They work in strange ways, the tennis fates. On the one hand, the 2021 U.S. Open stands proud as the Reset Major, the first big-time tennis event in 18 months to be played in front of a full crowd, a sign that we are progressing against COVID-19, back to full communal experiences. And yet the cast of characters will not feature Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Serena Williams, Venus Williams or Dominic Thiem, the defending champ and winner of the 2020 Ghost Open. This is like that dispiriting insert in your Broadway playbill announcing that Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kristin Chenoweth are under the weather and not appearing in tonight’s performance, replaced instead by understudies.
Yet, it’s offset to some degree by the potential for history. Novak Djokovic comes to the U.S. Open not merely as the top seed and not merely—get this—as someone who hasn’t lost a full match at the U.S. Open since 2016, but as a player on the threshold of winning THE Grand Slam. It’s tennis’s holy grail, and he would be the first player to achieve it since Steffi Graf in 1988; and the first male since Rod Laver more than a half century ago. What’s more, if Djokovic wins seven matches in New York, he will vault past Federer and Nadal to win his 21st major, taking the lead, perhaps for good, in the GOAT race.
Herewith your 2021 U.S. Open seed reports.
1. Novak Djokovic
Your featured performer as he tries to make history and become the first player since 1988—and first male in more than a half century—to win the Grand Slam. What an achievement this would mark for him; and what a moment for the entire sport. At the first three majors he resembled a Viking, plundering the field, winning all 21 matches. He backslid at the Olympics, and, crazy as this sounds, comes in on a two-match losing streak. The guess here? Best-of-five format is his friend, and he will prevail.
2. Daniil Medvedev
Was it just two years ago he introduced himself at the Open? He was a finalist then, and it’s been a strange two years since. He’s both underachieved and overperformed. He is thoroughly likable, occasionally maddening and fully capable of winning this title.
(We pause at some point—and why not now?—to acknowledge the absence of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and defending champ Dominic Thiem.)
3. Stefanos Tsitsipas
Also, a bit of a strange season. He came within a set of breaking through and winning the French Open; then he lost in the first round of Wimbledon and failed to medal in Tokyo. The game is there, but he is still prone to these lapses, which are made worse when he self-flagellates. And it’s time for a coach outside the bloodline. He’s unlikely to lose, but it will be interesting to see how he deals with drawing Andy Murray off the bat.
4. Alexander Zverev
Returns to the scene of the crime (his failure to serve out the 2020 final). Your Tokyo singles gold medal winner, Zverev backed it up by winning Cincinnati, his fifth career Masters 1000 title. Let’s see how he handles the occasion—and all that goes with it. A mixed blessing, but he was a game from entering as the defending champ. Let’s see, too, how he handles the fallout from this damning report.
5. Andrey Rublev
We maintain, no one has his ability to take a mid-rally ball and smoke a winner. True, his best-of-five results don’t keep pace with the best-of-three results, but he brings with him considerable momentum after his final showing in Cincy. Watch out for a potential third-rounder against Tiafoe.
6. Matteo Berrettini
Coming off a run to the Wimbledon final that included some real shows of mettle but hasn’t been heard from much since. A former semifinalist in New York, but you wonder about the thigh injury—sugar in the gas tank of his Alfa Romeo.
7. Denis Shapovalov
Man, a lot of hills and valleys here. Capable of extraordinary tennis, as he showed at Wimbledon, reaching the semis. Also capable of some vacant outings. After Wimbledon, he lost in Gstaad to No. 249 Vit Kopriva, bowed out early in Canada and then fell to Benoit Paire (?) in a three-set thriller in Cincy. Brilliant shotmaker. Not the guy you want to back at 4–4 in the decisive set. Until that changes, optimism is tempered.
8. Casper Ruud
The Ruud awakening, the Norse star, only 22, has won three events since Wimbledon. They were, however, of the smaller variety, but it pushed his ranking to the cusp of the top 10. Is he ready for the next step in a deep run at a major?
9. Pablo Carreño Busta
In addition to notching a win over Djokovic and winning the bronze in Tokyo, he’s also amassed quite a track record in New York. May not have the finishing power to win 21 sets, but he is never easy to beat, especially on hard courts.
10. Hubert Hurkacz
The Pole-star, so to speak, is quietly having an outstanding season. He won Miami and reached the semis of Wimbledon, taking out Federer en route. A long shot, but if Djokovic isn’t going to win this thing, he’s on the short list of next likely candidates.
11. Diego Schwartzman
Go, Diego, go! Credit him for remaining in the upper echelon despite his height (and what often gets overlooked: his weight). The first-round loser last year, he can only improve. A man who can go an entire match without serving an ace, he is unlikely to win majors. But he is likely to win matches and win over fans.
12. Felix Auger-Aliassime
A player (the player?) the tennis salon desperately wants to succeed is still a bit of a question mark. Abundant talent and charm and maturity. But the big wins—including a pro title of any shape or size—remain elusive.
13. Jannik Sinner
Former competitive skier has been going in the opposite direction since turning pro. Steady ascent includes him taking the title in DC. He turned only 20 earlier this month and probably isn’t ready to win majors, but he’s at the point where his seeding is no fluke and a Week 2 showing is expected. Get the feeling that New York chaos will be a bit of an acquired taste for him; but again, he’s 20.
14. Alex de Minaur
Been a rough summer for the Aussie. Only one win since Eastbourne.
15. Grigor Dimitrov
A former U.S. Open semifinalist is, like less gonzo Monfils, no threat to win but still dangerous given the right fact pattern.
16. Christian Garin
All credit to the Chilean both for his ranking and staying power. But he’s never been beyond the second round of a hardcourt major.
17. Gaël Monfils: The Monf is 35—practically nearing French retirement age—but remains entertaining and dangerous in the right circumstances.
19. John Isner: Remains the most unconventional player in the men’s game.
21. Aslan Karatsev: Seems tennis’s answer to The Cooler has sat down at his blackjack table. But he’s done enough in the first half of the year to go from a triple-digit ranking to a seed. Which is crazy. One feels the regression to the mean. One also feels he simply exhausted spiritually and physically from such a happily unplanned season.
22. Reilly Opelka: One venti burrito, this guy. Your highest-seeded American; and with good reason. A Toronto finalist (knocking off Kyrgios, Dimitrov, Bautista Agut and Tsitsipas to get there) has won scads of matches this entire year—only three, combined, at the three majors. Look for that to improve. (And, sick as we all are of the serve-bot references, this is worth a watch.)
23. Ugo Humbert: Frenchman still learning how to win but a lot of game.
25. Karen Khachanov: Russian coming off a silver medal in Tokyo.
Andy Murray: Former champs get nods. Even when they have metal hips and play against Tsitsipas.
Lloyd Harris: Fine summer includes a three-set win over Nadal in D.C.
Benoit Paire: When he feels like playing ball—granted, appalling sporadically—he’s really friggin’ good.
Frances Tiafoe: Loses too many close matches, but has a wonderful skill for using crowds to buoy his spirits and energy. And he gets a home crowd in NYC.
Kevin Anderson: Best days may be behind him, but he’s a former finalist far more dangerous than his ranking (No. 75).
Nick Kyrgios: Enough ink spilled, but we’ll say: a lot must change for him to challenge for majors. But, by orders of magnitude, he is better than his ranking, a shocking 85.
Carlos Alcaraz: He’s for real. He’s 18. And his success isn’t limited to clay.
Seb Korda: Get on the bandwagon while there’s still room.
Jenson Brooksby: Get on the bandwagon while there’s still room.
Upset special: Taylor Fritz d. Alex de Minaur
First-round matches to watch
Murray/Tsitsipas: A rough draw for both. A great draw for the fans.
Nick Kyrgios (remember him?) vs. Roberto Bautista Agut.
Casper Ruud/Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Might well be Tsonga’s last match in New York.
John Isner vs. Brandon Nakashima: A study of contrast (and a U.S. torch pass?)
Djokovic d. Zverev
Rublev d. Medvedev
Djokovic for the Slam.
1. Ash Barty
A class player. In every sense. She’s won five events this year, including, of course, the previous major. But also brings to bear such a poised, professional disposition. So, so difficult not to admire. And so, so difficult not to tout as the winner.
2. Aryna Sabalenka
We no longer have to drink every time you hear, “She has never made it beyond the fourth round of a major.” She is coming off a Wimbledon semi. But the big breakthrough still awaits. Awesome—literally, inspires awe—ballstriking power. Less awesome closing power. Such a fascinating player, both simple and complex.
3. Naomi Osaka
Well … she enters as the defending champion. And‚ get this—the winner of the last 15 matches she’s played at majors. But there are so many swirling questions, so much going on in her world. She’s lost two of her last three matches (thought the win was a gutsy performance against Coco Gauff). She could defend and it would be no surprise. She could depart early and that wouldn’t surprise, either.
4. Karolína Plišková
It’s as if she got an extended warranty on her career. All credit to her for this recent uptick. Struggled to win matches for the first half of the year. Then, came within a set of winning Wimbledon, and has reached the final in Montreal and Cincy … yet has no titles in 2021. A former U.S. Open finalist, but can she string together a great—not just a very good—major?
5. Elina Svitolina
Marriage and an Olympic medal make for a busy summer. She is a former U.S. Open semifinalist but lost in the first match in both Montreal and Cincy.
6. Bianca Andreescu
Technically, she enters on a seven-match U.S. Open win streak. But, jeez, has the 2019 champ been through a lot. Her body continues its insurrection, which, inevitably has exacted a price on her confidence. Hard not to root for her success—and she can’t complain about her draw. (But playing with the pressure of many points potentially molting off her ranking.)
7. Iga Swiatek
She’s 20. She’s won two titles and 28 matches this year. She’s likable and level-headed. But for a player who didn’t simply win the last major of 2020 but dominated, it’s been an underwhelming '21 campaign overall.
8. Barbora Krejčíková
Imagine a year ago, predicting she would be a top 10 SINGLES seed. Dazzling as she was winning Roland Garros, she’s been similarly impressive backing it up on other surfaces. A sort of down-market Barty—meant as a compliment—she is versatile and professional and such an asset to the cast/caste. She may not win another 2021 major, but don’t be surprised to see her in Week 2.
9. Garbiñe Muguruza
Tennis’s riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in Adidas apparel. A month from turning 28 (!), she is capable of winning her third major. Also capable of losing her first match to Donna Vekić.
10. Petra Kvitová
Such an easy-to-like player. But you fear that she’s on the post side of her meridian. And she has never quite warmed to the hullabaloo of New York.
11. Belinda Bencic
Your gold medalist comes in on a high—tempered a bit by losing to countrywoman Jil Teichmann in Cincy—and is a contender. Especially if she hits out and avoids defensive mode.
12. Simona Halep
A calf injury—and then a groin injury—has caused her to miss the French Open and Wimbledon, and seen her expelled from the top 10 for the first time in a decade. But if she is remotely healthy, she is a contender. Starts against polar-or-Saharan Giorgi.
13. Jennifer Brady
Much like Halep (who also withdrew from Cincy), it’s all about her health. As she showed in Melbourne, she can bang with anyone, especially on hard courts. But if her left knee is rebelling, she may not post.
14. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
French Open runner-up had troubles to get into the country. But thanks to expert lawyering, she’s here and ready to compete.
15. Elise Mertens
One of those solid players who does everything capably, won’t beat herself, will seldom take a bad loss at a big event … but isn’t quite ready to be considered a contender.
16. Angelique Kerber
Nice career resurgence for a player rumored to be contemplating retirement this spring. And she is a former champ (2016).
17. Maria Sakkari: A French Open semifinalist—taking out the defending champ—but still struggles to close.
18. Victoria Azarenka: A finalist in 2020 can salvage a meh year.
20. Ons Jabeur: Tennis salon favorite has proven she can play deep in majors.
21. Coco Gauff: All in here. Whoosh, the ascent continues. A future champ. Anything short of the second week will be a disappointment—though she could potentially play three major champs to get there. Which should be seen as praise and not undue pressure.
23. Jessica Pegula: American hustler simply wins and wins.
25. Daria Kasatkina: Once a top 10 player, she has quietly turned in an impressive season.
26. Danielle Collins: Since her return from surgery, she’s done a fine impression of a top 10 player, taking names and hardcourt titles.
Dark horse pasture
Camila Giorgi: Your Montreal champ comes in on a high.
Jil Teichmann: Tricky, athletic player coming off one of her best weeks.
Markéta Vondroušová: Former French Open finalist medaled in Tokyo, plays tennis for the soul and is playing well of late.
Sloane Stephens: You know the rules: former champs get mention. Starts off against Madison Keys, a repeat, of course, of the 2017 final.
Svetlana Kuznetsova: You know the rules: Former champs get mentions. (O.K., now we’re pushing it.)
Sam Stosur: O.K., now we’re getting carried away.
Upset special: Marta Kostyuk d. Maria Sakkari
First-round matches to watch
Plišková vs. Catherine McNally: Big opportunity for Cincy teenager.
Sloane Stephens vs. Madison Keys: With the winner to play Coco Gauff.
Halep vs. Giorgi: Either Giorgi wins, or Halep wins 6–2, 6–2.
Collins vs. Carla Suárez Navarro
Sabalenka d. Gauff
Barty d. Plišková
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