At the U.S. Open, the Usual Suspects Are Expected to Rule

At the U.S. Open, the Usual Suspects Are Expected to Rule

The United States Open, which begins this week in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., may not resolve the succession issues that have affected both the men’s and women’s games. But it may provide some clarity in a year of mixed signals over who will dominate the next era of elite tennis.

Going into the previous major of the season, Wimbledon, the women’s game was defined by the uncertainty over Serena Williams’s ability to return to the top of the rankings after her maternity leave. In the men’s tournament, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were seeded No. 1 and No. 2, well past the point where their bodies, if not their tennis intellects, might have been expected to make them sentimental crowd favorites rather than competitive ones.

Williams ended up reaching the women’s final, outlasting a group of players who had spent the year jockeying to replace her as the definitive No. 1 in the women’s game, but ultimately lost to Angelique Kerber in the championship match. With the victory, Kerber continued her steady climb back to the 2016 form that won her two Grand Slam titles and another appearance in a final.

Nadal and Federer, meanwhile, succumbed to some attritional tennis: Nadal lost to the eventual champion, Novak Djokovic, in a semifinal that went to the 18th game of the fifth set, and Federer lost the 24th game of his fifth set against Kevin Andersen, having served for the match in the third set.

That men’s tournament at least suggested a certain recognizable narrative from tennis seasons past — once-invincible champions being carried out on their shields as time caught up with them. And with Djokovic winning the title, a cursory glance at the men’s game would suggest that the natural ascendancy of the Serb in the waning years of the Nadal-Federer era was back on track after the injuries that had derailed him. And while Kerber’s Wimbledon victory had further muddied the waters over who was a natural successor to Williams, it did at least bolster the narrative that she was part of one of the deepest women’s competitive fields in recent memory.

Yet the grip of the old guard on the public imagination remains strong. As the short grass-court swing has given way to the hardcourt lead-up to the U.S. Open, the speculation around the enigmatic form of Williams has grown louder, if anything, while the popular onus appears to be more on Djokovic to definitively consolidate his position than it is on Nadal and Federer to prove they still have what it takes.

Old Guard Still Dangerous

Federer has even been mischievous about the idea that the next generation may simply outlast him on the court. Competing in Cincinnati two weeks ago, he talked up the idea of more five-set matches on the ATP. Speaking with the Tennis Channel, Federer said that, “On the ATP Tour, we actually don’t have any best-of-five-set matches. They’re all at the Slams, Davis Cup and at the Olympics finals.” While saying he understood the reasons, to protect players from injury and fatigue, Federer called the lack of more five-set matches “a pity.”

If Federer’s commitment to a format that hardly favors veteran legs might seem surprising, Djokovic, for his part, appeared more eager to move out of an era exemplified by the titanic five-set struggle between Nadal and Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final. Asked about Federer’s proposals in his own Tennis Channel interview a day later, Djokovic responded by bluntly stating that “I would have even Grand Slams be best of three, to be honest.” Citing the attention span of “this new generation of tennis fans and millennials,” Djokovic suggested that shorter “dynamic” matches would be the future of the game.

Djokovic’s comments may partly have been informed by his own experience of tennis mortality over the past couple of years. Both he and the man once picked to consistently rival him, Andy Murray, have suffered from extended injury absences, and Murray hasn’t played a Grand Slam this year with continued hip problems. Djokovic’s Wimbledon triumph capped a return from an elbow injury, but also, as the champion detailed in an open letter on his website after the tournament, a return from more existential doubts about his future in the game.

“Injury was one of the issues, the other big one was any motivation,” Djokovic wrote. “I didn’t have problems to practice and to enjoy the tennis court but I had mental hurdles when I had to compete.” In an oddly introspective statement from a champion, Djokovic added: “I was vulnerable so many times in the last few years. And I am still vulnerable. I am not ashamed of it.”

Moments of doubt

Djokovic is not the only great player offering public bouts of introspection. When Williams reached the Wimbledon final, after securing a late discretionary seeding at the tournament, it appeared to have silenced most of the more feverish speculation about whether she could recover her form after her maternity leave. Yet as events of the subsequent weeks have added to the questions around her future, Williams, like Djokovic, has chosen to lean into rather than disguise her vulnerability.

Since losing the Wimbledon final, Williams has played only three competitive matches, losing two of them. After one, a career worst 6-1, 6-0 loss to the British No. 1 Johanna Konta, Williams posted an Instagram statement alluding to her postpartum struggles. In her next tournament, the Western & Southern Open, she fared little better, losing to Petra Kvitova in the second round. With the U.S. Open up next, and no momentum to speak of, Williams almost seemed relieved to remind reporters in Cincinnati that she was “definitely at the very, very beginning” of a “long comeback.”

Yet the profile of Williams means that there is little hope of rebuilding in anonymity, particularly amid the social environment of the U.S. Open, where she is a huge draw. And while she is past the point of being an overwhelming favorite, Williams’s fortunes will inflect the story of the tournament one way or another.

That could open up a route for other players. Kerber’s progress through the Wimbledon draw went relatively unremarked upon, for example, almost to the moment she fell to the ground in triumph at the end of the final. Yet given her form since changing coaches at the end of 2017, it should hardly have been a surprise that she was a contender.

Kerber’s win bookended a sequence of six different women winning the Grand Slams that followed her U.S. Open victory in 2016 — all of whom remain in contention for this year’s U.S. Open title.

The world No. 1 and French Open champion, Simona Halep, and the defending U.S. Open champion, Sloane Stephens, faced each other in the finals of the Rogers Cup in Montreal — adding to their rivalry. Like the Australian Open champion, Caroline Wozniacki, both are looking to build on breakthrough Grand Slam wins.

In a deep field, there is merit to the argument that nobody will dominate like Williams for the foreseeable future. But until Williams, Federer and Nadal are definitively dethroned, this remains their era and they remain the benchmark. Approaching the last major of 2018, the story is still that of the giants who have dominated the game for the last decade.

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