"I don't want to say it's now or never" - Djokovic

  • Matt Trollope

Whether it be a Calendar Slam, a US Open hat-trick, back-to-back majors or a breakthrough first Grand Slam title, the world's leading players have arrived in New York chasing history.

World No1 Ash Barty will be going for her second straight Grand Slam title, and third overall, after winning Wimbledon in July.

And she was the unanimous women’s title favourite among our panel of experts as they made their US Open predictions this week.

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On the eve of the final major of the year, Barty reflected on an incredible 2021 campaign, which saw her leave home in March – she has not returned to Australia since – and so far win five titles in an epic, globe-trotting journey.

“We've laughed a lot about some of the things that have happened,” Barty revealed. "Most of that laughter has come from experiences off the court. The flight over here (it took Barty almost 50 hours to travel from Brisbane to Miami in March), I swear it was the world telling me I shouldn't be leaving Australia.

I don't want to say it's now or never for me because I think I'm going to have more opportunities in my life to win Slams. I don't know if I'm going to be having more opportunities to win Calendar Slams.
Novak Djokovic

“But we have to laugh about it, just kind of lighten up, enjoy it. It is what it is. It's become such a beautiful story for me this year. It's become such a beautiful year on the tennis court. All of those distractions, experiences, everything that's come with it has made it all the better.

“I think once our year is over, I think it will be certainly a year for my team … to come together and celebrate because it's been an incredible year. It's been one that probably, whenever I do retire, it's going to be one of those years that you really look back on.”

Among Barty’s biggest challengers for the title is Osaka, the defending champion.

Last year, the Japanese star made global headlines by wearing face masks bearing the names of seven victims of police brutality in the United States, part of her advocacy for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I would say definitely for me, I'm the type of player that plays better if I have a reason or if I have a goal or if I'm driven about something. I'll tell you a funny story after my career is over about why I do so well in Australia. It has to do with the hallway that we walk in,” Osaka said.

“Definitely in New York last year the biggest goal for me was just to push that message across. I feel like I did well there. Right now, I don't really have that big of a, like, message to push across at all. So it's going to be really interesting to see, like, what drives me.

“Of course, I'm a competitor and I want to win. There's that feeling of wanting to I guess do better than last year.”

Andreescu is effectively a second defending champion, alongside Osaka, given she did not contest the 2020 event and is still carrying the ranking points she earned with her stunning 2019 triumph in New York.  

“I'm very happy to be back. I got goosebumps when I walked onto Armstrong the first day. It just brought me back to 2019. It's nice to have those feelings going into a tournament,” the Canadian said. “So I'm feeling good, and I'm healthy, so it's great.”

Andreescu’s triumph came in the same year Medvedev advanced to the final.

It was a memorable campaign for the Russian, who initially riled fans with his on-court antics and played the role of the ‘villain’ throughout the tournament before ultimately charming them with his stellar play and entertaining interviews.

Medvedev said he was “really happy” the US Open would once again feature a full-capacity crowd after no fans were allowed to attend the 2020 event.

“That's just huge. That's cool,” he said. “Actually it's funny because I don't know, it's tough to say if it's going to be the same people or nobody remembers two years ago. It's going to be funny on my first match to see how the crowd reacts to see me back in New York with fans here. I just hope, because it finished on a good note, it's going to continue the same way.

"I love a New York crowd. It was amazing experience in 2019 in every aspect. I'm just curious to see what it's going to be like again on my first match. I'm going to try just the best I can to show a good level of tennis and by this way to make fans support me.”

Medvedev is considered by many to be the leading challenger to world No.1 Djokovic, who is attempting to become the first man in more than half a century to win a coveted calendar-year Grand Slam.

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“I'm very inspired to play my best tennis here. I don't want to say it's now or never for me because I think I'm going to have more opportunities in my life to win Slams. I don't know if I'm going to be having more opportunities to win Calendar Slams,” Djokovic said.

“That's why it's a very unique opportunity. At the same time, I don't need to put any additional pressure to what I already have, which is pretty big from my own self and from people around me.

“But I thrive under pressure, as well. I've done that many times in my career. Pressure is a privilege, it truly is. This is what you work for day in, day out, all your life, to put yourself in a unique position to win Grand Slams and to make history. At the end of the day I'm a big tennis fan, fan of history. I admire this sport. I love it. I have this chance, and I'm going to try to use it.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas almost prevented Djokovic from being in this position when he led the Serb by two sets to love in the Roland Garros final.

The world No.3, along with Medvedev and Alexander Zverev, is considered one of the next generation of players most likely to scoop major titles in a post-'Big Three' era.

“All of us, we're in that kind of path. We share kind of the same goals and aspirations,” Tsitsipas said of his contemporaries. “I personally believe that all of us have, like, good games to get to Grand Slam titles. It is important that we're able to showcase that level of tennis in these kind of tournaments as best as possible to represent our generation of tennis in the best possible way.”

Like Tsitsipas, Sabalenka is seeking a first Grand Slam title, and arrived in New York having recently recorded her best result at a major with her semifinal finish at Wimbledon.

“After Wimbledon I just understand that I don't have to think about, like, win it or final or be in the second week, I just have to enjoy my game on each match and just be ready for every match, make sure I bring my level on the court and do everything I can. That's it. This is actually what I change (in my thinking),” Sabalenka said.

“US Open is a special Slam for me. I feel different here. I feel like at home. So, yeah, I enjoy the crowd here, and people support me really well here. I'm really looking forward for the first match. US Open, it's a special place for me.”