US Open men’s preview: With Novak Djokovic missing, who can take the crown at Flushing Meadows?

US Open gets underway on 29 August in the absence of three-time champion Novak Djokovic but with Daniil Medvedev, Rafael Nadal as the prime contenders for the tile.

Tanuj Lakhina August 28, 2022 11:24:46 IST
US Open men’s preview: With Novak Djokovic missing, who can take the crown at Flushing Meadows?

Rafael Nadal (L) and Daniil Medvedev (R) are the top seeds and prime contenders for the US Open title. AP

New York: Novak Djokovic will not be at the US Open. Just how he wasn’t at the Australian Open earlier in the year. His desire to not get vaccinated against the coronavirus has once again denied him an opportunity to play a major.

It isn’t as dramatic as it was in Melbourne – with airport ground staff, courts, security officials, lawyers, Tennis Australia all at play in some way or another. This time, he kept waiting for US government’s guidelines on foreign travellers to change but they didn’t. So, he’s out.

With the three-time US Open champion not in the fray, it opens things up for others. And as Rafael Nadal says, repeatedly, “The sport in some ways is bigger than any player. The tournament continues. The world of tennis keep going.”

Beyond the title, for five men it is also an opportunity to either retain World No 1 spot or vie for it. Those five men are: Daniil Medvedev, the current rankings topper, Nadal, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Casper Ruud and Carlos Alcaraz. Unless Daniil, Tsitsipas, Alcaraz and Ruud go deep, Nadal will be World No 1 come 12 September.

Title challenger #1 – Rafael Nadal

Nadal returned to Cincinnati after a six week break due to an abdomen issue. An injury that prevented him from competing in the Wimbledon semi-final against Nick Kyrgios. And the physical duress on the 36-year-old body continues to be the big, lingering question mark over the Spaniard.

Rafa is gunning for a fifth US Open and 23rd Grand Slam title in New York. Nineteen years after making his debut, he drags his injury-prone body into a tournament he won in 2010, 2013, 2017 and 2019, the year of his last appearance.

The Spaniard has had to sit out the US Open four times in his career and there are once again fresh doubts over his physical ability to survive a gruelling two weeks. Just as they did before he won Australian and French Opens. In Paris, he won while having his entire foot numb with injections.

Loss to Borna Coric in Cincinnati was his earliest exit in six years and suggests there is an upward curve once again in New York.

“I need to move forward and just start to think about the energy that the crowd give me in New York,” said Nadal, who has already captured two of the season’s three Slams at the Australian and French Opens.

“It’s a very special place for me, and I enjoy it. There have been unforgettable moments there, and I’m going to try my very best every single day to be ready for that.”

Title challenger #2 – Daniil Medvedev

Daniil Medvedev should be extra motivated to do well at the US Open. He’s defending 2000 ranking points, needs them all to retain his World No 1 spot and was forced to sit out Wimbledon due to the ban on Russian (and Belarusian) players.

After losing in the fourth round of the French Open, he made the final of ‘s-Hertogenbosch and Halle – both played on grass even though Wimbledon was not a possibility. In early August, he won in Los Cabos, Mexico for his first title of the year.

Medvedev has had a strange year amid these stop-starts also coupled with injury. He blew a two-set lead in the Australian Open final. Most recently, he lost two three-set matches where one would expect him to come through. It came in the Round of 32 of Montreal against Nick Kyrgios and semi-final of Cincinnati against Tsitsipas. So, expecting him to go all the way, to win seven matches in a row looks stiff.

Title challenger #3 – Nick Kyrgios

Didn’t think a day would come when Kyrgios would be mentioned as a Slam contender but here we are. From 137th in the world in February, he’s moved to World No 37 with Wimbledon runner-up tag the big highlight. Except, it didn’t fetch him any points due to ATP not awarding any ranking points for Wimbledon.

Kyrgios’ rise in charts has been due to a strong set of results: title in Washington, semi-finals of Houston, Stuttgart and Halle, quarter-finals of Indian Wells and Montreal and Round of 16 in Miami.

The Aussie’s stupendous run of nine-match winning streak was upended by Hubert Hurkacz in Montreal before a jaded Kyrgios lost to Taylor Fritz in Ohio.

It remains to be seen what Kyrgios we get: one that ranted at the chair umpire in Cincinnati and lost his composure. Or, the one that surprised everyone, including himself, at the All England Club.

From the draw, Medvedev and Kyrgios are on course to meet in the fourth round. But before that, it is going to be an all-Aussie matchup in the first round when Kyrgios meets good friend and doubles partner Thanasi Kokkinakis.

Title challenger #4 – Taylor Fritz

Based on what we saw at the Australian Open last year and Wimbledon this year, you have to feel for Taylor Fritz. You could also feel disappointed with his inability to close things out. In Melbourne last year, he came from two sets down to force a fifth against Djokovic but lost – even as the Serb battled with injury. At Wimbledon, he had Nadal on the ropes with the Spaniard barely getting any venom on his serve and yet he blew it.

After the loss, Nadal withdrew because of the abdomen issue and there were suggestions Fritz should compete in the semi-final. But the American firmly stated he wants to win it on his own.

As the highest-ranked American going into the US Open, he has an opportunity to make things count in front of a home crowd. But recent results haven’t been encouraging: loss to Dan Evans in Washington and Montreal (Round of 16) and loss to Medvedev in Cincinnati (quarter-final).

Title challenger #5 – Carlos Alcaraz

In the group looking for their maiden major in New York, Alcaraz should be their leader. The Spaniard showed his ability on the grand stage last year when he beat Tsitsipas in the third round. At 18, he became the youngest man to reach the quarter-final at Flushing Meadows.

In 2022, he’s enjoyed resounding success and been part of numerous highlight reels. He made the quarters of French Open, beat Ruud to win in Miami, Alexander Zverev in Madrid, Pablo Carreno Busta in Barcelona and Diego Schwartzman in Rio. He also progressed to the semis of Indian Wells, final of Hamburg, Umag and quarter-finals of Cincinnati.

But the pressure can still get the better of him – as it did in shock first round loss to Tommy Paul in Montreal. “All I can say from this match is I have to train, I have to be ready to have this pressure, to have this kind of moments, and to learn how to handle it.”

Title challenger #6 – Stefanos Tsitsipas

Tsitsipas is another contender for the title especially after making his intentions clear by beating Medvedev in the Cincinnati semi-final. But then he lost a day later to Coric in the final.

The fourth seed’s US Open record doesn’t induce confidence. He has never been past the third round in New York and made more headlines for his infamous 17-minute bathroom break against Andy Murray last year than his tennis.

The draw does give him a chance. The first seed in his path is Maxime Cressy, and the second-highest seed in his quarter of the draw is Ruud, still more efficient on clay than hardcourts.

Watch out for: Ben Shelton

Ben Shelton is the new hype in American tennis. The latest in a continuous hunt for America’s next major contender. Last American to win a major was Andy Roddick in 2003 – coincidentally it was also at the US Open. He was also the last US men’s player to reach a major final (2009 Wimbledon).

As a sophomore at Florida earlier this year, he won the 2022 college singles championship, then shifted focus to the ATP Challenger Tour. But he grabbed limelight in Cincinnati by beating Ruud to make it to the third round.

The 19-year-old is forgoing his last two years of eligibility at University of Florida to accept a wildcard spot at the US Open and officially turn pro.

First-round matches to watch out for:

Kyrgios vs. Kokkinakis
Carreño Busta vs. Thiem
Hurkacz vs. Otte

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