Fifty parting thoughts from the U.S. Open, where Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams punctuated dominant seasons with their second Grand Slam titles of 2013 ...
• All hail Rafael Nadal, king of
clay hard courts. A remarkable match caps a remarkable tournament caps a remarkable seven months since his return from a knee injury. He concluded his brilliant summer hard-court season with his second U.S. Open title, thanks to a 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory against No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Monday's final. That's his 13th Grand Slam title and, don't look now, but ... well, actually, let's save this discussion. For now, consider: At the start of the year, Nadal's career was said to be imperiled. He blew out of Wimbledon in the first round. Then he won the U.S. Open by playing what at times was a comically high level. Vamos, indeed.
And here we are, another year down, another slate of majors limited to the Big Four. For those scoring at home, that's 34 titles in the last 35 Slams for Nadal, Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer. Just phenomenal.
• We're immune to Williams' heroics, mental strength and witchcraft. But how about this: Williams lost in the fourth round the previous Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon, because she was too passive. She lost her previous match to Victoria Azarenka, her new rival, because she was too passive in the final of the Western & Southern Open last month. In her next major and the next match against Azarenka, she served for the championship twice in the second set. And she flubbed it. This would drive many players to despair. This would drive many players to drink. Serena? She recovered from this catastrophe and, as if beset by happy amnesia, won the third set 6-1 to seal her fifth U.S. Open crown and 17 Slam title. Impressive.
• Azarenka picked up a lot of fans the hard way. She earned them with a tremendous fight in the final. After her title in Cincinnati, Azarenka was never at her best in New York. That she still came within a set of winning the title speaks well of her evolution.
• I see a lot of similarities between Djokovic and Azarenka. The winner of the previous hard-court Slam, he never quite conjured his best stuff, but still found a way to reach the final. He fought gamely and courageously in the final against a rival. In the end, he didn't have quite enough. And he's too far along in his career to take much solace from a moral victory. The good news: He is the multi-time defending champ at the next major, the Australian Open.
• One of the revelations of the tournaments: the "B-team All-Stars." Richard Gasquet, Li Na, Stanislas Wawrinka and Flavia Pennetta are not dissimilar: talented and erratic and generally virtuous players of roughly the same age bracket who have achieved plenty but have long bumped their heads against the glass ceiling. (Li, of course, is the only one to have won a major.) It was nice to see each reach the semifinals. In Wawrinka's case, he played another Match of the Year candidate against Djokovic, just as he did in a loss at the Australian Open.
• We've all devoted plenty of tweets, pixels, ink, airtime and cosmic thinking to the Plight of Federer. He needs a new racket! No, wait, he needs a new coach! If "30 is the new 20" -- a refrain we heard again and again -- only a fool would write him off! No, he is 32, an age when player are fit for the morgue refrigerator!
I think Federer, of all people, had the best advice. Treat this diminution of skill/ranking/aura as a new challenge and go after it, as if it were winning your first major. I see the glass as half full: Federer is playing with house money. If he never wins another match, his legacy is secure. If he should somehow get back in the winner's circle after this dismal summer, if will be still one more feather in his fedora.
• Murray had the right attitude after his dismissal at the hands (or single hand) of Wawrinka in the quarterfinals: In the last 14 months, I've won Olympic gold and two Slams, including Wimbledon. Save your tears for someone else. Still, what a forgettable summer hard-court run for Murray.
• In the upset of the tournament, Bob and Mike Bryan had their bid to become the first doubles team since 1951 to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in the same year foiled when they lost to Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek in the semifinals. The twin brothers were pros in defeat. We would expect nothing less. But what a lost opportunity.
• Paes and Stepanek went on to win the title, beating Alexander Peya and Bruno Soares 6-1, 6-3. Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova won the women's title by eliminating Serena and Venus Williams in the semifinals and rallying from a set and break down to edge Ashleigh Barty and Casey Dellacqua 6-7 (4), 6-1, 6-4 in the final. The Australian runners-up were finalists at three majors this year.
• Hlavackova and Max Mirnyi defeated Santiago Gonzalez and Abigail Spears 7-6 (5), 6-3 to win the mixed doubles title. This is the fourth Grand Slam mixed title for the 36-year-old Mirnyi, who won his first two with Serena Williams in 1998.
• Ana Konjuh, 15, of Croatia won the girls' event, beating the spectacularly named Tornado Alicia Black of the United States 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 (6) in the final. Another Croatian, Borna Coric, 16, won the boys' tournament with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-1 victory against Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia
• Speaking of junior tennis, it was disappointing to learn that Taylor Townsend is through with the juniors and, apparently, no long part of the USTA player development program.
• As tennis comes out of the benighted ages and players (and their coaches) start to pay greater heed to statistics, let's hope folks see the "net approaches" in the semifinal between Nadal and Gasquet and respond accordingly. If I can do anything in tennis 63 times and win 46 points, as Nadal and Gasquet combined to accomplish in three sets, I'm doing it.
• Every tournament takes on its own rhythms and personalities. Some are dazzlers and full of upsets; others plod along with predictable results. What a strange event this was. There were scads of early upsets, but none seismic. Even a second-round loss by the women's fourth seed, Sara Errani, barely induced a shrug. The featured night matches were usually blowouts. The controversies were minimal. The usual gripes about the weather delays and the monstrosity that is Arthur Ashe Stadium were muted with the pre-tournament announcement that the main venue would be getting a retractable roof by 2017. Federer lost to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round, but it wasn't a shocker given the Swiss' summer results. Then the event snapped to life in the last three days.
• That roof can't come fast enough. But, inevitably, given irony's love affair with tennis, as soon as plans for a covered court were revealed, this U.S. Open had no sessions canceled on account of weather.
• After reaching the fourth round or better of all four majors, Sloane Stephens will almost surely finish 2013 in the top 10. She moved up to a career-high 13th this week.
• Truth serum: I have an unpleasant feeling that Juan Martin del Potro peaked in 2009, when he won the U.S. Open. That forehand is the only the thing brutish about the guy. Between the fragile body, the problematic wrist and the good-guy-ness that often seems to douse competitive fire, I'm not sure I like his odds of winning seven best-of-five matches over two weeks at a Slam again.
• Nice tournament for 23-year-old Alison Riske, who is up to a career-high No. 57 after advancing to the fourth round in her second U.S. Open main draw.
• Off the court during the U.S. Open, a fierce battle was fought between the WTA and four "joint events" (outside the Slams) that disburse equal prize money. While the purses are equal at these events, under a seldom-mentioned agreement, the WTA repays the tournaments for the shortfall in commercial benefit compared to the ATP. The terms of that agreement were renegotiated last week. According to multiple sources, the agreement is close to being finalized. (Discuss: Does this not give the lie to equal prize money? I can pay my kids the same allowance of $10 and technically say it's equal wages, but if my wife then reimburses me $4 because one child does fewer chores, is it disingenuous to claim parity?)
• Let's take a moment to praise the 33-year-old Venus Williams, who is competing despite diminished results and health and continuing to ward off retirement talk. This period in her career is saying as much about her professionalism as when she was winning majors.
• I went to the U.S. Open by every mode of transit available, save hovercraft. Car, bus, cab, train, subway. Conclusion: The Long Island Rail Road is your best bet, especially if you're on the West Side of Manhattan. Fifteen minutes station to station. Always got a seat.
• Fans are not duty-bound to root for players from the host country. On the other hand, you can understand John Isner's frustration that so many U.S. Open fans rooted for Gael Monfils in their third-round match. And he might be particularly sensitive: Of his 34 wins this season, 30 have come on U.S. soil. We've seen clay-court specialists and hard-court specialists and indoor specialists. Isner is an America specialist on the order of Douglas Brinkley.
• Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who missed the U.S. Open with a knee injury, has split with coach Roger Rasheed after less than a year. While we speculate about the coach's next job -- Sam Stosur? Bernard Tomic? -- another question: Where does Tsonga go from here?
• As elusive as American men in the second week: transparent explanations for Marin Cilic's absence.
• Want a player to root for? How about Jamie Hampton? She's quietly played herself into a position to be seeded at majors, an achievement in itself. And if there's an antithesis to happy-to-be-here, it's her. Check out this withering self-assessment after a desultory performance in a third-round loss to Stephens.
• Victoria Duval played a dream match. Victoria Duval played a nightmare match. She is 17. Let's see how this one plays out. Love this line from loyal reader Stewbop: "As Annabel Croft would say, 'She has a huge upside.' "
• Don't misconstrue this as a personal condemnation. (If anything, he is to be commended for being in such high demand.) But there was a report -- premature, it turns out -- that the USTA had renewed Patrick McEnroe's contract as general manager of player development, a position he's held since 2008. This triggered many questions and comments and outrage from you guys, from everyone from aggrieved parents to former No. 1 players.
There are valid points on both sides. Yes, the numbers are grim for U.S. tennis, and the New York Post report surfaced the day after the American men completed their worst year at the four Grand Slam tournaments.
On the other hand, what's the benchmark? We all know that it's no longer fair to expect excellence of any one country. Yes, there have been a lot of complaints and dysfunction in the player development program. (See this damning piece from The Wall Street Journal's Tom Perrotta.) But, as any little league coach can attest, you're always going to have aggrieved parties when there are finite slots and subjective judgments. Yes, the men's side is dire. But America is the best-represented country in the WTA's top 100.
Without even addressing McEnroe's competence or incompetence, here's a fundamental question I struggle to get beyond: If the USTA were a public company and the board were answerable to shareholders and Wall Street, would it ever -- at a time of unprecedented crisis and public relations challenges -- install as a leader someone unwilling to commit to doing the job full time? Someone who would spend much of the Slams and other big pro tournaments (including the U.S. Open, the American tennis Super Bowl and annual trade show) working in the TV booth? When there are players to observe, coaches to be assessed, meetings to attend, complaining parents to be assuaged? The person tasked with turning around a struggling enterprise, at a significant salary, is moonlighting?
Again, this job is fraught with politics and infighting in the best of times. Why would you fight with an arm tied behind your back? What am I missing?
• As usual, ESPN did a lot right. (And I will defend Chris/Chrissy/Chrissie Evert to the death.) The high point might have been on Labor Day, when Federer played Tommy Robredo. CBS' broadcast window closed at 6 p.m. ESPN wasn't supposed to come on the air until 7 p.m. With Federer-Robredo in progress, though, ESPN2 agreed to come on the air early to assume the coverage. In a span of about two minutes, CBS cleared the truck, ESPN took over and viewers barely missed a point. Nice teamwork. There's a metaphor in here somewhere.
• Full disclosure: I work for Tennis Channel at the Slams. That said, if I'm a fan, I am thrilled by tennis coverage. With three networks, streaming options, the Tennis Channel Everywhere app, etc., you could follow this event from anywhere. As for Tennis Channel specifically, analyst Mark Knowles is a runaway candidate for Rookie of the Year. And many of you kindly wrote about the "Unstrung" features. Many thanks, but VP of production Gary Lang and his team deserve heaps of credit.
• A tip of the backward baseball cap to Lleyton Hewitt, 32, for reaching the fourth round for the first time since 2006. But how will he abide losing a 5-2 lead in the fifth set -- and the last five games -- of his match against Mikhail Youzhny? Fascinating how even the most revered fighters and mentally strong players occasionally get "the bottles," as the Brits call it.
• It sounds so trite, but the received wisdom that "these long matches come down to a few points" is often dead-on. In the second round, Rajeev Ram and Marcel Granollers were locked at 5-5 in the fifth. Granollers got a lucky bounce, hit a ridiculous forehand winner (at the 31-second mark of the video in this story) and walked away a winner. At roughly the same time, Benjamin Becker was serving for the first set against Djokovic. He tightened up; Djokovic didn't. Becker won five games the rest of the day.
• I wrote a bit about this for Sports Illustrated last week: Once again, women challenged calls -- that is, summoned Hawk-Eye -- far less often than men. (Note: The raw data is misleading, as men play longer on the show courts. You have to calculate this based on challenges per point.) And the two genders have a comparable success rate. The thesis Martina Navratilova and I share: This is Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, tennis style. Women are more reluctant to challenge and be assertive or confrontational.
• Jay-Z -- or Jay Zed, as the BBC called him -- expressed interest in adding Stephens to the stable of athletes he represents. But Stephens renewed her contract with her incumbent agents.
• I mentioned this during the tournament: How masterfully has Serena Williams handled the Stephens contretemps? Instead of slinging mud, she has slaughtered with kindness, going to almost comical lengths to praise Stephens. The effect: Serena offloads pressure onto Stephens, while coming across as a regular commuter on the high road.
• I admit to some ambivalence about Milos Raonic. He dazzled for three rounds. He didn't play poorly -- save one loose serving game at the end -- against Richard Gasquet in the fourth round. But this remains: He is a top-11 player and has yet to make a Slam quarterfinal.
• Where does Federer stay during the Open? Here. Assuming he pays the rack rate, he needs to win two rounds just to cover his hotel bill. Like Mel Brooks says: It's good to be the king. As for Nadal, next year note his choice of towels. If the St. Regis is OK with a guest leaving with the linen, it may as well be this guy.
• It's a myth that "defense wins championships." Teams with the best offense are just as likely to win titles as teams with the best defense. Likewise, defense -- while a handy component to your game -- isn't a predicate for tennis success either. In her third-round loss to Camila Giorgi, Caroline Wozniacki had 13 winners over three sets. Giorgi, slighter of build and ranking, had 46. Wozniacki's attitude and perspective are to be respected, and she's still a top-10 player despite losing the No. 1 ranking. But she's not going to win without hitting the ball.
• Rare is the player who enjoys the pre-match tunnel interview, but Serena Williams takes this to a new level. In an excruciating back-and-forth before Williams' third-round match, poor Pam Shriver asked Serena about the music she was listening to. Serena: "Nah." Shriver, unsure if Serena had just mentioned a musical act or simply was declining to answer: "Nah?!" Sufficiently painful that a call to the trainer was in order.
• James Blake wasn't the only ATP player to announce his retirement during the Open. Chile's Nicolas Massu, who turns 34 next month, is leaving the cast as well. Racket clap to a two-time Olympic gold medalist and former world No. 9.
• And yet another retirement: Jill Craybas, 39, tennis pride of Rhode Island, who will tell her grandkids that she once beat Serena Williams at Wimbledon. Well done.
• Martina Hingis' second comeback is off to a slow start. She and Daniela Hantuchova lost to the top-seeded Roberta Vinci and Errani in the first round, dropping Hingis to 3-5 in doubles since her return this summer. Hingis complained afterward about both her calves and her nerves. Don't be surprised if she continues to play but no longer partners with Hantuchova.
• Nice piece by Greg Bishop of The New York Times on Iranian line judge Adel Borghei.
• I'm thinking Alize Cornet is hereby ordered to play every match on Louis Armstrong. Cornet. Trumpet. Armstrong ... never mind.
• Spare a thought for Mardy Fish, who is going through a lot right now.
• At least one top player scouted his next opponent by watching videos on his iPad. (I was asked not to reveal his identity.) As this gets easier and easier, it's inexcusable for players to say of an opponent, "It was a tough match because I'd never ever seen them play before."
• Federico Delbonis was ranked No. 57 during the U.S. Open, thanks in part to a run to the German Tennis Championships final in July that included a victory over Federer. But because he wasn't ranked high enough at the cutoff date, he was forced to qualify for the main draw. He lost in the first round. Speaking of which, Melanie Oudin, the belle of the ball four years ago, fell in the first round of qualies.
• During a break between sessions, at the suggestion of Mary Carillo, I ventured to the Arthur Ashe Learning Center at the Hall of Science. Assuming it's back in 2014, I can't recommend it more emphatically.
• Different athletes have different thresholds for discussing matters beyond sports. Some are more comfortable using their platform than others. But I was surprised how few players wanted to address Russia's LGBT policies.
• We say it once, we say it again: Some network -- we give first dibs to Tennis Channel -- must get Lil Wayne to provide commentary. Guy knows more about tennis than any other celebrity we've encountered.
• We say it once, we say it again: Enter the Nike suite at your peril.
Thanks to everyone for the emails and tweets. We'll do it again for the Australian Open in January.