The 2021 US Open could be one for the history books, as top seed Novak Djokovic has the chance to complete the first calendar Grand Slam in men's singles since Rod Laver in 1969. Djokovic was devastated by his semifinal loss to Alexander Zverev at the Olympics – and the fourth-seeded German looms as a potential semifinal obstacle here – but that loss came in a best-of-3 format and Djokovic remains undefeated in best-of-5 play in 2021. Even though we haven't seen him in action since his meltdown in Tokyo, Djokovic is the heavy favorite to take home the title, which would also break the three-way tie between himself, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer for the most career men's singles Grand Slam titles at 20 apiece.
Speaking of Roger and Rafa, they are the headliners of a long list of notable players absent due to injuries. In addition to Nadal (foot) and Federer (knee), 2020 US Open champion Dominic Thiem (wrist) will also sit out, missing out on the opportunity to defend his title. Other notables who are out of action include Milos Raonic (calf), Stan Wawrinka (foot), Juan Martin del Potro (knee) and Borna Coric (shoulder).
Despite all the prominent absences, the top half of the draw is still stacked. Dangerous floaters Kei Nishikori, a former US Open finalist, and 21st-seeded 2021 Australian Open semifinalist Aslan Karatsev both lurk in Djokovic's quarter. So does sixth-seeded Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini, as well as (10) Hubert Hurkacz, whom Berrettini beat in the semifinals at the All England Club. Zverev's quarter features two other top-10 seeds – (7) Denis Shapovalov and (9) Pablo Carreno Busta – plus the in-form Karen Khachanov and two of the game's most promising youngsters (Jannik Sinner, Sebastian Korda).
The first section of the draw's bottom half features two top-five seeds in (5) Andrey Rublev and (3) Stefanos Tsitsipas. No. 12 Felix Auger-Aliassime is the only seed who poses a credible threat to either top-five player prior to the quarterfinals, but the unseeded names in the section include the likes of Andy Murray, Nick Kyrgios and Frances Tiafoe, all of whom have knocked off prominent opponents on big stages before. The bottom half's bottom section doesn't look too tricky for No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev, though big-serving American John Isner has a great opportunity to reach the quarterfinals in a portion of the draw in which the two-highest ranked players are (8) Casper Ruud and (11) Diego Schwartzman.
Coming off a title in Toronto, Medvedev has the most straightforward path to the semifinals, and the 2021 Australian Open finalist could be the toughest test standing between Djokovic and the calendar slam, though Zverev – the Olympic gold medalist and Cincinnati champ – certainly has a strong argument as well. Both Zverev and Medvedev have made it to Championship Sunday on Arthur Ashe Stadium already in their careers. Tsitsipas is flying under the radar as the No. 3 seed, especially given his favorable draw outside of the first round (more on that below). Even though none of these players besides Djokovic have Grand Slam titles – the other singles winners in the draw are Murray and Marin Cilic – it would take a monumental effort for anyone outside the top four to break through and take the US Open crown.
Round 1 matches to watch
Tsitsipas has a pretty straightforward route to the quarterfinals if he can get through Murray, who has been far from his former self since returning from major hip surgery. A severely depleted Murray is still a dangerous opponent, even if he hasn't shown it in 2021 up to this point. These two have never played before, so this is an interesting clash of top players from different eras. Ultimately, Tsitsipas shouldn't have a problem here if he brings his B-game or better, but his last Grand Slam result was a straight-sets first-round Wimbledon loss to Tiafoe, so you can't take anything for granted. Prediction: Tsitsipas in four sets.
What will we see from Djokovic in his first match since the Olympics? Will his temper flare as it did in Tokyo, or will he stay cool, calm and collected as he looks to pick up win 22 of 28 in his pursuit of the calendar slam? Don't forget Djokovic was also the clear favorite at the 2020 US Open sans Nadal and Federer, only to be disqualified in the Round of 16 against Carreno Busta when he accidentally struck a line judge with a ball between points. The outcome of this match probably isn't in doubt considering Rune's an 18-year-old qualifier making his Grand Slam debut, but what we see from Djokovic could be very telling as far as his title chances go. Prediction: Djokovic in three sets.
Fritz didn't miss being seeded here by much, and it's easy to forget the American world No. 41 is still just 23 years old considering he's been playing Grand Slams since 2016. He failed to take a set off de Minaur in three previous matches, but the two haven't played since 2019. Fritz has more power and should control most of the rallies against the counter-punching Aussie, while de Minaur is 1-4 since the beginning of Wimbledon. Prediction: Fritz in five sets.
Kyrgios' matches are often must-see TV, and he'll have a chance to put on a show against the rock-solid RBA. The enigmatic Australian has battled injuries to his knee and abdomen of late, but he's among the biggest servers on tour and has a pair of career Grand Slam quarterfinal runs under his belt. Bautista Agut has failed to make a slam quarterfinal outside of his career-best 2019 season, when he made the quarters in Australia and semis at Wimbledon, and the Spaniard hasn't been past the third round here since 2015, so he's a beatable target for Kyrgios. Prediction: Bautista Agut in five sets.
Alcaraz turned only 18 years old in May, and he's already knocking on the door of the top 50 at No. 54 in the world. The Spaniard is 4-3 in Grand Slam main draw play, all in 2021, and is yet to suffer a first-round defeat. In order to keep that streak alive, he'll have to navigate a tough opening-round draw against the British lefty Norrie, who has dropped three consecutive matches heading into this tournament. Those losses came at the hands of Nishikori, Khachanov and Isner. Those are all household names who have accomplished significantly more than Alcaraz, but let's revisit this discussion in 10 years. Actually, given the pace of Alcaraz's ascent, make it five years. Prediction: Alcaraz in four sets.
Quarterfinals: Djokovic def. Hurkacz, Zverev def. Khachanov, Rublev def. Tsitsipas, Medvedev def. Isner
Semifinals: Zverev def. Djokovic, Medvedev def. Rublev
Final: Medvedev def. Zverev