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The Break: Who is beer girl?

Hi Steve,

It’s Labor Day weekend of the US Open, the exciting transitional period when the competition starts to come into sharp focus. And this year, there are a couple of reasons why that’s all hitting me with exceptional force.

For starters, this is the first time I’ve been to New York in three years. After covering the tournament from afar in 2020 and 2021, it was striking to arrive on the grounds and connect face-to-face with players, coaches, friends and others that comprise the traveling tennis circus. Seeing that big Unisphere triggered feelings of gratitude and one of my favorite poems, T.S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton”—At the still point of the turning world . . . there the dance is.”

Second, the dance this year is quite lively. We’ve been talking about generational transition for a while, but at this year’s US Open, with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer absent, with Venus Williams losing in the first round, with Serena Williams exiting Friday night, we are indeed witnessing the dawn of a new tennis era. It’s fantastic to see the continued blossoming of various contenders. Carlos Alcaraz and Coco Gauff are only the headliners, but there are many others coming soon.

Steve, what are your preliminary big picture thoughts on this year’s US Open?

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Hi Joel,

I live in New York, so I was here last year, when there was a giddy sort of post-Covid vibe—more hopeful than real—around the grounds. This year, my first thought was that the USTA’s decade-long project to modernize the site has finally come to fruition. My second thought is that, unlike Opens past, I had nothing to complain about. There are thousands of people, but it doesn’t feel overcrowded. There are lines, but they move. The food is expensive, but good. There’s no lack of restrooms, and fairly easy access to practice courts. The crowds are enthusiastic, but not as unruly as they once were. It’s a bigger event than ever, but it runs more smoothly.

The Open used to reflect New York’s rough edges; now it reflects the way the city has become an island of wealth. When you enter the grounds, you enter a clean, pricey, well-dressed, rat-free world unto its own. Judging from the starry-eyed way that so many fans enter the grounds, they like being there.

As for the tournament, I’ve been wondering whether the ATP is really going to make a generational transition, or whether there’s going to be a free-for-all first. We had first-time Slam finalists at Roland Garros (Casper Ruud) and Wimbledon (Nick Kyrgios). We had random champions in Montreal (Pablo Carreño Busta) and Cincinnati (Borna Coric). Alcaraz and world No. 1 Daniil Medvedev haven’t been as good as advertised lately. We’ll see what happens the rest of the way here; but form seems to be holding so far.

Joel, the first week was obviously dominated by Serena. Was there anything else that caught your eye, or surprised you, or that she overshadowed?

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Pictured here before the tournament, Auger-Aliassime was one of the players who drew a crowd–in the bleachers and in the tunnel—on the practice courts.

Pictured here before the tournament, Auger-Aliassime was one of the players who drew a crowd–in the bleachers and in the tunnel—on the practice courts.

Steve,

Per your thoughts on the ATP, it’s hard to imagine someone stepping up right now and beginning to win two or three Slams a year the way Federer did, starting in 2004.

As far as first-week storylines go, I was struck anew by the sheer grandeur of this event. It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve gone this long without attending a major. So as the tournament got underway, it was bracing to once again take in dramas that might appear minor in the scheme of the things, but in the moment were darn compelling. I’m thinking about Tim van Rijthoven’s first-round comeback from seven match points down; Brandon Holt’s Day 1 upset over 10th-seeded Taylor Fritz; qualifier Daria Snigur beating Simona Halep; Aryna Sabalenka’s dramatic battle with the perpetually dangerous Kaia Kanepi. If you took all the emotion contained in just those four matches and turned it into fuel, you could launch a spaceship.

We who cover the game naturally pay attention to the way the competitive process funnels down the draw to the grand conclusion. But along the way, there are always battles that greatly engage fans and create everlasting memories. As an example, I’ll always remember the first time I attended the US Open back in 1978, and witnessed a fine four-setter between Vitas Gerulaitis and Bob Lutz.

So now, as the tournament rounds the corner, what players do you have your eyes on, Steve?

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Holt had hit with Fritz many times before their first-round encounter, but probably never as well as he did on Monday.

Holt had hit with Fritz many times before their first-round encounter, but probably never as well as he did on Monday.

Joel,

Vitas seems to have hooked more than a few young fans on tennis. The highlight of my first trip to the Open in 1983, five years after you, was seeing Aaron Krickstein upset Gerulaitis in five sets in the old Grandstand—it felt like a changing of the guard, from the Hopman serve-and-volleyers to the Bollettieri baseliners. I had to watch the end while crouching in a staircase outside the court.

Like you say, the opening four days offer up a ton of concentrated effort and emotion that quickly vanishes into history. I watched Andrey Rublev and Laslo Djere give everything they had for five sets in extreme humidity on little Court 5, and then shake hands and walk off like it was just another day in the life of a pro. Which it was.

The early match that sticks with me is Fritz’s loss to Holt. It immediately dashed American men’s hopes, which had been high. A lot of people, including himself, had Fritz down as a title contender. Now, like most years, there’s one American man left in the fourth round, Frances Tiafoe, and he has to play Rafa.

As far as week two interests, Danielle Collins may top the list. The lethality of her ground strokes, and her maniacal relentlessness, never to cease to amaze—as long as everything is clicking. Let’s see how long it lasts.

How about you, Joel—what’s a storyline you’re following from here?

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Kvitova saved two match points on serve before advancing in over two and a half hours on Armstrong.

Kvitova saved two match points on serve before advancing in over two and a half hours on Armstrong.

Steve,

Full disclosure is that I’m left-handed and therefore exceptionally intrigued by the journeys of two of my fellow southpaws: Petra Kvitova and Rafael Nadal.

Kvitova has always struck me as having all the tools for a great US Open. But while she’s been to the semis or better at the other three majors, her best showing in New York has only been a couple of trips to the quarters. She’s now one win away from a third. It was impressive to see Kvitova play such spirited tennis to beat Garbine Muguruza on Saturday—a match that ended 12-10 in the third-set tiebreaker. So perhaps now, at the age of 32, Kvitova is past the point of grappling with expectations. On Monday she’ll play Jessica Pegula, and though Pegula’s seeded eighth and Kvitova’s 21st, neither strikes me as the significant favorite.

As for Nadal, recall that the last time he came to New York—in 2019—he won the title. As often happens at majors not played in Paris, Nadal has scratched to find his best form in the early stages of the tournament. And though he played quite well to beat Richard Gasquet on Saturday night, that’s a rivalry Nadal has long dominated. His Monday match versus Tiafoe will likely be far more competitive, and I’m excited to see what kind of shots each will produce.

Steve, what do you think of the tennis that’s been played so far?

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Caroline Garcia has won three tournaments on three surfaces in the last three months.

Caroline Garcia has won three tournaments on three surfaces in the last three months.

Joel,

I don’t know about you, Joel, but I don’t have a problem with the sport’s current playing style. I wrote a column last month about how it’s time for tennis to stop wishing that the game still looked the way it did 30, 40, 50 years ago, when serve-and-volley was the dominant style.

The baseline game remains the standard, of course, but it’s look-for-a-way-to-attack baseline tennis rather than wear-the-other-player-down baseline tennis. It’s about finding a forehand and moving forward. Nadal, Alcaraz, Iga Swiatek, Collins, Caroline Garcia, Ons Jabeur, Nick Kyrgios, Matteo Berrettini, Jannik Sinner, Rublev, Tiafoe and others that are still in the draw all play a proactive and athletic version of the sport. And they come to the net now, even if it’s behind a ground stroke rather than a serve.

Which brings me to Sunday night’s match between Kyrgios and Medvedev. Here we had two very different styles on display, neither of which you could call dull or cookie-cutter. The Russian and the Aussie are both unique shotmakers. Medvedev ranges behind the baseline, comes at you with a variety of spins and angles, and moves as well as any 6’6” player we’ve seen. Kyrgios, of course, can do whatever he wants with a tennis ball, sometimes to his own detriment. Their fourth-rounder was a great way to kick off the second week.

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Medvedev offered a hand to Kyrgios after the Aussie took a spill during their sold-out fourth-rounder.

Medvedev offered a hand to Kyrgios after the Aussie took a spill during their sold-out fourth-rounder.

Steve,

Many times, the US Open’s transition from the clutter of week one to the focus of week two occurs gradually.

But tonight, the big plot change came swiftly and loudly. Sounding the bugle call for the business end of the US Open: Nick Kyrgios, lighting up Arthur Ashe Stadium with a brilliant four-set win over defending champion Daniil Medvedev, 7-6 (11), 3-6, 6-3, 6-2. It was arguably the finest effort of Kyrgios’ career, certainly as great a match as I’ve ever seen him play.

Most impressive was Kyrgios’ versatility. Tactical variations flowed from him like a waterfall. We’ve long witnessed the big serve, but tonight Kyrgios also showed off a pleasing range of spins, angles and paces—and, notably, did so from start to finish. Kyrgios broke up his opponent’s game from all parts of the court, in the process making Medvedev look extremely limited (most of all in the transition area) and increasingly frustrated. Given how often Medvedev has been the primary disruptor on the court, this speaks volumes to Kyrgios’ keen grasp of tactics.

You beat the defending champion and you naturally become a strong favorite to take the title. But Kyrgios’ next opponent, Karen Khachanov, is also quite formidable. They’ve split their two matches, Kyrgios winning their most recent at the 2020 Aussie Open by the remarkable score of 6-2, 7-6 (5), 6-7 (6), 6-7 (7), 7-6 (8).

Steve, what are your thoughts on Kyrgios’ effort tonight, and what’s to come for him as the US Open continues?

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Kyrgios gave one point away, but he won far more with a game style—and newfound confidence—that could take him very far.

Kyrgios gave one point away, but he won far more with a game style—and newfound confidence—that could take him very far.

Joel,

Ashe filled up early tonight, and kept filling up until every row to the very top was occupied. That’s a crowd usually reserved for finals, big Federer matches, and Serena farewells. It was great to see that a non-Big Three, non-Serena match could have that kind of mass appeal. I’m not a Kyrgios partisan myself, but I liked seeing the enthusiasm he generates among teenage and young fans. Kyrgios isn’t all that young at 27, but his swagger speaks to them in a way that even someone like Rafa’s doesn’t.

Sitting courtside, along the baseline, it was easy to see the difference in Kyrgios’ game from a year ago. We’ve talked a lot about his fitness and his attitude, and those are obviously important, but just as important to me is the way he’s finally using his talents forcefully and effectively. No more leaning back and settling for that flicky, loopy forehand that doesn’t penetrate. Tonight Kyrgios was up on the baseline, leaning into his forehand, anticipating and attacking returns, and heading to net. He was 29 of 47 there—not the best percentage, but the willingness to be aggressive was what mattered.

Of course there were also those moments when things could have gone very differently. Down set point in the first set, Kyrgios made a volley that caught—at most—a millimeter of the sideline. Early in the third set, he ran to the other side of the court to hit a ball, and lost an important point because of it:

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But instead of melting down, Kyrgios joked with his team about it, and then played unbeatable tennis the rest of the way. Finally, in the fourth set, Medvedev made a mini-run to reach break point; Kyrgios looked like he might be wobbling. But Medvedev made the mistake of trying to rev up the crowd; Kyrgios, despite doing the same thing earlier, became infuriated. He saved two break points with two aces, and screamed in Medvedev’s direction.

It makes me wonder, if Kyrgios could manufacture a way to hate every opponent, he’d never lose a game. As it is now, making 71 percent of first serves, which he hits an average of 122 m.p.h., he’s going to be tough for anyone to beat.