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The Guard Has Changed: New Royal Faces Emerge

Jane Voigt — Tennis With An Accent

Out with the old and in with the new never has been more relevant than over the last two weeks at the U.S. Open. 

Serena Williams, 40 years old, claimed the limelight initially. She played fiercely, bravely, firing aces and un-returnable serves left and right. She scurried for short balls, showing keen anticipation as she had done throughout her career that netted her 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Fans stuffed inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, all 23,000 of them, cheered until the din spilled over and out of the giant cavern and was probably heard blocks away from the Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows. 

All was well with the world. Serena won. The world of tennis, and the world outside tennis, had hope that their Queen might just go all the way. Could she, would she, win a record-breaking 24 Grand Slams, a goal that has eluded her since her last Grand Slam title in Melbourne in 2017. The odds were not forever in her favor, though.

She advanced to round two after ending hopes for Danka Kovinic. Then, gasp, Serena dismissed Anett Kontaveit, the number-two seed, telling fans afterward, “I’m just Serena.” Alja Tomljanovic was next.  She held Serena in such high esteem the Australian could hardly look her in the eye. The slugfest went three, Serena waning in the end, although she held off 5 match points. Her run at this U.S. Open was over. 

Her emotional farewell, with customary waves and swirls evoked tears of joys. She thanked everyone, but filled hearts when she said, “I wouldn’t be Serena if there wasn’t a Venus.”

In early August, Serena notified the world that this would be her last U.S. Open, that time had come for her “to evolve,” as she said in an article from Vogue. Not retire, mind you, but “evolve,” a typical perspective from a woman who doesn’t accept life on life’s terms to the joy and thrill of millions of sport fans and to millions of children who, like her, start to believe that they, too, can win big. You can’t retire, if you think big. 

The tone of this, the last major of the year, shifted dramatically after Serena’s departure. A hole was left in the women’s draw just as a hole was left in the hearts of fans, pouring sentiments across social media platforms, around kitchen tables, and in restaurants, where even casual viewers of tennis knew Serena, or, at least, enough to feel the gravity of the moment.

She was the story, and now she was gone. The 2022 U.S. Open had to move forward. And what we saw over the next ten days reshaped our conversations about the sport. 

Names such as Frances Tiafoe, Jannik Sinner, Iga Swiatek, Casper Ruud and Carlos Alcaraz solidified an awareness that the era of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal and, yes, Serena and Venus Williams, monsters of the courts this century and last, were fading. 

Tiafoe, at 24, because the first American man to reach the semifinal at the U.S. Open in 16 years. But of more import, he became the first American Black man to reach the semifinals in New York since Arthur Ashe in 1972. Tiafoe’s legacy reaches back, as well, to Frenchman Yannick Noah, winner of the 1983 French Open, and American MaliVai Washington, who made the Wimbledon finals in 1996. And to James Blake who defeated Nadal at The U.S. Open in 2005.

Tiafoe was chasing history and making history, striving for a shot at the title. If he had lassoed that trophy he would’ve been the first American to win a Grand Slam title since Andy Roddick in 2003 at the U.S.Open.

But Tiafoe ran into Carlos Alcaraz, the 19-year-old three-seed who was wowing fans with a style of tennis unseen since Rafael Nadal. Alcaraz ran like a whipping wind. He never gave up on a point, anticipating targets with the alacrity of a player who might have had a decade of tournament experience and a string of titles to prove his credibility. 

Yet, that wasn’t the case. 

He came on the scene on a back court in Australia in 2021. By the spring of 2022 he was winning Masters1000 titles, eliminating Nadal and Novak Djokovic along the way. His ranking climbed and he was seeded number three in New York. 

The semifinal against American Tiafoe was another raucous match, fans on their feet more than in their seats. Hope filled the stadium, an American might just go all the way. The two men scrambled for over four hours and five sets, Alcaraz outlasting Tiafoe in the end. Heroes each one. Only one advances. Nonetheless Tiafoe said on court he would “win it one of these days,” adding, “This one hurt.”

On Sunday, the day of the men’s singles final, commentators commentators said the final would all come down to that old reliable, fatigue. Alcaraz had played three rounds of five-set matches (defeating Marin Cilic, Jannik Sinner, and Tiafoe), he could be tired. Then, he appeared tired, the time on court seemingly taking a toll as he lost the third set to a determined Casper Ruud, who, at 23, was given less than a whisper of a chance to put down the Spaniard. The Norwegian didn’t have the fire power, the foot speed or the tactical creativity that Alcaraz would demonstrate.

In the end, the pundits were off, but in a gleeful way. They succumbed to the reality the world witnessed in two young players who both could track balls to the widest spaces of this great tennis court, named for Arthur Ashe, run up and back, to and from the net, and slide as if the blue surface was the red clay of Europe.

Alcaraz did rise to the monumental occasion, defeating Ruud 6-4, 2-6, 7-6(1), 6-3. Yet the outcome goes well beyond a scoreline. Yes, Alcaraz won his first major title. Yes, he’s the youngest to do so since Rafael Nadal at the 2005 French Open. Alcaraz also became the youngest and first teenage Grand Slam finalist since Pete Sampras championed a title in 1990. And, on Monday, Alcaraz rose to number one in the world, becoming the youngest ever top-ranked player since 1973, when the ATP began tracking points. 

Not to outshine Ruud to such a degree, the Norwegian rose to number two in the world Monday, a fine compliment to the women’s singles outcome where Iga Swiatek defeated Ons Jabeur in the women’s singles final. They now find themselves at number one and two in the WTA rankings Monday morning as well. 

There was no Federer or Djokovic to contend for this U.S. Open title. In fact, it was just the third time since 2004 that none of them made the quarterfinal of a major. Federer, now 40, may make a return in 2023. Nadal couldn’t find the magic or the might necessary to beat Nick Kyrgios, and lost in the third round. Djokovic didn’t play because he was not vaccinated against COVID and, therefore, could not enter the country. 

The landscape seems refreshing this week. New faces influence our sport, their names becoming more familiar and therefore more likely to be recognized as the leaders, as Serena and Venus, Rafa and Roger, fade on our radar screens and are now mentioned in comparison with those filling their tennis shoes. 

A sadness lingers alongside this reality. Out with the old and in with the new can leave a harsh, cruel sense in its wake. But that is sport and that is why we watch sport, especially tennis that saw the Williams sisters rule the courts since 1999, when Serena won her first U.S. Open at 17. Step aside Carlos Alcaraz. You share the stage with royalty and always will.

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