When world No. 1 Novak Djokovic was defaulted in the fourth round of the U.S. Open on Sunday for unintentionally hitting a line judge with a tennis ball, it had immediate and gigantic implications for the rest of the men’s field.
Now somebody not named Novak Djokovic is going to win the tournament on Sunday.
And since the only players to have won a major title in their lives — Djokovic, Andy Murray and Marin Cilic — are out of the tournament, it means that a younger player will capture his first Grand Slam title.
“There’s going to be a new Grand Slam champion,” said No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev, who could have faced Djokovic in the semifinals in the top half of the draw. “That’s all I know right now. There’s no past Grand Slam champions left in the draw. It’s going to be one of the young guys…
“Now it gets interesting. Now I think is the time where it gets really interesting.”
It is especially interesting considering that defending champion Rafael Nadal and five-time champion Roger Federer didn’t come to New York for the Open. Nadal, 34, cited COVID concerns and is preparing for the French Open beginning Sept. 27, while Federer, 39, won’t play again until 2021 after knee surgery.
Between them, the “Big Three” of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer had won 13 straight Grand Slam titles dating to the 2016 U.S. Open won by Stan Wawrinka. The trio have dominated men’s tennis for the past 15 years, winning 52 of 60 major titles. Djokovic, the oldest player left in the men’s draw when he was defaulted, had won five of the last seven major titles.
The last Grand Slam semifinal without a member of the “Big Three” was more than 16 years ago at the 2004 French Open — before Nadal won the first of his 12 Roland Garros titles a year later. The last man to win a Grand Slam title for the first time was Cilic at the 2014 U.S. Open — six years ago.
The default of Djokovic, meantime, puts his historical chase of Nadal and Federer on hold, at least until the French Open. Djokovic could have captured his 18th Grand Slam title in New York. As it stands, he remains at 17, three behind Federer’s 20 and two back of Nadal’s 19.
So in some ways, the remaining week of the Open is a preview of what life will be like after the “Big Three” are gone from the tennis world, whenever that day comes.
“Obviously it’s not the same, but at some point those two will retire, as well,” Zverev said earlier in the tournament when asked what it was like not having Federer and Nadal at the tournament. “And we will play every tournament without them.”
For now, No. 2 seed Dominic Thiem and No. 3 Daniil Medvedev appear to be the obvious favorites to capture the title. They could meet in the semifinal on the bottom half of the draw on Friday.
Thiem, one of the oldest remaining players at 27, has been to three Grand Slam finals — two at the French (2018, ‘19) and one at the Australian Open (2020) — without winning a major. He lost to Nadal in both of the French Open finals and to Djokovic in five sets at this year’s Australian Open.
Medvedev, the huge-hitting 24-year-old Russian, reached his only major final at the Open a year ago, pushing Nadal to five sets before coming up short in a wildly entertaining match.
The Russian meets Frances Tiafoe, the only American man remaining in the draw, in the round of 16 on Monday.
“I’d love to see Medvedev after what he did last year,” John McEnroe said before the tournament, when he called Djokovic the heavy favorite.
With three Canadians remaining in the draw, new Brooklyn Nets coach Steve Nash and fans of Canadian tennis can dream of an all-Canadian final between Denis Shapovalov and either Felix Auger-Aliassime or Vasek Pospisil.
“It’s definitely not the way we wanted to have a new Grand Slam champion but it’s pretty exciting to see so many young guys doing so well and obviously with some of the top guys not playing, it’s opened up the draw quite a bit for everybody so you’re seeing a lot of new players that normally fans wouldn’t get to see so it’s great for them, it’s great for everybody,” No. 12 Shapovalov said after beating No. 7 David Goffin in four sets.
“And I think it’s just amazing for the sport to have a new Grand Slam champion. You know, it’s been getting pretty boring with these three guys winning every tournament.”