This attests to the degree-of-difficulty offered by the Series, but in a not-entirely-satisfying way. I can sum up the problem in two words: Mardy Fish. As good a player as he was, Fish won the U.S. Open series in 2011, and you know who won the U.S. Open that year. The same guy who, up to that point, had won nearly everything else he took a whack at, Novak Djokovic.
The problem for the U.S. Open series is simple: You can do awfully well by merely showing up. Sam Querrey has won the Series, as have Elena Dementieva, Dinara Safina, Caroline Wozniacki, and Andy Roddick. Among them, only Roddick is a Grand Slam champion.
Furthermore, American men have won four of the 10 editions of this challenge, which paints an unrealistically rosy picture of the U.S. game. Meanwhile, only two American women have finished atop the standings. That tells you how much more support WTA players from outside the U.S. lend to the hard-court segment.
There’s nothing wrong with sweetening the pot for players at U.S. tournaments and having Americans walk off with a large share of the dough; it’s just marketing, and a valiant effort to create enthusiasm for the game at home. But the approach seems destined to yield a series of sufferings at a time when the elite players are earning enormous amounts and the demands of the game are such, or perceived as such, that the best pros would rather cut back than add tournaments to a schedule.
Oddly, Nadal has kept us from fully comprehending this trend because of his year-in, year-out loyalty to the spring Euroclay circuit. Once Nadal loses that enthusiasm, we’ll see what we really have—a top tour of about a dozen events: The Grand Slams and the big events the elite players are obligated to enter. Those top players will make periodic visits to the lesser events—the ATP 500s and 250s, and WTA Internationals—but mostly to pick up some extra cash or scramble for ranking points.
Take the case of Djokovic, who is probably more representative than Nadal of where the game is going. Djokovic played nothing before the 2013 Australian Open, yet he won the event. He did play all three Masters 1000s on red clay in Europe, but nothing before Wimbledon (where he lost the final to Andy Murray). Djokovic also played the two hard-court Masters in North America preceding the U.S. Open, where he was beaten by Nadal in the final. In other words, Djokovic played no tune-up events before the majors that weren’t mandatory.
Federer is another interesting example. He’s free from the constraints of mandatory Masters participation due to his record and age. That same year (2013), Federer played just three Masters tune-ups, skipping Monte Carlo and even Canada. He did, however, take part in Halle, a grass-court ATP 250, which sheds light on his priorities.
The Euroclay circuit is Nadal’s personal playground, but the emerging trend is clear: The top players feel that when it comes to tune-up events, less is more. And that’s bad news for an entity like the U.S. Open Series, even if its other laudable goals of the series—a coherent television package, increased participation—remain worthwhile.