Some quick thoughts on this year’s action from Flushing Meadows:
Americans on the march – At this time last year I reported heartening statistics re the presence of American players in the US Open draw. In 2016 we had 22 entries on the women’s side and 16 for the men; overall, this year’s numbers are an improvement, all of it coming from the men, who placed 19 in the tournament’s first round. The combined 40 US players (women dropped one to 21 this year) in draws of 128 represents about the highest percentage that could be hoped for given the sport’s global reach.
But while having more shots on goal is itself worth mentioning, sending more players not named Williams deep into a Grand Slam’s second week is what American tennis boosters really want to see. On that score, the heavy lifting is still being done by American women, who may have four of their countrywomen in the quarter finals at the day’s end (I’m filing this 3pm Labor Day). Importantly, although one of those women is indeed a Williams – improbably, 37-year-old Venus, who could come within a whisker of finishing the year #1 – the trio of talent that joined her in the round of 16 represent the long-expected arrival of the next generation of elite American ladies: Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, and CoCo Vandeweghe. Throw in Jennifer Brady (round of sixteen loser to top seed Karolina Pliskova), and you have a very impressive front line of Yankees all with legitimate top five potential. (DE note: regrettably, our home state star Madison Brengle went down in the first round this year.)
The men’s game is still a work in progress, but progress it has: last year Jack Sock was the lone American alive in the round of sixteen, this year Sam Querrey has already advanced to the quarters in an injury depleted-bottom half of the draw.
More importantly, promising teenage or early 20s players like Tommy Paul (five set first round loss), Frances Tiafoe (five set first round loss to Roger Federer), Taylor Fritz (second round) and Jared Donaldson (second round five set loss) emote a bit more positive mojo than some of their American elders like John Isner, Sock and Steve Johnson, god love em. Plus there are other new names like Fratangelo and Escobedo and Aragone and King, etc etc. All a good sign.
A Summer Star is Born – A ridiculous media bandwagon has gathered around the emergence of Denis Shapovalov in the last month, who emerged, Zenith like, on his home court in Montreal, beating the tar out of Rafael Nadal in the Rogers Cup semis and stealing the It Boy summer thunder from the previously white hot, 20-year old German Alexander “Sascha” Zverev in the process. The kid is athletic, exciting, and immensely fun to watch, filled with a kind of fire that recalls a better-behaved Connors or McEnroe. He’s got an undeniable combination of talent and charisma, and like Zverev the younger, he seems to relish his time on court and center stage. Shapovalov won’t be in the quarters – he lost last night in three tight sets – but he’ll be back and tennis executives expect helping them sell tickets as the sport’s legendary elder statesman begin their march toward retirement. (*No sooner had our friend Mike Steinberger penned a superb piece in the New York Times Magazine about the growing (ahem) importance of height in the sport, then along comes young Denis, no slouch at six feet but by no means a giant. Hope yet for the kind of tall?)
Noise – A Way of Life in Queens – Try as they might, it seems the poor USTA just can’t get Center Court right. All of us of a certain age remember the absurd, confounding – and so Big Apple – din of the original Louis Armstrong stadium, a veritable cradle of cacophony, capturing and amplifying the roar of jet planes taking off from nearby LaGuardia Airport. It is hard to believe the tournament lived with that nonsense for so long.
From the point of view of the television viewer, the move to the gargantuan new Arthur Ashe stadium twenty years ago wasn’t a disaster. The live experience is a totally different story in that colossus, however, where visibility really stinks anywhere north of the two-tiered corporate suites. But watching the matches with the new roof closed has the aura of the NCAA Final Four basketball games when they are playing in a massive domed arena – it feels and sounds off, echo-y, drafty – hard to audibly detect the nuanced court noises that become second nature to rabid tennis TV viewers and inform one’s perception of play. And the main, back-court camera seems perched too high. But I complain.
A Super Race of Tennis People? – Listening to bios of so many of these players, you can’t help but be struck by the amount of today’s professionals who are children of really elite athletes. I don’t have any data to back it up, but more and more top players seem to be products of parents who were either accomplished tennis players themselves or exceled in other sports. Whether nurture or nature or some combination thereof, you just don’t see a lot of guys like the McEnroes who have a pudgy lawyer-father courtside looking like they haven’t hit a gym since college.
Teen with Local Ties Advances in Juniors – When my son was about eleven, he played a younger boy who simply took him – and every subsequent kid in the tournament – to pieces. It was quick, efficient work, and family memory can’t quite recall if there might have been something close to a golden set in the results. Clearly the youngster had serious gifts – national talent, of a level that would quickly outpace what competition this region could offer.
It wasn’t long before that young man, Alexandre Rotsaert, did in fact leave the area, decamping to California and then Florida as he continued to hone his world-class game. Yesterday Rotsaert won his first round in the US Open Juniors. The 17-year-old has committed to playing at Stanford next year.