There are two sides to the coin at this 2021 U.S. Open women’s tournament. One side — which I will write about soon — is how the teenagers have taken over at the USTA National Tennis Center, with Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez both making magical runs to the semifinals. The word “magical” might suggest this is a fluke, but no, that’s not implied here. What is magical is how quickly the two teens have found not only their best tennis, but a level of poise which has enabled them to shake off any brief hiccups and steady themselves in crunch-time moments.
That’s very rare in tennis. Finding that ability to handle stress — or keep stress at arm’s length — is special. It isn’t normal. It’s a gift to find such inner calm even if you’re not expected to win. The teenagers (also Carlos Alcaraz on the men’s side) who made special runs at this U.S. Open have in fact NOT been here before, but they sure gave the impression they have been.
That’s one side of the coin.
The other is found in the players who felt the weight of the moment and could not play with the lightness of being they needed to chase down an elusive first major championship.
Karolina Pliskova has made a major final before — not just five years ago at the U.S. Open, but two months ago at Wimbledon. An off-the-radar player coming into Wimbledon, with hardly any pundits discussing her chances at SW19, Pliskova played liberated tennis. Body and mind came together and rediscovered the caliber of play which had briefly made her the World No. 1 WTA tennis player and a regular resident of the top five. Pliskova had a solid hardcourt summer with a final in Canada and a semifinal berth in Cincinnati. She entered New York as a top-tier favorite and had a very manageable draw. She saved match point in the second round against Amanda Anisimova — winning a match she almost certainly would have lost 12 months earlier — and then improved in her third and fourth rounds. Entering the quarterfinals, she was an in-form player in a very good mental space, having built back the confidence and repetition of results which marks a player ready to seize a moment.
Then, in the quarterfinals, she ran into Maria Sakkari… and the weight of the moment.
Let’s be clear: Sakkari was in a groove on serve. She played a very strong match. She won 22 straight first-serve points. She has beefed up her serve and has had the best year of her career as a result. Her fitness is supreme on tour. It enabled her to outlast Bianca Andreescu — a major champion — in three and a half hours in the fourth round. Sakkari deserves her place in the semifinals. She earned the win.
Yet, we can still say of Pliskova that the A-game witnessed at Wimbledon and in earlier portions of the U.S. Open was not present in the quarterfinals. The movement, the defense, the instincts, the occasional slice change-up which bought her time in rallies — they weren’t in evidence, at least not to the extent they were at the All-England Club.
Pliskova will have to wait for another major to seize an opportunity. The 2022 Australian Open will be the last major she plays in before she turns 30 next March. Her tennis biological clock is ticking, and the knowledge of that reality is hard to ignore. She might get another really good chance to win a major — her performance this year warrants that level of respect — but as she hits 30 years of age, the guarantee of another opportunity as good as this one is not something to rely on. The lack of responsiveness — and elite form — in the quarterfinals against Sakkari carried the mark of a player all too aware of what was at stake. It served as an inhibitor of performance rather than a catalyst for excellence.
It was a similar story for Elina Svitolina and Belinda Bencic in the quarterfinals.
Both women have been discussed as future major champions for several years. Svitolina is still dealing with the scar tissue of losing a 5-1 lead in the second set of the 2017 Roland Garros quarterfinals against Simona Halep. Had she held onto that lead, she and Pliskova would have met in the semifinals. One would have played for the championship. The story of the post-Serena Williams-motherhood era of WTA tennis (which began at the major tournaments precisely then, at RG 2017) might have been radically different had Svitolina not choked… but alas, she did, and she has wrestled with that demon ever since. She still hasn’t made a major final despite her WTA Finals championship, lots of 1,000-point titles (Zvery familiar, wouldn’t you say?), and a steady residence among the top six to eight players in the WTA rankings.
Svitolina watched Leylah Fernandez play great tennis for much of her quarterfinal. It’s true that the match was on Fernandez’s racquet, and it’s just as true that Fernandez has an electric game with obvious potential. In total, the loss wasn’t what one would call a bad loss… but one could certainly say that Svitolina did not answer the bell in the final-set tiebreaker, the true point of regret for her. The final two points weren’t squandered, but falling behind in the breaker and not making Fernandez play more should certainly be seen as a shortcoming a veteran player should not have succumbed to. Svitolina — perhaps not throughout that quarterfinal, but certainly at its very end — did not raise her game when the moment demanded it.
Weight is a real thing, falling heavily on the shoulders of accomplished athletes who still haven’t done the one thing they desire most greatly as professionals.
The weight of the moment fell most heavily on Belinda Bencic. When one considers that Pliskova is 29 and Bencic still only 24, maybe one could say that makes sense. The youngest of the three veteran major title contenders might still have a thing or two to learn about handling pressure.
Yet, at 24 — and having scored impressive victories on tour several years ago in her late teens — Bencic had already begun to taste both pressure and success. She just won gold at the Tokyo Olympics. She had beaten Iga Swiatek in an impressive fourth-round display. Emma Raducanu played a solid match, to be sure. She made very few mistakes in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. If Raducanu had demolished Bencic with untouchable tennis, there would have been nothing for Bencic to do but tip the cap and shake hands at net… but that’s not how this match played out.
Bencic’s internal strength, such an ally over the past several weeks this summer going back to Tokyo, deserted her. What are we left to conclude than the obvious?
Weight is a real thing.
We will see if — on future occasions when these three players reach the quarters of a major with no other major champions left in the draw — Bencic, Pliskova, and Svitolina loosen up their shoulders and play with the clarity they have shown many times in their careers…
but not yet in the final stages of major tournaments, with a career-changing title looming over their every thought and movement.