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Novak Djokovic’s US Open return will come against someone who’s never played a match there

Djokovic will face Alexandre Muller of France in the first match, while defending women’s champion Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff could be headed toward a women’s quarterfinal matchup

Novak Djokovic returns a shot against Carlos Alcaraz during the men's singles final of the Western and Southern Open tennis tournament at Lindner Family Tennis Center.
Novak Djokovic returns a shot against Carlos Alcaraz during the men's singles final of the Western and Southern Open tennis tournament at Lindner Family Tennis Center.Katie Stratman (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con)

Novak Djokovic’s return to the U.S. Open after missing it last year because he wasn’t vaccinated against Covid-19 will come against an opponent who never has played in the tournament, while defending women’s champion Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff were drawn Thursday into a possible quarterfinal matchup.

Top-ranked Carlos Alcaraz, the 2022 men’s champion at Flushing Meadows, and No. 6 seed Jannik Sinner could meet in the men’s quarterfinals again. That was the round in which Alcaraz’s thrilling five-set victory over rival Sinner last year ended at 2:50 a.m., the latest finish in U.S. Open history.

Instead of a public draw ceremony, the U.S. Tennis Association has set up its women’s and men’s singles brackets behind closed doors in recent years and did so again Thursday, when The Associated Press was invited to have a reporter present in a room at Arthur Ashe Stadium as an observer.

Play in the final Grand Slam event of the season begins Monday.

Djokovic, a 36-year-old from Serbia who has won three of his men’s-record 23 Grand Slam titles in New York, couldn’t enter the tournament a year ago because unvaccinated foreign citizens were barred from flying into the United States. He returned to the country for the first time in two years to play in the hard-court tune-up event in Cincinnati, where he outlasted Alcaraz in a thrilling final last weekend that spanned nearly four hours.

In the first round next week, Djokovic will take on Alexandre Muller, a 26-year-old from France who is ranked 85th and will be making his main-draw debut at Flushing Meadows. Muller lost in the opening round of qualifying in 2021 and 2022. He has not had much luck in Grand Slam draws lately, forced to face Alcaraz at Wimbledon and Sinner at the French Open.

Gauff, the No. 6 seed, beat Swiatek en route to the Cincinnati title — a significant victory for the 19-year-old American who had been 0-7 and lost all 14 sets to the 22-year-old from Poland, including the 2022 French Open final. Gauff, who is 11-1 since a first-round exit at Wimbledon, will open against a player who emerges from the qualifying tournament and then could meet Russian teen Mirra Andreeva in what would be a rematch from this year’s French Open.

Alcaraz will play Dominik Koepfer of Germany in the first round. Koepfer reached the fourth round at Flushing Meadows in 2019.

Along with Alcaraz-Sinner, other potential men’s quarterfinals are 2021 champion Daniil Medvedev vs. No. 8 Andrey Rublev in the top half of the bracket, and No. 2 Djokovic vs. No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas, and No. 4 Holger Rune vs. 2022 runner-up Casper Ruud in the bottom half.

Tsitsipas starts off against Milos Raonic, the 2016 Wimbledon runner-up who was ranked as high as No. 3 but was off the tour for nearly two full years with injuries before returning in June.

In addition to Swiatek-Gauff, possible women’s quarterfinals are No. 4 Elena Rybakina vs. No. 8 Maria Sakkari in the top half, and No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka against 2022 runner-up Ons Jabeur, and No. 3 Jessica Pegula vs. No. 7 Caroline Garcia in the bottom.

Pegula, who is 0-6 in Grand Slam quarterfinals, plays Camila Giorgi of Italy in the first round.

Venus Williams, who won two of her seven Grand Slam singles titles at the U.S. Open but needed a wild-card invitation to compete this time at age 43, begins against Spain’s Paula Badosa, who was ranked No. 2 last year but is now No. 46.

Another former No. 1-ranked player and major champion who needed a wild card, Caroline Wozniacki, was drawn to meet a qualifier in her return to Grand Slam tennis after ending a three-year retirement. Wozniacki, who won the 2018 Australian Open and twice was the runner-up at Flushing Meadows, could play two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the second round.

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