Possibly you are a fan of tennis but did not go to Flushing Meadows for more than 100 hours of the recently concluded U.S. Open, as HL did. If so, this post is for you.
Among the things prominent tennis press and commentators uniformly stated pre-tournament was that the Open would be:
(A) a potential revenge/redemption vehicle for Serena Williams;
(B) the domestic coronation of 15-year old Coco Gaugh as Serena’s successor;
(C) a stage for two titanic clashes between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the men’s semifinals, with the survivor playing Rafael Nadal in the final;
(D) an opportunity to watch the other 251 main draw women’s and men’s entrants and pay special attention to (a) Naomi Osaka – the defending women’s champion who defeated Serena in last years’ final; (b) Daniil Medvedev, the 5th men’s seed who came into the tournament with a stellar record in the preceding American hard court swing, including a win over Djokovic and a beatdown from Nadal; (c) Nick Kyrgios, who might go deep, self-destroy or perhaps both (d) Bianca Andreescu, the true breakout teenage star of 2019, who could not win a single qualification match for the 2017 and 2018 Opens, but in 2019 had defeated all seven “top 10” opponents she had faced.
The men’s draw refused to perform the assigned King Kong/Godzilla/Rodan script. Djokovic, the defender here and winner of this year’s Aussie Open and Wimbledon was soundly beaten by Stan Wawrinka. He is one of two players in the 15-year Federer/Nadal/Djokovic era who can beat them in the five-set format “Grand Slam” tournaments when at his peak and they are near theirs. Wawrinka has had Novak’s number more often than Roger’s or Rafa’s – as in his defeat of Djokovic in the 2016 Open final, the Roland Garros final in 2015, after defeating Federer in the semis, and the Aussie semis in 2014 – prior to taking down Nadal in that final.
At this Open a peaking Wawrinka was soundly beating a near peak Djokovic until Novak retired when down two sets to love and a break in the third, because of pain in his left shoulder. It had not prevented his previous three straight set victories or seemingly restrict scores of breathtaking Djokovic groundstrokes during this match. And during the post-match interview Djokovic confidently suggested that once again he would dominate the ATP’s Asian Swing that begins in Tokyo and Beijing later this month.
Djokovic’s retirement deprived Wawrinka of full recognition for another victory earned over a World No. 1, after almost two years of post-surgical struggles. The retirement was reminiscent of many early career Grand Slam retirements by Djokovic, while losing to a major opponent, and further explained why the New York crowd has never given Djokovic the affection accorded to Federer and Nadal.
Federer also ignored the script, but his defeat by Grigor Dimitrov in the quarters was not really atypical for him at this tournament in recent years. During the last decade Federer has contested and lost one Open final and been ousted before the final weekend a number of times and in a round just before he would meet Nadal, who in each instance arrived at the appointed stage. They have played at Grand Slams 14 times, with Nadal winning ten of those. They have never played at the U.S. Open.
Dimitrov’s defeat of Federer was unlike Wawrinka’s of Djokovic in several respects. Federer/Dimitrov was much closer, going five sets and was more surprising given the pre-match 7-0 head-to-head in favor of Federer. Federer did not retire when his back apparently tightened in the latter stages, nor did he explicitly assign his loss to that niggling injury as Djokovic implicitly had during his post-match interview.
Federer is too smart and polished to do that. The contrast spotlighted, as Federer intended, one measure of his superiority over Djokovic in the incessant debate about which of the three players is GOAT. A silly endeavor, as explained by tennis commentator Martina Navratilova. She arguably was the best player of her time. But she doesn’t believe comparisons of her record and say Suzanne Lenglen’s or Serena Williams’ have much validity. Nor do we.
A similarly flawed endeavor was the elevation of this years’ men’s five set final Nadal victory over Medvedev to “Best U.S. Open Men’s Final of this Century” as The New Yorker instantly did. It was a great final, with many amazing shots, and the last 2.5 hours produced more tension and emotion among Arthur Ashe Stadium spectators than any men’s final in memory. HL’s memory extends to the last 57 finals.
On the way to that wonderful final, the men’s draw produced many great and surprising developments. Here are four:
Diego Schwartzman, the 5’ 6.5” Argentinian reached the quarter of a slam for the third time. Along the way Schwartzman successively took down opponents 6’ 3”, 6’ 5”, 6’ 2” and 6’ 6” – the last being Alexander Zverev, World No. 6 and 2018 ATP Finals Champion. All that was en route to Nadal in the quarters, where Schwartzman broke Nadal’s serve four times while losing in three tight sets. In a majority of the numerous Schwartzman backhand to Nadal famous forehand extended rallies Schwartzman prevailed.
Second nominee for best supporting male player was Andrey Rublev, an overlooked 21-year old Russian who at 19 made the 2017 Open quarters, soon after sustained a series of injuries, but reemerged this summer with emphatic straight sets wins over Wawrinka and Federer at the Western and Southern Masters 1000 tournament. At the Open, Rublev took down 8th seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and Kyrgios, who neither went deep nor sabotaged himself but was simply beaten in a very high level three set match. Rublev in turn was taken down in the Round of 16 by men’s supporting nominee number three, Matteo Berrettini. After dispatching Rublev in straights the 23-year old Italian defeated the wildly popular and extravagantly talented Gael Monfils. This time Monfils helped Berrettini to his five-set tie-break concluding victory by double faulting 17 times. Three coming as he served for the match at 6-5 in the 5th and two more in the concluding tie-breaker.
Though Berrettini lost in straight sets to Nadal in the semis, the first two were very close. Nadal was lucky to win the first set tie-breaker and the young Italian emerged a force to be reckoned with and likely top 10 by year’s end.
The fourth men’s nominee in a supporting role is a tie between two players and their country – Oh/Eh Canada! Emerging as a star way back in 2017, Denis Shapovalov age 18, was the rage at the Open, having recently defeated both Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro at the Rogers Cup, aka Canadian Open. But because he had only reached World No. 20 by age 19 and had a mediocre 2019 by impatient tennis press standards, Shapovalov had largely been written off and replaced by an even younger Canadian, Felix Auger-Aliassime. As the Open approached it was constantly said that Felix was a future No. 1 and Denis, while talented, had at 20 probably peaked at Top 20 or thereabouts. The two Canadians met in the first round with Denis winning in straights, 1, 1 and 4. While the experts mumbled fuhgeddaboudit, the prediction at HL is that neither will ever be 1 or 2, but Shapovalov’s game, like Wawrinka’s, will produce many wins over the men at the very top and possibly a slam or two. Auger-Aliassime will be top 10 but never at the very top. He does everything well and some things very well but has no killer weapon and under stress his serve doth regress.
The women’s draw and Coco Gauff were both fortunate that she was easily dispatched (3 and love) by defending champ Naomi Osaka after Gauff had defeated the World Nos. 72 and 112 in the first two rounds – a great feat for a 15-year old, but hardly without superior precedent in the women’s game. For example, Jennifer Capriati, whose semi-final run at Roland Garros and No. 8 ranking at age 14 contrasts with Gauff’s 106 rank at 15 provides both a basis to critique the excessive reaction to Gauff’s achievements and a cautionary tale about what might happen to Gauff (predicted to be No. 1 within five years) if she is not counseled well. Capriati did get to No. 1 and win three Slams, but that only happened after years off the tour from “tennis burnout,” assorted arrests, contemplation of suicide and a return to tennis in recovery.
Unlike Capriati who by 15 had beaten Navratilova, Monica Seles and Gabriele Sabatini – Gauff has not beaten a top ten opponent and was quickly dispatched by Osaka and better off for it. Her ouster also refocused attention on players who are far more accomplished at this stage of their careers.
Osaka the defender here, the 2019 Aussie Open champion and during the U.S. Open World No. 1, and Simona Halep and Ashleigh Barty, the 2019 Wimbledon and Roland Garros champions all exited the tournament before the final weekend. No woman or even two or three have replaced Serena’s dominance.
The current era is more like the roughly 15-year period when a shifting group that included Venus, Serena, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova, Amelie Mauresmo, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters traded the World No. 1 ranking and won the vast majority of Grand Slam singles titles.
The current group is comprised of Garbine Muguruza, Halep, Angelique Kerber, Barty, possibly Sloan Stephens, Osaka, Serena and Bianca Andreescu. This group has three wild cards, the last three. Serena has the ability to again dominate as Roger Federer did in 2017/18 at age 35-36, but also may gradually drop from the first tier, like Venus, or plummet from it as Maria Sharapova has. Osaka and Andreescu may dominate and the prediction here is that they will. For the next five years at least. But at HL we are hoping to be wrong and are rooting for a quartet of young Americans – Amanda Anisimova (17), Caty McNally (17) and Sofia Kenin (20), hopefully joined by Gauff in a couple of years.
We suppose there was a measure of both revenge and redemption for Serena at this Open. Carlos Ramos, the umpire charged with sexism and incompetence for his work in last year’s final, was banished from Serena’s matches. Ramos penalized Serena for demolishing a racquet after losing a point, for repeatedly calling him a “thief” and for receiving mid-match coaching from Patrick Mouratoglou, who admitted to rendering it and acknowledged that she had received and understood it. And Serena redeemed herself with a heroic comeback in the second set of her straight set loss to Andreescu and the graceful and gracious way she accepted defeat immediately after and in the trophy ceremony. Her post-match news conference was a different matter.
This Open will be remembered most for Andreescu’s and Medvedev’s emergence and Nadal’s amazing skill and persistence. The last twelve men’s slams have all been won by the Big Three. That won’t be true for the next twelve, eight nor likely the next four.
At a post-match interview prior to the final, when asked if he was proud to be single-handedly upholding the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic/Murray dominance, Nadal responded: “We don’t need to hold this era anymore. . . gonna happen sooner than later that this era gonna end. . . clock is not stopping. . . the cycle of life.”