Poor 2011 U.S. Open. You can't say it didn't try. Especially this year, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the tournament wanted to be about all the right things—was downright desperate, in fact, to be seen as the New York event, cool and serious and upbeat. Instead came relentless rain; star players ripping America's Grand Slam tournament as uncaring and greedy; the shutdown of Louis Armstrong Stadium; and fans exasperated by ticket snafus. Nerves frayed so universally that when, on Sunday evening, Serena Williams brandished her racket at chair umpire Eva Asderaki and snarled, "I hate you!" she put a face on a tennis fortnight that for sheer negativity had no equal.
This is an article from the Sept. 19, 2011 issue
This was the Outrage Open. Yes, there was also some astonishingly good tennis, none better than the hard-eyed gem carved by 27-year-old Samantha Stosur of Australia, who shrugged off Williams's tirade to thrash the three-time champion 6--2, 6--3 and earn her first Grand Slam singles title. "I'm sure I'll wake up tomorrow and say, 'Did I actually win the U.S. Open?'" said the ninth-seeded Stosur, who had won only two WTA titles previously. "I've wanted this moment my whole life."
And, yes, Novak Djokovic proved just how impervious to pressure he has become when, in last Saturday's semifinal, he brushed off two match points—the first with a sizzling go-for-broke forehand return—and came back from two sets down to beat Roger Federer in five. Then, as if to make sure the message couldn't be clearer, Djokovic capped the best season in tennis history by winning his fourth Grand Slam title 6--2, 6--4, 6--7, 6--1 over defending champion Rafael Nadal on Monday evening and running his 2011 record to a monumental 64--2.
"It really sounds unreal," Djokovic said after it was announced to the crowd that he had won his first U.S. Open title. "It's an incredible feeling. I have [had] an amazing year—and it keeps going."
It was a joyous ending for the 24-year-old Serb, who wore a New York City Fire Department cap after the match, but it hardly made up for the week's abiding sense of grievance, real or imagined. Djokovic, after all, was one of the headliners who blasted Open officials for pushing players onto soggy courts last week. "The players feel they're not protected," Djokovic said. "God knows what's gonna happen now."
That might seem hilarious coming from someone about to earn a victor's payout of $2.3 million. "There's more to winning this tournament than just playing tennis," says five-time champ Jimmy Connors. "You have to deal with all the surroundings and the elements—and that's the charm. It's supposed to be hard."
In truth, the 2011 edition ramped up the degree of difficulty to new levels. For the fourth straight year rain forced the tournament finish to Monday, and the drip of match cancellations led to more than just the usual moans about the need for a roofed stadium. With a first round played over three days and the singles semis and finals held on consecutive days, the U.S. Open has the least flexible schedule of any major. (Even before building a roof, soggy Wimbledon had a day off every fortnight and took an extra day to finish only six times in 125 years.)
But profit has long made up too much of the Open's identity. From staggering concession prices to the USTA's insistence—despite the negative impact on competitive quality and players' health—on providing CBS with two semifinals and a final on Super Saturday, the Open is hardly subtle about its mercenary nature. Still, when officials tried to mitigate the Sept. 6 washout by pushing the players out onto slick courts the following day, it was a watershed moment. "It's the same old story," Nadal snapped on-court at tournament referee Brian Earley. "All you think about is money."
Andy Murray and Andy Roddick joined Nadal in complaining to Earley and publicly criticizing the tournament. When organizers made noise about pushing for a Sunday finish—thus forcing the finalist from the bottom half of the men's draw to play four days in a row—ATP officials told tournament director Jim Curley that the players were up in arms. Meanwhile, in Armstrong Stadium, Roddick harangued Earley because water was bubbling up behind the baseline.
Roddick and his opponent, David Ferrer, demanded that their match be moved to Court 13. Earley caved, and Armstrong was shuttered for the rest of the fortnight. By late Thursday the USTA announced that the men's final had been moved to Monday to give players a day of rest. Stunned at how effective they had been, the top men floated the idea of a union. Nadal and Murray spoke by phone about drafting a charter.
"I'm sure next year there'll be huge changes," Murray said of the Open. "We want to make the tour fairer, and the players ultimately should have more of a say."
Murray is 24, so he has time to learn. "We take the players' input very seriously," said USTA executive director Gordon Smith, but he added, "I don't know that there will be a change in the Saturday-Sunday schedule in the short term." Compressing the first two rounds of the Open would help, but even after four years of Monday finishes, CBS, whose deal with the USTA doesn't expire until 2014, remains devoted to Super Saturday. "The current U.S. Open schedule is the schedule that is most valuable," said Rob Correa, CBS Sports' vice president of programming.
Besides, if we know anything about tennis, it's that change comes slowly—if at all. Take Williams. Two years ago she was defaulted out of the Open semis and fined $10,000 for threatening to jam a ball down a lineswoman's throat. Still on Grand Slam probation for that, the 29-year-old Williams played this year's Open on blood thinners because of a pulmonary embolism for which she was hospitalized last March. She won six matches without losing a set, said she'd gained perspective and chided journalists for asking about the meltdown. "I'm so over it," she said. "I've died and basically come back, and nobody's really writing or thinking about that."
On Saturday, Williams took apart top seed Caroline Wozniacki and looked like a prohibitive favorite to win the final. Instead, Stosur easily claimed the first set and jumped to break point in the first game of the second. Then Williams, serving at 30--40, hammered a forehand and screamed "Come on!" before her apparent winner hit the ground. Asderaki could have ordered a replay for this "vocal hindrance" but gave the point (and thus the game) to Stosur. Williams approached the chair, squinted and said, "Aren't you the one that screwed me over last time here? [Asderaki was not.] You have it out for me, and I promise you that's not cool."
Boos rained down as Williams crossed the net. She turned and, booing too, gave a thumbs-down to Asderaki. After smacking a forehand to win the first point on Stosur's serve, she waved her racket and yelled at the umpire, "I hate you!" Asderaki hit her with a code violation. On the ensuing changeover Williams told Asderaki she was "totally out of control," a "hater" and "unattractive inside." She said, "Don't look at me. Because I'm not the one. Don't look my way." (On Monday the USTA decided this verbal abuse didn't rise to the level of a "major offense," fined Williams $2,000 and declared the matter closed.)
After the match, Williams plopped down in a chair next to Stosur and congratulated her. "She was very gracious," Stosur said. "It definitely surprised me."
Williams arrived at her press conference smiling. She smiled when she said Stosur had outplayed her; she smiled when she said, "Every time I lose, I get better. So watch out." It was all very odd, unless you consider the context. Williams and the Open are made for each other. Both are stormy and oblivious and give every indication of not having learned a thing.