NEW YORK -- If there's an image that sums up the first week of the U.S. Open, it came Sunday during Rafael Nadal's post-match news conference in the bowels of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
While addressing the Spanish media after a 7-6 (5), 6-1, 7-5 victory over David Nalbandian, the defending men's champion broke into an extended grimace and seemed for a moment to liquefy in his chair, sinking to the floor and out of sight behind the interview desk. Reporters were cleared from the room for 10 minutes as Nadal received treatment for leg cramps.
It was fitting punctuation for a week that's seen 14 retirements in the men's and women's singles draws, not including two walkovers and two withdrawals. That's already two more tapouts than the previous Open-era record for a major set at Wimbledon in 2008. The afflicted include some of the sport's top performers, from Venus Williams (felled by a mysterious autoimmune disorder) to single-digit seeds Robin Soderling (wrist) and Tomas Berdych (shoulder). Surely this wasn't the carnage Andy Roddick had in mind Wednesday when he suggested tennis should take a page from Monday Night Raw.
Long romanticized as the toughest Grand Slam, the U.S. Open is living up to its reputation as the business end of the tournament approaches. But the good news can be found on the domestic front, where five Americans are still standing with a number of other notable performances auguring well for the future.
Serena Williams is the only homegrown woman in the last 16, but a 14th Grand Slam title seems all but a foregone conclusion entering the backstretch. She dropped just three games in the first two rounds before Saturday's marquee third-round matchup against fourth-seeded Victoria Azarenka, a theoretical contender who offered little resistance to Serena's dialed-in serve and superb shotmaking until it was far too late. By Sunday night, British oddsmaker William Hill had slashed Serena's odds to win the tournament to an astonishing 8-15, with top-seeded Caroline Wozniacki a distant second at 7-1.
Also making noise were up-and-comers Irina Falconi, Madison Keys, Christina McHale, Sloane Stephens and Coco Vandeweghe, whose first-round victories earned important rankings points (and publicity) for the next wave of American women. "Stephens, McHale, Vandeweghe, Falconi, Keys, we r a coming baby we r coming," tweeted beaming USTA player development czar Patrick McEnroe on Tuesday. No mention of Vania King, the 22-year-old who dropped seven games in two rounds before falling to Wozniacki on Saturday. Such is the sudden bull market of American women's tennis: you can't cover it all in 140 characters or less.
Signs on the men's side were even more encouraging, where it's been an unprecedented eight years since an American won a major. Even in times of plenty, Americans hand-wring endlessly about the future.
"When I was coming up you had Agassi still in his prime, Sampras still in his prime, and people still wanted to know who was next," Roddick observed Wednesday. For the first time in recent memory, there are results to back up the answers.
Four American men are through to the second week after zero made it to the fourth round at Wimbledon. Roddick is back in the fourth round for the first time since 2008, rebounding from a hugely underwhelming season that's seen him drop from the top 20 for the first time in a decade. (Former U.S. Open boys' champion Jack Sock, who earned his first tour-level win in the first round, might have gone further if he hadn't drawn Roddick in round two.) Also through are Mardy Fish, the veteran who shed 30 pounds last year and transformed his career, and John Isner, who seems to have finally recovered from the post-dramatic stress of last year's Wimbledon marathon.
The shocker is Donald Young, a wild card in more than one sense and undoubtedly the biggest story of the opening week. At 15, Young was the world's No. 1-ranked junior. The Wimbledon boys' title and a Nike contract soon followed. A native of Chicago's South Side, Young was tabbed to be the first black men's Grand Slam champion since Arthur Ashe, but a tour-level breakthrough (and growth spurt) never came. By 2007, a New York Times Magazine feature entitled "Prodigy's End" had effectively declared him a bust.
Now 22, Young finds himself in the round of 16 after upsets of No. 14 Stan Wawrinka and No. 24 Juan Ignacio Chela, a redemption of sorts after an embarrassing episode earlier this year, when Young lashed out against the USTA after losing a qualifier that would have secured him a wild-card entry into the French Open. The ill-advised tweet prompted a public apology and the decision to pull the plug on his Twitter account. (Is it possible the incident was a good thing? "Definitely not," Young said with a wry smile after Sunday's win.) A wunderkind no longer, Young instead will settle for being the youngest player left in the draw. A fourth-round tangle with Andy Murray awaits.
Noisy fans, extreme conditions, an unforgiving surface and the dreadful commute from midtown have always made the U.S. Open a difficult place for visitors to play. As the American tennis machine regenerates itself, a crop of native talents both new and old are determined to make it even harder over the next seven days.