“Opportunity” had to be the single most used (and perhaps overused) word of this year’s US Open. And certainly no one is to blame for doing so considering what took place in New York, even before the tournament started. Ultimately, while the men’s and women’s singles finals proved anti-climatic, the respective champions earned satisfying and well-deserved wins, even if one was a complete surprise and the other, though not a surprise, added yet another impressive chapter in a legendary career.
For the women, with Serena Williams absent, though she did give birth in Florida to her baby girl during the week, it once again left a Grand Slam women’s event up for grabs – along with the No. 1 ranking. Another wide open major for the women was nothing new. Except this one would include a very familiar face returning from her own absence.
The draw kicked off with a bang when Maria Sharapova faced off against Simona Halep in the first round. The match lived up to its early hype as Sharapova upset Halep (though she had never lost to her in six previous meetings). While some applauded Sharapova’s victory and stated that it was time to finally accept her back on the tour after her previous 15-month suspension for a doping offense, others still remained wary and unhappy that the tournament gave her a wildcard to begin with.
But when several big names lost early, including when Naomi Osaka easily dismissed defending champion Angelique Kerber in about an hour, tournament organizers had to feel vindicated on letting Sharapova in.
Sharapova fought her way into the fourth round before her slew of errors caused by just being rusty from lack of match play finally caught up to her. Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova beat her in three sets and then, that’s when the women’s event truly began.
For a moment, Petra Kvitova looked like the woman to beat when she defeated recent Wimbledon champ Garbine Muguruza. But then Kvitova lost in the next round to the eternal Venus Williams in a three set thriller that was easily the best match of the women’s event. CoCo Vandeweghe knocked out top seed Karolina Pliskova (that result allowed Muguruza to rise to No. 1). In the end, it was four American women who were left in the semifinals – Venus, Vandeweghe, Madison Keys, and Sloane Stephens; the first time such a thing had happened at the US Open since 1981.
The two “comeback kids” though – Keys and Stephens would end up in the final – their first ever major final at that. An improbable result if one predicted it a few months ago with both coming back from injuries. But it was Stephens, with her newfound confidence and mixture of defense to offense, who handled the big occasion better than her friend Keys.
Stephens claimed the women’s title and then later comforted her friend Keys in an extended mid-court embrace that proved the most poignant moment of their rather one-sided match.
Stephens, with her mega-watt smile and energetic personality, is poised to become an even bigger star – even outside of tennis especially in her home country. While it’s not correct to say that a torch was passed from the 30+ Williams Sisters to the next generation, it’s probably better to say that U.S. women’s tennis is in great hands when the Williams Sisters finally do exit the sport.
Opportunity is not something often found in a men’s draw at a major. Usually it’s the “big five” who create opportunity for themselves as they fight each other for the title. But this year in New York, opportunity presented itself to the many.
When last year’s winner Stan Wawrinka and last year’s finalist Novak Djokovic withdrew, the window of opportunity opened. Then it got smashed wide open when Andy Murray withdrew at the very last minute – even though the draw had already been made. With the reshuffling – that did not put friendly rivals World No. 1 Rafael Nadal and Wimbledon winner Roger Federer in opposite halves – the draw sheet became one of the “A” list and the “B” list.
The “A” list featured Nadal, Federer, and Juan Martin Del Potro who ended up becoming a huge factor in the event. The “B” list featured several veterans and rising newcomers all vying for their first ever major final. Young Canadian Denis Shapovalov delighted the New York crowd before he ran up against Pablo Carenno Busta of Spain. Shapovalov certainly has huge star potential, but he’ll have to wait till next year to make perhaps a real deep run at a major.
Del Potro, feeling sick earlier in his fourth round match, somehow pulled out a comeback five set win over Dominic Thiem that proved the most enthralling match on the men’s side. Del Potro then defeated a patchy Federer in the quarterfinals. Federer, who had struggled with his form all event, later admitted he wasn’t really 100% ready to play in New York. Thus, instead of the long awaited first-time meeting between Nadal and Federer in New York, instead it was Nadal against Del Potro.
Nadal won in four sets to reach the final, but the lost chance for him to face Federer signaled the end of the men’s event that, for many, already felt like a bust.
Nadal ultimately faced off against big serving Kevin Anderson. The veteran South African, just after reaching the men’s final, acknowledged the achievements of the “big five” but also thanked them for giving players like himself, at least for this event, to finally have a shot at a major title.
Anderson’s major debut ended in disappointment though as Nadal proved too good, breezing to a straight sets win for his 16th major title. Despite all the turmoil in the draw, Nadal proved to be the man to beat all along.
Nadal and Federer now find themselves splitting all four majors between them with the battle for No. 1 still ongoing as they head over to Asia. But many are hoping that Djokovic, Murray, and Wawrinka along with a resurgent Del Potro perhaps will not only come back next year and challenge those two, but add some order to match the instability of late happening this year’s in the men’s tour.
And that’s been the trade-off on both tours this season. Because of injuries and personal events, many of the biggest names, who are part of the biggest rivalries, have not been a factor at several of the majors this year. Instead in its place has been the exciting, if not always ultimately satisfying unknown, of not being sure who will take home the sport’s biggest prize.
This year’s US Open, aside from a few memorable matches, as a whole was not that memorable. Established rivalries build interest. Yet, especially on the women’s side, just having four “locals” in the final four was all needed to boost television ratings to new heights. But television networks (who pay the bills after all) and ticket holders (who buy tickets well in advance in hopes of seeing their favorite players) are probably not as fond of leaving things up to, literally, the luck of the draw. As with anything related to change, some find it refreshing, others not so much. But we’ll have to wait until 2018 to see if opportunity for all, or just opportunity for the very best, continues at the majors.