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Can Djokovic achieve the calendar-year Slam? Who is the women’s favorite?

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Sep 5, 2021

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    ESPN staff

One week into the US Open, there has been no shortage of excitement, upsets, and yes, drama.

No. 1 Ash Barty was stunned in the third round by American Shelby Rogers on Saturday night. A day earlier, Naomi Osaka lost in third round to Leylah Fernandez. Elsewhere in the tournament, Stefanos Tsitsipas, also upset in the third round on Friday, was drawing criticisms from his fellow competitors about his lengthy bathroom breaks.

As we head into the second week at Flushing Meadows, our experts break down what they expect to see on both the men’s and women’s side of the tournament and whether Novak Djokovic can claim Grand Slam title No. 21 and the calendar-year Slam.

Final prediction: Does Djokovic achieve the calendar-year Slam? And who has shown in Week 1 they have the best chance of competing with him?

Bill Connelly: Honestly, in terms of Djokovic vs. the field, I think odds very much favor the field at this point. Alexander Zverev, his potential semifinal opponent, has won 22 of 24 sets since dropping the first one to Djokovic in the Olympic semis and has been nearly untouchable this week. Meanwhile, not only does Daniil Medvedev look dominant, but his draw has opened up with the elimination of both of his most likely semifinal opponents, Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev. Djokovic would be favored in both matches, but the two guys who entered the tournament as his biggest challengers have lived up to their billing so far. I wouldn’t put Djokovic’s title odds higher than about 40% at this point.

Luke Jensen: Djokovic is clearly the best player I’ve seen in the field and Zverev is close behind with his Olympic gold medal, but if someone has a shot at wrecking history, I want a young kid who just runs on awesome, and that is American Jenson Brooksby. J.B. plays extremely well on hardcourts and specializes in clutch play. Give Brooksby a packed Ashe Stadium, and a close match could mean a US Open upset for the ages.

Aishwarya Kumar: Yes, Djokovic does. And Medvedev has the best shot at him. The Russian has yet to lose a set this tournament or even play a tiebreaker. He has looked in control in every match — and he is in the other half of the draw. This means it could very well be a Djokovic vs. Medvedev final, as long as Djokovic takes care of Zverev, whom he could meet in the semifinals. I know Medvedev lost in straight sets to Djokovic in the Australian Open final earlier this year, but let’s not forget that in the eight times they have played each other, Medvedev has managed to beat the World No. 1 three times.

D’Arcy Maine: Yes, but it’s not going to be easy. Djokovic has showed flashes of vulnerability throughout the week, particularly in his first-round match with Holger Rune and in the third round against Kei Nishikori. The level of opposition is only going to get tougher as the tournament progresses, so he’ll need to really dial in if he wants to make history. Djokovic could potentially face Medvedev in the final — who has yet to drop a set in New York. Now having played in two major hardcourt finals, and looking better than ever, Medvedev could be a real threat to derail Djokovic’s quest.

Pam Shriver: Since picking the field at the start over the Grand Slam, I won’t be making any changes yet — because history says winning the Grand Slam is the hardest thing to do in tennis. Zverev in a semi or Medvedev in the finals have the best chance to beat Djokovic because they are both playing terrific hard-court tennis and the pressure mounts with each round for Djokovic.

Alexandra Stevenson: Novak Djokovic will achieve the calendar Grand Slam. How can you not call it for him? Medvedev is sitting down there — working his way through the draw. It’ll be Medvedev-Djokovic in the final. Fast courts are made for those two — especially Medvedev, which gives him a peek at taking it away from Djokovic.

Sure, Zverev has a chance for that big semifinal meet against Novak. Djokovic makes his consistency on the court the reason other players don’t hang in there. It’s tough to hang with Djokovic on his best day. Try it. He practices his patterns and [coach Goran] Ivanisevic has made his serve better.

Gael Monfils’ fifth-set exit was sad for fans who love a showman’s game, but exciting for the youth on the men’s side coming through at this year’s Open. Sinner. Alcaraz. Shapovalov. Auger-Aliassime. And can we say Jimmy Connors’ Friday Night at the Fights is back? The Alcaraz-Tsitsipas match was past a popcorn match: It was edge-of-your-seat theater.

Ohm Youngmisuk: With legends like Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal not here, Djokovic could be looking at his biggest support from the Open crowd yet. He hasn’t been at his most dominant, but he really hasn’t been seriously pushed yet. Medvedev and Zverev could be the threats that derail Djoker’s Slam dream if he isn’t at his best.

Who is your favorite in the women’s field after Week 1 and why?

James Blake: Karolina Pliskova. I believe getting through the Amanda Anisimova second-round match gave her the confidence to fight for her first major.

Connelly: Upsets of Osaka and Barty have turned this into an absolute battle royale, and any of about 12 players could reasonably be considered the favorite. That’s incredible. But give me Aryna Sabalenka. She’s been maybe the most consistent player on tour this year, she just reached her first Slam semifinal at Wimbledon, and she could be ready. But this is anybody’s race.

Jensen: I had Osaka finding form, but with her third-round exit, I like the 2019 US Open champion, Bianca Andreescu. She has never lost in the Open’s main draw, and with a winner’s trophy in her collection, adding another Tiffany winner is a real possibility. She is healthy and going through injuries makes one tougher moving forward. She has to stay away from the double faults and use her forehand down the line effectively to win it all.

Kumar: I’ve got to say Fernandez. Her confidence against Osaka really surprised me. Her deep left-handed serves, her cheeky drop shots during big points and the fact that she didn’t let the packed — and raucous — Arthur Ashe Stadium sway her one way or the other says a lot. Plus, she beat the experienced Kaia Kanepi and Ana Konjuh in straight sets before she faced Osaka. I’m here for a good breakthrough-star storyline.

Maine: With Barty and Osaka now out of the draw, it’s anyone’s title to win — but Andreescu has looked as good as, well, the last time she won the US Open in 2019. It has been a challenging season for the Canadian, but having escaped a tough first-round match and seemingly healthy for the first time in a long time, Andreescu’s confidence is back in a big way and she’s at a tournament she knows she can win.

Shriver: After Week 1 with both Barty and Osaka out, there is not a favorite. Andreescu is the only past champion left and she is getting better with each match. Svitolina and Bencic are playing well with an Olympic glow after winning gold and bronze in Tokyo.

Stevenson: Belinda Bencic is the game’s most impressive after Week 1. My look at her is ahead of her match with Andreescu. Andreescu has the strong groundstrokes, but I like Bencic’s toughness, Swiss patterns and emotional outbursts, regardless of the outcome.

Which men’s player making a surprise run so far has the best chance at a title and why?

Blake: Opelka. The draw has opened up for him and his weapons are enormous.

Connelly: With Djokovic, Zverev and Medvedev all likely to snare semifinal spots, you kind of have to choose someone from the other quarter: either Frances Tiafoe or Carlos Alcaraz. Tiafoe’s win over Rublev was stirring and further proof that he can beat anyone on a given day, but Alcaraz has been by far the more consistent player of the two. He’s 49-18 this season (including challengers), and if he can avoid a post-Tsitsipas hangover — easier said than done — he has the weapons to keep going.

Jensen: Alcaraz is incredible! He reminds me of a young Andre Agassi with explosive groundies on both wings. It also reminds me of a time when tennis was wondering who was going to replace legends like McEnroe, Connors and Lendl. Then Sampras, Agassi, Chang and Courier won majors as kids. Now it’s “The Rock of Alcaraz” taking over the game from Djokovic, Federer and Nadal.

Kumar: Carlos Alcaraz. His forehand is a thing of beauty and his composure under pressure as he took on the No. 3 seed Tsitsipas is a story I’ll tell people for a long time. He came back after being bageled in the fourth set against Tsitsipas, and still played like he believed he could win — and he did. And he is not on the Djokovic side of the draw. Which means, if he ends up upsetting Medvedev, he could set up a title clash with Djokovic. And I can already imagine that match being one for the history books.

Maine: I was initially going to say Jannik Sinner, but at this point, I don’t think it’s fair to even consider this a surprise run anymore. So, that being said, Tiafoe is having a huge summer — with massive upset victories this week and previously at Wimbledon — and the win over No. 5 seed Rublev in the third round showed just how dangerous he can be when he’s at his best. He loves the fans in the stands, almost as much as they love him, and the American could get an extra boost from the adoring home crowd.

Stevenson: Young Alcaraz is wonderful to watch. Like a boxer in the ring. You pull for him and you hold your breath on his swinging big shots. I think all of the young players, including Alcaraz, have chances for titles in their career. Shapovalov. Auger-Aliassime. And the Italian, Sinner — stiffer, but talented. Could we please get Alcaraz past qualifier Peter Gojowczyk? Then he’d go up against Tiafoe or Auger-Aliassime. Now those are showman matches!

Youngmisuk: Alcaraz probably isn’t ready to capitalize on his awfully impressive upset over Tsitsipas, but the 18-year-old showed the kind of poise, maturity and dynamite game needed to make a “surprise run.” If he plays the way he did against Tsitsipas — which was well beyond his years — Alcaraz is going to be a serious problem for anyone on the other side, especially if he plays fearless and with nothing to lose.

Which women’s player making a surprise run so far has the best chance at a title and why?

Blake: Elina Svitolina. She’s playing well and confident.

Connelly: A lot of the lower-seeded players doing well right now — Angelique Kerber, Jessica Pegula, Anett Kontaveit — aren’t exactly surprises, but I’ll just say this: As long as Fernandez is striking the ball like she did against Osaka in her third-round upset win, she’s a threat to beat anyone in the field. Her pre-tournament form suggests she won’t keep this up for another four matches (and playing Kerber after taking down huge hitters like Osaka and Kaia Kanepi is like playing a different sport), but she has been incredible through three matches.

Kumar: Kerber. She has had a rough couple of years, dropping out of the top 20 in 2020 and generally struggling with momentum. She lost in the first rounds of the Australian Open and French Open this year. But she is a multiple Grand Slam champion, and all it takes is one tournament for her game to click. Based on how she has been playing in Flushing Meadows so far (she came back from a set down to beat 2017 champion Sloane Stephens in the third round), I wouldn’t be surprised if this tournament is where she makes an emphatic comeback.

Maine: Fernandez always believed she could beat anyone on tour and now, having recorded the biggest win of her career on Friday over Osaka, she is going to be tough to beat. She’ll take on a resurgent Kerber in the fourth round on Sunday — her 19th birthday — and if she can get past her, it feels like the sky is the limit.

Shriver: Leylah Fernandez is lighting up the court with back-to-back wins over Osaka and Kerber. She has the best chance for the surprise win, given her attitude and game.

Stevenson: Bencic won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. “Queen of the North” Andreescu seems ready to compete for titles. Throw in Sakkari’s strength and it’s an open field for anyone to take. They are all contenders here.

I wanted Sloane Stephens to come through the draw. She truly epitomizes Muhammed Ali’s “rope-a-dope” moves; she lulls you into her patterns, then pounces for the right cross, down the middle, in your face. Stephens can be brilliant.

Youngmisuk: Bencic. The women’s Olympic gold medalist looks sharp and fit, and her confidence is surging. If she gets by Swiatek next, that confidence is only going to swell.

Which Week 1 storyline will lead to change sooner — the debate over bathroom breaks or mandating vaccines?

Blake: Mandates. It’s a safety issue. Bathroom breaks will be talked about with no action.

Connelly: Hopefully both, but the answer is definitely bathroom breaks, simply because it’s easier.

Jensen: How about the grunt of Brooksby?

Kumar: As much as I have been loving all the bathroom puns, it has to be the vaccine mandate. With the delta variant taking control of the world, it’s only a matter of days before the ATP and WTA will have to figure out a universal system to make sure all athletes and their teams are safe. As Victoria Azarenka said, it’s bizarre that fans need to be vaccinated while players do not. And that’s not going to last long.

Maine: Sigh. In terms of tangible, mandated change, I think bathroom breaks will be addressed sooner as there will be less opposition among players for such a proposed rule. Can the record please state that I am saying, “Sigh,” again here?

Shriver: I hope in the second week for no controversies, just more compelling, high-quality tennis. In all my years I have never seen on both men’s and women’s side so many memorable matches.

Stevenson: I think both scenarios will be a huge talking point on the WTA, ATP and Grand Slam committees. Bathroom breaks. Tsitsipas has been called the “Prince Philosopher” by the New York Times. Perhaps he should wax eloquently about where he fits inside the locker room — with his fellow players. Make no mistake: The long bathroom breaks and Andy Murray’s scathing comments affected him, even if he said he didn’t care. The locker room is a rarified atmosphere. You’re not there to be everyone’s best friend, yet jocular sportsmanship matters, especially inside the men’s locker room.

As for vaccines, that’s a tough one. Countries have different rules — so the ITF is going to have to enforce vaccine rules, passports, to get all players vaccinated.

Youngmisuk: The bathroom break drama has brought out a variety of opinions. Certainly, vaccines have the more serious impact on the game moving forward, but the break fiasco that Tsitsipas created against Andy Murray could perhaps lead to at least a tweak in the rules sooner than something like vaccinations being mandated. As we have seen in the NFL and other sports, vaccinations can be awfully personal and a divisive topic.

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