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U.S. Open Tennis • With The Big 3 Gone Following Djokovic’s Exit, Is The Pressure Becoming Too Much?

By Ricky Dimon

For the first time since the 2018 Australian Open, someone other than Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic is going to win a men’s singles Grand Slam title. For the first time since the 2016 Australian Open, someone other than Nadal, Djokovic, or Roger Federer is going to win a men’ singles Grand Slam title. And in a matter of days, Marin Cilic is no longer going to be the youngest active slam champion.

That’s right; Cilic, the 2014 U.S. Open champion, is the youngest active champ at 31 years and 11 months old.

Finally, the younger generation is going to break through.

Even with Nadal and Federer not playing this tournament, It did not always seem like a breakthrough was in the cards. After all, Djokovic had been in utterly dominant form throughout the 2020 campaign. He was 23-0 heading into the season’s second slam and fresh off a title at the Cincinnati Masters–also held at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Following a 6-3, 6-3, 6-1 third-round beatdown of Jan-Lennard Struff, there was no reason to think anything was about to change.

But then it all did in an instant. Djokovic’s default against Pablo Carreno Busta changed everything in a blink of an eye. In one moment, everyone else left in the men’s singles draw went from a big underdog in the overall event to a realistic Grand Slam title contender. Okay, Jordan Thompson and Frances Tiafoe were still longshots even with Djokovic out; still, anyone outside of the Big 3 is beatable on any given day. Everyone had a chance. And everyone in it still does.

They are playing like it, too. With a few exceptions (Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem being the prime examples), they are playing like the weight of the opportunity is too heavy. Tiafoe might as well have not taken the court against Medvedev on Tuesday night. Felix Auger-Aliassime wasn’t much better when he faced Thiem. Matteo Berrettini, a 2019 U.S. Open semifinalist, did not win more than three games in any of his last three sets against Andrey Rublev in the fourth round. Alexander Zverev and Borna Coric, who are in the half of the draw vacated by Djokovic, both played terribly in their quarterfinal contest on Tuesday afternoon. But someone had to win, and that someone was Zverev.

The German, unprompted, brought up the Djokovic issue himself when asked about the poor quality of his match against Coric.

“I mean, look, obviously I didn’t play well,” he admitted. “It’s no secret about it. I was down 6-1, 4-2 after about 28 minutes. It’s not a secret I didn’t play my best. But I found a way; found a way to win that second set, and I feel like that’s the most important.

“I think the Novak news shocked us all, and obviously for us younger guys we see that as a massive opportunity. But we have to put our head down and just do our job and focus on ourselves.”

Let’s hope they start doing a better job of that the rest of the way.

Ricky contributes to 10sballs.com and also maintains his own tennis website, The Grandstand. You can follow him on twitter at @Dimonator.

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