Roundtable: U.S. Open takeaways
What were the best moments from the U.S. Open? What is the outlook for Roger Federer after a rough summer that included back-to-back early exits at Grand Slam tournaments? Which U.S. Open champion has a better chance to break the Open era record for major titles? A panel of tennis writers — Ricky Dimon of The Grandstand, Amy Fetherolf of The Changeover and Erik Gudris of Adjusting the Net and Tennis Now — joined me to discuss these topics and more from the final Slam of the year.
U.S. Open: Thumbs up or down?
Courtney Nguyen: I have to say, that was one underwhelming Grand Slam tournament.
Erik Gudris: I agree with you, Courtney. Thank goodness for the finals or this U.S. Open would definitely have earned an "incomplete."
Ricky Dimon: Well, the women's tournament wasn't in doubt from the start, as both the champion and finalist were all but assured once Maria Sharapova withdrew. The second set of the final between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka basically salvaged the tournament, even though the third was anticlimactic. As for the men, it had some potential but fizzled. A Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer quarterfinal would have been massively hyped because of the surprising test that Federer gave Nadal in Cincinnati in the previous tournament. But it didn't happen. Similarly, Nadal-Novak Djokovic had the makings of an instant classic, only to see Djokovic fade in the fourth set.
Amy Fetherolf: I would have to agree. Although there were a few bright spots, this U.S. Open was sadly devoid of any matches that were truly memorable for the right reasons. Few of the marquee matchups came to fruition, and much of the tournament was predictable. Luckily, the two finals brought the tournament to a satisfying finish.
Gudris: The tournament had bursts of greatness but not enough to create a memorable event, aside from the stellar finals. I can remember a handful of matches -- Venus Williams vs. Zheng Jie, Lleyton Hewitt vs. Mikhail Youzhny, Richard Gasquet vs. Milos Raonic -- and a few others that were truly engaging to watch. But otherwise this will not be an Open to remember.
Dimon: Unless you're a Nadal fan, of course.
Nguyen: The Open never really found its legs. Victoria Duval pulled off that great upset over 2011 champion Sam Stosur, but she lost routinely in the next round. Venus looked like she might actually build some momentum through the tournament, but she lost to Zheng in the second round. Before we could finish deconstructing why American fans weren't rooting for John Isner, he lost in the third round. Then Federer's fourth-round loss to Tommy Robredo dashed hopes for the long-anticipated first Roger-Rafa match at the Open. It just all felt so weird. This tournament had no momentum.
Dimon: Until we got the No. 1 vs. No. 2 on both the men's and women's sides, this was a tournament for the "little guy" and for the hardcore tennis fan. There were some breakout performances and great matches during the first week (Duval included), probably before many people started watching. For example, Dan Evans and Tim Smyczek made names for themselves by reaching the third round -- and both were even on the brink of the fourth round. Smyczek vs. Marcel Granollers and Isner vs. Gael Monfils were amazing matches with incredible atmospheres (and a curious one in Isner's case), but given that they took place before the second week even started, was anyone watching?
Fetherolf: The big exceptions for me were the semifinal runs by Stan Wawrinka and Gasquet. Those were fun to watch. Wawrinka is playing superb, fearless tennis. Gasquet shed the public perception that he didn't want it enough, fighting his way through five-setters against Raonic and David Ferrer. Plus, he threw his socks.
Gudris: Watching Gasquet throw his socks trumps his "You are not my father" outburst in Miami.
Best of New York
Nguyen: What were the best matches?
Gudris: For the women, Azarenka v. Williams. For the men, Gasquet vs. Raonic. Socks and all.
Fetherolf: On the men's side, Gasquet vs. Ferrer, mostly because of the way Gasquet played in the first two sets. His backhand was absolutely on fire. Plus, it had a dramatic conclusion after Ferrer fought back to force a fifth set. On the women's side, I thought the final was great. There were some excellent points, even with the windy conditions.
Dimon: From a spectator standpoint, you can't beat night matches on the Grandstand like Smyczek-Granollers. Even Isner-Monfils on Armstrong was electric. There weren't any one-for-the-ages classic matches. The sets that stand out, of course, are the third in the men's final and the second in the women's final. Let's be honest, the 54-shot rally was better than almost all other men's entire matches combined.
Nguyen: That 54-ball rally is why I'm picking the men's final as the match of the tournament. The way Djokovic and Nadal showcase modern tennis is remarkable. Wawrinka-Djokovic deserves a mention, too.
To Amy's point about Gasquet: I'd say he's in the running for tournament MVP. He's not my final pick, but I'd certainly nominate him. How about you guys? Who was the most valuable player of the 2013 U.S. Open?
Gudris: Wawrinka is the MVP. He beat Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray and tested Djokovic in five sets. And then he dropped an F-bomb on live TV. End of discussion.
Nguyen: Yeah. I have to pick Wawrinka as well. His three-set takedown of Murray gave us this tremendous GIF. I will be forever grateful.
Dimon: If we're in the business of non-champion MVPs, then yes, Stan by a mile. His biggest victories (against an in-form Berdych and a two-time Slam champ in Murray) were better than those of Gasquet (against Raonic and a slumping Ferrer), and his loss was also more impressive (five sets to Djokovic compared to Gasquet's three-setter against Nadal).
Gudris: Can we talk about Duval for a second? Yes, it was a great event for the 17-year-old, coming out of qualifying and beating a former champ in the first round. But I felt like Duval was on camera nonstop the second she shook Stosur's hand to when she warmed up with Daniela Hantuchova in the next round. Is the media that desperate for a "feel-good" American story?
Fetherolf: Duval's feat was quite exceptional, winning a main-draw match after getting into qualies with a wild card, but I think the reaction was over the top. One big win does not make a future tennis superstar, or even necessarily a top-50 player. There's always a storyline like this every U.S. Open; it's the nature of sports coverage to highlight the underdogs who have success. But drawing the conclusion that they're the next big thing is what bothers me about it. In tennis, you need to prove yourself week in and week out, not just at one tournament.
Nguyen: If that kind of exposure helps her get sponsorships, I'm all for it. Tennis isn't a cheap sport, and with her father no longer able to work in medicine because of the injuries he sustained during a devastating earthquake in Haiti, every little bit counts.
Nguyen: Let's talk #Merica. Aside from Serena's dominant two weeks, what do we make of Team America's U.S. Open?
Gudris: We saw the American women make gains while the U.S. men, even at their home Slam, appear to be treading water for the moment. With all the recent talk about what is working and what isn't in terms of development, would everyone agree that ultimately it's a generational issue that no amount of new ideas/techniques will fix?
Dimon: Correct, Erik. No amount of new ideas/techniques will fix it. The bottom line is that our best athletes play other sports. In this era, you cannot win majors without being an athlete of the highest caliber. See: Nadal, Rafael and Djokovic, Novak.
Nguyen: For the American women, it was a "B-plus" tournament. After the draw came out, it was tough to get excited about the chances of a deep run from Sloane Stephens or Jamie Hampton because they were projected to play each other in the third round (and they did) and the winner would likely have to face Serena (who went on to beat Stephens). But Alison Riske (who upset Petra Kvitova to make the fourth round) and Christina McHale (who nearly got past Ana Ivanovic in the third round) were two great stories. As for the guys, it's beating a dead horse. Worst Slam performance ever for the American men this season. But as I am one to look for the silver lining in everything, at least it got people to openly cheer for Smyczek, even if just for one night.
Dimon: Serena managed to take care of business, but other than that it was largely an unmitigated disaster. Stephens vs. Hampton was terrible. Sloane vs. Serena was almost as bad. Bob and Mike Bryan lost their quest for a calendar-year Grand Slam in men's doubles. Not a single American man reached the fourth round. And to cap it all off, American tennis fans rooted for a FRENCHMAN against THEIR BEST PLAYER. What else can you say?
Gudris: Ricky, New Yorkers love a show and Monfils gives it to them. And they wanted a fifth set no matter Isner's opponent that night.
The Federer Situation
Nguyen: What did we learn from the last two weeks?
Fetherolf: I think we learned that Federer's struggles aren't just a blip. Seeing him fail to reach the quarterfinals at two consecutive Slams feels bizarre, but it's the new reality for him, at least for now.
Gudris: These two weeks gave us a confirmation of what we learned from earlier in the season. Serena may just be getting started in terms of adding to her Grand Slam total. Nadal, too. Djokovic needs to make an adjustment or two and soon. And Federer is in a new phase of his career, whether his fans like it or not.
Dimon: We learned that Nadal needs to manage his schedule in meticulous fashion throughout the rest of his career. He took seventh months off and came back like gangbusters. I'm not saying he needs to take seven more months off to continue dominating, but it's plainly obvious that significant chunks of time off will preserve his career. For starters, he better not actually play the China Open and Swiss Indoors, as he's scheduled to do in the fall.
Nguyen: Never, ever, ever count on Ernests Gulbis to take advantage of an open draw. That's what I learned.
Dimon: We learned that in 2008. Carry on.
Nguyen: We'd be remiss if we didn't talk more about the Federer Situation.
Gudris: "The Federer Situation." Is that starring Jeremy Renner?
Nguyen: It seems like his self-destruction against Robredo has finally made it OK to talk about the Federer demise. I just don't think he has another Slam in him.
Dimon: I'm concerned about Federer now more than ever. I guess second-rounded losses to guys like Sergiy Stakhovsky (at Wimbledon) and Daniel Brands (at the Swiss Open) are easily written off as flukes, a la Nadal vs. Steve Darcis in the first round of Wimbledon. A fourth-round loss to Robredo just seems more ... real. I still think Federer has at least one more serious run at a major left in him, but he needs to test the new (or old, which is it now?) racket for more than a one-month trial.
Gudris: I think we're going to see a repeat of this season next year. Some great moments and some really bad moments from him as he tries to navigate this new normal. He could still put together a great week or two and contend for a Slam. But to expect a return to former greatness is too much to ask.
Dimon: Federer can't be counted out, if only because the men's tour is not deep enough to do so. With the right draw and the right surface (Wimbledon), Federer could have a chance.
Fetherolf: I see plenty of cause for concern. But if the back injury doesn't continue to bother him, I wouldn't totally rule out a good run at a Slam (not necessarily winning, but another final at least).
Gudris: And let's not forget that Federer still enjoys competing, at least right now. If he doesn't mind the losses, then why should we? The sport dearly needs him to stick around for as long as he can.
Dimon: Seriously, Erik. Can you imagine the ATP Tour without Federer and Nadal? Talk about TERRIFYING.
Gudris: You mean Nadal vs. Djokovic and their 54-shot rallies isn't enough?
Nguyen: What about Murray? Any concern over his post-Wimbledon performance?
Fetherolf: I think it's far too soon to worry seriously about Murray in the near future. He won Wimbledon just a few months ago. Sure, he had a lousy North American hard-court season, but he's won two of the last five Grand Slams, along with making an Australian Open final. I would be very surprised if he doesn't add to his Slam total next year.
Dimon: Murray didn't play the French Open, and a post-Wimbledon "hangover" was expected. I wouldn't be surprised if he handed Nadal one or two indoor losses this fall, picked up some momentum and at least reached another Australian Open final in January.
Rafa, Serena chase history
Nguyen: Who is more likely to break the Open era record for Grand Slam titles: Nadal, who has 13 and is chasing Federer's record of 17, or Serena, who has 17 and is chasing Steffi Graf's record of 22?
Gudris: Serena. Only because aside from Azarenka, and herself, it's hard to see anyone stopping her.
Dimon: Nadal. He's younger (Nadal turned 27 in June, while Williams will be 32 later this month), he has only five to go compared to Serena's six and he is almost guaranteed to win the French Open at least two more times and likely more than that. Even though Serena is a heavy favorite at every Slam she plays, she is never a "lock" like Nadal is at Roland Garros. Serena has been this dominant at times before, but she tends to mix in stretches of disinterest and/or poor play out of nowhere.
Fetherolf: I'm going to go with Serena, mainly because she's more consistently dominant over the field than Nadal is.
Nguyen: It's a tough call, but Rafa's dominance at the French Open is the tiebreaker for me. He can count on winning more titles there.
Gudris: Serena's quest may depend on the Australian Open, which was, until now, a go-to Slam for titles. Azarenka has won the last two titles in Melbourne, and whether she can replicate that success the next few years could well determine if Serena gets to the magic number.
Dimon: Nadal will maintain 100 percent drive and determination until he retires. You never know when Serena will have lapses. I mean, you aren't going to see Rafa on the Hope Shopping Network anytime soon.
Nguyen: THERE'S A HOPE SHOPPING NETWORK??? Do they take PayPal?
Dimon: Yes, you can direct payments to AndyDufresne@shawshank.gov. Fetherolf: I want to see Rafa on the Home Shopping Network, though.