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Denis Shapovalov, Petra Kvitova and Juan Martin del Potro had memorable fortnights in New York. (AP)

This was the wide-open Open. With Serena, Novak, Stan, Andy and Kei—all recent finalists at Flushing Meadows—watching from afar, we braced for the unexpected, and we got it. A pair of Grand Slam final rookies on the women’s side; a brand new pair of young guns on the men’s side; and the tournament’s most surprising male finalist of the Open era. 

Will we eventually come to see the 2017 US Open as the moment when pro tennis’ long-delayed future finally turned into its present? For now, here’s a look at five moments that defined the last two weeks, which were filled with emotional comebacks and encouraging arrivals.

*****

A Chapeau for Shapo

The bottom half of the men’s draw was so starved for stars that Open officials had no choice but to give an early, coveted night-session spot to an 18-year-old Canadian qualifier with a name few American fans could pronounce. Was it too soon for Denis Shapovalov, who was a virtual unknown as of July, to make his prime-time debut against a  solid veteran like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga? Not a chance. Shapovalov broke Tsonga at love in the opening game and only got better from there. The boy with the baseball cap and the hockey hair leaped and lunged at the ball, raced forward and knocked off volleys, and looked to create excitement during points and after them. By the end of the first set, New York had a new late-night favorite. For the roughly two hours that Shapovalov was on the court, the sport, which has become a thirtysomething’s game in recent years, felt young again.

“I’m playing incredible tennis,” Shapovalov said afterward with a wave at the audience. 

He was back in Ashe for his next two matches, one of which he won and one of which he lost. By the time he was through, Shapovalov was the first 18-year-old to reach the fourth round at the Open since 1989. His run, along with 19-year-old Andrey Rublev’s to the quarterfinals, expanded the ATP’s class of Next Genners, and also overturned it. Before the tournament, the kids to watch were Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios; by the end of the first week they were long gone, and we were happy to watch Shapovalov and Rublev graduate to the big time.

*****

A Reluctant Hero’s Welcome Return

“It feels great!’ Petra Kvitova practically shouted on the set of ESPN when she was asked what it was like to hit her rocket forehand for winners again. For many fans, those were three of the happiest words they heard all tournament. Kvitova’s straight-set win over pre-event favorite Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round was the latest, largest step toward normalcy—and excellence—that the Czech had taken since she was attacked in her home nine months ago. For the first time in her comeback, we were reminded of the raw force, and even rawer emotion, that she can bring to the court.

“I didn’t know where this journey would end,” Kvitova said after that win. 

While Kvitova’s journey would end in the next round, it lasted long enough to give us one of the matches of the tournament, a tug-of-war quarterfinal loss to Venus Williams in a third-set tiebreaker. Kvitova was grateful to have her game and her touch back, overjoyed to be on the “big stage” and moved by the response from the crowd there. But what’s also nice about Kvitova is that she doesn’t milk the moment or try to dramatize her comeback. She’s a tennis player first, and she shies away from the hero label. That honesty and modesty only make her more appealing and relatable. 

Still, Kvitova couldn’t hide her excitement entirely.

“I do feel a little bit [pumped up], of course,” she said before her match with Venus. Us too, Petra.

*****

The Dud That Became an Epic

This Open wasn’t a good year for competitive finals, but it was a good year for competitive matches overall: Venus-Kvitova, Sloane-Venus, Federer-Youzhny, Del Potro-Federer, Anderson-Querrey, Monfils-Young, Vandeweghe-Radwanska, Keys-Svitolina, Sharapova-Halep, Sevastova-Sharapova, Sloane-Sevastova, Kanepi-Osaka, Coric-Zverev and Pliskova-Zhang were all dramatic and well-played. Also hidden away on a side court, destined only to be remembered by the record books and by those who actually played it and saw it, was the longest women’s match in US Open history, between Shelby Rogers and Daria Gavrilova.

Most epic of all was a contest that appeared at first to be an epic dud: Juan Martin del Potro’s 1-6, 2-6, 6-1, 7-6 (1), 6-4 win over Dominic Thiem in the fourth round not only had the year’s best scoreline, but featured the tournament’s most death-defying high-wire act of a comeback by the winner. Delpo, in another of this Open’s returns to glory, showed us again why he’s a star.

In 2016, the Argentine and the Austrian had also met in the fourth round; the match, in which Thiem was forced to retire, had been played in Ashe. This year it was squeezed into the Grandstand, and the smaller venue made all the difference. Around the grounds, and even inside Ashe Stadium, you could hear the songs and chants of “Olé” rising out of that jammed arena. When a flu-ridden Delpo trudged listlessly through the first two sets, the fans stayed and tried to will him into it. As it does on occasion, Flushing Meadows had turned into Little Buenos Aires.

“It was very important,” Delpo said of the support, “because I was trying to retire the match in the second set. Then I saw the crowd waiting for more tennis, waiting for my good forehands, good serves. I took all that energy to change in a good way and think about fight and not retire.”

Del Potro, like a tank slowly turning and sighting its target, brought all that energy to bear on Thiem—and the ball. The two men threw haymakers at each other for the last two sets, with each punch landed drawing a roar louder than the last. Thiem, fighting Delpo and the fans, grew increasingly desperate under the strain. Always a contortionist on court, he tried to swing harder and leap higher than ever. He reached double match point, but Delpo—the heavyweight to Thiem’s middleweight—wiped them both away with aces. From there, Thiem was fighting an even more uphill battle, but even he could appreciate the moment.

“It was a great atmosphere,” Thiem said. “I mean, we’re not playing every day in an atmosphere like this. I was enjoying it, actually.”

Del Potro, more than other players, invites the crowd into his matches and invites fans to join his side. This time they carried him farther than they ever had before.

*****

The Sloane Show

The shot of the tournament was also the shot of Sloane Stephens’ career: a backhand pass, at 4-5 in the third set, that she plucked from thin air and sent lasering down the line past an outstretched Venus Williams at the net. Stephens, normally reticent on court, let loose with a fist pump and a “Come on!” Somehow she seemed to have been freed to compete in a way that she never had before, and her game was freed as well. 

From there, Sloane played the best three games of her career, winning one point after the next with stunning displays of speed, defense and shot-making. Through most of the third set against Venus—the best set of the tournament—I had assumed that Venus would outfight Sloane in the end. Instead, the opposite happened, and a new tennis star had appeared out of the New York night sky.

That wasn’t the only moment I’ll remember from Stephens’ first Slam-winning run. If it was her talent and her fight that pushed her past Venus, it was her smarts that got her to the semifinals in the first place. Down a break to Anastasija Sevastova in the quarters, Sloane forced a third-set tiebreaker. She went on the offensive in the breaker and ran Sevastova all over the court, but it didn’t work; Sevastova, a counterpuncher like Sloane, was happy to defend. So, with the score knotted at 3-3, Stephens changed tactics and took a step back. Forced to go on the attack, and go against her instincts, Sevastova missed. 

In the final, we saw what kind of star Sloane will be. She played another intelligent, perfectly measured match. She hugged her friend, Madison Keys, who she had just beaten, and made her laugh on the sidelines. And in her final act of the night, she played comedian. Stephens cracked up the crowd with her wide-eyed reaction to her winner’s check, and later she trotted out her many Sloanisms— “Like, how insane is this?” “Hel-loooo, this is awesome,” “I was, like, literally looking at car reviews last night,” “Shut the front door!”—in front of an appreciative press corps.

Tennis has a new star, a new American star and a new African-American star. With that backhand pass in the semis, the 24-year-old Sloane may have grabbed a torch from the 37-year-old Venus. Someday Stephens might pass that torch to CoCo Gauff, a 13-year-old African-American who reached the girls’ final. 

When Venus made her Open debut in 1997 and went all the way to the final, she was called a “party crasher.” Twenty years later, African-Americans are no longer the outliers in U.S. women’s tennis; they’re the tradition.

*****

Sweet 16

Rafael Nadal wasn’t my last choice to win the Open, exactly, but he certainly wasn’t my first. It’s hard to remember now, but he came to New York after two troubling losses, to Shapovalov in Montreal and Nick Kyrgios in Cincinnati. A good draw at the Open helped; Rafa didn’t face anyone in the Top 20. So did a couple of early tests, against Taro Daniel and Leonardo Mayer, where he was forced to stay patient and hit a lot of balls. After that, his champion’s muscle memory kicked in; the Open is, in an under-the-radar way, one of his favorite tournaments.

The moment I’ll remember most from Rafa’s third title here is a small one. He had a break point early in the first set against Kevin Anderson in the final. Anderson missed his first serve and spun a second ball into Nadal’s forehand. Longtime Rafa watchers know that this can mean trouble; if there’s a shot he’ll get nervous on, it’s the second-serve forehand return on break point. Sure enough, he hit it long. But rather than shake his head or put his hands over his face or show any frustration whatsoever, Nadal just walked to the deuce side of the court and went back to work. It took a few more games, but he eventually broke Anderson. 

For me, that moment of non-frustration defined Nadal’s 16th major title. Surface-wise, this one was a long time coming; the last Slam he had won outside of Roland Garros was the 2013 US Open. Since then, he had lost a lot of five-setters at majors, and a couple of tough-to-swallow finals in Australia. But he never stopped vowing, against odds that grew longer every year, to find a solution. Now he has. Afterward, when he was asked how he stayed so calm in the final, Rafa described his mental approach in a way that I had never heard before.

“I was not calm, no?” he said. “I was nervous, but all the body language that is not in a positive way is stupid to make it, because it’s going against you, no?

“Is one of the things that I tried to do all my life, that the body language helps me, not go against me, no? Because it’s one of the things that depends just on me, not on the opponent, no? Was not the day to have negative body language. Completely the opposite. Just to accept all the moments.”

That philosophy should be taught to every young player, and remembered by every older one.

It’s a philosophy that also ties Nadal to his friend and rival, Roger Federer. After failing to win any Slams for two years, the two legends monopolized them in 2017. While Federer may show more negative body language than Rafa, what they share is a willingness to put themselves on the line every time they take the court. They never phone it in, never exaggerate an injury, never tank, never act like they don’t care or that a certain match doesn’t matter and never pull the ripcord if they fall behind. Federer and Nadal are always willing to accept the psychological consequences of defeat, and that’s what helps them win so much.

“I think we had the spirit of improvement all the time,” Nadal said when asked what he has in common with Federer. “Passion for what we are doing, and we have been hard workers in general terms.

“We have been there almost every week for a lot of years. That’s difficult to make happen.”

I wrote this in my Wimbledon wrap-up two months ago, and I’ll write it again now. Seven years ago, after Wimbledon in 2010, Federer had 16 majors and Nadal had eight. I predicted that Federer would finish with 19 and Nadal would finish with 16. For a long time, I thought I had set the bar too high. Now it’s clear that I underestimated them. I’m happy I did.


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