NEW YORK—Two excellent finals can cover up a lot of sins, can’t they? The U.S. Open should thank Serena, Vika, Andy, and Novak for making our last memories of another often-frustrating edition of the tournament such positive ones.
Those matches also showcased two slow-moving and opposing trends on the tours. The women, in the form of Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Maria Sharapova, who split this year's Grand Slams between them, really do have a “new order” at the top as they close out 2012. At the same time, the men’s elite got a little bit broader over the course of the year. Andy Murray’s first major win made the Big 4, each of whom took home a slice of the Slam piece this season, a reality at last.
Starting with our finalists, it’s time, after two weeks and a day, for a roll call of the Open’s top performers.
Murray’s road to the top was longer than most tennis champions'. It took him seven years and five Grand Slam finals to make it, but in retrospect that shouldn’t be too surprising. Murray, even in the way he plays points, thinks long term and goes about his business methodically; he’s learned to live without the quick strike. After years of being told he needed to change his game and his attitude to win the big one, to hit his forehand bigger and stop telling himself off on court, he went out and did it his way. In the Open final, he won the way he has always won, by running, defending, slicing, passing, lobbing, counterpunching, and above all undermining his opponent. And he did it while screaming at his own legs for turning, in his words, to “Jelly!”
Maybe the best thing about Murray’s legitimizing Grand Slam win is that now we can appreciate his game for what it is, rather than criticizing it for what it isn’t—for the moment, at least, what we thought were his liabilities look like strengths. In spite of his many doubters, Murray believed in his game and believed in himself. The fact that it took him a while isn’t a sign that he was doing it wrong in the past; it’s a testament to his dedication to doing it the only way he knew how. Tennis is better, and more interesting, for it. A+
It seems like a very long time ago that Serena first won the Open, in 1999, as a beaded 17-year-old, doesn’t it? She’s had more than her share of ups and downs, as well as hairstyles, since. But 13 years later, at 30, we may have seen the very best Serena of all. A cut above the competition in her first six matches, she played with a mix of aggression and consistency that she could only have dreamed about when she was younger. Then, in the final, she looked human again. A human named Serena Williams, that is; that’s a little different. The rest of us doubt ourselves and fear success enough to tighten up when it stares us in the face. Serena, who said before the final that, “I always think I’m the best, obviously,” goes in the other direction. What makes you believe, deep down, that you should beat every woman on earth at tennis? When you can miss until 3-5 in the final set of the U.S. Open, and then stop missing. And this won't be the last time she'll do that. Serena sounds, after 13 years and 15 majors, as if she’s just getting started. A+
Bob and Mike Bryan
Speaking of 30-somethings who are going to be around for a while, the bros won their 12th major title, tying them with John Newcombe and Tony Roche atop the all-time men’s doubles list—pretty decent company. But what I’ll remember more is Bob’s stint as Kim Clijsters’ mixed-doubles partner in her final tournament, and final match. When it was over, Bob told Kim and the crowd that he “loved her,” that “she’s a legend,” and that he “felt horrible” that he had played so poorly with her. At a time when the men criticize their female colleagues for getting paid the way they do, it was refreshing to see an ATP player give a warm embrace—as well as chest-bump—to a fellow worker on the WTA side. A+
Millions of people in the U.S. tuned into CBS at 7 P.M. on Sunday expecting to see an interview with one of the men who killed Osama Bin Laden. Instead, they watched Victoria Azarenka lose a lead to Serena Williams, and then win the crowd with her words. Here’s hoping that a few of those millions around the country listened through the woooo and were won over as well. Despite the bitter end to the final, Azarenka had a great tournament on court and off. She beat Sam Stosur in what might have been the best match of the two weeks; she held off her rival Maria Sharapova in the semis; and she capped it with the most thoughtful press conference anyone could ever hope to get from a player who has just lost. There’s more to Vika—more feeling and friendliness—than meets the ear. A
He was mostly excellent, as he has been all year. It may feel like a letdown after 2011, but Djokovic had the best Grand Slam season of any male player: a title, two finals, and a semifinal. He fought well yesterday, on a night when the conditions didn’t favor him. Watching him lunge for balls in the wind in the first set, I thought that it was going to be tough sledding for Novak against a much more settled Murray, and it obviously was. So credit him for doing the sledding even when he fell behind.
The problem was how he fell so far behind. As I wrote yesterday in my Racquet Reaction on the final, Djokovic got away with bouts of frustration and negativity at the Australian Open—he chucked away a few games here and there but still came back to win. This time his nosedive at the start of the second set, which was caused by the conditions and his close tiebreaker loss, proved fatal. He went down two breaks and fought for the rest of the night to recover, but the hole was too deep. A
At first, his retirement seemed too abrupt—all done, all of a sudden, at 30? But it worked out well. He got to have his farewell run, but he didn’t milk for it for months. Most of all, it was nice to see him have, as he called it, a blast playing tennis again. That was the Andy I had missed. And will miss again. A
Kim’s year-long swansong had its bumps and disappointments, but I loved how she walked away at the Open with low-key words and an honest smile, rather than anything self-dramatizing. There are bigger stars in the sport, but few have ever been as liked and loved by their peers the way Kim was. That says it all. A
For making her own way to NYC and winning the girls’ doubles despite all of the distractions. Let’s hope the lack of USTA support for its most promising junior only motivates her more. A
Dude strolls into Ashe three years after his last appearance, speaks for 10 minutes, and in that time gives us the best and most poetic description imaginable of what a U.S. Open crowd sounds like: “a jet engine and a giant heartbeat.” Jealous. A
The DJ in Arthur Ashe Stadium
From the shamefully irresistible “Call Me Maybe” to Roy Orbison’s eternal “Pretty Woman,” this was a good year for music in Ashe. No other Slam spins tunes between games, which was once thought to be an outright blasphemy, even by Andre Agassi. But then again no other tournament has, at the end of a five-hour men’s final, 20,000 Americans standing and dancing to the music as a British player gets ready to serve for the country’s first Grand Slam in 76 years. It was a fabulous final scene to be part of, and it was nice to know the Open doesn’t always get it wrong. A