One turn of phrase you will hear or read from time to time — from the keyboards or mouths of sports commentators — is “setting a tone.”
He set a tone for the rest of the game with a first-inning home run.
He set a tone for the football match with a goal in the ninth minute.
She set a tone for the U.S. Open with a crisp first-round performance.
You have surely heard the expression — maybe not the exact words, but certainly the larger idea of getting into the right groove, the right mindset.
Let me tell you, everyone: At this last major tournament of 2019, there is no tone to set. Majors aren’t going to be won this year by setting a tone, because they haven’t been won that way.
It is true that Ash Barty did not score a convincing win over Zarina Diyas on Monday at the U.S. Open. It is true that Karolina Pliskova did not post an impressive performance in her two-tiebreaker win over Tereza Martincova.
It is true that if most people saw those matches, they would not feel MORE confident about those two players’ U.S. Open prospects.
Yet, with women’s tennis being what it is these days — which is to say, UTTERLY UNPREDICTABLE — the idea of setting a tone just doesn’t mean anything.
Naomi Osaka was down a set, 4-2, and 40-0, to Hsieh Su-Wei in week one of the Australian Open.
She won the title.
Ash Barty was down a set and 3-0 to Amanda Anisimova in the Roland Garros semifinals.
She won the tournament.
Simona Halep was down a break in set one of multiple Wimbledon matches. She won the championship at The Championships.
Even the finalists at recent 2019 majors struggled earlier in the tournament. Marketa Vondrousova was down 5-3 in three of the four sets she played in the quarterfinals and semifinals against Petra Martic and Jo Konta at Roland Garros.
Serena Williams played poorly in round two of Wimbledon before working off the rust. She was still down a break in the third set of her quarterfinal against Alison Riske.
There was no tone for any of these players to set. They had to battle from behind and prevail.
This is the way of the WTA this year, and it has been this way since Serena became a mom and ceased to be the colossus she was through the 2017 Australian Open.
Jelena Ostapenko, in her 2017 Roland Garros run to glory, was NOT a dominant player. She won a bunch of three-setters. She did not breeze through that tournament. Sloane Stephens had to battle against Anastasija Sevastova and Venus Williams to get to and then win the 2017 U.S. Open final.
Caroline Wozniacki saved match point in the second round to win the 2018 Australian Open.
The exception — not the norm — in recent years was Osaka’s 2018 U.S. Open, in which she lost only one set. THAT was a steamroll through a major tournament… and that is precisely what we have NOT seen very often at women’s majors the past few years.
Am I saying that Barty and Pliskova are in great shape? No. Certainly not.
What I am saying is this: Though this is a two-week tournament, the champion will not be a player who gets on a roll and stays on a roll for two weeks. The champion will be a player who fights through seven separate challenges, much as Bianca Andreescu fought through Indian Wells this year.
There is no tone at this U.S. Open. Dialed in? Maybe for one day, but not the full two weeks. The champion on September 7 will have to endure a period of pronounced peril… probably.