Path plotted for big stars to shine in the Big Apple

 - Alex Sharp

It’s time for the last major of the season and the US Open draw has sprung up some scintillating opening battles.

Pumped Novak Djokovic©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

It’s show time in New York.

The fourth Grand Slam of a thrilling campaign turns the tennis kaleidoscope to Flushing Meadows for the US Open.

Let’s get the bad news out the way. The 2021 edition will be the first Grand Slam since the 1997 Australian Open to not feature one of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Williams sisters Serena and Venus.

This legendary quartet might be off the agenda, but a bundle of box office names will still adorn the bright lights Stateside. Here are the key points taken away from draw.

Djokovic shooting for immortality

Having dusted himself down from Olympic disappointment, world No.1 Novak Djokovic has recharged away from the limelight, ready to launch into action for a fourth US Open title.

The top seed opens up against a qualifier on the road to a potential Calendar Grand Slam. The last man to achieve the feat was Rod Laver in 1969. To match ‘Rocket Rod’, Djokovic has a projected Wimbledon final rematch with sixth seed Matteo Berrettini in the quarter-finals. It could also be déjà vu from Tokyo 2020, with a semi-final repeat with in-form Alexander Zverev.

The likes of Australian Open semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev, Hubert Hurkacz and Kei Nishikori represent possible early opponents.

Remember, not only is the Calendar Slam up for grabs, history-chasing Djokovic could pull clear of 20-20-20 ‘big three’ rivals Federer and Nadal in the men’s major hall of fame.

Naomi Osaka smiling at the US Open©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Tests ahead for Osaka defence

Unfortunately, men’s champion Dominic Thiem is on the sidelines recovering, but Naomi Osaka will look to hold onto the silverware in New York once again.

The 2018 and 2020 champion, facing world No.86 Marie Bouzkova at the first hurdle, could tie Kim Clijsters and Billie Jean King on three US Open titles with an almighty effort.

In particular, Coco Gauff (2-1 Osaka from a couple memorable major bouts and a three-set triumph for the Japanese star earlier this month in Cincinnati) or resurgent 2016 champion Angelique Kerber represent some second week tests.

Just to add to the equation, fifth seed Elina Svitolina and the returning Simona Halep, free from a calf injury, land in Osaka’s quarter.

First round firecrackers

Tsitsipas vs Murray

Kyrgios vs Bautista Agut

Norrie vs Alcaraz

Fritz vs De Minaur  

Ruud vs Tsonga

Isner vs Nakashima

Zverev vs Querrey

Monfils vs Coria

Keys vs Stephens

Halep vs Giorgi

Muguruza vs Vekic

Collins vs Suarez Navarro

Muchova vs Sorribes Tormo

Sakkari vs Kostyuk

Andreescu vs Golubic

Pironkova vs Kasatkina

Ashleigh Barty wawing to the crowd©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Back to back for Barty?

World No.1 Ash Barty, fresh from lifting her fifth trophy of 2021 in Cincinnati last week, will ignite her title charge against 2010 runner-up Vera Zvonareva.

The Wimbledon champion is poised to duel with a former junior world No.1 in the shape of Clara Tauson or Clara Burel in the second round with a blockbuster against Iga Swiatek pencilled in for the quarter-final stage.

In a significant first round, No.22 seed Karolina Muchova (Australian Open) and Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo (Tokyo 2020) have both toppled the top seed on the main stage this season and could meet Barty in the last 16.

Will the Australian manage to book a maiden quarter-final spot in New York?

Chasing pack in contention

2019 US Open finalist Daniil Medvedev, champion in Toronto, has been handed an opening battle with French veteran Richard Gasquet.

The master of adapting, Medvedev will have to utilise his versatility and return prowess with towering trio of John Isner, Marin Cilic and Kevin Anderson all present in his sector of the draw.

Meanwhile, Roland-Garros finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas, who leads the ATP with 48 match wins this campaign, will have to nullify the threat of 2012 champion Andy Murray in a box office opening clash.

Stefanos Tsitsipas and Novak Djokovic chatting during the trophy presentation at Roland-Garros 2021©Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

The Greek’s quarter is particularly loaded, including captivating players such as Cincinnati finalist Andrey Rublev, Felix Auger-Aliassime, French prodigy Ugo Humbert and the mercurial Nick Kyrgios.

Olympic gold medallist Zverev headlines the second sector and the German wouldn’t have welcomed hearing hard-hitting Sam Querrey is his opener.

Next Gen sensations such as Jannik Sinner, Sebastian Korda and Lorenzo Musetti could all halt Zverev in an intriguing quarter which also holds the flair of No.17 seed Gael Monfils and Canadian charge Denis Shapovalov.

Major players to stop Sabalenka?

Second seed Aryna Sabalenka’s potential route to glory at Flushing Meadows emphasises the strength and depth in women’s tennis right now.

The Belarusian, taking on world No.93 Nina Stojanovic in the first round, faces the prospect of summer double title winner Danielle Collins, hot shot supremo Ons Jabeur and Roland-Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova to reach the latter stages.

Just to bolster the major pedigree, 2020 finalist Victoria Azarenka and two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza will make sure they have a say in that bottom quarter.