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Will the US Open throw more surprises this year?

Roger Federer, in 2008, was the last player to defend the men’s singles title at the US Open
By Deepti Patwardhan

The build up to the US Open, which begins on Monday, has been all about Novak Djokovic and his quest for the calendar Grand Slam. The World No. 1 is bidding to become the first man since Rod Laver in 1969 to win all four majors in a year. With Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal not competing at this year’s US Open, Djokovic will have to contend with the Next Gen stars like Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev -- and achieve the incredible feat.

Even though, on paper, it is Djokovic’s title to lose, if the youngsters are going to make a breakthrough it might well be at the US Open. The hard-court major in New York, with irreverence and music echoing in the stands, is as close to anarchy as men’s tennis has come in this era of Big 3 dominance.

While Nadal has owned the French Open (13 titles), Djokovic has dominated Australian Open (9 titles) and Federer has held Wimbledon spell-bound (8 titles), the US Open has thrown up a few surprises along the way. Since 2000, Federer, who went on an incredible run of five titles (2004-2008) has been the only player to defend the men’s title at the US Open.

In the last 15 years, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic, Juan Martin Del Potro and Dominic Thiem have all been able to sneak past the Big 3 stranglehold and win a title at the US Open. Apart from Wawrinka, the others were all first-time major winners. If you compare this to the other Slams, outside the Big 3, Wawrinka is the only player to win the French Open (2015) and Australian Open (2014) while Murray (2013, 2016) is the only one to claim the Wimbledon title.

“Federer (5 titles), Nadal (4 titles) and Djokovic (3 titles) have still been the more dominant players at US Open,” Indian doubles star Rohan Bopanna told Olympics.com.

“But having said that the US Open is the one major where more players have made the breakthrough. One of the reasons could be the timing; we are already more than halfway through the season by the time US Open comes around. It is the one Slam where you will see most players withdraw due to injury.”

The US Open, which begins on the last Monday of August, is the last leg of a hectic Grand Slam season. As such, only the French Open and the US Open have a lengthy build-up, which means there are a number of warm-up events to acclimatise to the court conditions.

“But hard courts take a greater toll on the body, so by the time you are at the US Open there is considerable wear and tear,” adds Bopanna, who reached the finals of men’s doubles, with Pakistan’s Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, in 2010.

The 2020 US Open final between Thiem and Zverev was the first not featuring either Federer, Nadal or Djokovic since the 2016 Wimbledon final (when Murray beat Milos Raonic). The way to that unlikely final was paved through the unfortunate incident involving Djokovic, which led to his shocking elimination. The Serb accidentally hit a ball straight at a lines umpire's throat and was disqualified from the major.

According to former India Davis Cup player Vishaal Uppal even the faster hard courts at the US Open seem to have played a part in throwing up surprise winners.

“For some time now, US Open has been the fastest of all the Slams,” says Uppal, who was also the captain of India’s history-making Billie Jean King Cup team.

“Even faster than Wimbledon. Which is why we have seen people like Juan Martin Del Potro and Marin Cilic win. It gives a chance to taller, more powerful players. The beauty of tennis was that every surface would once require a different skill-set. But since courts all over the world have slowed down now, it is hard to make that distinction. The US Open is possibly the only major where the big hitters have a chance now.”

It remains to be seen if any of the big hitters will power through to the title or if the sport’s ultimate counter-puncher will storm to history at the 2021 US Open.

Ready Reckoner

People other than Big 3 to have won the US Open: Juan Martin Del Potro (2009), Andy Murray (2012), Marin Cilic (2014), Stan Wawrinka (2016), Dominic Thiem (2020)

Last champion to defend title (men's): 2008 Roger Federer

Last champion to defend title (women's): 2014 Serena Williams

Open era record (men's) for most titles: 5 (Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer)

Open era record (women's) for most titles: 6 (Serena Williams, Chris Evert)