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U.S. Open Midterm Roundtable: A Pep Talk, Extreme Heat and Major Upsets

A controversial pep talk. Extreme heat. Major upsets. Week 1 of the U.S. Open had its share of storylines. 

The end of play on Sunday will mark the end of the first week at the U.S. Open and the unofficial midpoint of the tournament. With that context, our SI tennis crew takes a look back at the biggest storylines of the first week, opine on that controversial pep talk and get one more shot at picking winners. 

The biggest controversy of the first week, and one of the biggest ones of the entire summer, came on Thursday. That's when umpire Mo Lahyani came out of his chair to give an apparent pep talk to a disintersted Nick Kyrgios, who then turned it around to beat Pierre-Hugues Herbert. What did you make of the incident? Was all the outrage warranted? Should he have been removed from the tournament?

Jon Wertheim:  The outrage meter was triggered, but only slightly. In criminal law, intent matters. In the sentencing phase, character and past record record matters. Same goes here. Lahyani's "pep talk" was inappropriate and well beyond the bounds; the professional veered into the personal and that can't happen in a position predicated on neutrality. But the intentions were sound. ("It came from a good place," as the daytime talk show host would put it.) And his track record and professionalism and sound judgment counts. So, unquestionably, Mo was out line. But anything more than a scolding, a don't-do-it-again and a round through the Internet spanking machine (all of which he's gotten already) seems draconian. 

Stanley Kay: How Nick Kyrgios always manages to gets himself in these bizarre situations, I have no idea. To be clear, though, this isn’t Kyrgios’s fault. I’ve never seen anything like Lahyani’s pep talk, and I think it was completely inappropriate. (As Courtney Nguyen wrote on Twitter, I think the reaction would have been far more vicious had the umpire had been a woman, and a women likely would have been benched for the same violation.) Would anything remotely like this ever happen in another sport? 

Kyrgios might want to considering hiring Lahyani as his coach, though. His pep talk really seemed to work! (Please just hire a coach, Nick—any coach.) 

Jamie Lisanti: The fact that Lahyani got out of his chair and went down next to Kyrgios to speak with him exacerbated the situation and really turned things upside down. I want to think that Lahyani stepped down to warn Kyrgios that if he continued playing the way he was—showing absolutely no effort to return Herbert’s serves, walking around the court—he would be penalized accordingly for tanking. He went a bit further with his warning and the image of Lahyani leaning over to talk to Kyrgios did not help this situation. It’s important to note that Lahyani has a history of speaking with players during changeovers in somewhat of an encouraging manner. Here’s a recent example with Bernard Tomic.

But just because it’s something Lahyani has done previously doesn’t make it right. Some people (fans and maybe even players) may appreciate Lahyani’s care for players and connection to the game. He’s not going to give a simple warning like an automated chair umpire robot. But ultimately, his job is not to coach or provide advice to the players, his job is to referee the match. In that respect, despite any good intentions, he overstepped his boundaries a bit.

Does this situation stir up the same reaction if Kyrgios doesn’t turn things around and ends up losing the match? Probably not. But the interesting part of it all is that we will never know and I think that also added fuel to the fire here. 

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Daniel Rapaport: I wasn't morally outraged, because as Jon mentioned, Lahyani's intentions were pure. But as far as being an impartial referee goes, what he did was nothing short of flagrant. For what it's worth, I don't think Lahyani's words sparked the turnaround in the match—Kyrgios doesn't strike me as the type to take things to heart in the middle of a match—but still, you just cannot do that. And the fact that he's done it before makes it worse, not better. He's been warned. He's been scolded. He's been told not to do it again, and he did it again. There has to be some sort of discipline, and there really wasn't...

The extreme heat policy was in effect on Tuesday and Wednesday, when head indexes remained above 100 degrees virtually all day. What can the Open do in the future when temperatures are so high? Should there be a temperature above which play is stopped?

And be assured that—99 out of 100 climate scientists agree!— it WILL be comparably hot in the future. As for could employ common sense rather than the objective wet bulb rating. Play could be delayed until temperatures cool. Someone suggested a night tennis extravaganza on these oppressively hot days  Not bad. But I do think it bears mention that the top players—those, presumably, in the best physical condition—were noticeably quiet last week. Sports aren't necessarily made to be comfortable. And while the players' (and officials' and fans') health must be paramount, we also need to be sure that players with inferior fitness aren't being rewarded.

SK: As the world gets warmer, these sorts of extreme heat waves are going to grow even more common. So yes, tournaments should be willing to stop play when conditions are unsafe. We already have rain delays; organizers should consider heat delays. Or, if you want to get really radical, make men’s matches best-of-three! (Don’t @ me.)

JL: Should players have to be out there in 120-degree weather? No. But the temperatures early last week are typical of a late August day in New York or a midday match in Melbourne in late January. Athletes have competed in extreme conditions across all sports and managing the heat is simply part of the game. The U.S. Open was quick to institute the breaks for both men and women because of the heat and that rule is the correct decision for this type of weather. But cancelling matches? I say play on. 

DR: Having been on the grounds during those two days, I can attest that it was uncomfortably hot. But like Jon wrote, sports aren't meant to be comfortable. Yes, there were a few more retirements than normal, but it wasn't anything egregious. I wouldn't say conditions felt unsafe, and I don't think anyone had any serious health problems caused from the heat. Surely had it been, say, 10 degrees hotter, then further action would have been warranted. I don't know what temperature is the tipping point—above which they'd stop play—so I'll go with the classic "You'll know it when you [feel] it." 

Give us one unseeded player left in either the men's or women's draw that could make the semifinal. 

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JW: Karen Khachanov in the back draw? Seriously, as I write this, I'd say Lesia Tsurenko or Marketa Vondrouskova, who will play each other in the fourth round, and ....I got nothing for you on the men's side. I'd imagine we see a quartet of high seeds in the final four now that Stan Wawrinka is out.

SK: I’ll go with Lesia Tsurenko, who has yet to drop a set this tournament. Her two most recent wins: 6-4, 6-2 over Caroline Wozniacki, and 6-4, 6-0 over Katerina Siniakova. Tsurenko gets unseeded Marketa Vondrousova in the fourth round.

JL: After upsetting No. 13 Kiki Bertens, 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova is into the fourth round. With that part of the draw up for grabs, why not her? There aren’t too many other unseeded players to choose from. 

DR: Vondrousova. A star in the making, and this feels like her coming out party. She gets unseeded Tsurenko in the fourth round then the winner of Osaka/Sabalenka. 

Mailbag: Calling for a Common Sense Heat Policy at the U.S. Open

Apart from Simona Halep's historic upset loss, which player was the biggest disappointment?

JW: The camera angle—since fixed—on the new Louis Armstrong? As for players, she didn't exactly come in with momentum, but Garbine Muguruza —a two-time major winner—continued her run of inexplicably dismal play. You hoped Jack Sock might finally start his year at his home Slam. Instead he gets bounced in round two and may well finished 2018 outside the top 100 after starting inside the top 10. Caroline Wozniacki won the previous hardcourt major and didn't survive round two here. (Then again, she lost to a good player on a slow court.). Per the question, Halep was the WOD (Week One Disappointment) by a considerable margin. 

SK: Lendl or no Lendl, Alexander Zverev continues to struggle at Grand Slams. His four-set defeat to Philipp Kohlschreiber is more of the same story. I have no explanation for Zverev’s inability to get it done on the biggest stage, and I’m still optimistic that he’ll work through whatever’s holding him back at majors sooner than later. But the discrepancy between Zverev at Masters 1000 events and Zverev at majors remains bizarre. Let’s also give some love to Philipp Kohlschreiber, into his fifth U.S. Open fourth round in seven years. 

JL: My choice for the unseeded player who could advance far in this tournament is the result of a rather disappointing performance by Kiki Bertens. After a sensational summer leading up to the U.S. Open—and an even better draw—Bertens looked like a darkhorse favorite on the women’s side. And after a dishing out bagel in the first set of her opening match and looking sharp in her second round, straight-sets win, Bertens once again looked to be in control of the match against Vondrousova. But the No. 13 seed just couldn’t get it done on Saturday and I think she’ll look back on this as a missed opportunity. 

DR: Jack Sock had a chance to end his disappointing year on a good note and appeared in good form after a breezy first-round win over Andreozzi. He then drops his next match to Basilashvili and has now failed to reach the third round of a major since the 2017 Australian Open. Once thought of as the next-best hope for American men's tennis, Sock, who will turn 26 this month, now finds himself at a career crossroads. 

If you could re-do your picks to win, both on the men's and women's side, who would you take?

JW: As for the women, the heart says Serena; but the head says Sloane Stephens, who comported herself like the highest remaining seed and defending champ (both of which she is). As for men, I worry about Nadal's knees and durability. But intrepid correspondent that I am, I'll stick with him.

SK: I’m still feeling good about Juan Martin del Potro on the men’s side. On the women’s side, I originally picked Simona Halep. (Totally nailed that one.) Reluctantly, I’ll take a mulligan. At this point, it’s hard to bet against Serena Williams. She just played her best tennis of the year against Venus Williams on Friday. The rest of the draw won’t be easy—Kaia Kanepi will be a good fourth-round test—but Serena looks like the player to beat. 

JL: I’ll pass on this—I’m sticking with my original picks of Madison Keys and Rafael Nadal for the titles.

DR: I'm feeling pretty, pretttty, prettttttty good about my original call of Djokovic and Serena.