With “volume” 113 HL returns from the August furlough to report what was saved, what lost and the sui generis at this year’s United States Open Tennis Championships. This was the first U.S. championship HL did not attend since the 1962 tournament at Forest Hills. But we watched closely along with other inhabitants of the Global Village.
Saved was some semblance of an American tennis season and tournament that mean so much to a great sport, its players, fans and the United States Tennis Association. Against heavy odds the USTA staged a high level event that left the game in far better shape than most other sports and recreational industries during the pandemic. Any fair and rational assessment must conclude that the association not only accomplished its mission, but aced it.
What of the quality of play and significance of the results? Had all or most of the healthy top players shown, there still would be an asterisk on the results because of the pandemic, the preceding mostly cancelled schedule, the spotty preparation of many who played and the fan-less environment in which the matches were contested – especially during the second, business end week of the tournament. But that was if all/most top players had shown. Neither healthy defending champion chose to play because of the pandemic and because the tournament was played at its epicenter and in a facility recently used as a Covid hospital. Also because of the uncertainty at time of commitment about whether having played in New York a contestant would be allowed to travel to Europe to play the big Rome, Madrid and Roland Garros tourneys.
The absence of the defending champs and especially Rafael Nadal, champion four times including two of the previous three, was hardly the only big absence. On the women’s side, six of the world top eight stayed away, including #1, Ash Barty, #2, Simona Halep and #6 and defending champ, Bianca Andreescu.
The self-serving platitude most frequently repeated by the TV commentators throughout was “twenty years from now no one will say anything other than so and so won the 2020 U.S. Open.” Tennis fans, journalists and historians will tell you that Jan Kodes’ 1973 Wimbledon title is grievously marred by the absence of the two immediately previous winners, Stan Smith and John Newcombe, among a group of 81 male players who boycotted the event over the treatment of their brother Niki Pilic. But that was not 20 years ago, just 47.
In addition to the massive environmental anomalies, the absence of most of the top women will double asterisk Naomi Osaka’s crown, notwithstanding her generally excellent performance. More about her and the overall level of play later.
Despite Rafa’s absence, the men who showed were far more representative of the top of the men’s game – with two internal asterisks – big ones. Five time champion Roger Federer was not there, due to surgery during the early part of this plague year. And then the fourth round Djokovic debacle – which is proof that “the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice” and/or that there is a just and angry God. No Roger/Rafa/Nole in the quarters, semis or final. These three had won the previous 13 majors and are consensus three of the top four all time.
Concerning the level of play, it generally was very good with two internal asterisks. One was the brooding omnipresence of little noise and no live fan interaction. This created not a pressure-less but highly reduced pressure environment to strike the balls. Equal for all players but the players who had handled that pressure best in recent years were not there – especially in the highest pressure later rounds.
The second specter involved those same absent players, because tennis fans recounted the matches where they had defeated this years’ quarterfinalists, semifinalists and finalists in those same rounds – over and over again.
A very notable exception was Victoria Azarenka, a former two time major winner, who not only flew through the women’s draw but defeated nemesis Serena Williams, who had beaten Azarenka all ten times they previously played at majors. Azarenka played very well for all seven rounds including in the three set final where she was defeated by Osaka. Not so Osaka, who survived a few mediocre performances and likely would not have survived playing that way, against Barty, Halep, Andreescu or others absent.
Same on the men’s side and especially with semi-finalist Pablo Carreno-Busta and finalist Alexander Zverev. With Carreno-Busta, who performed really well in every round, it was more the absence of players he never had defeated. With Zverev it was his very spotty performance in certain rounds, which he would not have survived with the big three there. Dominic Thiem and his stellar performance is the huge exception. He deserved to be in the final because of his brilliant play in the first six rounds. This was his fourth major final, including a four set loss to Nadal at Roland Garros in 2019 and a five set loss to Djokovic in the Melbourne final earlier this year. His 14-18 record against the Big Three is better as a percentage than Federer’s against Nadal, Djokovic and Thiem, where he has a losing record against each and all.
The men’s final between Thiem and Zverev was a dramatic success but the level of play was well below that of any Open final in memory. The women’s final between Osaka and Azarenka was played at a very high level and appropriate for a championship match.
Karma was the real star of this tournament, most clearly with Djokovic. Earlier in the year the current world #1 had come close to destroying the entire tennis season with his dangerous and defiant Balkan exhibition events and shirtless crowded parties, which left several top players (including him) Covid-infected, his protest of the safety measures adopted by the USTA and his well-publicized views on the mind’s power to purify drinking water. That only moderately angry and moderately paced Djokovic ball strike was guided to the lineswoman’s throat by forces aware not only of Djokovic’s horrible conduct this year, but his history of rule bending gamesmanship and rule breaking on-court behavior.
Karma or rough justice also worked on Serena. The six-time champion has also seriously damaged three U.S. Opens. In her 2009 “I’m going to shove this fucking ball down your fucking throat” assault on a lineswoman while being soundly beaten by eventual champion Kim Clijsters. In her attack on the umpire during the 2011 final while being trounced by Sam Stosur. And the big enchilada, her 2018 extended meltdown while losing the final in straight sets to Osaka. Given all that, including her 23 hard earned majors, if she was to tie Margaret Court’s record of 24, it should not have and did not occur at a tournament where most of the top players were absent.
Answering the questions posed initially: An altered season was saved. Nothing was lost by holding this tournament and quite the opposite. Everything about it was sui generis and we hope it remains that way.