With the first round of the 2021 US Open in the books, it's time to highlight which players are on the rise and which ones look most vulnerable heading into the next round. Players who have been eliminated are of little interest to fantasy players as the tournament unfolds, so this column is meant to take a look ahead based on what's happened so far rather than reflect on the past.
The biggest story on the men's side is Novak Djokovic's pursuit of history – both the calendar Grand Slam and a men's singles record of 21 career Grand Slams would be achieved if he takes home this title. His quest for history remains intact through one round, but a pair of his biggest potential challengers have also improved their chances at deep runs thanks to their draws opening up. Meanwhile, the women's game has been as unpredictable as ever this year, so of course nobody could have predicted that the draw would pretty much follow the chalk through the first round. Will the top players finally keep the multitude of unheralded challengers at bay at a major, or are we about to witness a correction the other way with upsets galore in Round 2 and beyond? A pair of former Grand Slam champions should be encouraged based on their performances in the opening round, but one top player might just see her search for a major breakthrough end early.
Denis Shapovalov - Fresh off a semifinal run at Wimbledon, Shapovalov's quest for a similar result at his continent's Grand Slam got off to a promising start Tuesday with a convincing 6-2, 6-2, 6-3 win over Federico Delbonis. Perhaps more importantly for the fiery Canadian's chances at a deep run, his draw opened up significantly when potential third-round stumbling block Karen Khachanov lost in five sets to Lloyd Harris. The 25th-seeded Russian was arguably the most dangerous opponent any top-16 seed could draw in the first three rounds — Khachanov gave Shapovalov all he could handle in a Wimbledon quarterfinal that went 6-4 in the fifth, then backed that result up with a silver medal on hard court at the Tokyo Olympics. With Khachanov out of the way, the seventh-seeded Shapovalov should enjoy smooth sailing into at least the Round of 16, starting with a second-round tilt against 95th-ranked Roberto Carballes Baena. Potential fourth-round opponent and No. 9 seed Pablo Carreno Busta also falling in five was the cherry on top Tuesday.
Stefanos Tsitsipas - Tsitsipas got through an opening-round test against Andy Murray by the skin of his teeth, eking out a 2-6, 7-6 (7), 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win to avoid a second consecutive Grand Slam first-round exit after coming within a set of winning the French Open. He got stronger as that match progressed, and the No. 3 seed has a much easier draw moving forward. The only seed Tsitsipas could face before the quarterfinals is No. 16 Cristian Garin, who has never been past the second round at a hard-court major, and second-round opponent Adrian Mannarino has a 10-18 record this year.
Novak Djokovic - It looked a little dicey for a second when he dropped the second set tiebreak, but Djokovic cruised from there to a 6-1, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-1 victory over Holger Vitus Nodskov Rune in the first round. The world No. 1's greatest obstacle to completing the calendar Grand Slam could be his own mindset, and at least through one round, that aspect has held up fine after he blew a gasket at the Olympics. Remember, Djokovic also lost a set to an unheralded opponent (Jack Draper) in the first round at Wimbledon, and he went on to drop only one more set en route to the title. World No. 121 Tallon Griekspoor poses virtually no threat to Djokovic's chase for history in the second round, but Kei Nishikori or Mackenzie McDonald could at least make things interesting in the third round.
Diego Schwartzman - On one hand, Schwartzman's path forward got a little easier with the early exit of potential third-round opponent John Isner. On the other hand, the 5-foot-7 Argentine still has another big-serving behemoth to worry about in second-round opponent Kevin Anderson. The 11th-seeded Schwartzman is one of the best returners in the game, but Anderson's serve can take the racquet out of his opponent's hands, as it often did in his run to the 2017 US Open final. Anderson leads their career head-to-head 2-1, and 20-year-old American Brandon Nakashima — who knocked off Isner in straight sets — is emerging as a formidable potential third-round opponent for the winner of this match.
Alexei Popyrin - Popyrin hasn't quite put it all together yet at age 22, but the 6-foot-5 Australian has plenty of raw talent — just watch the highlights of his 7-6 (3), 6-7 (7), 6-4 loss to Daniil Medvedev in Miami for an idea of Popyrin's potential. A big serve that he can dial up to over 130 mph sets up his aggressive game, but Popyrin also possesses excellent court coverage for his size when put on the defensive. Expect him to trouble inconsistent No. 15 seed Grigor Dimitrov, who has advanced past the second round in only two Grand Slams since his run to the semifinals of the 2019 US Open.
Top seeds - After a year filled with upsets and chaos at the majors, order surprisingly reigned supreme in the first round of the women's singles draw. No. 13 seed Jennifer Brady and No. 27 Jelena Ostapenko both withdrew due to injuries, but No. 22 Karolina Muchova was the only other top-28 seed who failed to advance to the second round. This could very well be a calm-before-the-storm situation preceding a wild second round and beyond, but at least for now, the favorites are holding serve, both literally and figuratively.
Simona Halep - There were plenty of questions about Halep's form coming in given her recent lack of match play due to injuries. She missed the previous two grand slams due to a calf tear and pulled out of Cincinnati due to a hip injury, but the two-time Grand Slam champion looked healthy and effective in her 6-4, 7-6 (3) first-round win over Canadian Open champion Camila Giorgi. Halep's recent lack of match play was apparent in her two failed attempts to serve out the match, but she didn't drop serve otherwise against an extremely dangerous opponent. After getting through her tough first-round draw, the No. 12 seed has a comfortable second-round matchup against 31-year-old Kristina Kucova, who is ranked 111th.
Sara Sorribes Tormo - Sorribes Tormo got some luck in her draw with Brady pulling out and then created some luck of her own by upsetting Muchova, who was the highest-ranked player to suffer a first-round defeat. The 41st-ranked Spaniard has some strong hard court results this season, including quarterfinal runs in both Miami and Canada, and no seeded opponents stand between her and the Round of 16. Sorribes Tormo will face world No. 81 Su-Wei Hsieh in the second round.
Aryna Sabalenka - It's easy to say that Sabalenka's struggles at Grand Slams are in the rear-view mirror following her semifinal run at Wimbledon, but that's still her only trip past the fourth round at a major. The No. 2 seed looked vulnerable in the opening round, needing three sets to get past 94th-ranked Nina Stojanovic, and Sabalenka's draw moving forward is significantly more difficult. Second-round opponent Tamara Zidansek reached the French Open semifinals earlier this year, and potential third-round opponent Danielle Collins is enjoying a tremendous summer which has included a pair of titles.
Sloane Stephens - Stephens just got through a rematch of the 2017 US Open final against close friend Madison Keys, and while both of those clashes ultimately went Stephens' way, this one was much closer — 6-3, 1-6, 7-6 (7). With her confidence bolstered by getting through that dramatic bout, Stephens is ready to trouble fellow American Coco Gauff, who was far from her best in a 5-7, 6-3, 6-4 first-round win over Magda Linette. Stephens' defensive style should match up well against the 21st-seeded Gauff, whose lack of patience often leads to inflated error totals.