The events of 8 September 2018 will be remembered forever, but not just for Carlos Ramos’ quiet remonstrations or Serena Williams’ loud meltdown. The New York crowd, aghast at the apparent injustice meted out to one of their own, was as much a part of the black letter day as the two main protagonists.
They booed, hissed, yelled and made life miserable for both Ramos and the 'unlucky' Naomi Osaka. As Serena stomped and ultimately wept her way out of the final, it was clear that the partisan spectators weren’t going to go quietly into the night either. It was the perfect storm in a teacup – inasmuch as the cavernous, 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe stadium can be called a teacup.
For anyone who’s been following tennis for just the last decade and a half, such scenes would seem like the sole preserve of the women’s tour. Serena, and also her sister Venus along with a couple of youngsters like Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, have kept the American flag flying high in the country’s home Slam, but the local men have been nowhere close to title clashes.
That’s a far cry from the 70s, 80s and 90s, when American men ruled the roost at Flushing Meadows – and pretty much everywhere else. Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe shared nine US Open trophies between them from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, and a decade later Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi combined to win seven titles.
Lesser greats like Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Andy Roddick and Todd Martin also gave the home crowd plenty to cheer about, even if they didn’t always walk home with the trophy. In fact, from 1974 to 2003, there were only six US Open men’s finals that didn’t feature an American player.
That makes the recent drought all the more surprising. Since Roddick’s win in 2003, an American male has reached the final on just two other occasions – Roddick himself in 2006, and an over-the-hill Agassi in 2005. The rest have all flattered to deceive, consistently failing to deliver on their potential. And in the absence of homegrown talent on the last weekend, the crowd has had to make do with adopting players like Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro as their own.
With the 2019 edition of the US Open just a couple of days away, is there any chance of a change in the status quo? Not if you’re one for safe bets.
The highest-ranked American male is No. 14 John Isner, and at 34 he would be hard-pressed to better his best showing at the Open (quarterfinals in 2011 and 2018). Isner still has the nearly-unbreakable serve and the ability to play endlessly, and 2018 was a great year for him in many ways, but you have to wonder how he can win seven best-of-five matches on the trot. He is slated to meet Jan-Lennard Struff in the second round, Marin Cilic in the third, and Rafael Nadal in the fourth; it would be a surprise if he makes it that far.
Isner’s fellow member of the big-serving-giant club, Sam Querrey, is not seeded at the Open. Querrey’s best days are well behind him, even if he’s shown signs of a mini-resurgence this summer. In any case, the hard-working California native was always more of an upset specialist than a Slam contender; his win over Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon 2016 is so memorable primarily because of how unexpected it was.
There’s now a third member of the American giant club, and that one at least has age on his side. The 21-year-old Reilly Opelka has a tough opening match against Fabio Fognini but if he gets past that hurdle he could possibly make a decent run. Opelka has shown plenty of competitive fire in the early stages of his career, and he arguably has a better ground game than Isner and Querrey. If that serve is working, then watch out.
The most promising prospects, however, are a couple of other 21-year-olds. Taylor Fritz is the 26th seed and starts against Feliciano Lopez, while Frances Tiafoe could face Alexander Zverev in the second round. And they both have the game to do some serious damage in New York.
Fritz and Tiafoe have seen their fortunes go in opposite directions lately; while Fritz has competed well since the start of the spring, Tiafoe has struggled to put two wins together. But none of that will matter if they can make a breakthrough at their home Slam; all they need to jump into the consciousness of the average New York spectator is a couple of high-energy wins.
Energy will certainly not be lacking on the women’s side of the draw, especially since Sofia Kenin has joined the ever-expanding list of local contenders. The 20-year-old, who seemingly can’t stand still for even a second on the court, has registered a slew of impressive wins this summer to arrive into the Open as the 20th seed. She will start against another American – CoCo Vandeweghe – and her hard-hitting style is likely to give fits to her opponents for years to come.
Kenin could face Madison Keys in the third round, which is cruelly early for the home fans. Keys bagged the biggest title of her career last week in Cincinnati, and is many experts’ dark horse pick to win the whole thing. If the 24-year-old can make her forehand behave for the better part of the next two weeks, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that she’ll be lifting the trophy come the first Saturday of September.
One woman who’s lifted her fair share of trophies in New York is not too far away from Keys and Kenin in the draw. A year after that infamous final against Osaka – an affair so unforgettable that it even became the subject of a documentary – Serena Williams returns to Flushing Meadows for another crack at Slam No. 24.
The 37-year-old is always among the title favorites whenever she enters the draw, but right now she is perhaps less of a sure thing in title matches than she was at her peak. Serena has lost the last three Slam finals she has played without failing to win more than four games in any set; if she makes the final again in New York, the pressure on her shoulders will be enormous.
Facing considerably lesser pressure would be elder sister Venus, who could play Elina Svitolina in the second round. This year Venus hasn’t quite looked like her world-beating self of old, or even like the version that reached the semifinals here in 2017, so anything more than a couple of wins would be greeted with thunderous applause.
But she and Serena have done enough to keep earning thunderous applause for the rest of their lives, with or without any further Slam wins. While American men have struggled to replicate the success of their compatriots from the 80s and 90s, the women have had no such problems – thanks largely to the Williams sisters. The legacy of Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova is alive and well in New York.
One of the products of that continued legacy has already made good on her potential. Sloane Stephens won the US Open in 2017, and is in a fairly manageable section of the draw this year. She could face the struggling Garbine Muguruza in the third round and the injury-ravaged Petra Kvitova in the fourth, with a possible shot at familiar foe Simona Halep after that.
Aside from these high-profile contenders there are several other middle-tier players from the US who have the ability to make a deep run if their game clicks. Danielle Collins, Alison Riske, Jennifer Brady, Bernarda Pera, Jessica Pegula, Madison Brengle, Lauren Davis – the list is both long and impressive.
Amanda Anisimova could have been another noteworthy addition to that list, but the teenage phenom is skipping the tournament to grieve the loss of her father. There’s another teenage phenom to keep an eye out for though; Coco Gauff is back on the big stage after her stirring Wimbledon run, and could face Carla Suarez Navarro in the second round.
We could easily see an all-American women’s final this year, which means it could be party time in New York come September. Sure, the possibility of an all-American men’s final is as bleak as it has ever been, but if the women can produce anything close to the drama of the last two years, that will be more than enough compensation.
The women have been compensating for the men anyway over the last decade and a half. What’s one year more?
Updated Date: Aug 24, 2019 18:33:27 IST