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.