U.S. Open Midterm Grades: Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Tough Mothers Atop the Pack

The U.S. Open is headed into the second week. Here are our midterm grades on the action thus far.
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Again, the tournament may be played within Corona Park, but so far this event has felt almost like a major tennis event. No fans, no Roger Federer, no Rafael Nadal, no six of the top 10 women, no freedom of movement. But here’s what we have had: upsets and comebacks and seeds falling and seeds surviving. We’ve had a sizable helping of controversy—someday, Benoit Paire of Avignon will write a memoir—but that’s always the case. Herewith, masked affixed, through three rounds, your 2020 U.S. Open midterm grades:

A

Knocking wood (and graphite and carbon fibers): Some controversy. One positive test. Some violations of COVID-19 protocol. But overall, the bubble is holding. If in advance, you told the USTA—and the entire Republic of Tennis—a week in, the tableau would look like this, you suspect the organizers would have signed up.

Novak Djokovic of Serbia hits the ball against Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany on day five of the 2020 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Novak Djokovic: Before the tournament, most folks took him against the field. A week in, he is still undefeated for 2020 and the U.S. Open prognosis is unchanged.

Tough Mothers: Nine of them entered. Three are left at this writing: Serena Williams, a resurgent Victoria Azarenka and Tsvetana Pironkova, who returned after a three-year maternity leave, and beat phlegmatic Garbine Muguruza. Afterward, she offered this gem: “Once you become a mother you don’t magically lose your ability to play.” This is a real validation of the WTA’s maternity leave policy.

Canada: The defending women’s champ, Bianca Andreescu, is out and the stalwart, Milos Raonic, was eliminated by friendly fire. But Vasek Pospisil, Felix Auger Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov—through very different circumstances—are in the Sweet Sixteen. 

Matteo Berrettini: A semifinalist last year, he has yet to drop a set. 

Alize Cornet: Hasn’t missed a major since 2006. She is now within a match of her first-ever quarterfinal.

College tennis: The O.G., John Isner (Georgia), may have bowed early, but fittingly he was beaten by perhaps the best college player of all time, Steve Johnson (USC). From Cameron Norrie (TCU) to J.J. Wolf (OSU) to Jennifer Brady (UCLA) to Astra Sharma (Vanderbilt)—lots of fight songs getting sung. Athletic directors take note. 

Carla Suarez Navarro: It’s admittedly a little off to put this under the rubric of letter grades. But you won’t find a more popular player among her peers. Wish her well.

B+

Kim Clijsters: Was absolutely pounding a seeded player for an hour. Then it looked as though the ab injury announced itself and she lost in three sets to Ekaterina Alexandrova. The question: what’s next? On ball-striking alone, Clijsters has top 20, if not top 10, talent. How much time and energy is she inclined to devote?

Maxime Cressy: Former UCLA Bruin didn’t have many answers against Tsitsipas but what a revelation. He deploys this curious tactic of heading netward after he serves. Every time.

Andy Murray: Won a memorable first-rounder, down 0-2 sets and rallying to beat Yoshi Nishioka. Lost an unmemorable second-rounder, to FAA. For a guy who sets off metal detectors with the contents of his hip and was retired 18 months ago, not a shabby effort.

B

Coco Gauff of the United States hits a forehand against Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia (not pictured) on day one of the 2020 U.S. Open tennis tournament at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center...

Coco Gauff: Hardly a crisis, losing 6-4 in the third set to a seeded player. But dropping a winnable first match—to a player who was 1-8 on the season—has to sting a bit. Especially with another showdown with Naomi Osaka pending. All part of the process. On to the clay...

The young 2-0 setters: Nishioka, Jannik Sinner, Denis Kudla, Ulises Blanch and Mackenzie McDonald, all up two-sets-to-love before retreating against older opponents. Moral victories and gutting losses.

PTPA: Good for the players for organizing, seeking an amplified voice and a fattened wallet. Good for Djokovic and Pospisil—two different players with two sets of personal interests—for leading. The decision for the Professional Tennis Players Association to launch without the consulting half the professional tennis players was both a bad look and a strategic misstep. Some additional thoughts here.

B-

Stef Tsitsipas: Loses what has been—and likely will be—the match of the tournament, 7-6 in the fifth to Borna Coric, having squandered a 5-1 fourth set lead and buckets of match points. If by his own admission, it took him months to get over losing that epic against Wawrinka in Paris last year, you wonder about the recovery time for this defeat. To his credit, his post-match tweet was as classic as the match.

C

Inconsistency: It’s the bane of a tennis player. And it’s the bane of governing bodies trying to establish credibility. If you have a set of COVID-19 rules, stick with it. You can’t pull two players (Pella and Dellien) out of one event and then, under a virtually identical set of circumstances, create a “bubble within a bubble.” You can’t allow one player (Mannarino) to compete and then pull another (Mladenovic). For all that could have gone wrong and didn’t, this was an unforced error.

The second hotel: Not just a great name for an album; the source of so much coronavirus trouble. One player hotel is all but hermetically sealed. The other is not. And this is where the problems stem.

The fan absence: It’s great that the USTA scrambled to stage this event. But if you ever doubted the importance of a live audience—from Venus Williams locked in a tight match against a seed, to all the success of the college players, to those doubles matches that ended 7-6 in the third—the absence of the crowd was conspicuous.

Karolina Pliskova: Top seed makes an early exit, losing in round two to Caroline Garcia.

The prematch interview: Actually we found something even more cringe-inducing, absent of value and stripping of dignity for all parties involved. The prematch interview when the player is wearing a mask.