Our tennis man Andy Schooler gives us his 2021 US Open Preview, where Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams will both be chasing history.
The Fans Return –Is Tennis Back To Normal?
After five Grand Slam tournaments with no fans or not that many and one cancelled entirely, the 2021 US Open marks tennis’ return to normality.
For the first time since COVID entered the vocabulary, one of the sport’s four majors will be played with spectator numbers at full capacity.
The spine-tingling feeling of 24,000 fans under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium was sorely missed last year when the cavernous arena saw Dominic Thiem and Naomi Osaka crowned champions in front of their coaching teams – and that’s about it.
The 2020 behind-closed-doors event was the first to feature the new Laykold hardcourts and they, rather frustratingly, played considerably faster on the outside courts than they did on the two stadium courts.
Be a part of the greatest return!
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) July 15, 2021
Hopefully that issue will now have been sorted, while players will arrive having got used to the surface – which replaced the DecoTurf at Flushing Meadows – which has been used for the first time this year at the big warm-up events in Canada and Cincinnati.
It is generally considered a bit faster than its predecessor so can aid the big servers and those prepared to play an aggressive game.
Djokovic – And Serena - Seeking History
Someone is likely to have to take the game to Novak Djokovic if they are to win the men’s singles title.
The world number one, arguably the greatest defender to have ever taken to the court, arrives here seeking to complete the calendar-year Grand Slam – winning all four major titles in the same year.
He’s already won the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon – the first man to do so since Rod Laver in 1969.
Laver is so far the only man in tennis’ Open Era to complete the Grand Slam. Were Djokovic to equal his achievement in New York, it could finally settle the ‘GOAT’ debate once and for all.
Novak Djokovic's quest for the calendar-year Grand Slam begins with a practice on Ashe. pic.twitter.com/wwg9QWjGpr
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) August 23, 2021
On the women’s side, Serena Williams will, once again, aim for her own slice of history.
Williams, who turns 40 next month, heads into the US Open knowing victory would see her equal Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam singles titles.
The problem is, the American hasn’t played since Wimbledon where an ankle injury ended her latest history bid.
Djokovic’s own fitness is something of an unknown ahead of the tournament – his bid for Olympic glory foundered in Tokyo when he lost from a set and a break up in the semi-finals to Alex Zverev and he left Japan nursing a shoulder injury.
Nadal, Federer Among The Absentees
Djokovic’s hopes of rewriting the history books is, however, boosted by the absence from the field of three big names.
Rafael Nadal, winner of this tournament in two of its last four stagings, is out due to a foot injury, while Roger Federer is going back under the knife in a final bid to fix his knee problem and continue his career.
Defending champion Thiem (wrist) also misses out, leaving a chasing pack of Slam-less players such as Daniil Medvedev, Alex Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The women’s draw is not so affected by withdrawals, although several top names, including the aforementioned Williams, are nursing injuries coming into the event.
The women’s game has been wide open for some time now and there have been plenty of names putting themselves forward as potential title candidates in recent weeks.Andy Schooler
Who’s In Form?
Former world number one Simona Halep, two-time Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova and rising star Paula Badosa were all forced to quit the recent warm-up tournament in Cincinnati with injury issues.
Others are short of form – think 2019 winner Bianca Andreescu and the player who has garnered more headlines than any other in 2021, Naomi Osaka.
The women’s game has been wide open for some time now and there have been plenty of names putting themselves forward as potential title candidates in recent weeks.
Camila Giorgi was the surprise winner of the big WTA tournament in Montreal, while Jil Teichman produced a stunning run to the Cincinnati final where it took world number one Ash Barty to stop her.
— Western & Southern Open (@CincyTennis) August 22, 2021
And that’s before we mention the fact that Belinda Bencic won Olympic gold at a big price.
On the men’s side, it’s hard to judge the form of Djokovic – he’s not played since the Olympics – but the one player who is clearly rolling right now is Alex Zverev.
The man who beat Djokovic in Tokyo went on to claim the gold medal and when he returned to the ATP Tour in Cincinnati, he duly added that crown too.
The German hasn’t lost since Wimbledon and last year’s runner-up in New York is the man to beat for those solely going by recent form.
Who Are The Best 2021 US Open Bets?
Taking all that in account, who is worth a bet?
As ever, it’s a tricky call prior to the draw – that takes place on Thursday at 1700 BST – but I’ve picked out three players in each singles field who look a decent price for glory.
In fine form having followed up Olympic glory by winning the Masters title in Cincinnati.
Last year’s runner-up beat his main title rival here, Djokovic, en route to gold in Tokyo and although that was a best-of-three-sets match, it will have given him significant belief.
His forehand has looked in great shape of late, adding to a backhand which has always been a major weapon.
Perhaps the biggest concern with Zverev is consistency, particularly in this best-of-five format – can he stay at his high level for three sets in a row?
He’s regularly wasted energy in the early rounds of Slams; with its heat and humidity, New York will be unforgiving if there’s a repeat.
The Pole made the Wimbledon semi-finals last month and has a strong record on the North American hardcourts.
He opened the year with title glory in Delray Beach before winning the biggest prize of his career so far in Miami, where they also play on a Laykold surface.
He was mightily close to beating Daniil Medvedev in Toronto earlier this month, while in Cincinnati he lost another tight one to Pablo Carreno Busta.
With a strong serve and crunching groundstrokes, Hurkacz has potential at Flushing Meadows.
A player of few weaknesses, Carreno Busta made the semis here 12 months ago, a feat he also achieved in 2017.
That immediately makes this price look a big one.
Throw in the fact that his confidence received a major boost when he won Olympic bronze earlier this month – beating Novak Djokovic in the third-place play-off – and the Spaniard very much looks worth a punt at tasty odds.
Looks the one to beat in the women’s singles following an impressive performance in Cincinnati where the world number one captured the title.
The Wimbledon champion seems to have put her shock first-round loss at the Olympics firmly behind her and she now finds herself at the head of the market.
Admittedly she does not have a great record at the US Open – she’s yet to go beyond the last 16 – but the switch of surface to Laykold should help her strong serve which played such a key role in her Wimbledon success.
Helpfully, many would-be title rivals are struggling for form or fitness so there’s reason to think that there’s juice in her price, even now.
Could this be the time Pliskova finally delivers a Grand Slam title?
Well, she’s a former finalist in New York and only last month the Czech lost a hard-fought Wimbledon final to Ash Barty.
Her decent form has continued on the North American hardcourts with a run to the Montreal final followed by a semi-final appearance in Cincinnati.
With the likes of Serena Williams, Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova all carrying injuries of late, and other struggling for form – think Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu and Iga Swiatek – the 29-year-old may not get a better opportunity.
The 2016 champion has gone 14-2 across her last three tournaments with her only defeats coming against world number one Ash Barty.
That’s a decent form which suggests she’s overpriced.
The German beat Elina Svitolina and Jelena Ostapenko en route to the semis in Cincinnati recently, backing up her run to the Wimbledon last four.
An awkward lefty serve and a defence to die for mean Kerber has the tools to succeed over the next fortnight – she’s done it in the past, so why not again?