It was Media Day at the U.S. Open on Friday and all was smooth sailing until the 2021 U.S. Open champion accused me of making up a narrative.
Let’s back up a little bit. My name is Julia Elbaba and I’m a former professional tennis player and current reporter for NBC Sports. I know a thing or two about the daily grind players endure as a former DI player that attended the University of Virginia before going on to play on the WTA tour.
As expected, Media Day was a lot about Serena Williams’ legacy and what her presence has meant to the game as she competes in the last U.S. Open of her career. There was also a lot of speculation about the whereabouts of the legendary Roger Federer, which no one knew much about, unfortunately.
More than anything, there was just a lot of apparent excitement from players about playing in front of an electric, New York crowd.
Here are some of the players I got to speak with today ahead of the U.S. Open and some of my takeaways from these interviews:
No. 12 Coco Gauff
The 18-year-old American is bringing excitement and confidence to the U.S. Open.
Gauff recollected the amazing support she has gotten over the years even when her ranking was much worse.
“I remember even when I was playing qualies here when I was 14, obviously no one knew who I was, but I had so much crowd support on that match,'' she said. “I think people here just enjoy it.”
Gauff also shared an interesting nugget that when she was a little girl, she was Serena Williams’ stunt double for a Delta commercial.
“She doesn't know this, but the first money I ever made for myself was because of her doing a commercial,” she laughed.
Gauff said she always has looked up to Williams, especially when she was young, realizing that she was not different from everyone “because the No. 1 player in the world was somebody who looked like me.”
“I think that's the biggest thing that I can take from what I've learned from Serena,” Gauff said.
Gauff, who is set to face a qualifier in the first round, is also a new No. 1 in the world in doubles. She has been dominating the doubles field with fellow American Jessica Pegula.
No. 1 Iga Swiatek
The 21-year-old Pole started the year on fire, going on a 37-match winning streak and capturing the French Open, but since her loss in the third round of Wimbledon, she has been on a downward spiral.
The truth is, Swiatek’s game is the most impactful on the slow, clay courts and not as potent on the faster, low-bouncing courts seen at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. I would consider her to be a counter-puncher who knows how to use her forehand strike as a weapon.
Going into the U.S. Open, it’s apparent that Swiatek’s confidence is slightly shaken. She has made it known that she's irritated with the tournament’s balls, calling them “horrible” because they get “light and fluffy” as the match goes on.
“I don't like the balls,” Swiatek said on Friday. “I’m here to compete and play my best tennis. “Everyone has the same conditions so I’m trying to adjust.”
On a silly note, Swiatek said tennis legend Serena Williams still leaves her starstruck, but she is working up the courage to say hello to the GOAT before her window closes.
“I do plan to finally say hi,” Swiatek laughed.
Swiatek is set to face Italy’s Jasmine Paolini on Tuesday, Aug. 30.
No. 25 Elena Rybakina
When the 23-year-old from Kazakhstan walked through the press room doors on Friday, she looked bothered.
One of the first things the 2022 Wimbledon singles winner said was, “I don’t feel like a Wimbledon champion.”
She proceeded to say that winning Wimbledon was always her dream as a little girl but because she didn’t receive ranking points, she did not reap the true rewards of the victory. According to her calculations, she would have been ranked No. 2 in the world had she received points.
“I feel like I'm not a Wimbledon champion,” she said. “The point is, we cannot change, but … it's not fair. Many players are paying for these decisions.”
The 23-year-old of Kazakhstan also revealed she would be “receiving better treatment” if she was a top-10 player, pointing to playing No. 9 Garbine Muguruza on court 4 at the Western & Southern Open last week.
She finally cracked a smile when describing a tattoo her coach got of her name when she won the grass court Slam because of a bet they made.
“I already forgot [about the bet] – we were laughing around,” Rybakina says. “Before the final, he told me that he would do it. So, he did it. For me, it’s still crazy, I can’t believe it. But it is what it is. We had a bet.”
Throwing points aside, Rybakina has confidence coming into the U.S. Open. She is playing well and plays with aggression, suited for the U.S. Open quickness. I anticipate a solid result from her.
Rybakina will face a qualifier in the opening round of the U.S. Open.
No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas
The 24-year-old Greek did not look like he was preparing for a Grand Slam. He was so loose and cracked jokes most of the press conference.
He came in glaring with confidence, saying he has been “enjoying the last few days of training and is feeling like a real New Yorker.”
What does that mean? Tsitsipas said he has been roaming the Big Apple to find the best Greek food.
In terms of tennis, Tsitsipas is playing his best in a long time. His transition to the net has been exceptional, especially seen in his Western & Southern Open semifinal win against Russia’s Daniil Medvedev.
The biggest obstacle for the Greek will be staying level-headed throughout the event as his emotions typically get the best of him.
The U.S. Open announcing that players can be coached from the stands will work out particularly well for Tsitsipas. When asked about the rule change, he said, “Nothing is changing,” referring to the well-known fact that coaches often signaled their players despite the ban on it.
The only difference is that players don't have to worry about it, he insinuated.
Tsitsipas will play a qualifier in the first round of the U.S. Open.
No. 3 Rafael Nadal
It was hard to read how the 36-year-old Spaniard is feeling about the upcoming U.S. Open.
The latest from Nadal has not been ideal as he has been dealing with a lingering abdominal injury, causing him to withdraw from the Wimbledon semifinal. Additionally, he took an early exit at the Western & Southern Open.
"I hope to be ready for the action," Nadal said. "I have what I have. With the tools that I have today, I hope to be competitive enough to give myself a chance.”
Another positive nugget is that Nadal has been able to practice at max speed, including hitting his serve with full force. He also added that he has been playing two sets a day for the past five days to get match-tough.
The four-time U.S. Open champion is set to play Australia's Rinky Hijikata in the opening round.
No. 11 Emma Raducanu
The 19-year-old from England arguably has the most pressure headed into the U.S. Open this year.
After winning the tournament last year when she was ranked No. 150 and won 10 straight matches from qualifying, Raducanu has the tennis world wondering if it was just a lucky year for the Brit or if she could actually hang with the best of the game week to week.
Truthfully, the teenager hasn't seen too much success since last year’s Cinderella story, losing in the second round of each of the Grand Slams to follow.
When I asked her if she’s feeling any pressure heading into the tournament and winning the title again this year, she responded, “I think defending a title is just something that the press makes up.”
This response caught me off guard, but nonetheless, every player deals with pressure differently.
“I'm just taking it one match at a time. Every single player is very capable in this draw. I just focus on what I'm doing, my own trajectory,” she added.
A positive takeaway from the press conference was when she emphasized how strong the next generation of tennis is and how “anything can happen” at any given tournament.
While Raducanu is the player New York will have their eye on, I don’t see her defending her title. Not to say she won’t win the tournament again but just that she probably won’t this year.
Raducanu will face France’s Alize Cornet in the first round of the U.S. Open.
No. 1 Daniil Medvedev
The 26-year-old Russian has felt right at home at the U.S. Open for years. Even for reasons that are not so positive.
I will never forget in 2019 when Medvedev got booed after his win over Feliciano Lopez and said, “I love being here, love the energy, feel straight away at home in a way.”
In a moment of anger, Medvedev flipped his middle finger to the New York crowd, causing the chaotic commotion.
"The energy you giving me right now will be enough for the next five matches," he said on court afterwards. "The more you do this, the more I will win."
It’s funny, this is the first time I’ve interviewed Medvedev and he comes off way kinder than he does on TV with his on-court shenanigans.
He even said on Friday, “I do feel like when I interact with my fans, if they know little bit more of who I am in real life, they start to like me more,” and that does not surprise me one bit.
Medvedev won the 2021 U.S. Open and is looking to defend the title. His quest begins by facing American Stefan Kozlov in the first round.