek

Matt has written professionally about US College Football since 2000, and has blogged about professional Tennis since 2014. He wants the Australian Open to play Thursday night Women's Semi-Finals, and Friday evening Men's Semi-Finals. Contribute to his Patreon for exclusive content here.

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