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50 Parting Thoughts From the 2021 U.S. Open

Cleaning out the notebook from the final major of the year at the 2021 U.S. Open. 

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• Daniil Medvedev thwarted history and beat Novak Djokovic to win the 2021 U.S. Open, his first (of likely many) majors. He dropped one set all tournament and played brilliantly in the final, out-Djokovic-ing Djokovic, and grabbing early breaks on each of the three sets, thus leeching drama. This tagline will be “Djokovic denied,” but it ought to be "Medvedev won." He stepped into this crucible of pressure and delivered the match of his life. He dominated rallies. He served better, moved better. He won this match. He won this tournament.

• The recency effect is real. But it’s hard to conceive of a more extraordinary/joyous/unlikely tennis moment than Emma Raducanu winning the 2021 U.S. Open women’s title. It’s not simply that she is 18 or had to qualify or didn’t drop a set. It was the escape velocity of it all. Two months ago, she wasn’t among the top 10 players in her own country. One month she was playing—and not winning—a challenger event in Landisville, Pa. What a triumph. What a future. What a solid, built-to-last game. What an endorsement for the wonderful, weird unpredictability of sports.

• No Federer. No Serena. No Nadal … not “no problem.” That’s too facile. But there was, undeniably, a different energy to this year’s U.S. Open. Which bodes well for the future. Theory: Instead of watching the favorites cruise for round after round, the field compressed and we were treated instead to wildly competitive and operatic matches. Ordinarily Ashe is filled with the Hamptons’ landed gentry who nibble lobster rolls and canapés and then go back to the hedge fund offices and brag, I saw Federer up close. The real fans, meanwhile, head to the outer courts. This year? Without the kings and queens (and jacks) blowing out the pawns, Ashe drew the real fans. They got behind Fernandez and Raducanu. They knew about Murray trolling Tsitsipas and backed Alcaraz. They resented the unvaccinated players. It imbued the joint with a different, more knowledgeable atmosphere than in previous years. Takeaway: We will miss the titans. We will miss them desperately. But we’re going to be O.K. here, folks …

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• He didn’t make history and will be profoundly disappointed by failing in his 28th match. But let’s pause and acknowledge what Djokovic pulled off this year. No other player since Rod Laver even put himself in this position. 27–1 in major matches. Recovering from a set down eight times. Surfaces, conditions, times of day, opponents. Bravo. And the Australian Open (COVID-19 willing) is next on the calendar.

• Part of what made the women’s final so delightful and so unlike most finals: Both players were going to leave the event in such a new and improved place. In August, Leylah Fernandez lost in the first round of Montreal to—wait for it—a British qualifier. She lost in the first round of Cincinnati 6–2, 6–2. Here, she beat Osaka, Kerber, Svitolina and Sabalenka—three of the top five seeds!—to reach the final. And her impromptu tribute to New York on 9/11 was another scene-stealer.

• Cruel sport, this tennis. Aryna Sabalenka and Maria Sakkari reached two major semis this summer. This is an extraordinary achievement. Yet, for different reasons, they both leave on sour notes. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of playing an underdog. Don’t underestimate the difficulty of playing a young opponent who competes with free abandon. Those were two winnable matches for two favored veterans. Neither delivered.

• Andy Roddick poses this challenge: Right now, name any circumstance—any opponent, any event, any surface, any time of day, any format—and tell me when Novak Djokovic would NOT be favored. Has that ever happened before?

• Alexander Zverev will—to use tennis’s most voguish term—have considerable scar tissue from this event. In the fifth set of last year’s U.S Open final, he failed to serve out the title. This year, reached the semis, hung with Djokovic for four sets, and then played “super ungreat” in the decisive interval. Small consolation (and one remarkably, mystifyingly underdiscussed topic during most of the TV coverage) but it spares the tennis the awkwardness of crowning a major champion as he faces domestic violence allegations.

• Felix Auger-Aliassime played a wonderful five rounds and confirmed what had already been belief, that he is solid both as a tennis player and a young adult. He wilted in a clunker of a semifinal against Medvedev, but he’s (barely) 21 and—intoxicated as we are by the women’s finalists—most tennis progress comes incrementally.

• American Desirae Krawcyzk won the mixed doubles title with Great Britain's Joe Salisbury, defeating El Salvador's Marcelo and Mexico's Giuliana Olmos, 7–5, 6–2. That's the third major of the year for Krawcyzk, an Arizona State alum (who, incredibly, wasn't even part of ASU's top doubles team).

Indiana's own, Rajeev Ram, and Salisbury won the men's doubles title, beating Jamie Murray and Bruno Soares in the final.

A decade after she won the singles title, Sam Stosur and Zhang Shuai topped the teen team of Coco Gauff and Caty McNally, 6–3, 3–6, 6–3, in the women's doubles final.

• In the juniors, 17-year-old Robin Montgomery of D.C. took home the girls' title. Hours later, she teamed with Ashlyn Krueger to take the girls’ doubles title. (Hop aboard the bandwagon; it’s filling up fast.) Another lefty, Daniel Rincon of Spain won the boys' title—which is good because it’s about time Spain fertilized a decent young tennis player. And as always, Colette Lewis has you covered on all matters junior tennis.

• Lots of questions and chatter about Naomi Osaka. This is bottomless-ly rich in terms of a sports/culture story. It’s also deeply personal and we ought to tread lightly speculating or pretending we know what she is enduring. Here is a column I wrote last week. She will come back when she is ready—and not before—one hopes. She can take solace seeing Ash Barty take a sabbatical and then win majors. She can take solace knowing that Serena Williams is nearly 40—Osaka has plenty of time. She can take solace knowing that most fans and colleagues are sympathetic and supportive. I do wonder how many players (people?) in the past went through similar struggles and simply lacked the vocabulary and support infrastructure to do anything but suffer quietly.

• A generic shout-out to the sheer mixedness of tennis circa 2021, the variety on display. What a great ad for tennis that it can accommodate the games and styles of seven-footers and 5​​' 6" battlers, teeangers and players in their 40s, Monfilsian crowd-pleasers and earnest careerists. Name me another sport with the level of gender and ethnic entanglement. We reflexively talk about “the 18-year-olds” and barely pause to note that one is a Spanish male; one a Toronto-born British female born to a Romanian dad and Chinese mom; the third a trilingual Canadienne of Ecuadorian and Filipina decent. Such a virtue, and one that tennis needs to exploit.

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• What an event for Carlos Alcaraz, the Spaniard—and you may have heard this—who is only 18 years old. It’s hard to recall a player so obviously destined for the top 10. What a combination of pace and accuracy. His run to the quarters included an upset of Stefanos Tsitsipas in a match-of-the-tournament candidate. But what a strange coda, pulling the ripcord—on a night match; biggest of his career—after only 68 minutes. Part of maturing is becoming more conversant with your physical limits. We said this at Wimbledon: When a teenager succeeds, awesome! When they don’t, they’re a teenager! As a rule, we should wait till age 20 to start lobbing critical grenades.

• Jenson Brooksby reached the fourth round, took the first set (6–1!) from Novak Djokovic and then a causation/correlation combination of fatigue and the opponent caught up with him. Still, what a breakthrough and what a debut. You can’t teach toughness. You can’t teach presence. You can’t teach disguise. You can improve a serve.

• Andy Murray is to be commended for his play. To compete for four hours against the world No. 3—more than a decade his junior—with a piece of metal for his hip, is a real testament to all sorts of things … his fortitude, his professionalism, sports science, his surgeon. And he was within his right to call out Tsitsipas for his unacceptably long bathroom break. That said, it veered into overkill (bullying?) when Murray was still at it a day later.

• As we wrote last week, what a brutal event—summer, really—for Tsitsipas, a gentle, sensitive type who, we’re told, is genuinely wounded by the perception that he is unsporting and by the public shaming that followed. Quite apart from struggling to win matches, he has seen his popularity nosedive first on account of his truly moronic COVID-19 remarks, then because of the cheating allegations. Reputations can be restored and repaired and rehabilitated, especially in this sport. (See: Medvedev, Daniil and Azarenka, Vika for stark examples more recent than Agassi, Andre.) Still, it’s hard to recall a player falling out of vogue so quickly.

• The top players call the shots. They (or their agents) lobby for court assignments and even court speeds. They negotiate appearance fees to show up at lower-tier events. They get information before run-of-the-mill players do. So when the U.S. Open distributes prize money to boost the early rounds at the expense of the latter rounds, that does not happen without the buy-in of the stars. And for this, they deserved credit. The overall prize money was an all-time high of $57.5 million, while the U.S. Open champs earned “only” $2.5 million, the lowest amount in nearly a decade.

• The low vaccination rate among tennis players has been a subject of concern/infuriation. As many—including Victoria Azarenka—noted, it was, at best, incongruous that fans must show proof of vaccination to watch athletes … who are often cavalierly unvaccinated. We talk often of tennis players being “necessarily narcissistic” and “existing in bubbles” and “valuing belief over reason.” Here was a vivid, distressing example of that. The idea that you would traipse all over the world—fly on planes, hang in locker rooms, interact with fans, hug your opponent at the net—and not feel some sense of shared social responsibility is deeply regrettable.

• Tennis is the only sport that can fine players for violating the specs for bag logos, but is impotent to enforce coaching rules or put a time limit on bathroom breaks (to say nothing of enforcing stricter COVID-19/vaccination protocol). Want to cap bathroom breaks? Fine.

• Coco Gauff lost her second-round match and never found her best level. After two rounds, she was the highest seed to lose on the women’s side. (Though falling to an in-form Sloane Stephens is not exactly a shame.) There’s so much to like here. The poise. The steady ascent. The willingness to play doubles. The willingness to play smaller events outside the U.S. But this one will sting. And Australia is more than four months away. Speaking of …

• Another story to watch: When (if?) the Australian Open swing commences in January—at the behest of the government—events might demand that players are vaccinated. They might also put in place two very different rules, one set for vaccinated players and another set (including quarantine) for the other cohort. A lot of players will have a choice to make.

• What an event for the qualifiers. For the first time since the 1995 French Open, three men made the middle weekend. (Special shout-out to Oscar Otte, who survived match points in two qualie matches to get to Round 4.) On the women’s side, Emma Raducanu, surely her last qualifier for the next, say, 15 years, won three matches before her romp through the latter rounds to the final (!). The $265,000 a player gets for making Round 4 is not life-altering, but it is career-altering. (Which can be life-altering.)

• We had been on the fence about best-of-five. I had proposed best-of-three Week 1 of majors (for players’ physical preservation as much as anything) and best-of-five Week 2 (for preserving gravitas). But I’m close to conceding the unforced error of my ways. There’s so much drama and the five-act arc of it all is too good. This tournament was a two-week infomercial for its virtues If the players don’t mind the physical price it exacts …

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• Five players who didn’t survive the early rounds but impressed nonetheless: Chris Eubanks, Jasmine Paolini, Holger Rune, once again Max Cressy, and Magda Linette.

• We have vowed to eliminate the demeaning word journeyman from the sports lexicon. But for a guy who had been laboring admirably without much to show for it, what a summer for Lloyd Harris. In D.C., the South African ended Rafa Nadal’s year. Here he beat Karen Khachanov and Denis Shapovalov to reach Week 2. And then not merely beat Reilly Opelka but out-aced him 36–24. At age 24, he is at a career high.

• Rough event for the defending champs. Dominic Thiem didn’t play. And we’ve said our piece on Naomi Osaka. Kinda defending champ Rafa Nadal (he has won his previous seven matches in New York, after all) didn’t post. And Bianca Andreescu reached the fourth round before losing a classic against Maria Sakkari 7–6 in the third. With her 2019 points molting from her ranking, she may well finish the year outside the top 20. Buy on the dip. She’ll be back.

• From the curmudgeon files … when matches end at 2:00 a.m., everyone giggles and makes coffee jokes. But this really disadvantages the players. Even with a day of rest, it’s hard to reset your rhythms when you’re still in the tournament and you’re going to sleep when the sun rises. Does this not make tennis seem … unserious?

• Same drawer … there was so much chatter about bathroom breaks. It seems only reasonable to cap the time. Sure, some venues have a closer bathroom than others. Sure, some sweaty attire takes more time to remove. But Thiem claims no break should exceed five minutes and that seems reasonable. More concerning to me? The flagrant coaching. One of tennis’s virtues is its independence, the problem-solving it demands of players. Changing that is changing a core principle. If we have technology to track balls within millimeters, we should have the technology to punish the many culprits. And instead of warnings, why not cumulative penalties including ejection from the stadium?

• Lukewarm culture take: In this age of oversharing, when nothing officially happens unless it’s been documented on Instagram and everyone has access to their own megaphone … bland and cautious corporate PR-speak does more harm than good. What do I mean? Send out an announcement that Gilles Simon or Jelena Ostapenko is exiting the tournament “for medical reasons” and it doesn’t merely plead for more explanation; it almost taunts the reader to make the most adverse assumptions. Tell the world the tournament referee left on the eve of the event “for personal reasons,” adding no more insight and declining details, and it arouses, not douses, attention. Yes, sometimes the folks in PR aren’t at liberty to comment or there are legal restrictions. But inasmuch as anodyne statements ever controlled any damage, that’s no longer the case.

• The USTA never got enough credit for staging the 2020 U.S. Open—and paying full-boat prize money. But it comes at a price. Literally. Between the debt service on the roofs and the staging of an event with no fans, few sponsors and zero hospitality, you’ll want to shield your eyes, I’m told, before looking at the next USTA public filings.

• Especially in conspiracy-happy 2021 A.C.E., the weird and opaque U.S. Open draw ceremony was a bad miss. Can’t remember which of the many critics (Matt Roberts?) said this, but if smaller events can manage a decent public draw ceremony, the U.S. Open ought to as well. The truth: There’s nothing suspicious here. (One example among many: Think the USTA wanted Madison Keys to play Sloane Stephens—with the winner to face Coco Gauff?) But why not use this occasion to attract fans, not induce skeptically arched brows. And not to pile on—lots of good moves by the USTA—but closing the (free) qualies to the public while opening all gates for the (paid) main event is, what the kids call, super-sketch.

• The ATP’s new strategic plan makes a lot of sense on paper—which is to say in deck form. It empowers the Masters 1000s. It takes a stand against conflicts of interest. It shares various ancillary rights revenues. But, man, will this be brutal for many run-of-the-mill tournaments. It will be interesting to see whether the USTA, heavily invested in Cincinnati, takes a stand to prevent other American summer events from falling off the calendar. Never mind the participation numbers; the USTA’s real error over the past few decades has been sitting passively as the U.S. tournaments have gone off-shore.

RIP, Julie Ditty.

• The one-handed backhand might be in a state of decline. (Only one player on the women’s side, Viktorija Golubic, zings it.) But how about the return of the drop shot? When tennis enters the 21st century in terms of data, we’ll get some firm statistics. But, anecdotally, it was remarkable how many players won points outright on droppers, or set up winners by bringing their opponent netward (Alcaraz did this masterfully.) One consequence of players positioning themselves deeper in the court: players opportunistically using the space this creates. Speaking of stats …

• Can we please stop counting aces as winners? It’s misleading and distorts the story of the match. One example among many: In their second-round five-setter, Alexander Bublik had more winners than Jack Sock, 75-49. But wait: Take away aces and the winner count was 40–35 for Sock. (Yes, Bublik had 40 aces.) Sock won the match in five sets and won two more overall points. If part of the job of statistics is to convey the story of a match, winners ought to include only balls in play.

• Great point from Richard Evans, who—as long as we’re here—is a tennis treasure. He noted: “Bill Norris, ATP physio for 35 years, never had to treat players for cramps on practice court no matter how long they played tells you one thing. Cramps are directly connected to the nervous system.” I spoke to a UFC fighter last month who raised the same point in his sport. “Just about everyone can execute the moves in the gym. Who can do it [in competition], under the lights, when the adrenaline is pumping?”

• Aslan Karatsev was like tennis Dogecoin. An unknown quantity who enjoyed this hype and run-up in the first few months of the year. Then not a lot of movement. Nice to see him reach the middle weekend before losing to … Jenson Brooksby, tennis’s Q3 Dogecoin.

• This probably bears repeating: Find us a better value proposition than a U.S. Open grounds pass. Had a friend write to me from the Carlos Alcaraz match on the first Monday evening: “I must smell terrible. But I’ve been here since the first ball. I’m under $5/hour and I’m still amortizing.”

• Here's a story to watch: It’s mid-September and the WTA finals remain stuck in no-man’s-land, an event without a site. It would be really bad news for the tour if this event were outright canceled. One irony: The last time this event was held—Shenzhen 2019—it featured the largest purse ever conferred on an athlete at one time. $4,420,000.

• There was some confusion here—and I share in the blame. Albert Molina from IMG (not to be confused with the great Alfred Molina) signed Carlos Alcaraz at age 14 and represents him. Enric Molina, the former chair umpire, is also a Spanish agent and represents Feli López, among others. A cool story about a guy who transitioned from one tennis job to another. Which might be especially relevant because …

• Underrated story: The robots are coming to tennis. AI no longer stands solely for Ana Ivanovic (or Allen Iverson). And the removal of so many line judges—replaced as they were by automation—scarcely merited mention.

• Congrats, Chris Clarey. His book on Roger Federer made last week’s NYT bestseller list. Order here.

• Keep your Smashnova, your “I in Thiem,” and your “Sabine Hack.” The mellifluous Anhelina Kalinina rules as the best name in tennis. She can play a bit, too. Speaking of Thiem …

• The defending men’s champ was not able to defend his U.S. Open title. But he did spend the tournament as the guest analyst on Tennis Channel and was terrific. Without preparation or a script, he riffed on a variety of topics and provided real insight into his own tennis cortex, rattling off results and factoids. He was rehabbing his injured wrist and hopes to be back to start 2022. Meanwhile, Eurosport has a future analyst on its hands.

• Lots of comments about the TV commentary, as always. I a) am conflicted, and b) don’t watch much during events. c) I am deep in the tank for many of the ESPNers, etc., so I have little objectivity. d) It’s poor form to call out colleagues publicly. e) Tennis is too quick to eat its own. (We should be eating, say, golf’s own instead.) Here, however, are three media general observations: 1) Ignorance is not a virtue. I’ve never even heard of this journeyman! is not endearing; it undercuts your credibility. 2) More than half the world’s population was born after 1990. For many viewers, the references to matches and moments and catchphrases from the early ’80s might as well be references to the Peloponnesian War. 3) This dovetails with data discussion, but there were so many fraught (or flat wrong) bits of empirical information. Player X might lead the tournament in aces; but that’s just a raw number. If he has played five-setters and the No. 2 ace leader hasn’t, the average of aces per set (or better yet, game; or better yet, point) would tell us more. Likewise, the majority of a tournament’s matches are played in Round 1 (64 of 127). By the quarterfinals, 95% of the matches have been played. Telling us, We’ve had 32 five-setters—and can you believe, we’re only in the fourth round?! does not tell us much.

• Congrats to Reilly Opelka on winning the 2021 U.S. Open! But shame on him for taking a 12-minute bathroom break! Oh, wait, that wasn’t him? Well, forgive us; we just meld all tennis players together into one faceless monolith and make sweeping judgments. When people react to a specific objection, however justified, by talking collectively about the media—multiple times during this tournament, Opelka noted “the tennis media sucks,” as if such a cohort even exists in ’21—it often reflects more poorly on the speaker than the collective they are looking to indict.

• Good to see the U.S. Open get in the NFT game. In a few years, this might get lampooned, the digital version of Google glasses or every American owning a Segway. But for the time being, you may as well play ball.

• The PGA ate tennis’s lunch with this announcement. If you’re looking for a sport chock of colorful characters and drama, you won’t do better than tennis. On the other hand, here’s Mardy Fish and his excellent Netflix doc. And more tennis news: Our pal Chanda Rubin teams with Zina Garrison for a new podcast about … Serena Williams. The GOAT.

• This is the first U.S. Open since the passing of Tom Perrotta, a wonderful writer and better friend. I would like to acknowledge him.

ALWAYS FUN GEEKING OUT ON TENNIS WITH YOU GUYS. BACK TO THE DAY JOB, BUT WE’LL DO IT AGAIN IN AUSTRALIA …

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