2021 U.S. Open Picks & Predictions: Who Will Spoil Novak Djokovic’s Attempt at Calendar Grand Slam?

2021 U.S. Open Picks & Predictions: Who Will Spoil Novak Djokovic’s Attempt at Calendar Grand Slam? article feature image
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TPN/Getty Images. Pictured: Novak Djokovic.

Novak Djokovic will all but certainly go down as the greatest men’s tennis player of all time. He’s still in his prime at 34 years of age and is the very best player in the draw month in and month out. He’s captured all three Grand Slams in 2021, bringing his career total to 20.

What’s on the line at the U.S. Open next week, a tournament Djokovic has not won since 2018, is well-documented. The pressure is on to surpass Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the most Grand Slams of all time, just as it was on him in Tokyo to win a Gold Medal in hopes of capturing the elusive Golden Slam. In a bizarre scene, the pressure seemed too much for Djokovic in Tokyo, and I think lightning will strike twice in Queens.

Taking into account the full scope of Djokovic’s last few years, they’ve been spectacularly weird. He’s racked up six Grand Slams, but they’ve all been rather complicated. His win at the Aussie Open in 2019 was rather academic, but after that it was all too close for comfort. He needed an unforgettable comeback to save match points against Federer at Wimbledon in 2019, he fell to Dominic Thiem at Roland Garros and he was bounced in the Round of 16 in Queens by Stan Wawrinka in a bizarre match where he retired after going down two sets.

In 2020, he needed to come back from a 2-1 deficit against Thiem in Australia, he was crushed in the French Open final by Nadal and he was defaulted at the U.S. Open. He was able to capture the Australian Open this year, but seemed to be battling an injury the entire time, then he fell behind 2-0 to Stefanos Tsitsipas before the moment seemed to get too big for the Greek.

You’ve got two really clean, dominant Slam wins in three years for Djokovic — the Australian Open in 2019 and Wimbledon in 2021. The rest of them have been incredibly complicated and downright strange.

So, betting on Djokovic at -145 to win the U.S. Open — a price that would indicate a stress-free win for him — isn’t the play here. Instead, I see value in some rising young stars to capture their maiden Grand Slams, and I will run through them below.

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Alex Zverev +600 (DraftKings)

Zverev is the talk of the Tour right now after his monumental win in Cincinnati and his gold medal in Tokyo, which came with a win over Djokovic in the semifinals. The stakes couldn’t have been higher for the Serb, yet Zverev wore him down with relentless power groundstroking from the baseline, taking the final set in convincing fashion, 6-1.

The German is widely regarded as the biggest talent on Tour, possessing a huge serve that can get him out of trouble and make him a tough man to break, as well as having a giant backhand that can strike winners from everywhere. His game translates to any surface, but his power is really accentuated by hardcourts.

His biggest Achilles heel, which has held him back from a Grand Slam, is his brain. Zverev has built a reputation as a player who can’t handle pressure, losing control of his second serve and fumbling away chances, famously losing the U.S. Open to Thiem last year despite serving for the match.

Zverev’s second serve has vastly improved, and so has his composure. He’s learned to battle and never relent, twice coming from behind in finals this year against Stefanos Tsitsipas to stun the Greek.

Simply put, he’s not going to fear anyone, and I think if he maintains the confidence he’ll enter this tournament with the belief he should beat everyone in the draw.

Stefanos Tsitsipas +1200 (FanDuel)

This is probably my favorite play on the board. Tstisipas was the hottest player on Tour just a couple of months ago, and led Djokovic 2-0 in that aforementioned French Open final. He then took a couple of weeks off instead of tuning up for the grass (his worst surface) and fell in the first round, rather predictably.

After that came a meaningless clay tournament, where he was bounced in the quarters, and a few losses to very in-form players serving incredibly well in Ugo Humbert, Reilly Opelka and Zverev.

I’m not ready to write off Tsitsipas and will happily take the value here on a player that would have been around +500 or better to win this event if it were held a couple of months ago. He’s the most complete player on Tour not named Novak, possessing the spot serving necessary to win on any surface and crisp groundstrokes that can back even the most confident players back beyond the baseline.

The Greek is still an impressive 21-6 on hardcourts this year, memorably taking down Rafael Nadal from 2-0 down in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in January. He’s built up his fitness in five-set matches over the last few years and has gained valuable experience.

With all the heartbreaking losses he’s suffered through the years, be it Roland Garros and Barcelona this year or his collapse at the U.S. Open last year, he’s grown a lot. I think he’s got a great chance of coming out of the Medvedev half of a the draw, matching up well with the Russian as long as he’s not out of gas like he was at the Aussie Open.

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