THREE days into the US Open, and the stars are already aligning for the great Roger Federer to create yet more history and land an incredible 20th grand slam title.
Federer – who already has this year’s Australian Open and Wimbledon titles in his locker – was already a firm favourite to win a sixth title at Flushing Meadows.
The No.1 seed, Rafael Nadal, remains the biggest roadblock in Federer’s path – but the 36-year-old has the wood on his old rival in recent times, having beaten the Spaniard in straight sets at the Miami Open most recently in April.
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Then on Saturday morning, recently dethroned world No.1 Andy Murray withdrew with a hip injury and one of Federer’s great hurdles fell by the wayside.
Murray joined fellow former world No.1 Novak Djokovic (elbow) and defending US Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka (knee) on the sidelines, watching the draw open up for the greatest of all time.
And, despite having to stave off a spirited first round fight from exciting 19-year-old local Frances Tiafoe, three days of New York carnage has only strengthened Federer’s claims for the title.
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NEXT GEN NO SHOW
In addition the high-profile injury withdrawals, Federer received a further boost on Thursday when two giant dangers fell over in the space of six hours.
First, Australian Nick Kyrgios – who Federer was slated to meet in the fourth round – was toppled in a major upset by countryman John Millman.
Shortly after, German sensation Alexander Zverev suffered a shock defeat at the hands of fellow youngster Borna Coric who pulled off the biggest upset in the men’s draw with a 3-6 7-5 7-6 (7-1) 7-6 (7-4) win.
The 61st-ranked Croatian screamed in triumph when Zverev sailed a forehand over the baseline to end the match – and Federer possibly let out a comforting sigh as well.
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The 20-year-old stunned Federer in the final of the Rogers Cup a fortnight ago and loomed as a major threat at Flushing Meadows.
Not only is Zverev the most recent Federer conqueror he is also only the second player, in addition to Russian Evgeny Donskoy, to have beaten Federer on hard court this season.
The young star also holds a 3-2 head-to-head record over Federer and had been tipped to enjoy a breakthrough tournament in New York this fortnight.
Coric, meanwhile, moves on to the third round to face 28th-seeded Kevin Anderson of South Africa, a 6-3 7-5 6-4 winner over Latvia’s Ernests Gulbis 6-3 7-5 6-4.
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THE NEXT STEP
Federer will next face Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny in the second round on Friday morning (AEST).
But with Kyrgios falling on Thursday, he faces a relatively trouble-free run to the semi-finals, where a mouthwatering clash with Nadal could be waiting – which would be their first ever meeting at the US Open.
A fourth-round clash with Kyrgios, who owns a 1-1 record with Federer, had posed the greatest stumbling block to the Swiss legend before the semi-finals.
Should he triumph against Youzhny, a likely third-round showdown with craft Spanish veteran Feliciano Lopez looms, with the fourth round wide open following Kyrgios’ shock exit and Austrian youngster Dominic Thiem favoured to match up with Federer in the quarter-finals.
ZVEREV LEFT SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS
It is fair to conclude Zverev found his upset loss rather, well, upsetting.
“It’s upsetting. Today was upsetting,” Zverev said.
“The way I played was upsetting. The tournament so far is upsetting for me.”
The 20-year-old German is the highest-ranked man to exit Flushing Meadows so far and what bothered him so much was not merely that he didn’t play well but that there was a real opportunity for him to have a true grand slam breakthrough.
He was all too aware of that.
Because of the injury withdrawals, Zverev was the highest-seeded man on the bottom side of the US Open bracket.
“It’s upsetting because the draw is pretty open in the bottom part. I felt like I should have been the favored there,” Zverev said.
“You know, I just played a very, very bad match, so it’s unfortunate. But that’s how it is.”
He is widely considered the Next Big Thing in the sport, by virtue of his success outside of the majors: He has won five titles in 2017, including a pair of Masters tournaments.
“I know that I could have done some big things here. I know that I could have done something that I haven’t done before,” Zverev said.
“But I won’t. It’s just as simple as that.”
Originally published as Next Gen no-show boosts Fed history bid