In one week, Novak Djokovic goes for history at Flushing Meadows without a tuneup, but without having to face Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, defending U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem or former Open champion, Stan Wawrinka.
Djokovic may still have to go through the big German server, Alex Zverev, the tour’s hottest player and 2020 U.S. Open finalist who captured Sunday’s key Cincinnati tuneup.
“I do think Novak is the favorite,” the German said. “I do think he’s going to be playing incredible tennis there and he will be fresh.”
As with everything during the pandemic, this stands to be an offbeat Open men’s draw starting next Monday in Queens.
Djokovic attempts to win the first Grand Slam since 1969 when Rod Laver strung together victories in all four majors in a calendar year. He also has a chance to surpass Federer and Nadal for most career major titles. They are all tied at 20.
But after Djokovic copped the 2021 Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, he’s been either invisible or throwing a temper tantrum.
The great news, though, is fans are back at the U.S. Open after last year’s depressing, fan-less Flushing Meadows fortnight.
The USTA announced in June plans for 100 percent capacity, though a press conference is being staged this week to discuss any new COVID-19 protocols in wake of the recent spike in cases.
The Open has faced ticket challenges. There are still some restrictions on international tourists. They traditionally make up a large part of U.S. Open crowds.
“Ticket sales are strong, but not record-breaking,’’ USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier told The Post on Sunday. “There’s definitely less fans from overseas, but that is providing opportunities and access for local fans. We are also seeing an uptick from areas like Philadelphia, Connecticut and from the Boston area. Still strong sales. Fans definitely want to come.’’
Djokovic is planning to land in New York by Monday night. Meanwhile, the scorching, 24-year-old, Zverev, might stand in the way of history. Zverev won the Olympic gold medal, beating Djokovic en route.
Then on Sunday, Zverev captured the championship at the Western & Southern Open in suburban Cincinnati, crushing Andrey Rublev, 6-2, 6-3, for an 11-match winning streak.
“Sports needs live spectators,’’ Zverev said during Sunday’s on-court ceremony.
After Djokovic was kicked out of last year’s fan-less Open, the 6-foot-6 Zverev advanced to the finals, losing a two-sets-to-zero lead to Thiem before an empty Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Djokovic likely regrets heading to the Tokyo Olympics last month with a goal of “The Golden Slam.” That’s the four majors plus an Olympic gold medal.
The Serbian didn’t even medal, first losing to Zverev then losing his mind in a meltdown versus Spain’s Pablo Carreño Busta in the bronze medal match.
Djokovic threw his racket into the empty stands. It was reminiscent of last year’s Open when he inadvertently smacked the ball into a lineswoman’s throat, which caused his controversial ejection in the fourth round. That incident also came against Busta. Soon after the Tokyo racket throw, Djokovic violently smashed his racket. That spotty behavior is perhaps a reason Djokovic is not a revered as Federer and Nadal.
Djokovic, though, is normally the ultimate tennis battler, even if not the ultimate artist.
“It’s part of, I guess, who I am,” Djokovic said after the Olympic breakdown. “I don’t like doing these things. I’m sorry for sending this kind of message but we’re all human beings and sometimes it’s difficult to control your emotions.”
Tennis’ Big 3 each have 20 titles but Federer and Nadal will watch the Open from their respective home countries. Last week, the “Swiss Maestro,” who just turned 40, bowed out as he needs a third knee surgery, putting his future in doubt.
Meanwhile Nadal, the Spanish lefty bulldog, followed that downer with his own Open withdrawal due to a sore foot.
Djokovic did little to gain momentum entering the Open by pulling out of Cincinnati last week. Daniel Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who each looked sharp in Cincinnati, could also derail history at the Open.
Djokovic claimed on Twitter he was “taking a bit longer to recover and recuperate after quite a taxing journey from Australia to Tokyo.
“Sadly, that means I won’t be ready to compete in Cincinnati this year so I’ll turn my focus and attention to US Open and spend some more time with family. See you in New York soon!”
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