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Tebbutt: It’s all about Novak

Aug 26, 2021
written by: Tom Tebbutt
written by: Tom Tebbutt

The US Open starts Monday with the overarching story of the 2021 event being Novak Djokovic’s quest to complete the calendar Grand Slam and join tennis greats Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969) as the only men to win tennis’ four majors in the same year.

In a sense it’s 127 against one – the field against the 34-year-old Serb – but everyone knows all players are not created equal. The prominent British bookmaking firm Ladbrokes actually has Djokovic at 3/4 odds to win, meaning there are four chances out of seven – better than 50/50 – that he will succeed in joining Budge and Laver. (Second favourite is Daniil Medvedev at 9-2, basically putting the Russian’s chances of winning at five times less than Djokovic’s.)

Photo : @usopen/twitter

Logically, after his wins at the Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon and his ability on all surfaces, Djokovic is the big favourite. But better than 50/50? On the negative side, there are his recent failures at the Tokyo Olympics – losing in the semi-finals 1-6, 6-3, 6-1 to eventual gold medalist Alexander Zverev and in the bronze medal match 6-4, 6-7(6), 6-3 to Pablo Carreno Busta.

Those losses, and the shoulder and other injury issues that he claimed he had in Tokyo, have dented his invincibility. There’s also the fact that he has at times had trouble in hot, humid weather and that could be another obstacle for him, along with the intense pressure of trying to complete the ultimate achievement in his sport. Weather-wise, after Monday and Tuesday are expected to have 30-degree (86 degrees F) highs, the forecast for the rest of the tournament is for more moderate conditions. It will be interesting to keep track of the time-of-day scheduling for Djokovic’s matches.

After Thursday’s draw, Djokovic’s chances did not take much of a hit as he starts with a qualifier and then his most credible threats appear to be Kei Nishikori (he beat Djokovic at the 2014 US Open) in the third round, Aslan Karatsev (he beat Djokovic in Belgrade in April) in the round of 16, Hubert Hurkacz in the quarter-finals and then possibly No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev in the semi-finals and second seed Medvedev in the final.

It’s never easy to know or anticipate how the draw will play out or whether or not it is favourable to certain players, but on the whole, the 6th-seeded Bianca Andreescu probably could have done better than No. 45-ranked Viktorija Golubic in the first round.

The 28-year-old Swiss has had a fine year – 44-16 – and has reached three finals, winning in Saint-Malo, France, before Roland Garros as well as making the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. But recently she lost in the first round in Montreal (No. 31 Paul Badosa), first-round qualifying in Cincinnati (No. 73 Fiona Ferro), and second round this week in Chicago (No. 57 Rebecca Peterson).

It will be a first meeting with Golubic for Andreescu, who is getting over toe problems, including an apparent infection, after losing in the second round of the Omnium Banque Nationale in Montreal to No. 22 Ons Jabeur and then to No. 23 Karolina Muchova in Cincinnati.

Andreescu returns to the scene of her greatest triumph after missing last year with an injury. Looking ahead in the draw, if she gets on a roll, she could face 27th seed Jelena Ostapenko in the third round and No. 10 Petra Kvitova or No. 17 Maria Sakkari in the round of 16.

Andreescu is unbeaten in main draw matches at Flushing Meadows after going 7-0 in 2019.

Leylah Fernandez, who turns 19 a week from next Monday, is playing in her seventh Grand Slam event, and her second US Open after reaching the second round a year ago.

Now ranked No. 72, Fernandez has drawn a qualifier in the first round and then would play No. 31 seed Yulia Putintseva or veteran No. 70 Kaia Kanepi before a possible match-up with third-seed and defending champion Naomi Osaka.

Fernandez struggled at the recent WTA 1000 events in Montreal and Cincinnati – exiting in the first round in both, although her 7-5, 7-6(4) loss to No. 172-ranked qualifier Harriet Dart at the Omnium Banque Nationale came with the added pressure of knowing she would face compatriot Andreescu in what would be a highly-hyped, second-round encounter. In Cincinnati, Fernandez faced the slumping Alison Riske and her laser-like ground strokes. But the 31-year-old American came up with a strong effort to win 6-2, 6-2.

Denis Shapovalov, ranked No. 10 and seeded 7th, enters the US Open off three losses – playing on clay in Gstaad between the grass at Wimbledon and the hard courts of the North American summer, in Toronto in a poor showing against friend Frances Tiafoe who had already played three matches at the National Bank Open, and to No. 50-ranked Benoit Paire in Cincinnati when the combustible but talented Frenchman revived from two service breaks down in the third set to record an upset 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 victory.

The US Open is Shapovalov’s best Grand Slam (11-4) and he has never (2017-2020) failed to reach at least the third round. His opening-round opponent Federico Delbonis, a 30-year-old left-handed Argentine, is just 2-6 in his career at the US Open. He is a far better player on clay – and this year on hard courts is 0-4 at events in Melbourne (1), Miami, Cincinnati and Winston Salem.

Down the line at Flushing Meadows, Shapovalov could face No. 31 seed Karen Khachanov in the third round and No. 9 Pablo Carreno Busta in the round-of-16. The 30-year-old Spaniard defeated Shapovalov in a memorable five-set quarter-final at last year’s event.

After drawing and losing to Shapovalov at two US Opens in a row, Félix Auger-Aliassime reached the round of 16 in 2020 before losing 7-6(4), 6-1, 6-1 to eventual champion Dominic Thiem.

After a surprise loss to last-minute substitute Max Purcell at the Olympics, Auger-Aliassime had disappointing losses in Washington and Toronto this summer on his return. But he bounced back with victories over No. 37-ranked Marton Fucsovics and No. 8 Matteo Berrettini in Cincinnati before a tough 6-2, 5-7, 6-1 loss to No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Seeded No. 12, he faces a qualifier in the first round before a possible meeting with Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez, playing his record 78th Grand Slam singles event in a row, or a qualifier before potentially taking on No. 18 seed Roberto Bautista Agut.

Vasek Pospisil, 31, is competing in his 10th US Open and coming off his best result – a fourth-round finish a year ago that included victories over No. 18-ranked Milos Raonic (absent with a foot injury this year) and No. 11 Bautista Agut before losing to No. 28 Alex de Minaur.

Pospisil, never at his best in the summer heat and humidity, enters on a three-match losing streak – including an agonizing 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-3 loss to No. 56-ranked Tommy Paul at the National Bank Open in Toronto two weeks ago.

He gets the ever-enigmatic No. 32 Fabio Fognini in the first round, against whom he leads the head-to-head 2-0 – the victories coming in 2019 at the Davis Cup Finals in Madrid and at Wimbledon in 2015 on his way to the quarter-finals.

A potential second-round opponent would be No. 63 Illya Ivashka or No. 91 Tennys Sandgren.


There’s the possibility of a sixth Canadian in the main draws after No. 175-ranked Rebecca Marino reached the final round of qualifying on Thursday with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 win in over No. 129-ranked Ysaline Bonaventure of Belgium.

FROM THE ARCHIVES

A mainstay of tennis journalism for 30 years, the debonair guy in this picture at the US Open is Christopher Clarey of the New York Times. This week his book “The Master,” about Roger Federer, was published to a raft of rave reviews.