As Djokovic chases history, Canadians look to make a mark

The 141st edition of the US Open Championships is upon us from New York City.

It’s also a return to normalcy for the event. Unlike last year’s edition, Flushing Meadows has now welcomed fans back in the stands, who should be keen to provide an unmatched electricity and atmosphere to the final Grand Slam of the calendar season.

While the field is missing Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, there are no shortage of storylines at this edition — even without some of the biggest names in the history of the sport.

Here are six you should follow closely.

Novak’s quest for a perfect calendar

He’s been an unstoppable force at majors this season, and for the better part of a decade. He’s world No. 1. He is unquestionably the man to beat.

Novak Djokovic arrives at Flushing Meadows the undisputed favourite to win the US Open Championships as he looks to add another trophy to his immense, rapidly growing collection. He’ll attempt to do so with his two greatest rivals missing.

Nadal and Federer are both out for the remainder of 2021 — and potentially beyond — as they deal with nagging injuries, surgeries and age.

The three superstars are currently deadlocked at a record 20 slam titles apiece.

Now an opportunity waits for Djokovic to not only seize the record for most slams won all-time, but he can also complete the rare calendar slam, by winning all four majors in one year.

He dominated the Australian Open to claim a ninth title in Melbourne to begin the season. He conquered the impossible, defeating 13-time champion Nadal at Roland Garros before beating Stefanos Tsitsipas in a thrilling five-set final. He then coasted to a sixth Wimbledon crown at the All England Club, dropping just two sets along the way.

The last men’s player to accomplish a calendar slam was Rod Laver back in 1969.

It is Djokovic vs. the Field these next two weeks in New York City.

Anticipate some more history.

Novak Djokovic celebrates after defeating Stefanos Tsitsipas to win the 19th Grand slam title of his career. (Michel Euler/AP)

Barty and Osaka Headline deep women’s field

World No. 1 Ash Barty has set herself apart as the top women’s player in 2021 with a sensational season.

She’s captured a tour-leading five titles, won her maiden Wimbledon crown, captured two WTA 1000s, and is a remarkable 14-1 against top-10 opposition.

Barty will attempt to become the first women’s player to win two slams in a calendar year since 2016.

There are plenty of obstacles in her path in the top of the draw, including recent gold medallist Belinda Bencic, Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady, and 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek.

Naomi Osaka is the third seed at this year’s event and returns as defending champion. The 23-year-old opened the season with a bang, capturing the Australian Open crown and improving to 4-0 in major finals.

Since then, unfortunately, there has been limited tennis.

Osaka stepped away from the court at the French Open for her mental health and skipped Wimbledon as she coped with depression. She did return to represent her home country in Tokyo at the Olympics but fell in the second round to eventual silver medallist Marketa Vondrousova.

Peak Osaka is the best women’s hard-court player on the planet, and she’s a two-time champion at Flushing Meadows, however a lack of match play could be her only potential downfall here.

Naomi Osaka of Japan, left, is congratulated by Ashleigh Barty of Australia after winning in the women’s final at the China Open tennis tournament in Beijing, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

Another Next Gen opportunity

The rising stars of the men’s game have continued to progress by winning significant ATP titles, earning multiple signature wins over the Big 3 (Djokovic, Nadal, Federer) and breaking through to the highest spots in the rankings.

What they have not managed to do is win majors.

World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev is a two-time slam finalist, reaching the championship match in Australia earlier this year, and battling Nadal in the finals of the US Open back in 2019.

World No. 3 and dynamic Greek star Tsitsipas pushed Djokovic to five sets in the French Open final back in June but still came out on the losing end.

Germany’s Alexander Zverev is an Olympic gold medalist in Tokyo and 2020 US Open finalist but lacks a major trophy.

With two of the Big 3 missing in action, chances could not be greater for the future generation of ATP players to win a maiden slam.

Medvedev should certainly fancy his chances most with his powerful serve, elite defensive skills, and counterpunching abilities from the back of the baseline that are near impossible to penetrate.

He arrives in New York City fresh off a Masters title at the National Bank Open in Toronto, and a semifinals run in Cincinnati.

Daniil Medvedev, of Russia, returns to John Isner, of United States, during their semi-final match at the National Bank Open men’s tennis in Toronto on Saturday, Aug. 14, 2021. (Cole Burston/CP)

Canadian men look to make their mark

Three Canadian men are in the singles field at Flushing Meadows this year.

Denis Shapovalov is the highest ranked Canadian in the men’s draw and carries the seventh seed heading into the event.

Shapovalov produced some of the best tennis of his career at the All England Club in July, with a breakthrough run to the semifinals of Wimbledon.

Surprisingly, his form dipped afterwards. Shapovalov went 0-2 in the North American hard-court swing heading into New York City.

Perhaps that won’t matter; Shapovalov advanced to the quarterfinals here last season and now his flashy shot-making skills will be on display for a full crowd.

He opens his tournament against fellow left hander Federico Delbonis.

Montreal’s Felix Auger-Aliassime should be high on confidence after reaching the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern Open just two weeks ago in his US Open lead up.

The 21-year-old also reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon last month and reached the Round of 16 in New York last year.

Auger-Aliassime possesses a complete, all-around baseline game. When he harnesses the skillset, he’s a threat to beat anybody.

Vasek Pospisil is the veteran of the group in the field.

It’s been an uneven season for the 31-year-old as he’s gone just 5-10 in 2021. His game, however, is suited to these hard courts.

He has an intriguing first-round match against Italian enigma Fabio Fognini.

Bianca seeks consistency and match play

The last time Mississauga’s Bianca Andreescu was on the grounds at Flushing Meadows in New York City, she made history as the first Canadian player to win a singles Grand Slam.

It’s been a roller coaster two years since then. Andreescu spent 15 months away from the tour recovering from injuries to her knee and foot. She made the finals of the Miami Open back in March before tweaking her ankle while trailing in the match against Barty. She then missed a significant block of the clay-court season after testing positive for COVID-19.

Since that point, she struggled with her rhythm on grass, losing early at Wimbledon, and had a disappointing hard-court swing, going 1-2 in Montreal and Cincinnati.

Andreescu is hoping she can find some returns through her work with new coach Sven Groenefeld.

“He’s been helping me with a lot of different aspects”, said Andreescu in her pre-tournament press conference. “Right now, I’m basically applying what he’s been telling me. I see a huge difference in practice.”

Andreescu opens her tournament Tuesday against Victoria Golubic of Switzerland.

She’s one of three Canadian singles players in the women’s draw.

Rebecca Marino qualified for the US Open for the first time since 2011 with three match wins. She opens her event against fifth seed Elina Svitolina.

Eighteen-year-old Leylah Fernandez begins her campaign against Ana Konjuh of Croatia.

Bianca Andreescu, of Canada, lays on the court after defeating Serena Williams, of the United States, during the women’s singles final of the U.S. Open tennis championships Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in New York. (Sarah Stier/AP)

Must-watch matches in Round 1

There are a flurry of terrific opening-round clashes at the US Open. Here are four you don’t want to miss.

Simona Halep vs. Camila Giorgi

Simona Halep is two-time slam champion and former world No. 1. Italian Camila Giorgi is coming off the biggest title of her career, winning the National Bank Open in Montreal.

Halep’s counterpunching will look to offset Giorgi’s immense ball striking.

Expect terrific exchanges in this one.

Madison Keys vs. Sloane Stephens

It’s a rematch of the 2017 US Open final in the first round of play.

Both Americans are exceptional ball strikers and both in search of form. Sloane Stephens has struggled with results since her Grand Slam title here four years ago, as her ranking has dipped outside the top 60.

Keys reached the fourth round of Wimbledon last month but endured a patchy hard-court swing.

Something must give.

Alex de Minaur vs. Taylor Fritz

Australian Alex de Minaur should be on upset alert for this first-round showdown. Taylor Fritz has reached a career-high of 24 in the rankings but an injury to his meniscus that required surgery this season has seen him fall outside the top 40.

Still, the American has one of the more dangerous serves on tour and can dictate well off his forehand wing. De Minaur will try to offset Fritz’s power with his immaculate defence and movement. He’s one of the fastest players on the tour.

Roberto Bautista Agut vs. Nick Kyrgios

We always seem to get early-round fireworks when Nick Kyrgios is involved. Although he’s unseeded and had limited match play for the bulk of the last two years, an energetic crowd brings out the best in his tennis.

The Aussie should be motivated to face 18th seed Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain.

Bautista Agut is, in some sense, the polar opposite of the Australian. He’s a model of consistency and work ethic and a steadying force inside the top 25 of the ATP rankings.

Kyrgios can achieve stunning highs and puzzling lows.

Get the popcorn ready.

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