If you concentrate hard enough, you would probably still be able to hear the sound of Marin Cilic’s mammoth serve cracking through the court during the 2014 US Open. The memory of Cilic’s run has been burned forever in our heads; did any of us ever think he was capable of a performance like that?
The Croat was untouchable in that fortnight, in a way that he had never been earlier (and never been since). It was truly a lightning-in-a-bottle moment. It was the career breakthrough to beat all career breakthroughs.
There have been several other breakthroughs in New York over the years, even if rarely as jaw-dropping as Cilic’s. On the men’s side, the US Open is the only Slam in the last decade and a half that has been won by as many as three players outside the Big 4. (The corresponding numbers for the other Slams are two at the Australian Open, one at Roland Garros and a remarkable zero at Wimbledon).
As for the women, the US Open has seen six first-time Slam champions since 2004, which is second only to Roland Garros (eight). By contrast, the Australian Open has had four first-time champions, and as expected Wimbledon has had the fewest — three.
If you go back a few years more, you will notice that Andy Roddick, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin (who were all, incidentally, Roger Federer’s rivals in the first phase of his career), Pat Rafter and even Pete Sampras first tasted Slam success in New York. In the women’s section there was Lindsay Davenport, and also none other than Serena Williams, who made their Slam breakthroughs at the Open.
So is this just a statistical quirk, or is the US Open actually more amenable to a career breakthrough than the other Slams? I’d go with the latter.
Before the Australian Open started matching the other three Slams in prestige, the US Open was the only Slam played on a neutral surface. That meant adaptability — the hallmark of veterans rather than prodigies — wasn’t as much of a requirement to do well in New York as it was on the extreme surfaces of clay and grass.
Even with the Australian Open gaining in importance, the US Open has remained the most neutral of all the Slams by virtue of its consistent court speed. While Melbourne sees drastic changes in court speed from one year to the next, New York has stuck to the medium-fast DecoTurf through thick and thin.
The placement of the US Open on the calendar may also have something to do with the likelihood of Slam virgins emerging triumphant here. Held in late August, towards the end of the season, the Open often suffers from top players dropping out due to fatigue-related injury issues. While the Australian Open sees the stars racing out of the blocks after a month’s rest, the US Open sees them limping and lurching towards the finish line after a hectic spring/summer schedule.
It’s worth mentioning here that of the three editions won by non-Big 4 players since 2004, two were won when a Big 4 member was absent (Federer in 2016 and Nadal in 2014). Sure Cilic played like a madman in 2014, but would that have been enough to defeat Federer and another member of the Big 4?
Lastly, there is the weather factor. New York is notorious for its wild weather fluctuations and its extreme humidity. Both of those things have the power to reduce a match from a tennis contest to a battle of fitness — and there’s never any telling who will come out on top in that.
I remember when I was covering the 2016 US Open, the humidity hit ridiculous levels in the second week. During the semi-final match between Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka it got so sticky and stuffy inside Arthur Ashe stadium that it became impossible to even sit in the stands.
Naturally, the match suffered too; Nishikori was clearly the better player for the first set and a half, but the humidity eventually got to him and he started wilting. Wawrinka, by far the fitter player, managed to maintain his level despite the oppressive conditions, and won the match in four sets.
It’s not for nothing that ‘Stanimal’ is one of Wawrinka’s nicknames. But would Nishikori have lost if the conditions had been humane throughout the match?
This is not to take anything away from Wawrinka, or his ability to withstand weather fluctuations. The point here is not that a match is easier or tougher to win because of the conditions; it’s just that when mother nature plays such a big role in the proceedings, matches get more unpredictable than usual. New York doesn’t have the moderate weather of a London or Paris summer, and the results reflect that.
The Australian Open does have this factor in common with the US Open though; the weather in Melbourne can get pretty extreme too. But then again, you have to go back to the scheduling point. The players are considerably fresher across the board at the year’s first major as compared to the last, so they would be better equipped to deal with challenging conditions even if they aren’t built like a Wawrinka.
Even though every Slam has its own special elements, the Australian Open and US Open tend to look a little less charming than their European counterparts because of the relative drabness of the surface. But that drab surface, when combined with specific weather and scheduling conditions, can make for one of the most charmingly unique facets of all.
The US Open doesn’t level the playing field quite like Paris; Roland Garros will probably always remain the most unpredictable Slam of all (once Nadal retires, that is). What the US Open does, instead, is give already-accomplished players the platform for a career-changing moment. It enables them to make the step up from ‘good’ to ‘great’.
Will we have another breakthrough (or two) at the 2019 edition of the tournament? If we do, I hope it is as incredible as Cilic’s run in 2014, filled with unforgettable sounds like that crack of his gargantuan serve.
Updated Date: Aug 25, 2019 14:49:27 IST