The tennis world had been searching for this version of Dominic Thiem — not in April, May or early June, but in the other 9.5 months of the tennis season. Thiem owns a tennis game with heft. The ball explodes off his racquet in ways unmatched by a large majority of players. Thiem regularly delivers a considerable weight of shot. Power, topspin, the ability to hit diagonally in ways that open the court, a formidable power serve and a wide ad-court kicker, are all highly developed skills in Thiem’s arsenal.
Yet, before Thiem came to New York for the 2018 U.S. Open, he had never made a quarterfinal at a hardcourt major. He had never made a semifinal at any of the six hardcourt Masters 1000 events — the Sunshine swing in spring, the North American summer swing, or the Shanghai-Bercy swing in autumn. He had won only one hardcourt tournament of any kind, the ATP 500 stop in Acapulco in late February. He had won the ATP 250 grass tournament in Stuttgart a few years ago. Those were his only notable non-clay tournaments to date.
Thiem’s summer disaster was well documented. He wasn’t fully healthy at Wimbledon and needed to rest after the tournament, but he played Hamburg and Kitzbuhel, two ill-advised decisions. He did poorly in those tournaments, came to Toronto, lost early to Stefanos Tsitsipas, and later acknowledged that he didn’t feel well and was partly worn down by the cross-continental travel from Europe to North America. He didn’t play Cincinnati, giving him virtually no match preparation for the U.S. Open. For a player who had not been able to cultivate a more calibrated and precise game on hardcourts, the lack of preparation seemed to be likely to matter, even though he got a decent draw through the first three rounds.
Thiem did indeed struggle with Steve Johnson and Taylor Fritz, but he worked through difficult patches to get to the fourth round. It wasn’t a mind-blowing achievement or a sign that he had turned the corner, but at least he had not regressed. That was something.
Then, as though coming out of nowhere, Dominic Thiem — this tortured hardcourt soul — grew in stature and confidence before our very eyes. The idea that Thiem had the talent to win on non-clay surfaces is easy to accept. The idea that he was ready to transform his hardcourt game this year, not in 2019 or 2020, was a much harder sell.
Thiem — whose main sin as a tennis player, if anything, is to do whatever he does TOO hard, as opposed to not hard enough — could never be accused of taking shortcuts or being afraid of hard work. He has always been willing to attack the sport of tennis and build a better base of fitness and preparation. The problem was that while Thiem loves working harder than the next guy, he hadn’t always worked SMARTER. Playing with more margin, choosing the right time to go for a shot, staying balanced through the contact point with the ball, had often evaded Thiem on hardcourts.
In the fourth round against defending U.S. Open finalist Kevin Anderson, Thiem enlarged his margins. The errors (usually long behind the baseline, sometimes wide in the doubles alleys) which had leaked from his racquet for years on hardcourt suddenly diminished. Thiem timed the ball better, and he told ESPN that he was working on taking shorter backswings and playing closer to the baseline in rallies. The adjustments his hardcourt style had long needed were finally entering the equation. Thiem swept past Anderson in three convincing sets to make his first major quarterfinal.
That’s all well and good, his critics (I being one of them) inwardly thought. Let’s see you play sustained quality hardcourt tennis against RAFA under the lights. Then we’ll remove the “clay-court specialist” tag from your back.
Consider it removed.
For nearly five hours, Thiem lived on the tightrope that all top pros (with the possible — and only partial — exception of Novak Djokovic) must walk against Rafael Nadal. One can’t unload on any shot from any spot on the court; some discretion is needed. Yet, one has to be willing to go for low-margin shots against Nadal so that he can’t maintain a comfort zone along the baseline and steer attritional rallies in his direction. Nadal opponents have to be willing to litter the stat sheet, being content to make 10 errors if one can make 15 winners or 20 shots which set up a winner on the next shot. Thiem did have to play with a measure of margin on Tuesday against Rafa in the U.S. Open quarterfinals, but he couldn’t sit back and play it safe. No one can.
If there seemed to be a realistic path to victory for Thiem, it was to win the first set, get on top of the match, and not let Nadal get back up. Thiem bageled Rafa in the first set — that part of the plan went perfectly — and although Thiem lost focus late in the second set, he dug himself out of tough spots and earned the right to serve for the third set at 5-4. He had the match in a very good position. Asking Rafa to win two straight sets in a prolonged match, after he had needed 4:23 to beat Karen Khachanov (third round) and 3:19 to beat Nikoloz Basilashvili (fourth round), would not have been beyond the Spaniard’s capabilities, but it would have forced him to be great for 90 to 120 straight minutes with no more than a very slight lull. Winning the third set would not have assured Thiem of victory, but it would have put him in the driver’s seat, given the humid conditions in New York which Nadal hates.
*5-4 in the third set was one of those moments when elite players shut the door on hard-charging opponents. Thiem had not sniffed Nadal in multiple prior meetings at Roland Garros, but on hardcourts — as slow as the Ashe Stadium surface is this year — the Austrian was able to hit through the court a little more consistently against a defender who wasn’t sliding into shots the way he comfortably does on clay. Hardcourts punish Nadal’s knee joints, and so Thiem’s big game was able to do more damage than it had on Court Philippe Chatrier. Because of the non-clay environment, a big serve would be rewarded more than in Paris — Thiem hit 18 aces by the time this match ended — but as we say so often in tennis, “Timeliness is the measure of greatness in this sport.” Serving huge at 2-2 or 3-3 is all well and good, but can you do it when trying to take the lead after three sets against Rafa at a major?
Thiem could not pass that test. He made a few sloppy errors and couldn’t get enough unreturnable serves to secure a lead. He was broken, and minutes later, he lost the set 7-5, drowning in a sea of bad decisions.
If you had thought at that point in time that Thiem would fade away, you would have had every reason to think so. Thiem fought the good fight but lost his nerve under pressure, a very familiar and common experience for non-Big 3 players against the goliaths of the sport. That Thiem had evolved enough on hardcourts to make Rafa sweat late in the third set was a feat in itself. That much progress had already recalibrated Thiem’s expectations and raised his hardcourt ceiling for 2019. He had already grown. No one (no one who was being REASONABLE, at any rate) would have held it against him if he finally lost steam in the fourth. When he hit a very easy overhead at the net right back to Nadal, who poked the shot into the open court for a winner, Thiem — serving at *0-1 — fell into a 15-40 hole. Nadal was going in for the kill. The night wasn’t a short one, but it figured to end around 12:40 a.m. in about 3.5 hours.
Thiem then made the statement that turned a good battle into a memorable duel — not a classic end-to-end tennis match, but a riveting contest with a deliciously tense and well-fought denouement.
Thiem soared on the next four points at *0-1 and 15-40 to hold for 1-1. He sent a thunderous message to Rafa that he was not going to fade into the New York night. Thiem’s physical fitness is considerable, but his thought process and go-for-broke style can unravel when he loses focus. Thiem showed early in the fourth that he wasn’t going to cede that mental territory to a master of the competitive arts. Thiem broke Nadal for *2-1, and although he later flinched when trying to preserve his break lead — much as he had in the third set — he had established the reality that for every misstep he made, he would answer with an even better recovery. If he took a punch from Rafa, he unfailingly punched back. He dominated the fourth-set tiebreaker to level the match at two sets apiece.
That in itself was yet ANOTHER declaration of evolution and increased maturity.
Again, if Thiem lost the battle in the fifth set, reasonable people would not have been ruthless and unkind toward him. He kept climbing the mountain against the ultimate mountain climber in men’s tennis.
Thiem continued to exceed expectations of his capabilities.
At 2-2 in the fifth, Thiem fell into another 15-40 hole, eliciting the pervasive thought that he was about to be toppled.
He pulled four straight points from the top of the drawer, as Robbie Koenig would say, to hold for 3-2.
Thiem just kept answering the bell as the time of match moved from three hours to 3:30 to four hours and beyond.
He fell behind 0-40 at 5-5 and seemed to be done, done, done for good. He hit two aces but then needed a second serve at 30-40. Thiem dug his way out of trouble in most instances, but on that 30-40 point, Nadal got tight and netted a relatively ordinary second serve. It is the kind of shot Nadal normally makes, the kind of shot a Big 3 player normally makes, but Thiem had to get from 0-40 to 30-40 in the first place to create that small granule of luck and work his way back to deuce, eventually holding for 6-5. Two players slugging a ball for nearly five hours are not going to be perfect. They have to put themselves in positions where an opponent’s error won’t merely turn 0-40 into 15-40, but 30-40 into deuce or deuce into advantage. Thiem did that at 5-5 in the fifth, and he did that throughout the night.
Nadal asked him question after question. Thiem came up with answer after answer throughout the night.
This was the man who had no clue on hardcourts before this tournament began? This was the man who looked and felt so naked and lost on non-clay courts before turning 25 years old on Monday? This was the same man… and yet it wasn’t. This was the new Dominic Thiem, the one who can unleash the full measure of his high-octane tennis for nearly five hours without flinching against an iconically great tennis competitor. When the clock hit 2:00 in the morning in New York, Thiem was two points from winning the match after making a spectacular net retrieval of a Nadal volley and winning two second-serve points to put Nadal in trouble.
After failing so profoundly on hardcourts for years, Thiem crammed a season’s worth of successes into one match. This was a performance more than worthy of victory, a show of strength forged from the rubble of his despair in Hamburg, Kitzbuhel and Toronto. It was an outpouring of immense talent under suffocating pressure, a night of tennis when a boy became a man in a new realm. It was everything anyone could have ever expected Dominic Thiem to become on hardcourts — and then some. It was the height of athletic prowess in its skill and daring, but also in its stamina and resolve. It was a complete, if flawed and occasionally wobbly, demonstration of tennis acumen. It was Dominic Thiem in new clothes, an Austrian robed in the resilience and resourcefulness of a man destined for glory.
Surely, this performance was good enough to win. Surely, this portrait of premium perseverance would be rewarded. Surely, this “are you kidding me?” parade of gutsy shotmaking and all-court defense was sufficient against an opponent with a tired body, less-than-fully-healthy knees, and a lot of accumulated court time over the past six days in New York.
If you think Rafael Nadal has been shortchanged in this column, please understand the following: Thiem was the mystery man heading into this match. Rafa had won four major hardcourt titles and several Masters 1000 hardcourt titles, including one in Toronto last month. Nadal has made stacks of significant hardcourt finals where Djokovic usually stood in the way. Rafa’s accomplishments on hardcourts are formidable. He was not the man to be doubted or distrusted. Thiem was. Therefore, this column has been spent focusing on the dozens of ways in which Thiem fulfilled or exceeded expectations as a hardcout player. This column has emphasized the vast, deep and layered ways in which Thiem evolved as a competitor and grew as a craftsman on a non-clay surface. Thiem transcended his past, his scars, his weaknesses, his uncertainties, his limitations, everything an athlete must subdue in order to become great. There was nothing more Thiem could have tried. He couldn’t have competed harder. He couldn’t have answered tough situations much better than he did. He was legitimately special.
And he lost.
All that work, all that excellence, all that improvement, all that toughness, all that composure, all that applied wisdom, all those 15-40 saves and blistered backhand winners — all of that STILL did not carry him past Rafael Nadal Parera.
Rafa, the 32-year-old with nothing to prove, with knees that don’t receive the punishment of hardcourts very easily, with balky net play and a lot of miles on the odometer, took everything Thiem had to give, matched it…
… and then won the last two points, winning in 4:49 at 2:03 in the morning.
The man with 17 major titles fought like a man in search of his first major — which is also how Dominic Thiem fought on Tuesday night into Wednesday morning — and thwarted the man seven years his junior.
This was classic Nadal, winning a match in which an inspired opponent played unusually well and expanded his own sense of possibility over a long period of time. This match recalled the nearly five-hour 2017 Australian Open semifinal against Grigor Dimitrov. It also conjured memories of the 2009 Australian Open semifinal against Fernando Verdasco, which took 5:14. Nadal has been winning these matches for over a decade, but when he won them 10 to 12 years ago, he was the fresh-legged kid in the stadium. Now he is the 32-year-old with tread on the tires and a bank vault of prestigious trophies.
That he can still win these matches — and do so with regularity — is all you need to know about Rafa and the insanely high level at which he continues to compete. His opponent was better than ever in a number of obvious ways, but “better than ever” often isn’t good enough to beat Nadal.
That’s who he is. That’s what he does.
Nadal. The name says it all.
Source: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images North America
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.