With full crowds returning to the US Open and its majestic Arthur Ashe Stadium, the 2021 Grand Slam season is set to go out with a bang in New York this upcoming fortnight.
For the first time since 2003, both Serena and Venus Williams will miss the tournament, but there is still plenty to look forward to in the women’s draw amid the absence of the iconic sisters.
Here is a look at the main talking points as we enter the final major of the year.
Osaka going for a New York hat trick
Defending champion Naomi Osaka has not played much since she withdrew from Roland Garros for mental health reasons after her opening round match.
The Japanese superstar’s most recent appearances were third-round exits at the Tokyo Olympics and Cincinnati. But despite her lack of momentum, Osaka says that she is “feeling good” about where her game is as she prepares for her campaign for a third US Open crown.
“I feel pretty confident with where I am right now,” the No. 3 seed said on Friday.
Osaka is 17-2 in Grand Slam first rounds and opens her campaign against Czech world No. 87 Marie Bouzkova. She is gunning for a fifth Grand Slam title, which would see her take sole possession of third place on the list of active major champions on the women’s tour — trailing only Serena and Venus, and steering clear of Kim Clijsters.
Last year, Osaka felt like she was competing in New York with “a higher purpose,” as she wore seven different masks for each of her seven matches, emblazoned with names of Black victims of police brutality. Her urge to spread the message ultimately helped her claim the title.
“Definitely for me, I’m the type of player that plays better if I have a reason, or if I have a goal or if I’m driven about something,” she said.
“In New York last year the biggest goal for me was just to push that message across. I feel like I did well there. Right now, I don’t really have that big of a message to push across at all. So it’s going to be really interesting to see what drives me.
“Of course, I’m a competitor and I want to win. There’s that feeling of wanting to do better than last year.”
Barty seems unstoppable
With five titles to her name this season, including Wimbledon last month and most recently Cincinnati, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty is the clear favorite for the US Open crown.
The Australian owns a tour-leading 40 match wins this year and is halfway to a career Grand Slam, following triumphs at the 2019 French Open and Wimbledon 2021.
Barty is the top seed at the US Open for the first time and the sixth time overall in her career at the majors.
“I think that she’s had an amazing year. It’s really cool to see someone play so consistently,” Osaka said of Barty.
“I would say she seems really determined and really focused. I know that she hasn’t gone home since Australia, so that’s a lot of traveling for her. I don’t think I’m the type of person that could do that. It’s so good for the sport, I would say.”
Jabeur and Sherif make Arab tennis history
For the first time ever, two Arab women will feature in the US Open main draw, with Tunisian No. 20 seed Ons Jabeur kicking off her campaign against French veteran Alize Cornet, and Egyptian Mayar Sherif earning a lucky loser spot after falling in the final round of qualifying. She will take on Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina.
Earlier this month, Sherif became the first Egyptian player since 1978 — and the first Egyptian woman ever — to crack the top 100 in the world rankings.
“It’s important for me to always break barriers as an Egyptian tennis player and to pave the way for the next generations,” she said.
“Of course if I want to move forward I have the burden to break barriers and I like that kind of pressure, because I want to go for more — I always want more. I have very high ambitions, and I believe in myself and I know this is just the start.”
Fearless Sabalenka hungry for more
Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka got the monkey off her back at Wimbledon last month when she finally made it past the fourth round for the first time at a major, going on to reach the semifinals.
Ranked a career-high No. 2 in the world, Sabalenka says that her five-year journey with her sports psychologist helped her conquer fears, and that she is now keen to go even further this fortnight at the US Open.
“I feel like all those conversations with my psychologist definitely helped me to put my focus on the right spot, on myself instead of everything around,” said Sabalenka, who opens against Serbia’s Nina Stojanovic on Monday.
“I’m working for five years. Only right now I’ve started to be honest with her about the Grand Slams, and I’ve started to maybe be more open with her, saying that actually I was afraid of something.
“It's a long process. It’s a long way — a long journey actually.”
Svitolina coming in with momentum
Former US Open semifinalist Elina Svitolina enters New York fresh off a title run in Chicago and a heroic bronze-medal showing in Tokyo.
The No. 5 seed is relieved that she was able to turn her season around, admitting that she had to endure many “low moments” throughout the year before making the podium at the Olympics.
“What was difficult is definitely mental exhaustion, because this year I had some really low moments,” Svitolina told reporters in Chicago on Saturday.
“Maybe from the side it didn’t look like that, but I really felt things were tough mentally for me because I had some really tough moments, especially in the Grand Slams. And at some point it gets tougher and tougher to carry, it’s kind of like a rucksack you have on your back and you’re collecting tough moments.
“Lots of things happening were happening — private life, then tennis, then COVID-19 as well.”
Svitolina chose to play in Chicago in an effort to regain her confidence and the decision has clearly paid off. She faces Canadian qualifier Rebecca Marino in the US Open first round.