If the Australian Open is the Happy Slam, the U.S. Open — the other hardcourt major played at a very different time of year — is the Unhappy Slam. This might not necessarily apply to the paychecks players get — the money is the biggest at the U.S. Open, but in a certain sense, the extra dollars handed out at the U.S. Open feel like hazard pay, a fair but unsatisfying piece of compensation for the rigors of a tournament which keeps getting more unpleasant by the year.
Stop and realize that the extreme heat and humidity which plagued the 2018 U.S. Open did not — by and large — return to New York for the 2019 event… and yet this still seemed like a tournament in which the participants, the on-site fans, and #TennisTwitter were all cranky or unsettled or bothered to some degree.
Daniil Medvedev did behave himself in the last two rounds of this tournament, something Mert Ertunga alluded to on our new U.S. Open review podcast at Tennis With An Accent.
Yet, in the middle rounds of this tournament, Medvedev was a provocateur, troll, and unapologetic villain. Stirring up antagonisms seemed like the thing to do at this tournament, because the U.S. Open not only has that edge; it has been developing that vibe in recent years.
It is true that the U.S. Open has always been physically demanding, coming later in the season in an American summer on physically punishing hardcourts. As string and racquet technology have made tennis more unforgiving on the body, more injuries have accumulated. Rafael Nadal did not play in the 2012 or 2014 U.S. Opens, before the building of the Ashe Stadium overhang (2015) and the installation of the roof (2016).
It is also true that a number of the injuries which affected various players in recent years did not occur at the Open itself. Roger Federer didn’t play in 2016 because of an injury suffered at Wimbledon, rooted in the earlier part of his year (the late-January injury which had nothing to do with tennis). Andy Murray’s 2017 injury occurred at Wimbledon. Federer’s 2017 back spasms occurred in Montreal and carried through to the start of that year’s U.S. Open.
However, some physical problems for top players have occurred at the U.S. Open. This year, Federer developed a high-back/neck problem during the tournament. Last year, he was smothered by the extreme heat along with many other players. Not all of this can be traced to the Open itself, but some of it CAN, most primarily the lack of air circulation inside Ashe Stadium due to the overhang and roof.
The trapping of air has turned Ashe into a sweat box. Rafael Nadal won this tournament, but he cramped up in his quarterfinal against Diego Schwartzman.
Playing matches on Ashe is a showcase experience for players, and yet — because the new Armstrong Stadium was built a lot more thoughtfully than Ashe and doesn’t trap air to nearly the same extent — I seriously wonder if top players would rather play Armstrong than Ashe in the future. It might be a lot more physically comfortable.
Federer used to love night matches at Ashe. Now he struggles in them. This is not idle coincidence or the mere effect of age; this is a product of the overhang and the roof.
Federer and other top players would have to deal with nasty wind before the 2015 installation of the overhang. Federer’s 2004 quarterfinal win over Andre Agassi was probably the windiest match he ever played (over two days). The 2012 semifinal between Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray was in the ballpark relative to Federer-Agassi 2004.
Yes, the USTA needed to have roofed tennis… but it need to have roofed tennis inside a stadium designed for indoor tennis, such as Armstrong, which is a well-built stadium.
Ashe Stadium never should have had a roof once it was built the way it was. If architects had built a much better stadium in 1997, with a roof as part of the initial architecture, we wouldn’t have this problem, but as it is, Ashe Stadium is a terrible stadium for playing tennis.
An outdoor setup was and is better than the current one. The pre-2015 setup allowed the wind to give refreshing breezes to players and fans. Afternoon tennis would be nasty because of less shelter from the sun, but night tennis was so much more liberating because air could move through the stadium.
Armstrong should have become the rain/indoor venue, leaving Ashe for outdoors, but the USTA didn’t play its cards correctly in its attempt to compensate for the grand error of not building Ashe in a better way (and including a roof in a stadium where air could circulate properly) in 1997.
At the other three center courts for the majors, playing there is seen as a clear advantage for top players. Rafael Nadal can run all around Chatrier’s space. Rod Laver Arena is similarly spacious and well-designed as an indoor stadium. Conditions are widely regarded as comfortable indoors. You didn’t see Roger Federer or Marin Cilic physically suffer in their five-set 2018 Australian Open final, played indoors. (Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki deserved to play their final indoors that year.)
Centre Court Wimbledon is tennis’s cathedral. It is always where players want to play when at the All England Club.
Ashe Stadium, though? You could make a perfectly reasonable case that this stadium court is not a court where it is easier for top players to play than Armstrong.
For that reason, the U.S. Open — which could try to make itself stand out in a positive way — in many ways lags behind the other three majors in terms of providing comfort, assistance, and happy moments to players and fans alike.
The Unhappy Slam label exists for legitimate reasons.