Will US Open provide the next chapter in the newest iconic tennis rivalry?
The US Open is designed for drama, and in Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz it may have its perfect performers.
In tennis, eras are defined by rivalries. It has always been that way. There was the John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg ‘fire and ice’ era, the Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi era, the Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer era, which then expanded into the ‘big three’ era. The women’s game has been no different, with era’s defined by rivalries between Chrissy Evert and Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles and Steffi Graf, and Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
At Wimbledon, the rivalry that will define the next era of men’s tennis began, as Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic finally collided in a showpiece final. What a final it was too, with some of the best tennis we have seen on an ATP court for years. It was as explosive as it was storied, and it evolved beautifully over four hours to create the kind of narrative that is beyond even the finest fiction writer. It was, simply put, magnificent.
However, the thing that perhaps made it truly special was that it left you feeling like that particular match-up was not over, but just beginning. Yes, there are 16 years between the players, and ordinarily you’d see that as a passing of the torch from a fading legend to an emerging colossus, but there is nothing ordinary about Novak Djokovic. He may be 36 years old, but he is not fading. In fact, he has looked as good this year as he ever has done.
And that makes the US Open all the more exciting. Not only will both Alcaraz and Djokovic feel like they have everything to prove to each other and themselves, but they both have wider motivations as well. For Alcaraz, he will be returning to the scene of his first major title and defending a Grand Slam crown for the first time. That’s a big moment for any player, although one could argue that in winning Wimbledon he has already demonstrated that he is far from a flash in the pan.
As brilliant as Alcaraz is, though, the 2023 US Open will probably be more about Djokovic – as it generally has been of late. In 2020, his remarkable fourth round defaulting against Pablo Carreno Busta after he accidentally struck a line judge with a ball dominated tennis headlines like little before or since. The following year he was reduced to tears on Court Arthur Ashe as the stress and pressure of chasing the calendar slam finally caught up with him in a straight sets final defeat to Daniil Medvedev. The following year saw the Serbian put himself at the centre of a political storm again, with him prevented from entering America due to his choice not to be vaccinated against Covid 19. All of these events have something in common, of course: Despite him dominating the headlines, he didn’t win the US Open.
Indeed, surprisingly given that Djokovic is fairly considered the greatest hardcourt player of all time, he has only won the US Open three times. We use the word only there in the context of his ten Australian Open titles, of course. Three titles at a Grand Slam is more than most players win in an entire career, never mind at one event.
Still, the point is that it is going to be fascinating to watch Djokovic in New York this summer. Is he still the dominant force on tour, or has Carlos Alcaraz surpassed him? Can he finally get another US Open title to his name after years of storied mishaps? Can he get some semblance of satisfaction after feeling wronged by his exclusion 12 months ago? Rarely has Djokovic had so much to prove, but when he has, he has never been found wanting.
It won’t be all about just Alcaraz and Djokovic, though. Since Rafael Nadal took himself off the tour indefinitely as he battles injury, the whole Tour has felt primed for change as its top players jostle for position. Daniil Medvedev has won the US Open before, and he will always be a threat in New York due to the conditions being very favourable to his game. He will be seeing himself as a major contender alongside Alcaraz and Djokovic and few would dare dispute it.
Beyond that top three, it would probably take someone to pull off a big surprise to emerge from New York with the title. However, it’s not the end of the key battles. Three former US Open champions appear to be involved in key personal battles right now. Dominic Thiem is still striving to discover if he can ever return to anything like his former level. After winning the Covid-hit 2020 title, he has admitted his motivation has taken a nosedive and he has been struggling to regain it since. Then there are former three-time major winners Stan Wawrinka and Andy Murray, who are battling age and the tolls of serious injury, always in the hope for just one more deep run at a major that vindicates all they have put their bodies through.
The women’s side of the draw is likely to be as unpredictable as ever. Last year, Iga Swiatek took the title and it was a significant one as it made her a multi-surface major winner. She was unable to become an all-surface champion by winning Wimbledon this summer, although you do feel it’s just a matter of time. Traditionally, though, the US Open has been a happy hunting ground for the underdog. Since 2017, Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and Emma Raducanu have all won maiden majors in New York, and who is to say it won’t go that way again?
If it does, it’s hard not to root for the apparently luckless Ons Jabeur. At Wimbledon, she reached her third final in five Grand Slams, only to lose for a third time too, this time to Marketa Vondrousova. Jabeur will once again be one of the favourites, but with every defeat the pressure increases, and you do feel like the window of opportunity is starting to close on her.
Despite the WTA’s propensity for surprise winners, it still feels difficult to look beyond Swiatek and Aryna Sabalenka. Both go into the tournament as reigning hardcourt major winners and they certainly have the groundstrokes to make the most of conditions in New York. Elena Rybakina is another intriguing name in the mix. She has become a fixture in the WTA top five and has definitely taken her game to new levels since winning Wimbledon in 2022.
How confident can you really be about forecasting how any WTA tournament will go, never mind the perpetually unpredictable US Open? What we can say for sure is that there will be shocks, surprises, and at least one or two Cinderella runs that take fresh faces to sudden new heights. It just wouldn’t be the US Open without them.
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