Before she walked on the court, in one of those pointless pre-match interviews on TV, Madison Keys was asked about her opponent’s strengths. The 14th-ranked Keys replied that Dominika Cibulkova was full of energy. It’s an obvious observation, the maximum these flat pre-match tunnel interviews can possibly get out of players. Just about any tennis fan who has seen the 35th-ranked Slovak play a match could tell you that much.
The real question, the one that was not asked, was how Keys would counteract that energy. The American is the opposite of a turbulent character on the court, sporting a mild disposition between points. Her high-power game is another story. It can cause all sorts of turbulence for opponents when clicking on all cylinders. It has the capacity to suck the energy out of a nuclear plant, let alone an opponent with a high-octane constitution. Unfortunately for Cibulkova, that is what mostly took place on Arthur Ashe for one hour and 15 minutes on Monday.
Keys drummed one winner after another (19 winners and 6 aces), never allowing Cibulkova to sink her teeth into the match in a way that gained traction. The one time the Slovak seemed to just do that (“seemed” being the key word), Madison responded harshly, winning the next four games and crossing the finish line for a squeaky clean 6-1, 6-3 victory.
Dominika’s energy, to which Keys was referring above, did appear drained more than once (for example, see her walk back to the baseline after missing the easy volley wide to go down 1-5 in the first set). That is because the American never relinquished the role of the one determining the outcome of points, rallies, patterns, and which way the momentum would swing. Hardcore Cibulkova fans may look for answers as to what their player could (“should” from their perspective) have done differently, because that is what most single-player fans do – for some reason, it’s painful for them to admit to the superiority of the opponent on that day. In reality, Cibulkova did not play a bad match at all; most of the errors she made were the result of the stifling pressure applied on her by Keys from the first game of the match to the last.
Here is a short, one-paragraph summary of the match. There were hardly any moments in the first set that Dominika could have played differently, and her momentary climb back into the second set was deceptive because it stemmed from a few misses by Keys, the only sequence of the match during which Keys put together a string of errors. Otherwise, Keys remained tuned in throughout the match, producing one spectacular shot after another. Keys has faced her share of criticism in matches when she does not show up at her best — that can lead to a multitude of errors on her part. Monday was not one of those days. Keys made 12 unforced errors total, only one from the baseline in the first set.**
**Having seen too many erroneous judgments on what constitutes an unforced error in the official stats, I do my own count of unforced errors.
Now, for those interested in more details, here is the story of the match.
Keys began the first game with two winners (one from each wing) and an ace, bringing us to the long second game that featured eight deuces and lasted almost 14 minutes. Madison’s down-the-line accelerations were causing havoc for Cibulkova – three of them, clean winners – but her errors on returns were keeping her opponent in the game. She made five return errors that I consider unforced errors, all in that game. That was the last time she made an unforced error for the rest of the set.
On the eighth deuce point, Keys nailed a forehand crosscourt winner and followed it up, on her fifth break-point opportunity, with a backhand crosscourt winner that Cibulkova helplessly watched four meters away as the ball passed by her.
Cibulkova fought hard in that game, showing the fierce spirit that has made her popular among tennis fans. For example, she made her first regrettable error of the match on the sixth deuce point when she missed (deep) a sitter forehand from the middle of the court. Down a break point, instead of getting apprehensive following that error, she zipped a terrific forehand winner to get back to deuce. The one blemish on her part, and that goes for the whole first set, was the double fault committed at 40-30, but keep in mind that she was tossing the ball directly into the sun at that point in time and probably thinking about how to avoid a bazooka return by Keys.
After 2-0, it must have felt like a blur to Cibulkova. Keys clicked on all cylinders, even after Cibulkova got on board on the fourth game of the set. In that game, Cibulkova won a contested point at 30-30 after Keys blew a couple of chances to put the ball away and followed it up with a solid down-the-line forehand winner to hold her serve. At that point, it felt like this was Cibulkova’s chance to settle into the match and look for an opportunity to recover the break.
Keys extinguished that glimmer of hope quickly when she hit a down-the-line forehand winner, a second forehand winner from the middle of the court, another stellar forehand to force her opponent into an error, and a 115-mile-per-hour first serve that Cibulkova could not return back in the court. Just like that, Keys reconfirmed the break and went up 4-1. Did I talk about Madison’s ability to drain the energy out of her opponents?
How tuned in was she? At times she nailed shots at such a high pace that they turned into winners not because Cibulkova could not run them down, but because she did not have enough time to react – see the return at 15-15, in the first game of the second set. Most players would have crumbled under that type of pressure, but Cibulkova, remarkably, kept her error count low until the late stages of the match, those coming only out of desperate acceleration attempts from difficult positions.
Madison’s only foot-off-the-pedal moment arrived at 2-0 up in the second set. At deuce, she committed her second “bad” error into the net on a short forehand sitter and missed a return in the net to lose the game. Then, 2-1 up and serving, Keys committed two forehand errors on shots that she had been routinely striking winners. She lost her serve. It was a lapse of concentration or simply the manifestation of the reality that not everything can go fairy-tale perfect for a whole match.
In any case, Cibulkova held her serve comfortably to go up 3-2, pointing to signs of a turnaround and leading most of us to believe that we now had a match in our hands. Credit to Cibulkova — she took advantage of the one opening the American gave her and put together three solid games, letting Keys accumulate the errors. Yet, as noted above, Keys never stopped being the one to carve out the ebbs and flows of this match. Knowing that and having found an opportunity to sink her teeth into the match, Cibulkova attempted to take charge in the sixth game by getting aggressive on returns. It did not work as she made errors on returns, partially because of the wicked, high-jumping kick on Madison’s second serves (see the 15-0 point of that game).
Four points later, it was 3-3 and the Keys train was again operating at full force, bringing Cibulkova quickly to the last stop of the short ride. From 2-3 down, Keys won the next 12 points and 19 out of the next 24 before shaking Cibulkova’s hand at the net.
Cibulkova should not feel disappointed about her showing at the U.S. Open. She defeated three opponents in three sets each, the last one being Angelique Kerber, a genuinely elite WTA player. She lost only because she crashed into an opponent deeply feared by the rest of the WTA, provided that she can reproduce the quality of her output on Monday.
Keys, for her part, has the advantage of playing in the one Slam she likes the most, and the only one where she tasted the thrill of playing a final. She will look for that same goal, and more, again when she steps on the court to face the winner of Maria Sharapova and Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarterfinals.
Header Image – Aditya Prabhakar(Tennis with an Accent)
RAFAEL NADAL AND THE COMPLICATIONS OF A GOLDEN ERA
The Golden Era of men’s professional tennis has received a new stamp of greatness with Novak Djokovic’s 14th major title, making the Big 3 a true big three in major championships. Federer 1, Nadal 2, Djokovic — and Sampras — at 3. The moment is historic, resonant and powerful, affirming how great these three tennis players — from Switzerland, Spain and Serbia — have been over the past 15 years.
As the 2018 U.S. Open recedes into memory, Djokovic’s championship and his triumphant 2018 rightly exist as the most important ATP tennis stories of the year. Djokovic has stolen Fedal’s major-tournament thunder to become the best Big 3 player at tennis’s four most important tournaments in 2018. Djokovic deserves to be spoken of in the same lofty and exalted tones Fedal has received in recent years. The Big 3 is much better viewed as a brotherhood than a three-part hierarchy with a clear order of quality.
This next sentence needs to be absorbed and processed with care, and I will do my best to make sure it is absorbed and processed with care: Rafael Nadal embodies the complexities of the Big 3 era more than Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
The key word: embodies.
Nadal isn’t necessarily a more complicated player than Federer or Djokovic — that is not being said or implied. Nadal merely EMBODIES these complications in ways which are more conspicuous.
The 2018 U.S. Open brought those complications into full view.
The point is familiar — so familiar, in fact, that it does not need to be commented on at great length: Rafael Nadal has lost more major tournaments to injury than Djokovic or Federer have. Hardcourt tennis in particular, and full-season tennis in general, have been less kind on Nadal’s knees and knee joints than on any body part belonging to Nole or Fed. That is not a criticism. That is not an indictment. That is not a diminishment. That is a simple reality.
What people choose to DERIVE or CONCLUDE from that reality is the great debate involving the Big 3. Should Nadal be downgraded for these injuries, or should he be upgraded given how well he has been able to push past and transcend them so many times in his career? You could make a case for each answer, which means you could make a case for a “both” or “all of the above” answer as well. What you choose to do in the process of interpreting the meaning and value of Nadal’s injuries will shape how you view Nadal and the era.
This is not the only complicated story of the past 15 years. How Federer has played since 2010 has been very good, but not usually good enough to beat Nadal or Djokovic in their primes in five-set matches at majors. How does one evaluate that? It is a very complicated question.
Djokovic currently has six fewer majors than Federer, but he has won 14 majors by venturing into the teeth of the Fedal axis, whereas Nadal and especially Federer accumulated a large chunk of major titles before the Djokovic ascendancy of 2011. How does one evaluate that? Again, it’s a complicated question. All three members of the Big 3 own enormous complexities and contradictions. Nadal isn’t necessarily MORE complicated… but his complications are easier to identify, partly because they emerge more often, as shown at this year’s hardcourt majors.
It is a very striking fact, is it not? Nadal — who did not play Acapulco, Indian Wells or Miami, and then skipped Cincinnati when the time came — has played only three hardcourt tournaments this year. In two of them, both at major tournaments, he had to retire. Nadal is rightly celebrated for pushing to his limits and then finding a way to push PAST those limits. He is “the great transcender” of this era, the one who seems to defy reasonable limits of stamina and endurance.
Yet, much as a 37-year-old Federer has shown his physical limitations this year, and much as Djokovic finally ran into injury problems after his enormous level of output and success from January of 2015 through June of 2016, Nadal — for all his transcendent powers — is not able to defeat the laws of physics all the time, only occasionally. His work ethic, intensity, and full-tilt tennis have enabled him to climb the highest mountain, but they haven’t come without cost. This U.S. Open reminded us of that.
In reviewing the ATP side of the U.S. Open in 2018 — a tournament which put ATP players through a hellhole of profoundly attritional situations and forced them, including Djokovic and Federer, to play in conditions unsuited to tennis — the Nadal story is relevant for numerous reasons. It is probably beyond the scope of this column to dive into several different reasons. (It is also beyond my pay grade, given that Tennis With An Accent has not yet raked in large sponsorship dollars from businesses and is still dependent on donor support through our GoFundMe page, which is also posted on our website’s Twitter page.)
Allow me, therefore, to focus on just one question Nadal’s unfortunate exit from the 2018 U.S. Open raises about this Golden Era of men’s tennis: Has it been a blessing for Nadal to play on relatively slow(er) and homogenized courts which have similar speeds, as opposed to highly differentiated ones?
I would bet that if I asked 100 random people in a room this question — “Have slow courts helped or hurt Nadal?” — a solid majority (at least 60 people if not 65) would say they have helped him.
Uh-oh, you might be thinking. MATT IS GOING TO THROW THE CURVEBALL AND TELL YOU THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS WRONG.
No… but I’m not going to say that it is COMPLETELY right, either. Hashtag #ItsComplicated.
A slower court has often helped Nadal, making it easier for Rafa to play defense, engage in long rallies, and wear down opponents. Slower courts magnify Nadal’s immense powers of concentration, his stamina, his willingness to hit the extra ball, and his penchant for problem solving. Slower courts have helped Nadal in his matchups on grass and hardcourts against Federer…
… but you will notice that I did not refer to clay.
The one clay venue where Federer had reasonable success against Nadal was Hamburg, when the tournament was part of the Masters 1000 rotation and before it was downgraded to a 500 event played after Wimbledon. Hamburg clay was often heavier clay. Slower surfaces on hardcourts and at Wimbledon gave Rafa more time against
Federer’s attacking strokes, but on Hamburg clay, the heavier conditions made the ball bounce lower. This put more shots in Federer’s lower strike zone while reducing Rafa’s ability to plant that reliable topspin forehand crosscourt to Federer’s one-handed backhand. When Rafa hit the forehand to Federer’s backhand on Hamburg clay, it was a lot harder for Rafa to make Federer hit shoulder- or eye-level backhands.
In marked contrast, the clay of other ATP venues — Monte Carlo and Rome — plus Roland Garros was not as heavy. In those tournaments, a sun-baked clay court was much more receptive to the ball, creating the spinny, high bounce which would force Federer to hit backhands way out of his preferred strike zone. On clay, court speed worked differently in the Fedal rivalry compared to grass and cement.
Then consider this point about court speed, which goes beyond individual matchups in this era: What if more hardcourt tournaments — on a tour whose primary surface IS hardcourts — had noticeably fast surfaces? If processed through the prism of individual matchups, Nadal might have lost at times. However, if he knew he had to hit bigger — something Nadal definitely did at the 2010 U.S. Open, which might have been his best start-to-finish performance at ANY non-Roland Garros major tournament he played — Rafa probably would have been able to make the various adjustments needed to succeed.
Moreover, Rafa probably would have made those adjustments and, as a result, shaved many hours of court time — hardcourt time on those knee joints — off his odometer. He might have lost a few more matches in 2011 or 2013, but he might have won more matches in recent years and might not have had quite as much wear and tear on his body.
All the members of the ATP Big 3 own complicated careers and resumes which deserve extended examination. Rafael Nadal’s complications aren’t necessarily greater than those of his two celebrated peers, but they can be easy to miss below the surface…
… and below the speed of the surfaces of the courts on which he has played.
WORLD OF TENNIS STILL SPLIT OVER SERENA, BUT ADMIRING OF OSAKA
This U.S. Open should have been a celebration. After all the Open Era began in 1968, 50 years ago. Serena Williams was inches from her 24th Grand Slam title. Novak Djokovic came through to win multiple majors in a single season: Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
Yet, this tournament ended poorly.
Celebrations were overshadowed by the women’s final, where Williams and Naomi Osaka jettisoned the expected celebratory moment way beyond the confines of Arthur Ashe Stadium. They went to a place many didn’t want to inhabit.
Reactions have varied, though. Twitter and Facebook remain alive with opinions, most siding with Serena. But was Serena right? Was Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire for the final, just another man on a perch dealing out male judgments toward a woman? Was he right to dock her a game? Was the incident sexist?
Monday on ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption, Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser stood with Serena. Wilbon thought Ramos should be sanctioned.
Sally Jenkins, columnist for The Washington Post, took a firm stand alongside Serena, writing, “Chair umpire Carlos managed to rob not only one but two players in the women’s U.S. Open final. No one has seen anything like this.”
Tuesday morning Martina Navratilova aired her opinion in an op-ed for The New York Times, “Martina Navratilova: What Serena Got Wrong.”
Navratilova, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles, thought Williams was partially right.
“There is a huge double standard for women when it comes to how bad behavior is punished – and not just in tennis,” Navratilova wrote. However, she questioned the incident from another angle: “Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?” She asks if Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire, could have “gotten away with calling the umpire a thief” if the player was male.
Finally, she made this point: “We cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on court.”
Bottom line: There’s a time and place for disagreement and outright yelling, but the U.S. Open final isn’t it.
I appeared on “The Drive, Monday Sept 10th,” which aired on ESPN Blacksburg radio. The show’s host, Paul VanWagoner, asked me who was to blame for the chaotic conclusion to the match. I finally admitted “Serena,” adding that she might not have reacted, and continued to react, so boldly had she been playing better. Previous outbreaks from Williams during major finals — the 2011 U.S. Open against Samantha Stosur comes to mind — have followed poor performances, or at least, outbursts tied to what Williams would have considered poor performances, namely … not winning.
Novak Djokovic, who won his fourth Open title Sunday, also chimed in. He split the incident. In his postmatch press conference, he said that Ramos “pushed Serena to the limit” and “changed the course of the match, which in my opinion was unnecessary,” The Independent reported.
So what about Naomi Osaka? She was the winner of the women’s final, the player who was caught up in the whirlwind that had fans packed inside Ashe Stadium booing. On which side of the net have reactions to Osaka landed?
The Associated Press in Japan struck a different perspective. “Osaka charms Japan with her manners – and Broken Japanese.” The piece focused on Osaka as the winner of the final who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father. Japanese readers, it seems, have “embraced” Osaka and her victory, calling her “‘a new heroine that Japan is proud of” and the “New Queen.”
Their readers were captivated by Osaka’s game, her manners, and her broken English. Who can forget the image of her bowing to Serena at the net after her victory and, again, bowing on the podium as she accepted the trophy after apologizing for her win?
“I know everybody was cheering for her; and, I’m sorry that it had to end like this. Thank you for watching the match,” Osaka said at the time, as I reported on Twitter.
There is no right answer to this unfortunate occasion. No one person, place or thing to blame. However, this episode will make tennis think about its rules and organizational structures, its own prejudices, and its place in the evolving history of women athletes competing in what we all can agree is a male-dominated world of sports.
THE U.S. OPEN IS TOO TOUGH — BUT NOT TOO TOUGH FOR OSAKA
In order to gain perspective on the past four women’s tournaments at the U.S. Open, consider the culture of tennis within an American perspective. This scene-setter — establishing the background for a review of the WTA at the 2018 U.S. Open — will take some time, so be patient as I slowly move through the distant past and work my way to the present moment.
When CBS carried the U.S. Open on American television, the network had a style which was very different from ESPN, the current American broadcaster of the event.
CBS was the American TV outlet for the U.S. Open’s championship weekend from 1968 — when the first U.S. Open was played — through 2014. ESPN took over in 2015. USA Network carried the weeknight matches at the U.S. Open for decades before Tennis Channel occupied that space roughly a decade ago. ESPN then gained full broadcast rights more recently. Tennis Channel is now allowed to show replays of matches, but it no longer shares live coverage with ESPN.
When CBS covered the U.S. Open’s biggest moments, the Open carried a certain degree of romance with it. Part of this was the late 1970s and early 1980s tennis boom in the United States, a product of telegenic stars made for the age of television: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova. Fire and ice, explosiveness and steely determination, stoicism and animation — the contrasts in emotional profiles were as stark as the contrasts in playing styles at the top levels of both the men’s and women’s tours. Johnny Mac and Martina were the swashbuckling net rushers, Borg and Evert the stone-cold assassins from the baseline. Connors was both the ruthless baseliner and the emotional fireball, a man who occupied both sides of these worlds.
Those days marked a very different time in the history and evolution of tennis. The dramatic transformations in racquet and string technology which have so greatly altered the nature of the sport had not yet taken root. Change was just beginning, but it had hardly solidified and led to a dramatically different approach among tour players. The playing surface was a lot faster then. If a set ended with an even-numbered game (6-4 or 7-5), the players played the first game of the new set without a sitdown… which occurred after the first game of the new set. Sets began with one game and then a sitdown, not three straight games as they do today. HawkEye was not particularly close to becoming a reality.
So many parts of the way tennis was played — and regulated, and orchestrated — were different back then. We can see with the benefit of perspective that serve and volley was still a substantial part of the sport 35 to 40 years ago. The variety seen in tennis surely helped to make the sport more popular at that time in the United States.
Yes, the personalities powered the sport, as did Billie Jean King’s win over Bobby Riggs in 1973, which gave women’s tennis an enormous push and made women a bigger part of the sports marketplace. Yet, the variety seen in tennis — the lack of a cookie-cutter style among all the top players — also contributed to the rise of the sport.
Were the late 1970s and early 1980s a tennis nirvana? On many levels, yes, but not completely. In particular, the variety in the sport and the faster courts hardly offered a guarantee of quick matches, because the racquets had not developed to the point that players could easily hit through the court, even with the faster speeds. Moreover, players such as Ivan Lendl were beginning to change the style of tennis in ways which would reverberate through the next 35 years and into the present day. More serve-and-forehand tennis, establishing a foundation of rock-solid consistency from the backcourt, was beginning to emerge in Lendl’s game. When racquet and string technology continued to evolve in subsequent decades, and court speeds became slower, and Wimbledon grass became more sturdy and resilient, it was easier — at least in the sense of involving fewer risks — for players to adhere to a more baseline-centric playing style than to adopt serve-and-volley methods.
The trajectory of the sport would follow a clear path through the 1990s and 2000s and into the present day.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, tennis enjoyed one of its richest and most colorful periods. Because fans, players, and journalists were all having such a good time (in the early 1980s, covering an important tennis match was not a sideshow in the American media realm; inspired by the Borg-McEnroe 1980 Wimbledon final, significant tennis matches were very big occasions in those days), it didn’t seem to matter that much when matches were played.
No tournament gave less thought or consideration to when matches were played — relative to players’ needs — than the U.S. Open.
It seems preposterous today, and it is something which eventually became a talking point in the late 1990s, but in the early 1980s, it was not a source of widespread outrage that the U.S. Open played Friday women’s semifinals and a Saturday final, or Saturday men’s semifinals and a Sunday final. Again, everyone in tennis was having too much of a party to put up much of a fight.
Then came Saturday, September 8, 1984.
If there was any subterranean resistance to the U.S. Open’s championship weekend schedule, September 8, 1984 blew it out of the water.
Super Saturday became a regular part of the American tennis lexicon in 1984. Any American tennis fan or commentator older than 45 (I am 42, by the way) likely owns a vivid awareness of where he or she was on 9/8/84, one of the most remarkable days in tennis history.
Pat Cash-Ivan Lendl. Chris and Martina. Johnny Mac and Jimbo. Three matches, all going the distance, all creating a prizefight-level spectacle.
13 sets. Roughly 10 hours. (The full day’s order of play lasted just over 12 hours, but that included a three-set men’s over-35 match between former major champions Stan Smith and John Newcombe.) The day was a buffet of great tennis played by recognizably elite players under championship pressure at a supremely prestigious tournament. It was a perfect combination for television.
At the time, the continuous coverage on CBS represented an American television record for continuous coverage of one event on one day. The significance of the matches, the enormity of the personalities, the quality of the tennis, and the influence of network television at that point in American history — before CNN became a powerhouse news channel and ESPN became the juggernaut sports channel — all combined to create “Super Saturday.” This was a ratings gold mine for CBS, which wanted to carry as much tennis as possible on Championship Saturday at the U.S. Open, since the following Sunday marked the beginning of the NFL football season.
The schedule might have been unfair to players by depriving them of added rest and — in the case of the women’s final — denying the women’s finalists a set start time they could depend on (something echoed and amplified in this year’s scheduling of the Wimbledon women’s final after the curfew-delayed men’s semifinal between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic). However, the TV publicity undeniably gave the sport a bigger spotlight and a larger platform. That sustained the popularity of the sport and gave it a significant place in the media realm. Players were willing to sacrifice on certain levels in order to promote the sport. Today’s stars owe a debt to the greats of that generation, who did so much to create a context in which tennis could grow.
I am moving to the present day, but I need to mention one more basic detail about “The Good Old Days” of the past.
In the 1990s and 2000s, whenever a rain delay would arrive on the weekend at the U.S. Open, CBS would play one of two retrospectives on television: Jimmy Connors in 1991 against Aaron Krickstein… or 1984 Super Saturday. The Super Saturday identity became so entrenched into the public consciousness of Americans that it became synonymous with the U.S. Open. Yes, the schedule was brutal for players. Yes, the championship stages of the U.S. Open became very taxing for the players. Yet, it was television magic, so when Bill Macatee or other CBS commentators in the early 2000s called the U.S. Open “The World’s Toughest Tennis,” it was hard not to fall in love with the slogan.
The challenge of the U.S. Open — in the late 1970s, in 1984, and in the ensuing decades — has been compelling to watch. This is a tournament where the elite players normally shine, because they know how to handle their bodies late in a tennis season. Super Saturday 1984 involved only one player who was not a superstar — Pat Cash — and even he won a Wimbledon title and made other major finals.
The great players win in New York: Martina and then Steffi Graf followed Chris Evert in the 1980s. Lendl followed McEnroe and Connors in that same decade. Monica Seles and Stefan Edberg, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, the Williams sisters, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters, and the ATP Big 3 carried the freight in the next few decades. Once in a great while, the U.S. Open provides a Kuznetsova-Dementieva final (2004) or a Cilic-Nishikori (2014) championship match, but those examples are conspicuous for how rare they have normally been. “The World’s Toughest Tennis” has normally been a way of saying that the U.S. Open is where the best tennis gets played under difficult conditions. That has often been a selling point for tennis… but not now.
As we move to the present day, let’s get this on the record first: None of this should undercut or minimize what either Naomi Osaka or Novak Djokovic did in winning the two singles championships. They both played their best when it mattered most, and lived up to the idea that they played “The World’s Toughest Tennis” with more toughness than anyone else. That is the mark of a champion. Both deserve lavish and flowing praise for what they achieved. They transcended the brutal heat and withering humidity. They were both terrific in their semifinal and championship-match demolitions of their credentialed opponents.
However, one can praise the singles champions at the 2018 U.S. Open — especially on the women’s side — and yet notice that this celebration of “tough tennis” no longer seems appropriate. “Tough tennis” is no longer focusing on tennis, but on attrition and survival. The men more easily become the focal point in this discussion, since they play over four hours in some matches, but notice how hard the women were hit by attrition at this tournament:
Of the 7 “end-stage” matches at the 2018 women’s U.S. Open (4 quarterfinals, 2 semifinals, 1 final), none had a set which went 7-5 or closer. No set lasted more than 10 games (6-4).
Of those 7 end-stage matches, none went to a third set. None were closer than 6-4, 6-3 (Serena Williams d. Karolina Pliskova and Madison Keys d. Carla Suarez Navarro). None involved a match in which the losing player won at least 8 games.
Lesia Tsurenko was physically and emotionally exhausted after her marathon fourth-round win over Marketa Vondrousova. She had nothing left for Osaka in the quarterfinals.
Sloane Stephens did not feel well in her loss to Anastasija Sevastova. She was clearly bothered by the sun, heat and humidity in New York. She didn’t lose because she lost a feel for how to play tennis. She lost because of health and the oppressive conditions… and Sevastova’s ability to take advantage of the circumstances, to the Latvian’s great credit.
At earlier stages of this tournament, we saw the conditions affect WTA players. Angelique Kerber — a very fit athlete who depends on her ability to run — was visibly worn down in the first week. She was similarly affected in Cincinnati, where she lost energy midway through her loss to Madison Keys. Caroline Garcia played an exhausting second-round match against Monica Puig and then lost to Suarez Navarro in the third round. Jelena Ostapenko played three-setters in her first two rounds and then had very little to offer Maria Sharapova in a decisive third-round defeat.
How WTA players managed their matches had a lot to do with how they fared during this fortnight.
Osaka deserves more focus here. Much like Juan Martin del Potro on the men’s side, Osaka won her matches so cleanly and efficiently that she was not overextended heading into the second week. She endured her one big challenge against Aryna Sabalenka in the fourth round. Once she got past that, she knew she had been battle tested and could refocus for the stretch run of the tournament, which is exactly what she did. When so many other players take scenic routes through matches, Osaka drew a lot of directly straight lines. It mattered, and it contributed to her ability to maintain razor-sharp focus even when a New York crowd was agitated and booing in the contentious final involving Serena.
Osaka could not have played a better tournament — not when one realizes how well Sabalenka was playing, and how much work Osaka had to do to fend her off. Yet, even while acknowledging Osaka’s legitimate greatness, it cannot be denied that in the latter stages of the third set of that very consequential fourth-round encounter, Sabalenka finally showed signs of a fatigued player who had played 13 matches — 5 in Cincinnati, 5 in New Haven, 3 in New York — over the previous three weeks. Late in that third set, Sabalenka’s serve lost its accuracy. Her groundstrokes began to break down. It wasn’t a dramatic collapse, but it was still noticeable, more than enough for Osaka to pounce on. Osaka might not have won the match because Sabalenka got tired — Osaka had to serve really well to stay in front in that third set — but if Sabalenka had not carried so many matches or third sets into that battle, the outcome might have been different.
Freshness — as much as people try to tell me it doesn’t matter that much — DID matter at this tournament. What’s more is that beyond 2018, the last four U.S. Opens have generally reinforced the notion that players who do not carry an overly large workload through the middle portions of the tennis season are the ones who succeed in New York.
Serena Williams won three straight U.S. Opens from 2012-2014. Since then, the women’s U.S. Open has become very unpredictable. The past four U.S. Open women’s finals involved these matchups:
2015: Flavia Pennetta vs. Roberta Vinci
2016: Karolina Pliskova vs. Angelique Kerber
2017: Sloane Stephens vs. Madison Keys
2018: Naomi Osaka vs. Serena Williams
I have done my research on these eight players, but I invite you to do your own instead of taking what I say as Gospel truth. Go look at how these players performed in the clay, grass, and August hardcourt portions of the tennis season before coming to New York. For Pennetta and Vinci in 2015, Pliskova in 2016, Stephens and Keys last year, and Osaka and Serena this year, notice how few matches they played from May through mid-August of the years in which they made the U.S. Open final. Pliskova did win Cincinnati in 2016, but she didn’t make big runs in important tournaments before then. Sloane went deep in Canada and Cincinnati in 2017, but she was coming off an extended injury layoff which made her a lot fresher than her peers when the 2017 U.S. Open began.
Of those eight players listed above, only Kerber in 2016 — Angie made the finals of several very important tournaments — had logged a lot of court time and matches coming into the U.S. Open. The other seven were not pushed anywhere close to their physical limits in the four months preceding “The World’s Toughest Tennis.” It does not seem like an idle coincidence.
As climate change gets worse and conditions at future U.S. Opens are likely to be very uncomfortable, it is not an act of hysteria to say that the U.S. Open will continue to be defined by who can survive the best. The past four years offer convincing evidence that players who haven’t played especially large quantities of tennis in the late spring or early summer will have an especially good chance of making a deep run in this late-summer tournament, when so many players are either running on fumes or dealing with harsh conditions (or both).
Naomi Osaka was simply masterful at this U.S. Open and deserves every accolade and plaudit thrown her way. She nevertheless reflects an emerging trend at this tournament: Those who play less tennis in June and July are more likely to come alive in late August and blossom in Flushing Meadows.
Osaka should be lavishly celebrated for her tennis and for her equally winning combination of humor, sincerity and warmth.
Should the toughness of the U.S. Open — with its roots in Super Saturday — be celebrated any longer?
That’s a different matter… and it no longer seems appropriate to answer that question in the affirmative. Which was once romantic in 1984 is now a central problem in tennis. This tournament wasn’t too tough for Naomi Osaka, but its toughness has gone beyond the bounds of what is reasonable or enjoyable.