A triumph in New York would have been an 18th Grand Slam title for the Serbian, and 14th straight for a member of the ‘big three’ which has dominated men’s tennis for 15 years. There would simply be no other outcome. The world number one had not lost all season. Surely nothing could stop him.
It turns out that something could stop him; himself. In one swift swing of a tennis ball in anger, Djokovic found himself becoming the first man in 20 years to be defaulted from a Grand Slam singles event. The only Grand Slam champion into the fourth round out after just 11 games of his fourth round clash, leaving the tennis world in a collective state of shock.
Marin Cilic was the last person to win a maiden Grand Slam title at the US Open. Six very long years later, with Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka the only players able to temporarily break the big three’s stranglehold, there will finally be a new face in the Grand Slam winners circle. Once the quarterfinal line-up is officially set tomorrow, it will be the first time since Wimbledon in 2003 that none of the players in the last eight of a major have won a slam.
The two men that have come closest to cracking the glass ceiling created by Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer are not yet in the quarterfinals, but will no doubt be aware of the huge opportunity present for them.
World number five Daniil Medvedev, the third seed in New York this summer, was widely seen as the man most likely to challenge Djokovic this tournament. The Russian will be a significant favorite for his fourth round clash against the unseeded Frances Tiafoe and was the only man to reach the second week without dropping a set. He will be hoping to go one step further than last year, when he fell in the final to Nadal.
That run to the final last summer saw him become the first member of the ‘Next Gen’ to reach a Grand Slam final, with the Russian displaying a confidence in his tennis that had not yet been seen by anyone of his generation. Medvedev narrowly fell in five sets in the final and is now perhaps the favorite to win his first Grand Slam title.
If Medvedev does prevail, he will face the winner of another interesting clash between sixth seed Matteo Berrettini and tenth seed Andrey Rublev. Both have achieved their best slam results here and whoever wins that clash will certainly have a shot at the last four. The Italian reached the last four in 2019 and is the on-paper favorite, though Rublev has been playing extremely well before the suspension and since the restart.
The other man who has come close to breaking through the big three is world number three and second seed Dominic Thiem has lost in two French Open finals to Nadal and in a five-set contest to Djokovic at the Australian Open back in February. The Austrian occupies an awkward position in the ATP Timeline; having turned 27 on Thursday he’s too old to be ‘Next Gen’ yet too young to be included in the so called ‘Lost Generation’, where the likes of Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic languish. Thiem certainly has the game to win on most surfaces and has been backed for success for several years, and will have taken heart from his performance in Melbourne.
Thiem is certainly now one of the favorites, but has yet to come through Felix Auger-Aliassime in one of the most interesting fourth round matches. The young Canadian, who only turned 20 a month ago, has already reached five tour finals and has impressed many with his tennis in New York. It would not be a surprise, with the level he has displayed, he beats Thiem to reach a first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Auger-Aliassime is now undoubtedly a title contender, as is fellow young Canadian Denis Shapovalov. Seeded 12th, Shapovalov is also in his first Grand Slam quarterfinal aged 21 after beating David Goffin and, having been hyped for so long, it is looking as if he may be starting to fulfill his potential.
Of all the ‘Next Gen’ players, the one that has been competing at the highest level the longest is Alexander Zverev, who has seemingly overcome his issue with slam tournaments. The world number seven is in his first quarterfinal in New York and is the highest ranked player left in the top half of the draw. The German is perhaps the favorite to reach the final from the top half after Djokovic’s exit, though faces another young player in 27th Borna Coric; the Croat saved six match points to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in the third round, and himself is in a first major quarterfinal.
Of course, it could easily be someone outside of the ‘Next Gen’ bubble who wins the tournament. Having reached the last eight following Djokovic’s disqualification, Pablo Carreno Busta will now face Shapovalov. The 20th seed was a surprise semifinalist here three years ago, beating the Canadian that tournament, and is one of the few Spaniards who favors hard courts. Perhaps even the likes of Vasek Pospisil or Alex De Minaur, himself still very young, could break through. There is certainly some uncertainty about who will prevail
Finding out will be fascinating.