A bizarre, ugly spectacle in the women's final. A star's first Slam. A historic number 14. The debut of the serve clock. A controversial pep talk. The 2018 U.S. Open was one for the books.
Here are 50 parting thoughts from Flushing Meadows.
• We are duty-bound to start with Naomi Osaka, who was the revelation of the tournament. She won—and we mean won—the women’s title. She earned—and we mean earned—her $3,850,000. She capped two weeks of power tennis by outplaying and “outpoising” Serena Williams in the final. Her tennis was extraordinary (note the score of the 14 sets she won: 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, 6-0, 6-0, 6-0,6-3, 6-4, 6-1, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2, 6-4). And—in the biggest moment of her career— she adapted to a completely unforeseeable situation. Champion.
• Djokovic is your men's winner, backing up his Wimbledon title with his 14th caree major, improving with each round and proving the that defense may not win championships, but it's surely an essential element. Here's a guy who lost earlier this year—on hard courts, mind you—to Hyeon Chung, Taro Daniel and Benoit Paire. Suddenly, he back. He is of sound mind and body, He has re-enterd the GOAT conversation. And Australia, where he has won six times, is next. Strap in.
• Opinions are all over the road—within and outside of the tennis ecosystem—on Serena Williams. It was ugly all around and few are swaddled in glory here. Certainly not Serena. Not for her failure to grasp the rules (it's a coaching violation; not a coach solicitation violation). Not for her entitled reaction, even in heat of battle. Not for a general lack of poise during the moment and lack of much accountability after it.
Not her coach, whose infraction started this vicious cycle. While his admission was admirable, his everyone-does-it defense was not. Not the embarrassing WTA and USTA, whose post-match statements not only made the for the clumsiest of damage control but —for governing bodies tasked with enforcing rules—showed way too much fawning enthusiasm for one star player.
But I am also hung up on chair umpire Carlos Ramos for penalizing a player—in a Grand Slam final; deep in the second set; with history at stake; with a game penalty in the balance—for using the words “thief” and “liar.” There is no such thing as strict construction in the umpire’s chair. Virtually every decision is discretionary and situational. Hell, just a few days earlier in the tournament, we saw the chair respond to a player flagrantly tanking by giving a personalized pep talk. Anyone who follows tennis closely can think of episodes of agitated players calling chair umpires unprintable names...that trigger only eye rolls and soft warnings. (“Mr. Jones, if you keep this up I’m going to have to give you a penalty.”) Players’ reputations and tendencies and accomplishments and seniority levels matter; and I would contend they should. If we are now in a world where “liar” and “thief” triggers discipline—in a Grand Slam final; uttered by a veteran player—well, we have just established a hell of a precedent. As all officials—judges and teachers and parents—do all the time, Ramos should have swallowed the whistle. He is not solely to blame for Saturday’s regrettable circus. Not by a longshot. But neither is he blameless. Let’s move on.
• Sadly this will—and perhaps should—get lost, But can we exhale and note that a 36-year-old woman, a year removes from childbirth and nearly fatal post-pregnancy complications, has reached the last two majors finals?
• Juan Martin del Potro will be smarting from the missed opportunities of his first major final in nine years, wondering why his forehand was suddenly so temperamental. But he should also smile, considering how far he's come. For a guy who nearly retired a few years ago, he's not only back, but back better than ever, armed with a backhand that's nearing weapon status. And don't forgot: he's younger than any member of the Big Four.
• Giving new dimension to the term “surface tension,” the courts were slower than the postal service this tournament. Conspiracy theorists were everywhere but here’s tournament director David Brewer speaking with Jim Courier:
• Jamie Murray successfully defended his US Open mixed doubles title by teaming with Bethanie Mattek-Sands to beat Poland's Alicja Rosolska and Croat Nikola Mektic on a match tie-break: 2-6, 6-3, 11-9. Murray won with Martina Hingis in 2017.
• In the Women’s doubles event, Coco Vandeweghe went a good way toward salvaging an otherwise disappointing year in by teaming with Ash Barty (or is it Bash Arty?) to take the title.
• In an upset-addled girls draw (that included an upset of top seed Coco Guff) Xiya Wang beat Clara Gurel to win the title. In an upset-addled boys draw (that included a defeat of top seed Jason Tseng), Brazilian Thiago Seyboth Wild beat Lorenzo Musetti.. And as usual, Colette Lewis, junior tennis sorceress has you covered.
• Spare a thought for Dominic Thiem. At the 2017 U.S. Open, the Austrian lost a heartbreaker on the grandstand to del Potro, the match of the tournament. At the 2018 U.S. Open, he loses 7-6 in the fifth set to Rafael Nadal.
• If you don’t like John Millman—Federer slayer—it’s “a you problem,” as the kids say. This S.L. Price column nails it. In the spirit of David Ferrer and Dominika Cibulkova, the plugger who maximizes talent and relishes the battle is as admirable (and emulation-worthy) as the native genius.
• From the forest-for-the-trees department….we get so caught up in individual matches and favorite players. But tennis is facing some real existential issues. In the suites and Manhattan hotel meeting rooms, there were battles more fierce than any five-setter. This Davis Cup/World Team Cup drama roils. There are some high-profile executives about to be defenestrated. The good news: tennis has (allegedly) drawn some major capital and some financial backers bullish on the sport even after Federer/Nadal/Serena depart.
The bad news: all this money reveals the sport’s dysfunction and the rampant conflicts of interest. The Tennis Constitution needs an emoluments clause. One example among many: the same management company that is getting a consulting fee on the Davis Cup also has a representative on the ATP Board? How is that allowed to happen?
• Sloane Stephens is the defending champ! She is playing her second match on Arthur Ashe! It’s apocalyptically hot! She drops the first set, in peril of bouncing early and surrendering her title and the ranking points that come with it! She bounces back! She gets a break before the third set! What does she do in this stressful situation? “I had some sushi and a slushee.” We sense a food truck coming.
• Serious point: it strikes me that Sloane Stephens is a role model of sorts for Nick Kyrgios. She plays in her own key signature. She keeps her identity. She resists convention. She sometimes makes decisions that look strange from an outsider’s perspective—say, mid-match raw fish—yet work for her. BUT (and this is critical) she knows what she has to do when matches start. She has too much pride to capitulate. When she plays, her better angels usually prevail. Is Stephens going to be the model of consistency? No. When her career ends, might she have some regrets? Maybe. But—without making concessions and doing it her way—she is going to be a top-five player and win majors and earn the respect of her peers as well as fans. If Kyrgios could replicate that, his story would have a happy ending. Right now it ain’t trending that way.
• The heat and humidity were a major storyline. And given climate trends, tennis—like the rest of us—will need to reckon with this in the future. It was interesting how severely the humidity impacted certain players. Consider that Roger Federer, who hardly cuts corners on his fitness, struggled simply to get to the locker room after his fourth-round loss. There are lots of suggestions but few easy answers here. Still, this will be a persistent issue.
• The round-four clash between 20-year-olds Aryna Sabalenka and Naomi Osaka was less a tennis match than it was a piercing of the membrane between present and future.
• The compounding interest that bloats credit card bills and unpaid fines...it has nothing on the accrued pressure befalling players who underachieve in majors. Sascha Zverev will play in his 15th career Slam in 2019. And for all his achievements in the Masters 1000s and all his undeniable talent and promise, he will do so having failed to reach a semifinal and just one quarterfinal. (This after capitulating to Philipp Kohlschreiber here.) That’s a hell of a burden. Put Madison Keys in this same category. Over the past year she’s been to a Slam final, a quarter and two semis. Good for her. But with these close-but-not-quite finishes come an accrual of pressure.
• Five players who lost early but impressed us nonetheless: Margarita Gasparyan (and her one-handed backhand), the mellifluously named Anhelina Kalinina, Karen Khachanov (a future top-five player who pushed Nadal in perhaps the match of the tournament), Sofia/Sonya Kenin and Alex de Minaur, the Aussie anti-Kyrgios.
• I throw this out in the interest of “diversity of opinion.” I don’t necessarily agree, but it’s a point of view worth considering. Here’s a text I received from a former WTA player during Week One:
“Okay Jon,.. these top-10 players just are not that good. Not as good as past generations of top 10. Would like to say it is just great depth in the rank and file like a lot of those defending these results, but not so. Such fragile performances. Probably the most vulnerable top 10 I have seen. That’s why we have four nearly 40-year olds coming back AND winning. I want to go get my racket and get out there. And I can give you a million reasons why these top ones are struggling, a product of this environment, but it adds up to the same thing. Subpar tennis.”
• This recalls Marat Safin’s quotes last week to the Spanish publication Marca. Asked about the challengers to the Big Three, Safin said: "In my time, if at 17 you did not win an ATP tournament, you were killed and now if you win a tournament when you're 25 you are a member of the Next Gen. Nadal and Federer are still at the top because the young people are very bad." The larger point: Depth, domination, youth, longevity, wins, losses… it’s all in the framing.
• After giving a full buffet of compliments to tournament Chef Billy Strynkowski… Overheard in player dining: Worker one, motioning to friend: "That's the guy who always says hi."
Worker two: "I love that guy. He’s always like, ‘Hey buddy what's up?' He remembers me each year."
Worker one: "Nicest guy. What's his name again?"
Worker two: "That's Nadal."
I tweeted this out and it tapped a narrative keg, so to speak. Responses from ballkids to tournament directors and everyone in between, all with similar stories. This is not unique to Nadal, of course. But it's a good reminder that being a good human being is free, relatively easy and makes a hell of an impact.
• In keeping with the tennis fatwah that there must be equal Federer/Nadal time, a fun story. One of the great Week One stories of this event: Patty Schnyder, a 1998 (!) quarterfinalist and once a dazzling lefty talent, qualified for the main draw at age 39. On Tennis Channel, I noted that for perspective, Schnyder’s * younger * brother grew up with Roger Federer and was a friend/rival.
Social media can be a toxic sewer, but it can also be a vessel for good. Danny Schnyder tracked me down via twitter and we had some pleasant back-and-forths. He also sent me this delightful video, which goes to show what a pleasant and loyal guy Federer is.
A post shared by @ jon_wertheim on Sep 9, 2018 at 1:02pm PDT
• What a strange tournament for Felix Auger-Aliassime. The youngest player in the top 200 dazzled in the qualifying round, staving off a match point, nearly playing a golden set (18 straight points against Gerald Meltzer) and generally looking like a star. In his much-anticipated first-rounder against Denis Shapovalov, he suffered a bout of tachycardia and retired.
• This gives us another opportunity to praise Denis Shapovalov, not for his tennis—though he reached the third round and fought honorably against Kevin Anderson for five sets—but his humanity. Athletes can prepare for all sorts of eventualities. They can anticipate press conference questions. They can go through the blight on humanity known as “media training.” There’s little preparation for seeing a colleague on the ground while a trainer leans over him and says, “We’re trying to get your heart rate down.” Shapovalov’s instinctive reaction and immediate recognition that tennis was suddenly irrelevant revealed a great deal about his character.
• One of the cardinal rules of sports journalism: speculate about injuries at your peril. But don’t be surprised if Nick Kyrgios misses some time to address his hip issues. (Yes, there’s too much Kyrgios here.) It was also disappointing to see Milos Raonic suffer another injury, this one to his right hip. And spare a thought for CiCi Bellis, the young American dealing with a troubling wrist injury.
• Another cardinal rule: you don't tell athletes when it’s time to retire (especially in individual sports, where they’re not taking up roster spots and cap space.) Still, it's fair to wonder how much longer Venus Williams will want to remain out here if her results don’t improve. In 2017 she reached two major finals and one semi. In 2018, she went 4-4 in the four big ones. And same for Sharapova. Does her abundance of pride mean she will not abide this middling and keep playing? Or does her abundance of pride mean she won’t accept this level and start the Hall of Fame countdown clock?
• The obligatory riff on L’Affaire Lahyani and his lane violation…. a veteran official put it nicely to me: Say your peace and get back in the chair, or even better, stay in the chair. Basically, he should have kept it on a professional level and got in trouble by making it look and sound personal. Bottom line: Good intentions, poor execution. But consider this: in round one, an official was (rightly) criticized for lacking humanity and robotically following the letter of the law when he sanctioned Alize Cornet for her shirt change. Lahyani took the precise opposite tact, using his latitude and straying from the rulebook. And he, too, was castigated.
• We come to praise, not bury, the USTA: the qualies event was tremendous. The best deal in sports—it’s free—featured former Grand Slam finalists (Genie Bouchard, Vera Zvonareva), up-and-comers (Auger-Aliassime, who should have gotten a main draw wild card if the process weren’t so morally bankrupt) and career revivalists, like Donald Young. There were also legends events and open practices. Suggestion: put the college event—inexplicably scrapped in 2018—in this slot.
• More USTA wins… Armstrong is a great court in person (if not on TV). Asking juniors to shake hands BEFORE as well as AFTER the match was a nice touch that encourages sports(wo)manship. (A nod to John-Laffnie de Jager, former player and current innovator, who, as far as I know, came up with this concept.) Also, take a bow, Katrina Adams, whose four-year reign as USTA CEO—keyword: inclusion—draws to an end.
• USTA whiffs:
A) We’re told that—in the legacy of a catastrophic recent hire—a huge slice of player development funds are being spent not on young players or prospects starting out their careers but on the coaching/training/travel for established top pros who already make millions, have patch deals, agents etc. Is this the best use of player development resources?
B) Way too many ground passes are sold. (Debt service on those roofs doesn't come cheap; but fans shouldn’t have to wait multiple changeovers for mixed doubles.)
C) The USTA did not exactly cover itself in glory following L’Affaire Lahyani. This statement was, at best, selective.
• The Louis Armstrong housewarming party was marred when a major design flaw was revealed. The stadium is terrific from the standpoint of a spectator. But many more fans “consume” Armstrong watching from afar. And it soon became apparent that this is a dreadful TV court. Because of the extreme slope. The camera was simply too high. The USTA made a quick change, demolishing 16 seats so the cameras could be repositioned, but this will need to be rectified moving forward.
• Cameron Norrie, the fine British player, came into the press room during week one. Which wouldn’t have been so unusual except for the fact that it was midway through his second round match. Norrie was playing in the furnace conditions of week One and granted a 10-minute break between sets. He was, however, unsure of where to go. So he just headed to the nearest air-conditioning. Kudos to the USTA for the blast of common sense—sometimes a sparse commodity in the sport—and implementing new heat policies. But it was problematic when players were so unclear about how it actually worked in practice.
• Loyalty award. There are players who change coaches as often they change shirts. Let’s acknowledge Kei Nishikori. Though his results have been erratic and his durability has sometimes been problematic, Nishikori has kept his team intact. Same coaches (Michael Chang and Dante Bottini), same agent (Oli Van Lindonk).
• Speaking of Nishikori, a story to follow: tennis at the 2020 Olympics. Given the popularity of Japanese players (Nishikori and Osaka), the Uniqlo connection with Federer, and overall popularity of the sport, tennis should get quite a showcase in two years’ time.
• I feel like we made this joke last year but we’ll make it again. There’s the old joke that “rooting for the New York Yankees is like rooting for IBM.” In tennis, we root for IBM. Good to see functional technology at a tennis event. Your serve, Australian Open.
• Loving Peter Polansky who pulled the Lucky Loser Grand Slam. At all four majors he failed to qualify but got in the main draw when a higher-ranked opponent withdrew. This stroke of good luck resulted in more than $100,000 of additional income. Unfortunately, it did not result in incremental wins, as Polansky lost each of the four matches – here a first-round beatdown by Sascha Zverev. Polansky had a great sense of humor about it all. He noted: “I’m the only player to lose eight singles matches at Majors this year.”
• Where does Vika Azarenka, age 29, go from here? A wildcard, she lost in round three to Sloane Stephens, playing well but not well enough. Interesting to see her in the doubles as well, just getting in matches. This story is equally heartbreaking and heartwarming. To mix sports metaphors, life threw her a curveball and she’s trying to adjust.
• An extended tip of the sweat-soaked bandana for David Ferrer, playing in his final major. Want a player to emulate? On the women’s side, 2010 French Open winner Francesca Schiavone says “arrivaderci.” And while we’re here, a tip of the cap to the entire graduation class: Mikhail Youzhny, Gilles Muller, Julien Benneteau, and Olga Savchuk but—contrary to reports—NOT Feliciano Lopez.
• The tournament’s biggest non-story: the shot clock, er, the “serve clock,” as double-speak wants to call it. Some chair umpires were more attentive than others. Some players were more vigilant than others. It didn’t impact matches. There wasn’t a noticeable change in the pace of play. You could say, though, that its mere existence was a win. This is what Cass Sunstein and Dick Thaler would call nudging.
• From the buy-on-the-dip department: Jack Sock lost in round two, continuing his descent down the elevator shaft, a year in which he’s failed to string together back-to-back wins. If Sock doesn’t defend his fall ranking points, his ranking will drop deep into triple digits. (Imagine going to the 2018 Australian Open as a top-eight seed and the 2019 Australian Open as a qualifier.) A source of some optimism: he’s among the world’s best doubles players and will earn close to $1 million for his work alongside a partner.
• Sports Illustrated is proud to present 36 Hours with Arthur Ashe at the 1968 U.S. Open, “a rare collection of photos by John G. Zimmerman shows Arthur Ashe's journey to becoming a tennis icon and the ordinary events that led up to his remarkable milestone in Forest Hills.”
• I am awash in bias. If conflicted interests were erratic results, I would be Nick Kyrgios. With that disclosure, I immodestly call your attention to Tennis Channel’s daily pregame show. Three hours of live tennis talk. Ten straight mornings. No prompter; no script. Skeletal staff in the truck. Unpredictable results which militate against long-term planning. File this away for next year, daily 8-11a ET.
• More tennis-and-creativity crossover:
A) Check out my friend Elisha’s rendering from Court 15.
B) Toure on the new Arthur Ashe biography.
C) Julie Heldman, daughter of Gladys, has a new book Driven: A Daughter’s Odyssey.
D) Kudos to Rick Rennert for The Open Book: 50 Years of Championship Tennis.
• A yellow card to Brad Gilbert. Bullying tweets like this are beneath him, eroding both his appeal and credibility.
He is completely gigster tabloid writer that I am done ? with that never needs to be mentioned anywhere https://t.co/AUqPs5hk62
— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) September 5, 2018
We all have colleagues we like more than others. We all have hot-button issues. But stating—and Brad has done this more than once—that Ben Rothenberg forfeits his rights to his opinion? That right there is an encapsulation of our broken social media ecosystem. The great irony: Ben is precisely the kind of tennis journalist Brad ought to love. Here’s a guy who’s opportunistic, who finds angles no one else conceives, who distinguishes himself with effort and hustle. Winning Ugly, to appropriate a phrase. (And the obvious compromise: best-of-three in week one to preserve bodies and the schedule. Best-of-five in week two to preserve the gravitas of Slams and the possibility of classics.)
• We can—and do—debate equal prize money. It’s a tough issue that reduces less to progressive/caveman than to competing economic philosophies. The USTA tries (cleverly? Hypocritically?) to split the baby, paying equal purses but pricing men and women sessions differently. (When Djokovic or Nadal say to the USTA, “By your own pricing models, you’re effectively paying us fifty cents on the dollar” what is the response?)
Me? At the Slams—joint events, same tier, same draw size, television interchanging coverage etc.—I am in favor of equal prize money. I understand the objection. Value is value. But here’s a plea: can we behead the red herring that is “best of five versus best of three.”
A) Duration is seldom relevant in entertainment. Movies, concerts, theater, books—length is not value.
B) Roger Federer plays short matches. John Isner plays long matches. Whom would you rather watch?
C) Sets is one metric. But only one. Why not use balls struck? Or points played. Or time on court?
D) If I’m the WTA CEO my response: “Sets played is so important? Fine. We’ll play best-of-seven. Please pay us accordingly.”
Bottom line: we should be talking about relative value and where to divide the market. This is a healthy discussion in any industry. Lean on “Men play best-of-five” and you have already undercut the argument.
• It struck me that we no longer see players strapped in ice after matches. I learned that they have graduated to products like this,
which stimulate blood and accelerate recovery. Players will wear this for a few hours—even sleep with it on, if they can—before and after matches. Athletes would be foolish not to embrace technology and innovation. But it’s an encapsulation of some of the tension surrounding performance enhancement.
• “ Your word is: Precedent.”
“Can I have the origin?”
“Not sure. And too lazy to took it up.”
“Can you use it in a sentence?”
“Lovely guy as he is, Michael Stich sets an interesting Hall of Fame precedent when he is enshrined in 2018 with one major title and no top ranking and many candidates on the current slate present more compelling credentials.”
The fan vote is still open. Have at it.
• If you enjoyed the Sports Illustrated coverage, you owe a debt of gratitude (and perhaps a follow) to Daniel Rapaport, a Naomi Osaka ascendant star of sports journalism.
FUN GEEKING OUT ON TENNIS WITH YOU GUYS. BACK TO THE REAL WORLD…