NEW YORK (Reuters) - World number one Novak Djokovic heads into the U.S. Open as red-hot favourite to win his 18th Grand Slam and has played down the absence of perennial rivals Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.
Holder Nadal pulled out earlier this month due to novel coronavirus-related issues surrounding the Aug. 31-Sept. 13 tournament at Flushing Meadows, while Federer will miss the rest of the season after having knee surgery in June.
Apart from their absence, with Federer boasting a record 20 major titles ahead of Nadal on 19, 2016 winner Stan Wawrinka has also pulled out but Djokovic noted that it would still be a very strong field featuring a pack of talented rivals.
"It's bound to be weird that Federer and Nadal aren't here..." Djokovic said ahead of the curtain-raising Aug. 22-28 Western & Southern Open in New York.
"They will be missed, no doubt, because they are legends of our sport. But apart from Federer, Nadal and Wawrinka, all the best players are there.
"It would be disrespectful to all the other players to say that I have a better chance without Roger and Rafa. (Dominic) Thiem, (Alexander) Zverev, (Stefanos) Tsitsipas, (Daniil)Medvedev, these guys are as strong as the three of us.
"Anyone can win, even more after six months without the tour. We don't really know how we're going to feel on the court."
Djokovic's decision to enter the U.S. Open represents a U-turn to his June statements that competing at the 2020 U.S. Open would be "impossible" due to “extreme” COVID-19 protocols.
While the other players are staying in two hotels, the 33-year-old Serb chose to rent a house for the tournament because of what he described as a more comfortable environment.
"I was informed of this rental opportunity and I did not consider any other option to come here," he said.
"I am grateful that I can afford it to myself and be able to go out, have a garden, peace and quiet. With the trees and serenity, being in this kind of environment is a blessing.
"But, still, we are part of the bubble, as four people control the two entrances to the house so we cannot go out without them seeing us."
Djokovic was in imperious form before the season was thrown into chaos in March by the novel coronavirus pandemic, having won the Australian Open in January and Dubai Open in February.
During the break forced by the virus, Djokovic organised the ill-fated Adria Tour in June, an exhibition tournament in which he and three other players contracted COVID-19 as the event was devoid of social distancing measures.
Having recovered after two weeks in self-isolation, Djokovic resumed training and suggested he was fit to face the exertions of the gruelling U.S. Open on his favourite hardcourt surface.
"I’ve done a CT scan of my chest and OK, everything is clear. I’ve done several tests since my negative test for the coronavirus as well before coming to New York.
"I’ve done my blood tests, my urine tests, my stool tests, everything that I possibly can."
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; Editing by Ken Ferris)
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