NEW YORK—Unless bagel sets and night-session blowouts are your thing, this won’t go down as a U.S. Open to remember. But its champions certainly will. Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal moved even higher on the historical totem pole, and partially redeemed the tournament with their final-round performances. Now it’s time to look back and see who else made, or failed to make, the grade over the two weeks at Flushing Meadows. As always, players don’t get failing marks for losing matches, and I don’t grade everyone. If you see noteworthy performers missing, feel free to write your own review in the comments below.
Rafa has had a lot of good months—his back-to-back titles at the French and Wimbledon in 2008 and 2010 are hard to top. But his late-summer run through the North American hard-court circuit may take the cake, because it came on his least-liked surface. The Montreal-Cincy-New York hat trick is a surprise—it hadn’t been done by anyone, least of all a clay lover, in 10 years—but it shouldn’t be a shock. Apart from his first-round loss at Wimbledon, Nadal has been dominant everywhere he’s played in 2013.
There was a lot of talk this month about how his hard-court game had changed, and he did show more aggression in the first set against Djokovic. After that, though, after Novak took flight in the second set, Rafa won it the old-fashioned way. He ran like mad, never went away mentally, kept the match close, and refused to yield at the championship-deciding moment, the end of the third set.
This was a big win for Rafa; he hadn’t won a Slam on something other than his beloved Parisian dirt in three years. Now, for the umpteenth time in his career, he has put an end to any suggestion that he’s a clay-court specialist. I thought before the final that if he won, and earned Slam 13, that he would eventually pass Federer’s current mark of 17. He won. A+
How do you know you’re a dominant player? When the biggest drama in your half of the sport is whether you’ll beat yourself or not. For a moment or two in the final, it looked like Serena might do herself in. Which is strange: As she’s aged, she’s become better, more consistent, and also more vulnerable. That a woman who was 16-4 in Grand Slam finals can still “get a little uptight,” as she put it, while trying to close out her 17th should make the rest of us feel better—nerves happen, to everyone. To me, though, the fact that she has those nerves, and can essentially command herself to ignore them when it really matters, makes her even more remarkable. Serena was once a tribute to the impervious confidence of youth. Now she’s a tribute to the doubts of age, and how they can still be overcome. A+
It was a Groundhog’s Day kind of Open for Vika. Just like last year, she struggled a bit through the two weeks. Just like last year, she raised her game before losing a three-set final to Serena Williams. And just like last year, she gave a first-rate loser’s press conference that ended with the funniest line of her career, about being inspired to root for Rafael Nadal after seeing him with his shirt off.
Does her loss in the final count as a progression or a regression? It’s hard to say. Last year, she got tight trying to close; this year she showed more toughness in coming back in the second set, but she squandered all of her momentum at the start of the third. Vika is the only player who can plausibly be called a rival for Serena at the moment. But with this loss, she’s 3-14 against her. A
Another fine result, another stinging disappointment. That’s how life goes when you’re No. 1, and that’s especially how it goes when you’ve had a season like Novak did in 2011. Anything other than brilliance and ultimate victory is seen as a sign of decline. At this point, though, Djokovic’s major-final defeats—he’s lost four of six since 2011—can be seen as a return to normalcy. He still has his untouchable runs, as he did in the second set of the final, but they don’t last as long as they did two years ago.
That just shows he’s human, which isn’t such a bad thing. And at Wimbledon and the Open, he was fighting uphill battles in the finals; both times he was coming off a more tiring semifinal than his opponent. Now he has to face the end of his two-year run at No. 1, which makes sense, because he's now lost six of seven to the man who will take his place, Nadal. We’ll see if that changes anything for Nole. One thing he hasn’t stopped doing is making himself a contender. To be a winner again, he may have to do what Nadal did two years ago: Wait for his rival to come down to earth again. Even Rafa would agree that it will happen to him sooner or later. A
The era of the late bloomer continues. The 28-year-old Wawrinka has always had the heavy artillery, but over these two weeks he deployed it more intelligently and confidently than he ever had before at a Grand Slam. His wins over the higher-ranked Tomas Berdych and Andy Murray were thoroughly convincing. Stan didn’t have to play above his head to beat the Wimbledon champion 4, 3, and 2; he just had to play a more consistent version of what we’ve always known he could do. He almost did it to Djokovic, too, but collapsed at the finish line. Up two sets to one, one set from the U.S. Open final, Wawrinka destroyed his racquet with a bizarre relish, and then walked off for a medical timeout. Obviously, he still has more to learn about handling big occasions. One thing I hope he never learns is how to play it cool after a crushing defeat. His emotional reaction after the Djokovic loss, and his blurted description of Nole—“He’s f---king strong”—was one of the tournament’s highlights.
Wawrinka made his first major semi at the Open. At the same time, his countryman Roger Federer failed to get that far at Flushing Meadows for the first time in 10 years. Is this a coincidence? Yes. Is it interesting? Yes. Are bigger things in store for Stan? I can't say no. A
She almost called it quits this year, then she made it farther than she ever had at a Grand Slam. I don't know if it will happen again, but it was nice to see one of the game’s coolest players on its biggest stage for a few minutes. A-
Big Richard, after all the head-shaking criticism over the years, is finally fulfilling some of the potential of his Little self. Beating David Ferrer in a fifth set in the quarters of the Open is step forward. The next one would be a Masters title. I don’t expect it, but now I won’t write off the possibility. Bottom Line: The more times I get to see that backhand down the line, the better. A-
A hothead in his 20s, he’s become something of a warrior in his 30s. His win over Lleyton Hewitt in five was one of the Open’s best matches and moments. B+
Her three-set loss to Victoria Azarenka was her most encouraging result in years. Yet I never believed she would win. Let’s see her play well against the women she’s supposed to beat. B+
The 17-year-old brought us a taste of that old Open night magic when she upset Sam Stosur. I like how she goes for her shots, and the purity of her timing on them. In case you’ve already forgotten her, don’t. B+
Is the Murray effect under way? Evans is a good personality who finally seems to be reaching his potential as a player. B+
The 23-year-old American showed that she can compete, if not quite play, with the best. And she’s not boring. B+
Li talked a good game about her newfound aggressiveness, she played well for most of the two weeks, and she was the only person who was able to make those cringe-inducing pre-match TV interviews in the tunnel even remotely tolerable. But her freeze job in the semis against Serena was the most disappointing performance of the tournament. B
Like Serena, he seems to get more anxious as he ages, though the macho Aussie would never let you know it from his body language. It was good to have him around, because he gave us the only two memorable men’s matches before the semifinals, a five-set win over Juan Martin del Potro and a five-set loss to Youzhny. Maybe it’s not better to burn out than it is to rust. B
The customary positives and negatives were on display. Sloane saved her best for a major again, and she showed how well she can hit and move in her first set against Serena. But in the end, the older American gave the younger a lesson, not so much in how to hit a tennis ball, but in competitive intensity and showing how much you love what you do. Hopefully Sloane noticed. B
Will she be a delight, or a frustration? The 21-year-old Italian’s embrace of the night session and win over Wozniacki made her look like an eminently watchable star in the making. Her error-strewn loss in the next round made it look as if she had learned the game at the Petra Kvitova School of Inconsistency. That may be the finest school of inconsistency there is, but its products aren’t easy to watch. B
He didn’t have it against Wawrinka, but he may have provided the most trenchant analysis of his future after that defeat. Murray said he doesn’t think he’s meant to win every Grand Slam he plays. Will he have to wait until Rafa gets injured again to win another? C+
No wonder Isner said he couldn’t wait to get out of New York. When he won, the crowd chanted for his French opponent; when he lost, he took an already-supportive audience and wasted precious energy trying to rev them up some more. Isner may have been happy to get back to “God’s country,” as he called the South, but losing one round before getting a chance to play Nadal, in Ashe, on Labor Day, wasn’t how he wanted an otherwise very good summer to end. Three-of-five is still his Rubicon. Or, in this case, his Mason-Dixon. C
U.S. Open fans like charisma and guts, wherever they may come from. Monfils has a lot of one of those things. He put on his usual perversely fabulous show against John Isner, and as usual, left tennis fans from every country bummed that it had to end so soon. C
We’ve wondered for years if he was losing a step. In his loss to Tommy Robredo, it appeared that, for the first time, he didn’t know which steps to take. C
Carla Suarez Navarro
I know she stood no chance against Serena, but she never gave the crowd a sign that she was bothered by losing 0 and 0. C-
U.S. Open Trophy Ceremony
Believe it or not, you don't have to mention the money in these things—none of the other majors do. The prize money may sound rich, but trumpeting it only cheapens the moment. The more I hear about the multiple millions the winners make, the worse I feel about being a tennis fan. F