In the wake of a riveting, chaotic and highly newsworthy summer, here are some key storylines for next week's U.S. Open:
• The appeal of women's tennis: Attendance is down, and not in a random kind of way. There were hundreds of empty seats at the Serena Williams-Victoria Azarenka final in Cincinnati—a match that represented the best the game has to offer—and it's been that way all summer. The tireless Matt Cronin covered the 21-day stretch through California (Stanford, Carlsbad) and Toronto, and "of the 42 sessions I attended, I'd say that seven were successful—meaning sold-out or nearly so," he wrote on tennisreporters.net. "That's seven out of 42 for the world's leading women's sport. At this point, I would be seriously re-thinking marketing strategy when it comes to ticket sales."
Empty seats are a traditional embarrassment during the early rounds of the U.S. Open, particularly during the day, so expect this disturbing pattern to continue. Something for the WTA to consider: No small part of the fans' apathy stems from a widespread perception that today's women superstars make too much noise. Shrieking is a major issue that won't go away, and it hardly helps matters that the vociferous Azarenka and Maria Sharapova tend to figure so prominently at the majors.
At some point over the Open's two weeks, the WTA will feel compelled to release its latest public statement on the issue—and that will be interesting. Rich in depth and international talent, the sport has come too far to be held back by such silliness.
• John Isner's ascent: Clearly, there are two John Isners. In the U.S., he's a top-notch player. Overseas, he tends to struggle while expressing a woe-is-me disdain for the excessive travel. On the CBS telecast of Sunday's Isner-Rafael Nadal final in Cincinnati, Jim Courier praised Isner as a "big-match player," one of only two men in the world who can force Nadal to adjust his strategy (Novak Djokovic being the other), "but the challenge [for him] is consistency—particularly when he's carrying his passport."
Isner's emotional issues tend to vanish on U.S. soil. The big man was brilliant in Cincinnati in his victories over Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro, before taking Nadal to consecutive tiebreakers during a loss in the final. Isner had to pull out of Winston-Salem with a hip injury, mostly as a preventative measure to be sharp for the Open. Assuming he's healthy, this could be his best opportunity to win a Grand Slam.
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• Sharapova in crisis: In the same indomitable way that she shrugs off a lost point, Sharapova is unlikely to show many signs of what has been a troubled summer. In June, she lost to Michelle Larcher de Brito at Wimbledon, injuring her hip in the process. A month later, at the urging of her father, she hired Jimmy Connors as her coach, only to dismiss him after a single match (a loss to Sloane Stephens in Cincinnati). And there are reports, unconfirmed by the Sharapova camp, that her surgically-repaired right shoulder might be bothering her again.
Credit Sharapova for a decisive call on Connors. It was a bad idea, doomed to fail, and she cut the cord before things could become untenable at the Open. I think every seasoned tennis fan admires Connors, but he is not widely admired within the tennis community, and is hardly the man to turn to for a long-term coaching relationship. "If you were disinclined to believe that Connors is a low-class, self-aggrandizing guy willing to sell out anyone he knows, you no longer have to take his critics' word for it," wrote Peter Bodo on tennis.com. "You can just read 'The Outsider,' [Connors' recently published memoir] in which he makes the case all by himself."
• The relentless Rafa: Treading softly on familiar clay after seven months off the tour, Nadal seemed to be clearly fearful of the hard-court season to come. Behold the transformation: Nadal is 15-0 on hard courts this year, even gaining a 7-6 career edge on Roger Federer after their sensational quarterfinal in Cincinnati. He looks as spry and as intensely competitive as ever, his knees a non-issue until further notice. Marveling at this singular force of tennis nature, Courier said on the air, "If I had to choose one man to play for my life, it would be Nadal."
• The Azarenka-Williams dynamic: It would be a shame if we don't get a rematch at Flushing Meadows. Azarenka made an emotional and competitive breakthrough with her victory in Cincinnati, and although she stands just 3-12 lifetime against Serena, the competitive balance is shifting. After some tentative moments in the third set, Azarenka closed out the match with a flourish. For once, it was all about her professionalism, rather than some dreary melodrama. Williams looked a little flat at times, but that won't be an issue at the Open. She'll want to finish out the year with a bold statement, making it quite clear who's No. 1.
• Scenes we'd like to see: A rejuvenated Djokovic, who's had a difficult year and a half—the death first of his grandfather, then of his beloved coach (Jelena Gencic), then the rudely dismissive comments from his father about Nadal and Federer -- and can't always hide his distress ... Full glory in a nocturnal setting from the spectacularly gifted Gregor Dimitrov, Jerzy Janowicz, Bernard Tomic and Alexandr Dolgopolov ... Sloane Stephens in the semifinals; this is her time, and despite all her flighty public comments, I believe she knows that ... Marion Bartoli interviewed about her post-retirement plans (she'll be on hand doing television commentary for Eurosport) ... Further advancement of that most remarkable physical feat: sliding on concrete courts (with Djokovic setting the standard) ... Federer vs. Nadal: still as fine a matchup as the sport can offer.
• The air waves: Once again, three talent-laden networks will be jockeying for viewership, meaning an awfully long day and night for fans intent on digesting the entire experience (with help from their DVRs).
CBS, with two years left on its U.S. Open deal, will continue to handle weekend coverage, including the men's and women's finals. Bill Macatee and Ian Eagle will handle play-by-play duties, with Courier, Mary Carillo and John McEnroe working as analysts. ESPN, which gains full exclusivity in 2015, will have its usual excellent crew throughout the weekdays (including McEnroe, along with his brother, Patrick).
Tennis Channel will have a constant presence with studio shows and live-action windows throughout the tournament, featuring Macatee, Carillo, Courier, Martina Navratilova and (on breaks from NFL coverage) Ted Robinson.
• Sights and sounds: It's always a mixed bag at the Open, usually a bit too loud and corny for sophisticated tastes. I offer this passage from Steve Tignor, of tennis.com, from a recent French Open; it's quite clear which tournament he casts as the villain:
"What won't you hear on these grounds? You won't hear a PA announcer, in a shiny, slippery voice straight fresh from PA announcer school, advise you to stay hydrated. You won't hear him tell you, erroneously, that one of the show courts is filled and that you should 'enjoy the doubles action on the side courts,' while not forgetting to stop by the food court and a T-shirt vendor while you're at it.
"What else won't you hear? You won't hear a jazz-funk band or someone fiddling on an electric violin as you walk toward the main stadium. You won't hear REM or Fleetwood Mac or any other musical acts that have been scientifically proven to make people who are over 40 and have disposable income feel warm and fuzzy enough to empty their wallets on a collectors' baseball cap and an $8 hot dog. In fact, no music at all is played during changeovers at Roland Garros. There is also no jumbo-size scoreboard training its eye on you and haranguing you into kissing the person in the next seat. There is also no roving camera looking for people who are attempting to dance, jump, pogo, wave their hands in the air or do whatever else is necessary to see themselves on a jumbo scoreboard.
"The tennis match seems to be enough," Tignor wrote. "In fact, with no other distractions, the drama of the contest in front of us is heightened. We watch the players. We think about what's happened and what's coming up. If it's beautiful, we look at the sky."
And speaking of which:
• The roof is coming: Here's a tip for anyone holding tickets for Arthur Ashe Stadium: Enjoy the great outdoors. The retractable roof will be in place by 2017, and it was regrettably deemed "impossible" to chop off the stadium's upper deck (such a lovely notion) and create a more intimate atmosphere. As it is, the high-level seats are comically inadequate, as if one were viewing the action from Saturn. Under a roof ... I can't even imagine it. Suffice it to say it won't feel like big-time tennis, not as it exists at Centre Court, Rod Laver Arena and Court Philippe Chatrier.
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Perhaps the tournament is in for a run of good fortune. There was a time when rainfall was a fleeting trifle at the Open, when the tournament's second week was routinely graced by the onset of fall: slightly dropping temperatures and a refreshing breeze, and there wasn't a place in the world you'd rather be than New York City. May the future follow suit.