US Open 2020 Men's Preview: Novak Djokovic's title to lose; potential first-time winners abound in draw
Novak Djokovic is the overwhelming favourite to win the US Open, which starts on 31 August, with multiple players hopeful of lifting their first Grand Slam trophy.
Here we are, a day away from US Open. At one point it seemed like no tennis would take place in 2020, let alone a Grand Slam. Yet, the US Open organisers are now have pulled it off with just one player, Benoit Paire, testing COVID-19 positive. A week of tennis at Western & Southern Open, moved from Cincinnati to New York, went off without a glitch.
“There was definitely a point where, in the beginning, I was like: There is no way these tournaments can even happen,” Serena Williams said about playing amid a pandemic.
Professional tennis resumed in Palermo for the women and New York for the men. But the challenge of a Grand Slam — handling that many events, that many players and inevitable logistical hiccups — are far bigger.
“There are going to be a lot of people around the world who think we should not play tennis, that no public gathering should happen. I understand that fully. I really do,” said World No 1 Novak Djokovic, who caught COVID-19 in June during an exhibition tour he organised that flouted social distancing and safety measures.
“But, you know," he continued, "I think there also is going to be quite a lot of people that are going to be happy to see tennis keep going.”
In a normal world, Djokovic is considered a strong favourite at most tournaments. But this is no normal tournament and these are not normal times. US Open 2020 will be played without Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the big three, who bring a collective 39 Grand Slams to the table. The last time a Grand Slam main draw began without either of them, the year was 1999!
(On that note, have you taken our US Open Quiz?)
Djokovic, on 17 Slams, has the opportunity to inch closer to Federer and Nadal and he made his intention clear by winning the Western & Southern Open for his 35th Masters 1000 title. On top of that, the Serb is now 23-0 in 2020 having won the ATP Cup, Australian Open and Dubai Tennis Championship.
— Western & Southern Open (@CincyTennis) August 29, 2020
Federer and Nadal are not the only two key players missing from the men's draw. The tournament will be without crowd favourite Gael Monfils, Fabio Fognini, former champion Stan Wawrinka, former finalist Kei Nishikori, Nick Kyrgios, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Lucas Pouille.
With that out of the way, let's look at the men who have made a trip to New York. First up: Djokovic.
Djokovic is the firm favourite; if there's any other winner, it would be a surprise outcome. He's won five of the past seven Grand Slam tournaments and reached at least the semi-finals in 11 consecutive US Open appearances. That streak was broken last year when a shoulder injury meant he retired in the fourth round.
This time, Djokovic has a neck injury to deal with. He withdrew from the doubles event citing neck pain but didn't have enough trouble to derail him in the singles department. He needed the trainer twice in the first round and then again in the semi-final for stomach issues as well. "I just didn’t feel good on the court at all, in any aspect, of my game and the body but somehow I managed to pull this one through,” he said later.
Djokovic has won first set against Berankis 7-6 after being a break down, but the neck is obviously bothering him, can’t serve properly. He injured it in practice yesterday. Receiving treatment in-beetween sets. #CincyOpen pic.twitter.com/MEpK4ZZRbE
— Saša Ozmo (@ozmo_sasa) August 25, 2020
On the draw front, the three-time US Open champion gets going against Damir Dzumhur in the first quarter. He sees a potentially easy first week with Jan-Lennard Struff the first seeded player he could deal with. Novak could face Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semi-finals and Dominic Thiem in the final — provided the higher seeded players win.
And then there are the rest. Let's start with a stat: The last player who wasn't Djokovic, Nadal or Federer to win a Grand Slam was Wawrinka at 2016 US Open. There are three Grand Slam winners in the men's draw: Djokovic, Andy Murray and Marin Cilic; the latter two are in the same quarter of the draw. The Briton, unseeded, is hoping to make a decent comeback ever since his hip surgery.
Cilic, the 2014 US Open winner, starts off against American Denis Kudla and could face Thiem in just the third round. The Croatian didn't get the greatest starts as he lost to Denis Shapovalov this past week and the draw isn't helping the 31st seed.
The absence of fans means lesser pressure on the players seeking their first Slam. The last player to win a first Major was Cilic and there are couple of contenders who have been knocking on the door since, with this being a great opportunity.
Contenders for first Slam
Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Raonic and Thiem are the top contenders to finally open their Grand Slam account. Tsitsipas progressed to the semi-finals of 2019 Australian Open but his best at US Open is just the second round. He reached the semi-finals at Western & Southern Open this week (losing to Raonic) beating three big servers in Kevin Anderson, John Isner and Reilly Opelka in the first three rounds. The Greek starts against Albert Ramos-Vinolas, and could face Borna Coric in the third round.
Also in the same quarter of the draw is Zverev, whose Grand Slam record up until semi-final foray in Melbourne this year, left much to be desired. He reached the fourth round in New York last year, for his best finish, and has a daunting challenge in the first round now. The German faces Anderson in the first round and has a potential fourth round match-up against Diego Schwartzman — which is a different kind of challenge.
Last year's finalist Daniil Medvedev is another hopeful but it will be interesting to see if he can do it without the crowd. The Russian went from villain to hero last year in what was an incredible show and a perfect example of the power of the fans. Having made the quarters this week where he lost to Roberto Bautista Agut, his US Open will begin against Federico Delbonis. His side of the draw sees other seeds in Guido Pella (currently in quarantine), Nikoloz Basilashvili, Grigor Dimitrov, Andrey Rublev, Casper Ruud and last year's semi-finalist Matteo Berrettini.
Thiem (and Zverev) have arguably been the busiest players during the lockdown. While most of the players bunkered down, the duo played multiple matches around Europe. The Austrian has been to three Slam finals and come up short each time. One expected him to make a mark as tour resumed but he lost in a one-sided match to Filip Krajinovic. Thiem should be happy that the action moves from the faster Grandstand courts to the slower US Open show courts. He’ll start against Jaume Munar, and could meet Cilic in the third round.
Take a bow, @milosraonic! 👏
— ATP Tour (@atptour) August 29, 2020
Going by the performance this week, Raonic has the biggest claim outside of Djokovic. The Canadian, sporting a different look and appearing stronger than before (if that were even possible!), bulldozed past everyone this week. Well everyone, but Djokovic. He took the first set off the Serb before things started to go differently. He starts against Leonardo Mayer and has a possible third round clash against Bautista Agut.
Round 1 clash to watch for: Alexander Zverev vs Kevin Anderson
Potential QFs if seeds hold up:
Djokovic vs Isner
Shapovalov vs Goffin
Tsitsipas vs Garin
Schwartzman vs Zverev
Berrettini vs Rublev
Dimitrov vs Medvedev
Bautista Agut vs Khachanov
Aliassime vs Thiem
The 34-year-old Nadal, who suffered a surprise quarter-final exit at the hands of Andrey Rublev in the Monte Carlo Masters quarter-finals last week, dropped the first set against the world 111 before pulling through 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.
Monte Carlo Masters: Stefanos Tsitsipas beats Dan Evans in straight sets to set up final against Andrey Rublev
Fourth seed Tsitsipas needed just over an hour to dispatch Britain's Evans, who knocked out world number one Novak Djokovic in the last 16.
Daniil Medvedev will be replaced in the singles draw by Juan Ignacio Londero while being withdrawn from the doubles event.