After a few years in the grey, tetchily unaware of what could possibly replace the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal decade-long rivalry, tennis fans the world over have been gifted a new jousting contest. A swashbuckling two-way show of skill, stamina and showmanship that men’s tennis badly needed.
For Carlos Alcaraz and Novak Djokovic – world No 1 and 2 and the top seeds at the US Open, which starts this afternoon – the French Open semi-final this year was the warm-up act. Two sets of mesmerising rallies before the 20-year-old Spaniard succumbed to the occasion, cramping up irrevocably. But recent finals at Wimbledon and Cincinnati, gruelling affairs of high-drama and tension, show the hype is not inflated.
Of course, Alcaraz’s triumph at the All England Club in five sets felt like a breakthrough moment. Not just for him, but for the next generation altogether. The likeable showman with the world at his feet, Alcaraz arrives in New York this year with a different label: the hunted, as opposed to the hunter. He is the defending champion, the world’s best player and the most recent winner of a Grand Slam.
“So far, he [Carlos] has shown that he can handle the pressure very well,” former top-15 Spanish player Feliciano Lopez tells The Independent. Lopez will be a pundit for Sky Sports’ coverage of the US Open, with Sky having reclaimed the rights from Amazon Prime.
“He’s been very brave in the finals when he’s had to challenge Novak. He’s so gifted as well in the way a kid just 20 years old is handling that amount of pressure because it’s very difficult. He’s been very impressive. A very humble kid as well – he has the will to learn every single day.
“It’s a great combination of talent and work ethic. Both of them combined are making him the best player in the world right now.”
Though discard Djokovic at your peril. The 23-time major winner outlasted Alcaraz in one of the matches of the year in Cincinnati, winning a final set tie-break after three hours and 49 minutes, and by his own lofty standards is keen to right a wrong. Having missed out last year due to the United States’ Covid entry requirements, he has not won the title at Flushing Meadows in five years.
As for the chasing pack, the likes of Jannik Sinner, last year’s finalist Casper Ruud and 2021 champion Daniil Medvedev will all be eyeing a deep run, as will Andy Murray. The champion now some 11 years ago, the 36-year-old narrowly missed out on a seeding but has been given a favourable first-round match against world No 71 Corentin Moutet, with an intriguing second-round match-up against 19th seed Grigor Dimitrov likely to follow if he wins.
“I would not be surprised to see Andy in the semi-finals in New York,” says Lopez, a winner alongside Murray in the doubles at Queen’s in 2019. “I see players in the final rounds of tournaments and most of them are not better than Andy. He is definitely ready to compete against the best players in the world on the big stage still.”
While the men’s event has not seen a home winner since Andy Roddick 20 years ago, Sloane Stephens was a home champion on the women’s side in 2017. But this year, Coco Gauff is the one most Americans are pinning their hopes on.
Still a teenager at 19, Gauff seems now to be reaching the heights unfairly expected of her from day dot. After all, it was now four years ago she made her stunning run to the fourth round of Wimbledon at 15. She won impressively in Cincinnati last week – beating world No 1 and defending champion in New York Iga Swiatek en route – and is flying under the tutelage of Andy Murray’s former coach Brad Gilbert, claiming two titles in the US hard court season and losing just once, to compatriot and third seed Jessica Pegula.
However, Gauff is keeping her feet on the ground. “I learned a lot over this last couple weeks – more so from my wins than I have in the past,” she said in her pre-tournament press conference. “The most I’ve learned over the course of this summer is that I don’t have to play A-plus tennis to win.
“When I wasn’t playing my best tennis or wasn’t playing great, I would kind of shut down a little bit mentally. Now I’m just figuring it out as I go.”
Ons Jabeur – a losing finalist last year in New York and again at Wimbledon last month – will be striving once more for that elusive first major, while Pegula and Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova are the other main contenders. Katie Boulter, Jodie Burrage and qualifier Lily Miyazaki are Britain’s representatives in the women’s singles draw, with 2021 winner Emma Raducanu still absent as she recovers from surgery.
Other notable storylines come in the return of a major champion – and the exit of a tour veteran. Caroline Wozniacki stunned the tennis world with the news of her return at 33 years of age last month, having retired in 2020 and given birth to two kids. Her first-round match is last on Louis Armstrong Stadium today.
As for those definitively hanging up their rackets, Josh Isner is calling it a day. The 38-year-old – famous for that marathon 11-hour match against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010 – will retire after this tournament. “Time to lace ‘em up one last time,” he said in his retirement announcement, with the big-serving American looking to add to his record 14,411 aces in his final bow.
The final Grand Slam of the year also sees a first: players and umpires will have access to ‘VAR-esque’ video reviews for contentious decisions such as double-bounces and net touches, with the use of various camera angles available on the five show courts. Its introduction will, if football’s implementation is anything to go by, be a work in progress yet could well add a different slice of drama should it be needed frequently throughout the fortnight in the Big Apple.