US Open 2021: Top storylines to watch for and can't-miss matches

There will be no Serena Williams at this year's US Open.

Nor Roger Federer.

Or Rafael Nadal.

Or Venus Williams.

The heralded foursome has a combined 17 career singles titles at the year's final major, but all four players were forced to withdraw because of injury in 2021. Their collective absence will undoubtedly be felt by their peers and fans alike, but it could provide a sneak preview of what the next era in professional tennis will look like.

So while the star power will certainly be lacking -- three-time major victor Stan Wawrinka, defending men's champion Dominic Thiem and 2020 Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin will also be absent -- there are countless other determined and talented players looking to leave their marks, and they could still make this a Grand Slam to remember.

Here are the players and storylines you won't want to miss heading into the 2021 US Open.

Novak Djokovic's quest for the calendar Slam

Following his third straight major win at Wimbledon in July, Novak Djokovic had the chance to make history with the elusive "Golden Slam" -- a feat achieved only by Steffi Graf in 1988 -- if he were to win the gold medal in Tokyo and hoist the trophy in New York.

But instead of ending his time in Japan on the podium with a gold medal draped around his neck, Djokovic lost in spectacular, racket-breaking fashion in the bronze-medal match to Pablo Carreno Busta. He then withdrew from the bronze-medal mixed doubles match because of a shoulder injury and was widely criticized for his attitude and lack of sportsmanship. He hasn't played a match since.

Still, despite all that, Djokovic has the chance to complete the calendar Grand Slam at the US Open, becoming part of an esteemed list of just five other singles players to accomplish the achievement. He would join Rod Laver as just the second man to achieve the feat during the Open era. With Federer and Nadal -- Djokovic's two greatest rivals -- both absent from the event, it seems the stars are aligning for Djokovic.

However, Djokovic hasn't always had the best results at the year's final major and he can occasionally be his own toughest opponent. He has won just three times -- compared to nine times at the Australian Open -- and was disqualified from the 2020 tournament after hitting a line judge with a ball. He also had to withdraw during his fourth-round match with injury in 2019. But if he can keep his temper in check and hold off a slew of determined and increasingly more confident young players, Djokovic could cement his spot in the history books and take home record-setting Grand Slam title No. 21 -- the most ever in men's tennis.

All eyes on Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka enters the US Open as the reigning champion after opening the 2021 season with a title at the Australian Open and as the winner of the past two Grand Slam titles on hard courts. She has won two of the past three US Open trophies and on paper she is certainly a top candidate -- if not the favorite -- to win in New York.

However, as anyone who has read as much as a tennis headline over the past few months knows, it hasn't exactly been the easiest stretch for the 23-year-old. Osaka announced she would be skipping her media obligations during the French Open before play got underway and her decision was immediately polarizing. Ahead of a second-round match and after receiving a fine for missing her news conference following her opener, Osaka withdrew from the event. She explained experiencing "long bouts of depression" since her first major victory at the US Open in 2018, and her actions have since sparked an ongoing conversation about athletes and mental health.

Osaka then sat out Wimbledon and didn't play again until the Olympics in her native Japan. She opened her time in Tokyo by lighting the torch during the opening ceremony -- an honor only icons such as Muhammad Ali and Rafer Johnson had done at past Games -- but lost in the third round. She later said the expectations of being the face of the Olympics had been overwhelming.

"I'm disappointed in every loss, but I feel like this one sucks more than the others,'' Osaka said after the match. "I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this. I think it's maybe because I haven't played in the Olympics before and for the first year [it] was a bit much.''

Osaka has since played in the Western & Southern Open, where she lost in the round of 16 to Jil Teichmann in three sets. However, it was a news conference in which she needed to step away for a few minutes after beginning to cry following a testy exchange with a reporter that drew the most headlines.

So now Osaka returns to the US Open with all eyes on her. How will she fare in her return to the tournament in which she's previously seen such success? It remains to be seen, but she said she was feeling positive despite her early exit in Cincinnati.

"I also feel quite accomplished with what I did this week," Osaka said after her loss to Teichmann. "I know I have only played two matches, but I think I have learned a lot from both of them.

"I definitely wouldn't go into a tournament thinking that I can't win it. I would say for me right now, I'm not even thinking about winning it, though. I'm thinking about going into the tournament and taking it one match at a time, and that's how I play really well."

It's Barty's party (and she'll win if she wants to)

Osaka is the defending champion, but no one comes to the tournament with more momentum than Ash Barty. In case you need a refresher on what she has done this season, here's a list of things she has won (Yes, it's just too many for a sentence to handle):

  • Yarra Valley Classic

  • Miami Open

  • Stuttgart

  • Wimbledon

  • Olympic mixed doubles bronze medal (with John Peers)

  • Western & Southern Open

After opting out of the 2020 restart because of coronavirus concerns and facing criticism for holding on to her No. 1 ranking despite not playing, Barty has backed up her ranking -- and then some -- with a, dare we say, Serena level of consistent dominance. And she has done it all while living out of a suitcase since March. That's right, Barty hasn't been home to her native Australia since before the Miami Open.

Excuse us, as we know this just turned into an Ash Barty "stan blog," but what she has done this year has been nothing short of spectacular and she could very well add another trophy to her overstuffed suitcase at the US Open. If she were to win another title this year, she would become the first WTA player to win more than five since, you guessed it, Serena Williams.

Barbora Krejcikova's storied season continues

While we're talking about 2021 major winners and women having monumental years, we can't leave out French Open singles and doubles champion (and Australian Open mixed doubles victor) Barbora Krejcikova. The 25-year-old nabbed the gold medal in doubles with partner Katerina Siniakova in Tokyo and opened the US Open series with a quarterfinal run in Cincinnati.

She has never participated in the US Open singles main draw before -- and hasn't even played in doubles since reaching the semifinals in 2018 -- but will look to make a serious impression in her debut with a career-high ranking of No. 9.

Krejcikova faces a qualifier in her opener, and she would potentially face Victoria Azarenka or Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round and No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the quarters.

While many had no idea who she was in Paris, few will be discounting her this time around.

From the Olympic podium to New York

Belinda Bencic and Alexander Zverev both won the biggest titles of their careers in Tokyo by earning gold medals in singles play -- and now the 24-year-olds will look to capitalize on their momentum during the year's final Grand Slam.

And, as Andy Murray won his first career major at the US Open in 2012 just weeks after winning Olympic gold, it wouldn't be totally unprecedented for either to walk away with more hardware at the end of the fortnight in New York.

Bencic became the pride of Switzerland by winning two medals -- she also earned the silver in doubles with Viktorija Golubic -- and even drew the praise of fellow countryman Roger Federer. Bencic reached the quarterfinals at the Western & Southern Open in her first tournament back since the Olympics.

And now as she heads to the site of her best major result thus far -- she reached the semifinals in 2019 -- Bencic is hopeful her experience in Japan will help her going forward.

"I've always wondered how it is [to win a big title]," Bencic said in Cincinnati. "Actually, when you have the match point, [during] such an important Grand Slam or Olympic final, how do you even walk up to the line, finish it and everything. So now I actually know.

"I've heard a really good quote, 'When you always give luck a chance, go deep in important tournaments, then at some point maybe it will, like, go for you, turn around for you.' This is definitely my goal, to kind of try and dig deep, of course, in the big tournaments. Maybe I can use this special experience to kind of finish it ... It's not going to be like a first-time big final or something."

She'll open play against Arantxa Rus and will have her hands full with potential matchups against Jessica Pegula in the third round, Iga Swiatek in the fourth and Barty in the quarterfinals.

For Zverev, however, it'll be difficult to focus solely on his play. He was first accused of domestic abuse by his former partner in October, and further claims were published on Slate this week. Zverev has repeatedly denied the allegations, most recently on Friday, but it will likely remain a major topic of conversation throughout the tournament.

Zverev, who made the 2020 final in Queens and lost to Dominic Thiem in five sets, won the title in Cincinnati after returning from Japan. He defeated Andrey Rublev 6-2, 6-3 in just 59 minutes in the final.

While he made it clear he believes there's still a front-runner entering the US Open, he seemed confident in his own abilities as well.

"I do think that [Djokovic is] still the favorite," Zverev said after the Western & Southern Open final. "I do think he's going to be playing incredible tennis there. He's going to be fresh, and I think there is also other guys that are in very good form. I think Rublev is in very good form, [Daniil] Medvedev, [Stefanos] Tsitsipas, all those guys are playing great tennis.

"It's definitely going to be an interesting US Open. But I'm also looking forward to it, because, yeah, I know where I stand, I know how I'm playing, and I hope I can continue the work and hopefully play even better in New York."

Speaking of those other guys ...

From #NextGen to Generation Now?

As mentioned by Zverev, there is a formidable group of young players more than ready to make their move. While Djokovic remains the No. 1 player in the world and the winner of the past three major titles, Zverev, Medvedev and Tsitsipas have all won Masters 1000-level titles this season, and Rublev has played in two such finals and seemed poised to make a breakthrough at a major.

Medvedev, the world No. 2, has continued to show he's one of the best players on hard courts with a win in Toronto earlier this month and a semifinal appearance in Cincinnati the following week. With experience on his side -- he reached the final in New York in 2019 and at the Australian Open earlier this year -- and not having to face Djokovic until the final, this might just be his best chance yet to win a major title.

"I mean, the more matches you win in these two tournaments, because they are very similar to New York, the more confidence you're going to have," Medvedev said about the lead-up events to the US Open. "Confidence is a big key in tennis. So of course it's good that I'm coming there knowing that I'm capable of playing good in these conditions, because every year is a new year ...

"Now I know that it's possible. A Grand Slam is a Grand Slam. Going to have tough opponents. They want to beat you. They want also to do good. Hopefully I can just show my best tennis, and that's how I'm capable of doing big results."

Not to mention, Medvedev became a fan favorite and global sensation during his New York run in 2019 thanks to his delightfully trollish antics with the crowd. There might be no one more motivated by the return of a large audience than him.

Tsitsipas, the world No. 3, gave Djokovic a fight in five hard-fought sets during the French Open final in June and opened his hard-court season with back-to-back semifinal runs in Toronto and Cincinnati. He has never advanced past the third round in New York but looks to change that this year.

Rublev reached the quarterfinals at the US Open in 2020 and is coming off a gold-medal mixed doubles victory in Tokyo with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and a final appearance in Cincinnati.

Djokovic remains the betting favorite, but it seems with the rapidly decreasing stronghold at majors by the Big Three, the long-awaited emergence and dominance of the next generation will soon be upon us.

Young Americans on the rise

It's no secret that the American men haven't exactly been a force in the global tennis scene over the past decade-plus, and Andy Roddick was the last man repping the red, white and blue to win a major in 2003. Players such as John Isner and Sam Querrey have reached the semifinals at Grand Slams in more recent years, but overall it has been a largely disappointing stretch.

But suddenly there is a talented group of young American men who seemed ready to make their marks on the tour. While it seems unlikely any of this group will win the US Open just yet, don't be surprised if any number of them make a deep run on home soil in front of a supportive crowd. Here are a few to keep your eye on over the next two weeks:

Reilly Opelka, 23, knocked off three top-20 players (Tsitsipas, Roberto Bautista Agut and Grigor Dimitrov) en route to the biggest final of his career at the Canadian Open this month to reach a new best ranking of No. 23. He's the second-highest-ranked American behind Isner and will take on Soonwoo Kwon in his opener in New York.

Sebastian Korda, 21, made his major main draw debut at the US Open in 2020 and has been on an absolute tear since. He reached the fourth round at the 2020 French Open and at Wimbledon earlier this summer, played in two ATP finals -- winning the title in Parma -- and he enters this year's US Open with a career-high ranking of No. 45.

Mackenzie "Mackie" McDonald, 26, reached his first career ATP final this summer in Washington D.C., ultimately losing in three sets to Jannik Sinner. McDonald, who won the NCAA singles title while at UCLA in 2016, suffered a potentially career-ending hamstring injury in 2019 but has surged in his comeback. He reached the fourth round at the Australian Open and is now back up to No. 60 in the world. He has never advanced past the first round at the US Open but looks to change that this week.

Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe, both 23, are the most experienced players on this list and have proved to be capable of beating some of the best players in the game on any given day. Fritz nearly pulled off the upset over Djokovic at the Australian Open, and Tiafoe stunned the third-seeded Tsitsipas in straight sets during the opening round at Wimbledon.

Brandon Nakashima and Jenson Brooksby, both 20, broke into the top 100 this year and reached their first career ATP finals as well as winning Challenger titles. Both have reached the second round at the tournament before and will look to go even further with some momentum on their side. Nakashima will take on Isner in the opening round in an American generational battle.

The Queens of Queens

The US Open has been the site of great triumph for Bianca Andreescu, Victoria Azarenka and Jen Brady over the past two years, and all three arrive in Queens looking to rediscover some of their magic. Will they be able to find it during the tournament?

Andreescu, the 2019 winner, has struggled with injuries and inconsistencies since her victory. She returns to the tournament for the first time as a champion after skipping the event last year because of virus concerns. She reached the final in Miami in April but hasn't advanced past the second round in a major all season. And the US Open draw isn't exactly in her favor -- she would potentially have to take on two former Grand Slam champions (Jelena Ostapenko and Petra Kvitova) before reaching the quarterfinals.

Two-time Grand Slam champion Azarenka had a career resurgence at the "Double in the Bubble" in 2020, winning the Western & Southern Open title and reaching the final at the US Open. She hasn't experienced the same level of success in 2021, but having made three final appearances throughout her career in New York, this could just be the tournament to turn her season around.

"I'm always happy to be in New York," Azarenka said earlier this month. "It's one of my favorite tournaments, one of my favorite Grand Slams to play. I'm always excited to go there and see what happens."

Brady won her first WTA title ahead of the US Open last year in Lexington and followed it up with a star-making run to the semifinals, where she pushed eventual champion Osaka in one of the best matches of the season. She followed that up with a run to the Australian Open final in February. An injury suffered at the French Open sidelined her for several months, but she was back in time for the Olympics and made her tour return in Cincinnati.

Fans! 100%!

The 2020 US Open was the first major to take place following the sport's five-month break due to the pandemic, and it was surreal to see players competing at Arthur Ashe Stadium -- the largest tennis venue in the world -- with no fans. The sounds of the typically boisterous New York crowd was replaced by an eerie silence.

Thankfully, that will not be the case this year. Fans have been reintroduced in varying numbers at tournaments around the world, and now the US Open will be the first major to allow 100% fan capacity for the duration of the event. Many players have spoken openly the past year about how strange it has been to not have the support of the crowd, so it should be fun to see the interaction during matches.

But even the players who seem to thrive most with a crowd seem cautiously optimistic about the large numbers potentially in the stands.

"It's cool that the crowd is back," Medvedev said recently. "Of course, actually, also what we need to see is the number of cases, especially between us tennis players. If, for example, there is going to be tournament where there is 100% capacity and then the positive cases go up, then there is going to be question.

"If it doesn't, then perfect. With the crowd, it's much more fun."

More than 700,000 people attended the 2019 US Open.

Can't-miss opening-round matches


No. 2 Daniil Medvedev vs. Richard Gasquet

No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. Andy Murray

No. 14 Alex de Minaur vs. Taylor Fritz

No. 18 Roberto Bautista Agut vs. Nick Kyrgios

No. 19 John Isner vs. Brandon Nakashima

No. 26 Cameron Norrie vs. Carlos Alcaraz


Madison Keys vs. Sloane Stephens (in a rematch of the 2017 US Open final)

No. 4 Karolina Pliskova vs. Caty McNally

No. 9 Garbine Muguruza vs. Donna Vekic

No. 12 Simona Halep vs. Camila Giorgi

No. 17 Maria Sakkari vs. Marta Kostyuk

No. 22 Karolina Muchova vs. Sara Sorribes Tormo

No. 25 Daria Kasatkina vs. Tsvetana Pironkova

No. 26 Danielle Collins vs. Carla Suarez Navarro