50 Parting Thoughts from the 2020 U.S. Open

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Well, we did it. We got through the first major post-COVID-19. An achievement in itself. And the biggest controversy had nothing to do with a virus. Before departing to the clay of Europe, our 50 parting thoughts. Oh, before we begin, we did this in Australia and it was a success, so we’ll offer it again. If anyone wants the Mailbag sent weekly, newsletter-style, send an email and let me know. That out of the way...

• Let’s start not with the champions, but with the other big winner, the USTA. This event was by no means perfect—not that it ever is; not that there was ever the expectation. But by every meaningful metric and criterion, this was a success. The decision to stage the event was bold and controversial and entailed planning and contingencies and financial risk. It wasn’t just the right one. The USTA made it the right one. You might say the bubble never burst. Long may this pliability and spirit of enterprise persist...

• Naomi Osaka didn’t just win the 2020 women’s title; she emerged as the new authority figure in women’s tennis. This was her third major singles title; she turns 23 next month. You know those Snapchat Flashbacks? It’s almost unfathomable that only two years have elapsed since she was in tears, overwhelmed by the awkward/unpleasant 2018 final and... her standing on the court Saturday, tall and proud and turning questions about police brutality protests back on a questioner. 

• Dominic Thiem is your men’s champion, cracking the Federer/Djokovic/Nadal cartel. Twice, Thiem lost to Nadal in the finals of Roland Garros and in January, he lost in Djokovic in Melbourne. No shame there. Losing Sunday would have been different. To his immense credit, he wouldn’t let himself squander this opportunity. Though hardly at his best, and losing the first two sets, he persisted. And, at age, 27, he broke through.

• Victoria Azarenka is your women’s runner-up. And while she is still disappointed that she was up 6-1, 3-3 in the final and couldn’t close her first major in 7+ years, she distinguished herself this event with her tennis and her candor, especially about her self-styled organizing principles on life. Again: it’s hard to name another player who’s gone from prickly to strenuously-difficult-not-to-like.

• Alexander Zverev reached the final of a major for the first time but left with the less-desirable trophy. Credit him for getting this far—and powering through a semifinal that he won by dint of sheer will. But, wow, this one will sting. Up 2-0 sets in a major final is a rough way to go. This is the rare player who won six matches... and will likely consider this event a setback.

• The revelation of the tournament: Jenn Brady. For the first time, the former UCLA Bruin—more on college tennis later—entered a major as a seeded player. She showed she belonged, clubbing that forehand and reaching the semis, where she played the match of the tournament against Osaka. Brady essentially said, “I’m not satisfied being a 60-90 player. I’m willing to work, transform my body and exile my zone of comfort to improve.” And has she ever.

• Lots of heartwarming stories this event, but a favorite might have been the return Tsvetana Pironkova, who bouncy-castled from a three-year maternity leave to reach the quarters. For all the mom jokes and the references commentators deployed (too) liberally, don’t lose sight of this: the (recently reconsidered) WTA maternity leave policy made it possible.

• The theme of the successful working mother that rang through the tournament? It was not confined to singles. Vera Zvonareva teamed with Laura Siegemund to win the doubles. The men’s event went to Bruno Soares and Mate Pavic.

• Diede De Groot of the Netherlands won the women's wheelchair title, beating Japan's Yui Kamiji 6-3, 6-3. Shingo Kunieda won the men's wheelchair singles title, beating Alfie Hewett 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (3).

• A week later, still lots of Djokovic backlash and splashback. Here are five thoughts a week after the fact:

a) I’m struck by this: Djokovic’s game is based on precision and timing and details and a certain meticulousness. And those precise qualities are too often absent in how he conducts his affairs. From the water molecules to the Adria Tour to the exclusion of women when launching an association, to the defaulting... it’s less about ill-intent or malice than sloppiness. This whole Djokovic drama would be considerably easier to process were he a bad guy or if he relished playing the heel. But he’s neither. A former top player who considers himself a friend to Djokovic recently described it to me this way: “He is the [personification] of good idea, bad execution.”

b) I wrote about this after the Adria Tour; and it was in evidence last week as well. Isolation—bubbles within bubbles, as it were—becomes a danger for any star, but especially so in an individual sport. And Djokovic needs a truth-teller to pierce his membrane. Someone to prevent him from holding COVID-superspreader events. (“Hey, even if technically this complies with national policy, the optics here are terrible!”) Or slapping balls in anger (“Hey, if that had inadvertently hit someone, it could really cost you!”) Or making ATP political allegiances that will later cause embarrassment and credibility loss among key colleagues. Or leaving an event that ends in disgrace, and then blowing off an uncomfortable press conference. (“If you want to be a leader in this sport, accountability means taking questions and dialoguing, not simply issuing tweets and posts.”) Clearly no one on staff fills this role. Again, the phrase you often hear with Djokovic: “Novak’s intentions are good; it’s just that…” He is not a figure to be reviled. He is, if anything, a figure to be pitied.

c) As with so much in our world, an unpleasant situation was amplified and worsened thanks to social media. To anyone taking inventory of the situation and then deciding that, yes, the lineswoman was somehow at fault and deserving of online confrontation…you are meeting the definition of sociopathy. But here we are. And I wonder if this isn’t part of Djokovic’s problem. Scroll through your mentions, and after hundreds of diehard fans write about how YOU were the aggrieved party….even at some subconscious level, you believe them.

d) Minor point, but what an expensive event for Djokovic. In many ways. But that includes financially. He left with no prize money—which was up to $250,000 at the time. He was fined. He was fined again for skipping the mandatory press conference. He rented a home for himself and his team and, presumably, paid at least some of that out of pocket. He forfeited all sorts of bonuses from his various sponsors.

e) Say this: it all adds intrigue to the French Open. We’ve seen Djokovic respond to crises by going on walkabout for 18 months. And we’ve seen him respond with defiance and a refusal to lose.

• You know who distinguished himself? Tournament referee, Soeren Friemel. This is what reason and leadership and authority sounds like.

• We can dwell on Serena’s failure to win that ever-elusive 24th major, her inability to sustain her level after blitzing Azarenka in the first set of their semifinal and then retreating. We can step back—changing out return position, as it were—and marvel that a 39-year-old woman is still playing deep into major after major.

• On Labor Day, the day laborers included Denis Shapovalov, Aryna Sabalenka, Elise Mertens, Taylor Townsend, and scads of other Americans. They were playing a species of tennis called…doubles. As tennis thinks about how to rebrand in the post-Big Three and post-Serena world, here’s an idea that will cost $0.00 in incremental expense: popularize doubles. More stars are playing. The points are often insane. They feature all those allegedly lost arts, such as net play and angles. Mystifying why events and television don’t use this asset more effectively.

• Back to Djokovic, it provoked a code red for the Double Standards Police and lit the torch for the False Equivalency Olympics. But Federer did this in 2005! But Nadal takes too much time! But Serena! But Bedene! But her emails! And all that said... I was struck by the USTA’s statement—clinical and cold and absent opinion—especially when you compared this to this.

• Back to the lineswoman: I hope someone points out to her that Carlos Ramos was not only here, but working the chair for Osaka’s quarterfinal match. On Ashe. And it scarcely went noticed. That, Shino Tsurubuchi, the lovely woman who called Serena for the 2009 footfault, has been able to continue working in the sport. That two years after being pelted by Denis Shapovalov, Arnaud Gabas, did this. No official wants to be the story. Clearly the events were traumatic. But inasmuch as she wants to continue in the sport, it will welcome this woman back warmly.

• It’s been a strange year for us all. But not least The Bryans, Bob and Mike. An unrivaled team—and still better as human beings—they had planned to take a victory lap, skip the Olympics, and then bow out at the U.S. Open. The plans went a bit sideways. They played World Team Tennis and then, surprising even some close friends, did not enter the Open. They owe us nothing. But strictly from a sentimental/stagecraft point of view…you hope the most accomplished doubles team of all-time—who had an uncommonly warm relationship with the fans and media and events—got a bit more of a grand send-off.

• The absence of big names yielded big opportunities. Some players took advantage—and emerged with plump rankings and bank accounts. But what about the flip side? If you didn’t take advantage of THIS opportunity, what sort of confidence do you have when the field is stacked? (I am thinking specifically—if not exclusively—of Karolina Pliskova.)

• Spare a thought for Coco Vandeweghe. The heroine of World Team Tennis, she would have benefitted mightily from the greased lightning court at her home major, enabling her to slim down ranking that was No. 201 when the tournament began. Sadly, she watched from home on account what was described to me as a “non-tennis injury.”

• The players' collective professionalism was on display in a big way. After a six-month lockdown, it was remarkable how few retirements there were—fewer than last year!—and how few trainer calls there were. Before the tournament, there were murmurs that the format ought to be shortened to best-of-three-sets because players would not be in shape to marathon matches. That was a fallacy. Yes, the mild weather helped. Yes, players came fresh and without accumulated wear-and-tear. But it's admirable how the players maintained their fitness during the shutdown.

• A lot of questions about the PTPA. We should be sympathetic to athletes seeking to amplify their voice and gain a greater share of revenue. (Especially at the majors, which tend to disgorge only about 15% of gross revenues.) Only the staunchest purists would contend that the structure of the tours—three board seats to players and three to tournaments—isn’t woefully outdated. And yet the PTPA is…what exactly? I must have asked 20 people and none could furnish a straight answer. It lacks the support of Federer, Nadal and Murray (for now) and made a huge misstep by launching without the women. It’s not really a union. It’s not clear if it wants to blow up the ATP; or simply be a faction within. It’s unclear whether it can fund insurance, a pension, and legal services for its players. It’s unclear whether players are willing to strike if the events—which is to say the majors—don’t accede. It’s unclear how it gets around the Sherman Act’s prohibition on independent contractors unionizing. It’s unclear where it will gain leverage.

• The unshakable view here: tennis is at its best during combined events, when men and women compete alongside each other, when fans (and sponsors and television) can toggle from gender to gender. Osaka precedes Djokovic and no one thinks to mention it. This is something no other major sport can say. And the pendulum swings. Sometimes the men carry the day. But more and more, the women are doing the heavy lifting. Inasmuch as this event was a glimpse of life in the post-Federer-Nadal universe, if I am Djokovic and Pospisil, I am sprinting and lunging to get the support of the women.

• There were nine mothers in the draw. No rooting in the press room, but, objectively... it was a pity that the Kim Clijsters' comeback attempt didn’t pan out. Or didn’t it? She was great for the first half of World Team Tennis. Her ball-striking is still top-rate, as she displayed by nearly beating a seeded player (Alexandrova) 15 years her junior. And she played with her characteristic joy. You suspect that her level of play in World Team Tennis—and confidence she projected at age 37, performing in front of her kids—will not go unnoticed by other players approaching her age.

• Before Djokovic was defaulted, the “Paire 11”—which sounds like a Left Bank jazz band—was the controversy of the tournament. Anyone marooned at a suburban Marriott deserves deepest reserves of sympathy. But in truth: the French players were lucky to play. Given the fact pattern—and the FAQ pattern—the players came into contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 and should have been expelled from the event. It sounds like a Zen koan but a “bubble within a bubble” is a loophole. Conspiracy theorist asks: if the players have not come from France—site of the next major; from a federation with which the USTA usually swaps wild cards—would they have been granted this measure?

• The good folks in the Antipodes, contemplating the 2021 Australian Open, followed the event closely. Here’s an excerpt from a missive Craig Tiley sent us: “It’s been great to see the return of global tennis in New York this week. The USTA has faced a lot of challenges but must be commended for getting the event going. The feedback we’ve had from many of the players is that they feel safe in the ‘bubble’ environment and appreciate the opportunity to play Grand Slam tennis again. Every player I’ve spoken with wants to look at 2021 as a fresh start. We’ll continue to touch base with the players and their teams on their plans for January and I certainly get the impression that there’s a great feeling of anticipation and optimism about coming down to Australia and playing at the AO, where they always have such a great time. We are really excited about the prospects of putting on a very special event for everyone to embrace and enjoy….. We are planning for a great Australian Open in Melbourne in January and are optimistic we’ll have fans onsite, although in reduced numbers. The AO has always been known as the happy slam, and in 2021 we want to be and the health and safety of everyone is our priority. So that’s why we are working with world-leading biosecurity experts on how we can create the best possible environment—for players, fans, and our team and of course will have a lot of learnings from our colleagues at the US Open.”

• The usual framing discussion: does Taylor Fritz remember this event for a pair of solid wins and two hours of strong tennis against Shapovalov, all part of his gradual ascent? Or does he recall this event for failing to serve out the match, which would have consecrated the biggest win of his career? Speaking of...

• Stefanos Tsitsipas was up 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, 5-1 on Borna Coric. Week Two loomed. His omnipresent father was smiling. Life was good. And then, of course, it wasn’t. Tsitsipas lost 7-6 in the fifth in the match of the tournament. Coric didn’t get enough credit for his comeback, his returning in particular. But, man…Tsitsipas was undone for months after losing a classic in Paris last year to Stan Wawrinka. How long to excavate from this hole?

• Lukewarm take… usually when players score an upset, the next 48 hours bring chaos. Interviews and photoshoots and ticket requests and patch deals and can-my-folks-leave-Zagreb-right-now-and-make-it? Without fans and other non-essential personnel, that chaos was obviated. Note—as a result?—how many players (from Carreno Busta to Brady to Shapo to Felix to Pironkova) won big matches... and then followed it without a perceivable letdown.

• Brandon Nakashima, who just turned 19, turned heads at World Team Tennis, including a 5-0 blanking of Jack Sock. And heads remained turned here. Showing all the elements of a top player, Nakashima won a round and gave Zverev a tight match. Giving new zest to the phrase backhanded compliment, here’s Zverev’s assessment: “I think he has one of the best backhands I have seen from an American in a long time.”

• It always seemed incongruous not to have Hawk-eye on all courts. How could an event not provide the same material advantage to all players? It would be like saying some NBA games had three refs on the court and others had only two. This year, perversely, we had the inverse. As reader Eddie Metairie wondered: “A player on Arthur Ashe could lose a game/set/match on a bad call because he/she didn’t challenge or has none left, but it cannot happen on Court 11 because of electronic line calling. How is that making any sense?!?” ...The conspiracy theorist asks: if there were no umpires, what would happen to the Polo sponsorship and those near-life-sized polo horses adorning officials’ attire? (And the Varsity conspiracy theorists ask: if there were no Ralph Lauren lucre, and thus no human officials on the court, does Djokovic win the 2020 U.S. Open?)

• Cincinnati may have lost its tournament in 2020. But the Queen City was well represented in Queens. Caty McNally played to the middle weekend, her run encompassing a 7-6-in-the-third takedown of Ekaterina Alexandrova. J.J. Wolf turned heads winning a pair of matches before falling to Medvedev. (And speaking of OSU, Francesca Di Lorenzo, a recent college All-American, had match point on Aliaksandra Sasnovich in their first-round match. Sasnovich escaped in a tiebreaker and rolled the third set 6-0.)

• We like Karolina Muchova. We like that she serves-and-volleys sometimes. We like that, by highly unofficial count, she led the tournament in applauding her opponents’ shots.

• Brutal sport, this tennis, Version 5,791: Note the familiar names—Ernests Gulbis, Viktor Troicki—toiling away last week, an ocean away from the action.

• I really want to say “This event sure felt bereft without mixed doubles!” But, um, er, yeah...

• Five players who didn’t escape Week One but impressed nonetheless: Sebastian Korda, Hailey Baptiste, Maxime Cressy, (Mandatory) Corentin Moutet, and Katrina Scott.

• Underrated absence this year: ice baths. Because of COVID-19, ice baths were forbidden this year. While I know some players who filled their hotel tubs with ice when they returned, recovery—so important as the sport gets, perpetually, more physical—was really impacted.

• The teenagers in my orbit give high marks to the U.S. Open’s TikTok feed.

• It’s not quite Sloane Stephens ordering mid-match U.S. Open sushi... But Kwon Soon-woo was seen eating a banana and Kit-Kat bar—which sounds, at once, like the best and worst of Halloween—on a single changeover. And speaking of Stephens, she remains tennis’ answer to an Action Park fun ride. She looked unbeatable for five sets (winning back-to-back matches for the first time in a year and getting halfway to beating Serena. Then she beat a hasty retreat.)

• What a strange tournament for... everyone. But what about coaches? You’re not just on the job; you are there to provide energy, sometimes comprising the entire fan section for your player. I heard an interesting take from a veteran coach who, unfortunately, did not want his name used. He said it was the hardest tournament he’d ever worked. He also said he can’t remember having this kind of command of a player’s attention. With no distractions—no sponsor appearances, no dinner in Manhattan, no ticket distribution—he was able to gameplan like never before.

• Pick through the USTA’s finances and it’s clear that suites are a major source of revenue. Suffice to say that in non-coronavirus times, players aren’t commandeering these catered jewel boxes. But what a cool twist this year. We still thought it would have added a twist—and twist of incentive—if the player beating the seed got to take over the seed’s suite.

• Ladies and gentlemen, if you’ll turn your attention to the far left of the screen... it’s Matteo Berrettini with your shot-of the-tournament.

• Yet another difference between team sports and individual sports, especially those with no coaching... assessing injury is largely incumbent on the player. In her third-round match against Alize Cornet, Madison Keys gets a weird injury to her neck and back, complaining of numbness. In a team sport, the athlete comes out of the game. A doctor assesses. Expert opinions and prognosis are dispensed. In tennis? Keys had to weigh unknowns and make an on-the-spot decision herself. Can I fight through and still win this match? Even if I do, can I post for the next one? Am I risking more damage? With another major a few weeks away?... She decided to retire.

• There were many meetings over many weeks about the U.S. Open “social justice messaging” policy. In the end, players were given permission to take the court wear a message of social justice, subject to approval. Neither condemning nor condoning, I was surprised at how few players took advantage of this. (I know some USTA types were too, especially given the amount of advance hand-wringing). Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens were notable exceptions.

• Shoutout to Kveta Peschke, who reached the quarters in women’s doubles. She was born in 1975. She has been married for 17 years. And I was told she was once a junior rival of Monica Seles. Damn.

• Thanks for your comments and banter about the Tennis Channel morning show. With any luck, Jim, Martina, Brett, L.D., Annacone, Mademoiselle Chanda and the rest of us will back in Paris. (I’m sure you’ll be reading about it soon.) With no Tennis Channel on-site and no real media presence, it’s been years (decades?) since I’ve consumed so much of a major via TV, in this case mostly ESPN. We’ll say it again: Some of the front-facing folks are more informed and entertaining and conflicted and enterprising than others. But for all the problems that plague tennis, substandard broadcasters don’t rank high on the list. A lot of quality coverage. And James (Benedict) Blake wins Newcomer of the Year.

• With defeated players eager—and forced—to leave New York, we were told that it was a banner event for swag. Rackets, shoes, entire outfits….all left behind for the cleaning staff.

• I enjoy catching up with college coaches at the U.S. Open. That didn’t happen this year and these are lean times for the sport—and for most non-revenue college sports. I don’t want this to sound isolationist. And I don’t want to kick a program when it’s down. But when you field a roster that looks like this—the majority of players from overseas and no player from in-state—you make the beancounters’ decisions easier. Ethically, is it too much to suggest that the composition of the tennis team can only be one standard of deviation different from the general student body? No one wants a ban or even a hard cap on international athletes. But field a team with so few Americans—never mind taxpayers from in-state—and you expose your neck when the budget ax swings.

• Just as players all have strengths and weaknesses, so to the press room. Some journalists are experts at breaking down matches. Others cover the sport’s politics. Some specialize in history. Others, attire, gossip and even music. I can’t think of a tennis journalist more versatile than Tom Perrotta. Do yourself a favor: spark up the google machine and read some of his work.

• Marin Cilic went out to Dominic Thiem in round three. Which meant that with 16 players left, only one (Djokovic) had won a major, the first time that happened since 1998. (Good pull, Ash Marshall). Back to Cilic: who knew he could write like this? Sports Illustrated’s tennis division just got stronger.

• Before the tournament, players and assorted knuckleheads complained that the USTA’s protocols were “extreme” and “overkill.” Within days players were looking ahead to the events in Europe and asking, “Wait, what... these European events are NOT attempting bubble configurations?” By the tournament’s end, the French Open announced a fan reduction and a rule dictating that players—even those with residences in Paris—lodge in one of two hotels. Even so, the defending champion opted not to play. You wonder who’s next. Which is to say:

• À votre service, Roland Garros.