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SPOTLIGHT

Who will stop Djokovic from making it US Open title No. 4?

Nadal and Federer have the ability, Kyrgios and Medvedev lead challenge of the young brigade.

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Rolex Testimonee Jo-Wilfried Tsonga during the Australian Open 2019.

WHEN Rafael Nadal landed his fifth Rogers Cup title in thumping fashion in Montreal earlier this month, he sent a strong statement of intent to his main rivals for this week's United States Open.

Defending champion Nadal, the French Open winner and Wimbledon semi-finalist, was always in charge and the 18-time Grand Slam champion completed a 6-3, 6-0 win over Daniil Medvedev in one hour and 10 minutes.

Medvedev, the 23-year-old eighth seed from Russia, had enjoyed a terrific week and his scalps included Austrian world No. 4 and Rolex Testimonee Dominic Thiem in the quarter-finals.

However, in his first meeting with Nadal, Medvedev fell to an in-form Spaniard, whose domination of the second set showed what a trophy threat he is sure to be at the upcoming US Open.

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Nadal improved his all-time record for the most Masters 1000 titles to 35 - now two ahead of closest rival Novak Djokovic, who is the men's singles top seed for the US Open.

The Spaniard, who will be vying for his fourth US Open, strengthened his second spot in the world rankings after the Montreal victory, with Rolex Testimonees Roger Federer and Thiem third and fourth respectively.

Going by recent events and form, Djokovic is the favourite and Roger Federer remains another threat to Nadal's lofty ambitions.

For Nadal, who sat out last week's Cincinnati Masters, it was a third title of the year and the 33-year-old said on television: "It's so important to be back on hard court and win again, another big title. That's confidence for what's going on.

"Today's just about enjoying this title, this Masters 1000. It's so important - it's not a tournament you are able to win every day."

Medvedev also lost a title match in the Washington Open a week earlier, when he was beaten by Nick Kyrgios, but this was his first Masters 1000 final, a significant step forward in his career which also moved him up four spots to No.5 in the rankings.

But coming off back-to-back ATP finals defeats, big-serving Medvedev showed that he is a force to be reckoned with when he downed world No. 1 Djokovic 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 in the Cincinnati Masters semi-finals.

The Serbian acknowledged after the surprise defeat that he rarely faced the sort of barrage a resilient Medvedev used so effectively to beat him.

And in the final, the Russian finished with an ace after saving two break points in the final game to beat Belgian David Goffin 7-6 (7-3), 6-4, lifting his first Masters 1000 trophy.

A beaming Medvedev said: "I've had so much support these three weeks. To finally lift a trophy is just an amazing feeling."

The young ones

Medvedev joins the young brigade of Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Kyrgios, and veterans Stan Wawrinka, 34, a winner of the 2016 US Open, and Rolex Testimonee Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, also 34 and a finalist in the 2008 Australian Open, all of whom, harbour strong hopes of toppling the "Big Three" of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer.

If there is one thing that is against the "Big Three", it is their ages, as the trio are all past 30, with Djokovic at 32, Nadal, 33, and Federer who just turned 38 this month.

Little wonder that Djokovic and Federer took complete rest and have returned only for the Cincinnati Open, a prelude to the US Open.

Of the young bunch of eight hopefuls, the controversial Kyrgios seems to have found a new zeal recently with his Citi Open victory in Washington standing out as a major boost.

No doubt, he takes up more media time and space with his antics than any other tennis player on the planet. But when he wants to compete, this guy can seriously play.

For the past several years, Kyrgios has danced in and out of that debate as arguably the most talented in the sport's next generation, but, sadly, he is perhaps also the most erratic.

At 24, the 6 foot 4, 187-pound Kyrgios boasts a mean serve and a wild repertoire of shots; clever, commanding and circus-like. He also has an on-court demeanour unlike any other tennis player, ringed with tantrum-throwing, racket hurling, arguments with the umpire and all-round abuse that seem a put-off, but the crowd enjoys his showmanship and passing winning shots that leave many opponents flat-footed and dumb-founded.

At Rock Creek Park Tennis Center, his prodigious talent was on display as he ousted the highly-talented Greek Tsitsipas and then blasted 18 winners in his defeat of Medvedev in the final, winning 7-6 (8-6), 7-6 (7-4) in a thrilling encounter.

Medvedev's take after the final: "We all know how Nick can play when he wants to, and this month, I think he wanted to play. Kyrgios' rejoinder: "This has been one of the best weeks of my life - not just on court, but in my life. I feel I've made major strides."

Earlier this month in Washington DC on his way to the title, he did a little of each. Thankfully, there were a lot more highlights than lowpoints, and with the final Major of the year just a few days away, Kyrgios might have timed his run perfectly.

Kyrgios, who showed glimpses of his improved form at Wimbledon against Nadal, strung six match-winning quality shots back-to-back on the fast hardcourts in Washington DC that suit his big-serving game.

Also winning the title in Washington gave Kyrgios a rankings boost into the top 30 that should see him being seeded for the New York Major event, thus avoiding any high-ranked players in the first couple of rounds.

Mental strength

But, all said and despite the Cincinnati defeat, defending champion and Wimbledon winner Djokovic, the Serbian with a good all-round game, has the best mental strength that places him at the perch of a strong competent bunch of players.

The top seed showed that mental strength in the Wimbledon final against Federer by saving two matchpoints in the titanic battle, winning 7-6 (7-5), 1-6, 7-6 (7-4), 4-6, 13-12.

A senior local official, S. Uthrapathy, a former Singapore Tennis Association president and a familiar face at Majors and regional instructional seminars and sessions, observed:

"Novak has the edge and has moved away a bit from Rafa and Roger. This is because of his fitness, mental strength and ability to read the games of his two main rivals. Fitness issues with Rafa have bogged him down a bit while Roger, though supreme sometimes, is looking, at 38, a little weary.

"But all three are supreme champions in their own respective ways. And they know what the preparation should be on the hard courts - where much of the tennis is played - before the final Grand Slam event."

The US Open is unique in that it is the only Grand Slam tournament that has been played every year since its inception in 1881, even during the two War years. In 1978 the tournament moved from the West Side Tennis Club to the larger and newly-constructed USTA National Tennis Centre in Flushing Meadows in Queens, almost five kilometres to the north.

American Jimmy Connors is the only player to have won the event on grass, clay and hard courts.

Rolex, the iconic Swiss watchmaker, became a partner of the US Open at the 2018 event, serving as the Official Timekeeper for the fourth and final Grand Slam tournament of the year.

The Swiss brand has been linked to tennis since 1978 when the brand became the Official Timekeeper at Wimbledon.

The US Open is known to have produced epic matches and the huge crowds are at their most expressive, cheering loudly, waving flags and banners and encouraging every player to give of his or her best with their rah-rah routines from the gallery.

A captivating audience stood on their toes many times at last year's electrifying US Open quarter-final match between Nadal and Thiem when the former was totally annihilated 6-0 in the first set - only the fourth time in 282 career Grand Slam matches this has happened to the Spaniard.

On the three previous occasions, Nadal lost. But this time he fought back to win 0-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-7 (4) and 7-6 (5) in a marathon tie that lasted four hours and 49 minutes.

But in the semi-final, he retired with a knee injury against Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro, a Rolex Testimonee. However del Potro was no match for Djokovic in the final, bowing out 6-3, 7-6 (7-4), 6-3.

The Serbian seems to be in the driver's seat again this time, for a fourth US Open crown.