NEW YORK (Reuters) – Novak Djokovic’s sensational exit from the U.S. Open on Sunday has ended the Grand Slam reign of the ‘Big Three’ of men’s tennis while ensuring a first-time major champion at Flushing Meadows.
With Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal skipping the tournament, Djokovic was hot favourite to claim an 18th Grand Slam title, but his disqualification for inadvertently hitting a line judge with a ball has thrown the tournament wide open.
Not since Stan Wawrinka’s 2016 U.S. Open triumph has a Grand Slam been won by someone other than the ‘Big Three’, winners of the last 13 major titles.
To find the last Slam without either Djokovic, Federer or Nadal in the quarter-finals requires a much deeper dive into the record books, landing at the 2004 French Open where Federer was stopped in the third round by Gustavo Kuerten.
On Sunday, Djokovic’s rivals expressed shock and some sympathy for the Serb, who was defaulted when trailing 6-5 in the first set against Pablo Carreno Busta.
Yet those left standing in the men’s draw may be privately thrilled about their chances of claiming the trophy.
“Now I think is the time where it gets really interesting,” said fifth seed Alexander Zverev, who thrashed Alejandro Davidovich Fokina in straight sets.
Zverev meets Croatian 27th seed Borna Coric in the quarter-finals and could have faced Djokovic in the semis.
Touted as a future Grand Slam champion since his teen years, German Zverev made the Australian Open semi-finals in January and is well positioned in New York to fulfil that promise.
“It’s going to be one of the young guys (winning), I think, if you count Dominic Thiem as a young guy, as well,” said Zverev of the 27-year-old Austrian.
“He obviously has a chance to win, as well.”
Second seed Thiem, who stopped Zverev at Melbourne Park and pushed Djokovic to five sets in the final, is the major threat on the other half of the draw.
The three-times Grand Slam finalist faces Canadian young gun Felix Auger-Aliassime in the fourth round before a potential quarter-final against unseeded Vasek Pospisil or Australian 21st seed Alex de Minaur.
One of the biggest dangers to Thiem’s hopes of a Grand Slam breakthrough may be last year’s finalist Daniil Medvedev, a likely semi-final foe.
The rangy Russian third seed lost a five-set classic to Nadal in last year’s decider and was declared the man most likely to break the Big Three’s Grand Slam stranglehold by John McEnroe and others.
Medvedev will meet unseeded American Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round on Monday, before a potential quarter-final against Italian Matteo Berrettini or fellow Russian Andrey Rublev.
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Additional reporting by Amy Tennery in New York; Editing by Peter Rutherford)