The last men’s singles player to defend the U.S. Open title was Roger Federer in 2008. Even Novak Djokovic, who is among the greatest hard-court players, has found it tough. The reasons may be many — a surface that gives everyone an even chance, gruelling late-night matches and end-of-season fatigue to name a few. Carlos Alcaraz will look to buck this very trend when the 2023 edition gets underway at Flushing Meadows on Monday. The 20-year-old Spaniard won his maiden Grand Slam crown in New York last year and backed that up with the stupendous triumph at Wimbledon over Djokovic. In a short career, the World No.1 has shown the mettle and focus required to be serially successful, defending titles at Barcelona and Madrid this year. But to do that at a Major is a herculean task. He has to also contend with Djokovic, who at 36 still looks sprightly. At the recent Cincinnati Masters, the Serb outlasted Alcaraz over three pulsating sets in a final that lasted nearly four hours. The 23-time Major winner may well find added motivation if he so desires to course-correct at the U.S. Open, a tournament where he has lost a record six finals, been defaulted once (2020) and barred from competing for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine (2022).
Among women, reigning champion Iga Swiatek is the main drawcard, despite a not-so-encouraging build-up. The Polish World No.1 may have lost in the semifinals in both Montreal and Cincinnati, but her form in 2022 was worse — just two match wins in the two lead-up events — and that did not stop her from securing the top prize. However, the rise of Coco Gauff adds a new dimension. The 19-year-old American has won 11 of her 12 singles matches since Wimbledon, and claimed two of her biggest trophies — Washington WTA 500 and Cincinnati WTA 1000. There was also the morale-boosting victory in Cincinnati over Swiatek, to whom Gauff had lost all seven of her previous matches and all 14 sets. The women’s roster is further embellished by the presence of Aryna Sabalenka, winner of the 2023 Australian Open and a semifinalist at French Open and Wimbledon, Elena Rybakina, Wimbledon champion in 2022 and runner-up in Melbourne, Marketa Vondrousova, titlist at Wimbledon, and Ons Jabeur, a three-time Major finalist. Jessica Pegula, the World No.3 from the United States, is in the mix too, following the high in Montreal. But unlike the men, three women’s singles players have defended their titles this millennium — Venus Williams, Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters. A fourth is well within the realm of possibility.