First-Week Fighters

by: Steve Tignor | August 30, 2014

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Even in victory, Eugenie Bouchard has contributed to a drama-filled first week on the women's side. (Photo by Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—All reporters have the same dilemma when they go to a tournament: Suddenly you have the chance to see tennis live, yet whenever you try to do that, you miss something else of importance—or maybe 10 things of importance—happening elsewhere on the grounds. If you spend too much time scouting an up-and-comer on a side court, you may not see the upset that defines the day’s news. So you throw your hands up and head back to your desk in the press room, far from the sun, and start flipping between channels on the monitor at your desk.

Twice so far at this year’s Open I’ve thrown my hands up and headed indoors when the action exploded around the grounds. The first was on Thursday, when Madison Keys and Sam Stosur were upset within seconds of each other in tight final sets. The second time came on Friday, when there were three must-see developments going on at the same time: Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, 32, was in the process of upsetting the second seed, Simona Halep; Sara Errani and Venus Williams were in a third-set tiebreaker, and had the Ashe crowd in full bellow; and 17-year-old Belinda Bencic was dominating the No. 6 seed, Angelique Kerber. The press-room desk, sadly, was the only place to be.

You’ll notice that these two moments of high drama on Friday and Saturday had one obvious thing in common: They featured women’s matches only. That’s where the action has been during the first week at Flushing Meadows, and it continued today when 145th-ranked Aleksandra Krunic knocked off Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.

So far the women have given us shockers—No. 2 Simona Halep, No. 3 Kvitova, No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, No. 6 Kerber, No. 8 Ana Ivanovic, and No. 12 Dominika Cibulkova have all been sent packing. The WTA has given us teen breakouts, by Belinda Bencic and CiCi Bellis. It has reminded us of how fun some players can be to watch, like Shuai Peng, Errani, and Lucic-Baroni. It has unearthed a hidden gem in the pint-sized but athletic Krunic of Serbia. It has returned two former finalists, Jelena Jankovic and Caroline Wozniacki, to something approaching their old Open form. It has featured knock-down, drag-out battles, between Andrea Petkovic and Monica Puig, Genie Bouchard and Sorana Cirstea, and Errani and Venus Williams. And it has shown us the queens of the tour, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, in suitably imperious form.

At upset-heavy events in the past, we’ve heard about “chaos on the women’s side,” and about how the top players were too inconsistent to properly rule their roost. It’s true that the WTA has been more much unpredictable than the ATP here—as of this writing, the only two men in the Top 20 to go out have been Ernests Gulbis and Fabio Fognini. (And, really, is anyone surprised about that?) But it hasn’t felt like chaos among the women, and most of the upsets so far have been about the good performance of the winner, rather than the bad performance of the loser. Radwanska admitted that Peng was the better player in their match. Lucic-Baroni, always a talent, took the rallies to Halep. Bencic showed a future Top 5 game off against Kerber. Krunic ran and hit ran circles around Kvitova. And while Cibulkova was way off in her loss to Bellis, CiCi wasn’t going to be denied that afternoon.

By comparison, the men’s draw, give or take a code violation by Nick Kyrgios, has been routine. Even the occasional anticipated matchup, like that between Ernests Gulbis and his friend Dominic Thiem, has failed to deliver. This is the way it has normally gone at the majors during our era of top-down domination on the ATP side. The men hold to form over the course of the first week, setting up big-name contests among the high seeds later in the event. The women, by contrast, provide the first-week drama with upsets and new faces. Yet this can end up working against the women. By the end of the tournament they can be left with fewer marquee names, and with semifinals and finals that turn into blowouts. Unfortunately, these are the moments when more people are tuning in. The Wimbledon men’s final gave us Federer-Djokovic, a classic; the women’s gave us Kvitova-Bouchard, a rout. Yet that hardly meant the men’s tournament was the better one over the course of the fortnight.

This takes us back to one of the great chicken-and-egg questions in tennis. Do upsets show a lack of quality at the top, or do they show superior depth overall? Like all-chicken-egg questions, the answer will be subjective—every upset requires both a better-than-normal performance from the winner, and a worse-than-normal performance from the loser. But I’d say any fan who watched Bencic, Lucic-Baroni, Krunic, or Barbora Zahlavova Strycova this week would get the impression that there’s a lot of talent in the WTA wings. And anyone who caught one of the various three-set wars—Bouchard-Cirstea, Petkovic-Puig, Venus-Errani, Cornet-Safarova, and others—would get the impression that the women don’t back down from a fight, even with their supposed superiors.

At the French Open, I wrote that the excitement that the women provided at Roland Garros—new WTA faces ruled at that event—was one reason to support equal pay at the majors. It’s clear that for fans who pay attention to entire tournaments, the women create a good deal of the entertainment value. I’ll say the same thing today. And for those who agree, we received a little piece of good news this weekend. New ATP player council president Eric Butorac told the New York Times that, unlike some of his fellow council members, he feels like the equal-pay issue is settled, and that it’s time to “grow the game together” with the women. 

Like Butorac, my point in writing this wasn’t to rehash the equal-pay argument. So I’ll finish with this observation, which I made while flipping channels at my desk in the press room yesterday. Late in the afternoon, Cornet-Safarova was going on at the same time as Gulbis-Thiem. It appeared at one point that Safarova was going to win easily, but Cornet, always up for adding a little more drama to the mix, fought her way back. Meanwhile, Gulbis, who said he felt a twinge in his hamstring and a cramp later, limped to a quiet defeat in the fifth set. 

Afterward, Cornet and Safarova exchanged a sincere, respectful kiss and handshake—“Well played,” Cornet said. A little later, Gulbis told the press that he had been especially nervous before his match, knowing that he was playing a friend, and that the nerves sapped his energy down the stretch. 

Neither of these things fits our stereotypes of men and women tennis players—women are supposed to be the sensitive ones, as well as the ones who can't be friendly. This week, like a lot of weeks at the majors, they’ve just been the competitive ones.

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