Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz are on a US Open collision course as the final Grand Slam tournament of season gets under way on Monday with American teenager Coco Gauff chasing a breakthrough first major title.
A little more than six weeks after world number one Alcaraz defeated Djokovic in an enthralling finale to the Wimbledon championships, the two men could meet again at Flushing Meadows if the seedings go to play over the next fortnight.
Djokovic and Alcaraz whetted the tennis world’s appetite for another blockbuster showdown at the Cincinnati Open last week, with 23-time Grand Slam singles winner Djokovic downing the 20-year-old Spaniard in a four-hour classic.
Djokovic, 36, is making a long-awaited return to the US Open this year after his refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19 meant he was unable to gain entry to the United States.
In Djokovic’s absence at last year’s tournament, Alcaraz announced his arrival on the world stage with a brilliant run to his first US Open crown.
Second seed Djokovic, who opens his campaign on the Arthur Ashe main arena against France’s Alexandre Muller on Monday, says Alcaraz’s relentless, swashbuckling style is reminiscent of Rafael Nadal, the 22-time Grand Slam singles champion who misses this year’s US Open due to injury.
“Each point is a hustle. Each point is a battle. You feel like you’re not going to get maybe in total five free points in the entire match,” Djokovic said of Alcaraz.
“You’ve got to basically earn every single point, every single shot, regardless of the conditions.”
Alcaraz, who faces Germany’s Dominik Koepfer in the first round on Tuesday, said he is flattered by the Nadal comparison.
“It’s great that he knows that every time he’s going to play against me, it reminds him playing against Rafa or against the best ones because that means we are in a good path,” he said.
Djokovic will reclaim the world number one ranking with a victory over Muller on Monday, regardless of how Alcaraz performs in the tournament.
The Spaniard, meanwhile, must navigate a tricky route to the final that could include 2021 US Open champion Daniil Medvedev and Italy‘s Jannik Sinner.
– Gauff chasing breakthrough –
In the women’s tournament meanwhile, all eyes will be on the in-form 19-year-old Gauff, who is chasing a first Grand Slam title that would make her only the fifth Black woman in the open era to win the US Open.
After struggling in the early part of the season, Gauff felt she had hit rock bottom after exiting in the first round at Wimbledon.
But the addition of veteran guru Brad Gilbert to her coaching team has sparked a transformation in her form and fortunes.
She won the Washington Open in early August, reached the quarter-finals of the Canadian Open in Montreal and then scored a superb victory in the Cincinnati Open — her first WTA 1000 title.
The win in Cincinnati included a morale-boosting first ever victory over world number one Iga Swiatek, the defending US Open champion.
Gauff, who could face Swiatek in the quarter-finals in New York, says her late season resurgence is the result of a shift in mindset.
“I think now I’m going in with a lot more confidence,” the sixth-seeded teenager said on Friday.
“I feel like no matter the scoreline in the match, I can be able to problem solve and troubleshoot my way out.
I know I can win matches not playing my best game now… I do feel I’m much more confident in my B or C game.”
Poland’s Swiatek meanwhile says she is gradually learning to live with the fact that as world number one, she is the player everyone wants to beat.
“If you want to be the best player in the world, you have to be ready for that,” Swiatek said.
“You shouldn’t really overanalyze it or think about it. You should just play the game the same way as you would if your ranking would be lower.
“You just have to use the experience and the confidence, but still remember that the most important thing is to develop as a player.”