First Grand Slam titles for Daniil Medvedev and Emma Raducanu capped a breathtaking fortnight of tennis at the US Open, defined by a notable shift in the sport’s power structure.
As we reflect on the year’s final Grand Slam event, here are five things that stood out.
The future is now
So many of the sport’s rising stars announced themselves to the world at exactly the moment tennis needed them to.
Many worried the spate of high-profile withdrawals leading into the tournament – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena and Venus Williams, Stan Wawrinka and defending champion Dominic Thiem – would reduce interest in the year’s final Grand Slam event.
But they need not have worried.
The sporting world was captivated by the runs of Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez, who contested the first all-teenaged Grand Slam final in 22 years.
Fernandez’s fellow Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime, 21, advanced to his first major semifinal, where he was stopped by eventual winner Daniil Medvedev – who at 25 years and seven months became the youngest men’s Grand Slam champion since Andy Murray won in New York nine years earlier.
Aside from Novak Djokovic, none of the semifinalists in either the men’s or women’s singles draws were older than 26.
And then you had other young stars, like 18-year-old Spanish sensation Carlos Alcaraz – who makes his top-40 debut after reaching the quarters – and 20-year-olds Iga Swiatek, Jenson Brooksby and Jannik Sinner, who all progressed to the second week.
18-year-old @AlcarazCarlos03 breaks into Top 50 at career-high No. 38 in @FedEx ATP Rankings.— ATP Media Info (@ATPMediaInfo) September 13, 2021
Alcaraz becomes highest-ranked player at his age since @RafaelNadal was No. 37 as 17-year-old during week of 26 April 2004.
What’s more, all those mentioned play exciting, yet varied, brands of tennis and possess impressively complete games.
So while several tennis legends may be nearing the end of their storied careers, it is reassuring to see so many fabulous players and personalities coming up behind them.
Medvedev comes of age
Most observers believed Medvedev would one day break through for a Grand Slam title, given he had already appeared in two major finals, established himself at world No.2 and collected four ATP Masters trophies in the past two years.
But few predicted that crowning moment would unfold in the way it did.
Medvedev won his first major title in the most resounding way possible, beating dominant world No.1 Djokovic in front of a star-studded crowd and even bigger global audience who tuned in to watch Djokovic potentially achieve tennis history.
The Russian stopped Djokovic from becoming the first man in 52 years to win the calendar-year Grand Slam, as well as denying the Serb a men’s record 21st major singles title.
“Knowing that I beat somebody who was 27-0 in a year in Grand Slams, I lost to him in Australia, he was going for huge history, and knowing that I managed to stop him, it definitely makes it sweeter and brings me confidence for what is to come," Medvedev said.
Medvedev joined Thiem as the only male player born in the 1990s to win a Grand Slam trophy.
But unlike Thiem, who did not have to go through any members of the 'Big Three' to triumph last year in New York, Medvedev conquered a player he described as “the greatest tennis player in the history”.
Champions everywhere you look in women’s game
Raducanu and Fernandez added their names to a lengthy list of stars in contention for the sport’s biggest titles when they attain top form.
Britain’s Raducanu, the first qualifier in tennis history to win a Grand Slam title, became the 14th first-time major winner in the women’s game in the past six years.
There have been 11 maiden major champions in the past 18 women’s Grand Slam events and there are now 19 active players who have won major singles titles – a sign of the WTA’s incredible depth.
It makes predicting upcoming Grand Slam tournament winners an increasingly challenging exercise – but that’s what makes it exciting, especially when two superstar talents like Raducanu and Fernandez emerge unexpectedly.
Notably, Raducanu’s profile has exploded, with the 18-year-old’s Instagram following swelling from approximately 400,000 to 1.7 million since the beginning of the US Open.
Crowds lift players to new heights
After no fans could attend the 2020 US Open due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 event felt like a tournament reborn.
More than 630,000 people visited Flushing Meadows for the two-week tournament, which the United States Tennis Association declared the “Greatest Return”.
Those fans fell in love with Fernandez, giving the Canadian teenager a standing ovation of nearly a minute as she stepped forward to speak during the women’s final presentation.
Their support moved Djokovic to tears as he sat down at the final changeover when trailing Medvedev 5-4 in the third set. "I felt something I never felt in my life here in New York. The crowd made me (feel) very special," Djokovic reflected.
And, perhaps intangibly, they lifted players to new heights.
The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd roared Alcaraz to victory from two-sets-to-one down against Stefanos Tsitsipas, and helped carry American Shelby Rogers over the line from 5-2 down in the final set against world No.1 Ash Barty.
"The crowd here is next level this year," Rogers said on court, to huge cheers. "I feel like you guys have picked who you wanna win, and it's happening.
"You guys are in control of the tournament."
The electric atmosphere on the stadium courts, and the high quality of tennis that accompanied it, made this an unforgettable Grand Slam fortnight.
Scene set for special AO 2022
It felt like there was a real shift in the sport’s power dynamic at US Open 2021.
And it sets the stage beautifully for next year’s Australian Open, in fourth months’ time.
Will Raducanu and Fernandez build on their success, or will the stars they vanquished in New York exact revenge?
Was Medvedev’s triumph over Djokovic a true-torch passing moment marking the end of the Big Three’s dominance?
Will Serena, Rafa, and perhaps even Roger, return Down Under and rebound against the wave of young stars who stole the headlines in their absence?
And of, course, the men's Grand Slam race will resume in the new year with Djokovic, Nadal and Federer still locked together on 20 titles each,
Bring on 17 January, 2022!