By Hardik Vyas
(Reuters) - The absence of Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal from this year's U.S. Open has presented the next generation of players with arguably their best chance to break the so-called 'Big Three' stranglehold on tennis's most coveted titles.
The tournament at Flushing Meadows will be the first Grand Slam main draw in 21 years not to feature both Nadal and Federer who, along with world number one Novak Djokovic, have split the last 13 major titles and show few signs of slowing down.
Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem have emerged as the closest challengers to the dominance of the game's leading trio but they have not yet been able to convert potential into success on the biggest stages.
The significance of Federer and Nadal's absence has not been lost on the young pretenders.
"It's a big opportunity for a new Grand Slam winner, because there are only three Grand Slam winners in the draw -- (Marin) Cilic, (Andy) Murray, and Novak (Djokovic)," Medvedev said.
The 24-year-old Russian excelled on the North American hardcourts last year, reaching four finals -- at Flushing Meadows, Washington D.C., Canada and Cincinnati.
He lost to Nadal in the U.S. Open final, but won his first ATP Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati, beating Djokovic in the semi-finals.
The novel coronavirus pandemic means the U.S. Open will take place without fans, with players living in a protective bubble under strict health and safety guidelines.
Medvedev said playing to empty galleries would be a strange experience, but one that would not affect his desire to win.
Others, like Tsitsipas, the winner of last year's season-ending ATP Finals, are hoping to take advantage of having fewer distractions.
"I won't lie to you. It's not that bad," the 22-year-old Greek said. "It gives me an opportunity to practice a lot, discover myself more being out on the court, love my sport even more."
Zverev, 23, a semi-finalist at this year's Australian Open, has added former world number three David Ferrer to his coaching staff in an attempt to fix the weaknesses in his game.
"We played (each other) eight times in our careers, so he knows exactly what I need to improve from a player's perspective," Zverev said. "He knows how to play me. He knows what to do to beat me and to have chances against me."
Austrian Dominic Thiem lost to Filip Krajinovic in straight sets in his first match back at the Western & Southern Open on Monday, but the Australian Open runner-up still expects to mount a strong bid to end his Grand Slam drought.
Standing in the way is world number one Djokovic, whose odds of winning an 18th Grand Slam and his fourth in New York have shortened dramatically since the withdrawal of his two closest rivals.
(Reportingby Hardik Vyas; Editing by Ken Ferris)