The best 2020 US Open matches, plus Thiem, Osaka and Serena takeaways

The best 2020 US Open matches, plus Thiem, Osaka and Serena takeaways

Let me share with you my foremost US Open reflections.

Only a month ago, I was not convinced the USTA would be able to pull off their immensely ambitious plan of holding the Western & Southern Open and the US Open back to back over a three week span in New York. Their goal to get it done was always commendable, but seemed perhaps out of reach as they tried to protect all of the players and keep everyone safe within their bubble.

And yet, they did just that. The two tournaments were completed successfully with very few hitches. All of the precautions they put in place were sensible and strategically wise. The wisest move, of course, was allowing no fans onto the grounds.

Let me share with you my foremost US Open reflections.

Dominic Thiem's breakthrough

At long last, in his fourth final at a Grand Slam tournament, after twice bowing out against Rafael Nadal in major finals and once losing to Novak Djokovic, Thiem realized his largest dream in New York. He is the US Open champion. He resides among the elite. He has authenticated a long journey through the upper levels of the sport by virtue of his landmark triumph on the American hard courts.

Over the fortnight across six matches en route to the final, no one played better tennis than the industrious Thiem. And then on a day when he was never at full flight, he rescued himself from two sets to love and a service break down in the third set to somehow overcome Alexander Zverev in the final. No one in the Open Era had rallied from two sets down in an final; it had last happened in 1949 during the amateur era when Pancho Gonzalez was the victor.

Thiem’s 4-6, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (6) win over Zverev was easily the most suspenseful US Open final but by no means the best played. Both players almost wanted it too badly and each man wasted opportunities to win this gripping but highly flawed contest. Both men served for the match in the fifth set. Both were cramping toward the end. The mental and physical fragility of the two competitors was painfully apparent.

But none of that matters now. The 27-year-old Austrian is deservedly on the board. As the saying goes in the trade, the monkey is off his back. He will surely take multiple majors in the years ahead, although Thiem will not dominate the game. Not only are the iconic trio of Djokovic, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer still in the forefront of the game, but Thiem is surrounded by powerfully driven rivals like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, and Zverev. He will soon have to look out for the likes of Felix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov and others.

The fact remains that Thiem’s mindset will be permanently altered by establishing himself as the US Open champion. He is a great player and the feeling grows that his best is yet to some.

Naomi Osaka's third major is a defining moment

Two years ago, everything seemed to fall into place when Osaka secured her first Grand Slam title in New York. She dealt with the controversial conduct of Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final with remarkable poise and maturity. Less than five months later, Osaka took a second major in a row when she triumphed “Down Under” in Melbourne at the Australian Open. Since then, her form had been slightly uneven and sometimes disappointing.

Yet Osaka came purposefully into the Open. She had been in the Western & Southern Open final but a hamstring injury forced her to default the final to Victoria Azarenka. Taking that precaution proved to be wise as she claimed a second US Open title and a third major overall despite four three set clashes in the seven matches she played.

But the view here is that she played perhaps the finest tennis of her career. Her opposition was exceedingly strong despite the absence of six top ten players. She dropped sets in two of her first three matches but then was striking the ball freely and beautifully in dissecting No. 14 seed Anett Kontaveit and the surging Shelby Rogers. That took her into the penultimate round, when she played her best match of the tournament to defeat the tournament sensation Jennifer Brady 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3.

Osaka struggled mightily in the early stages of her final round duel with the resurgent Azarenka, dropping eight of the first nine games. Azarenka often had her on a string in the baseline exchanges and Osaka could not find her range. But she proudly displayed her inner drive and her flowing talent in turning the contest around to win 1-6, 6-3, 6-3.

Osaka at peak efficiency is now the best woman player in the world. She will be challenged severely in the coming months and years by a brigade of top players in a women’s game that has featured an essentially level playing field for quite some time. One day soon Coco Gauff will be one of Osaka’s premier rivals. Brady is ready to step into that role immediately. Others will step up. But the view here is that Naomi Osaka will meet her many challenges and challengers with unwavering pride and professionalism and emerge as the greatest female player of her generation.

Most memorable men's match

To be sure, the Thiem-Zverev extravaganza could qualify in this category because it was such a wildly unpredictable confrontation featuring a pair of wounded warriors giving their all. But my choice for match of the fortnight is the stirring contest between the No. 4 seed Tsitsipas and No. 27 Borna Coric.

These two gladiators fought ferociously across five tumultuous sets in the third round before Coric stunned his adversary  6-7 (2), 6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4) under the lights.Tsitsipas led not only two sets to one, but also was ahead 5-1 in the fourth set. He had no fewer than six match points in that set, squandering a 5-4, 40-0 lead. In the fifth set, the Greek competitor broke serve for a 3-2 lead but eventually collapsed in the tie-break.

Tsitsitpas was repeatedly shouting out into the nighttime air to urge himself on, searching for inspiration in the absence of crowds, looking to bring the best out of himself under extraordinary circumstances. But Coric unmistakably was irked by Tsitsipas’ demonstrative behavior and he responded with some histrionics of his own.

It was spellbinding to watch such great theater on a tennis court, not to mention witnessing some first class tennis from a pair of determined individuals.

Women's match of the tournament

Hands down this one goes to Osaka and Brady. Brady had played magnificent all through the tournament. In five matches on her way to the showdown with Osaka, she conceded only 24 games in ten convincing sets. No one took her beyond 6-4 in any set. In the process she demonstrated that her forehand is one of the two best in women’s tennis along with Osaka’s. Brady’s forehand is astonishingly sound, and her two-hander is excellent as well. Moreover, her serve is vastly improved and formidable weapon.

Osaka prevailed 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3 over Brady in a crackling encounter. These two big hitters refused to back down in the fiercely contested rallies, holding their ground on the baseline, measuring their shots impeccably. They served tremendously as well. Over the course of three high caliber sets, each player broke serve only once. Osaka was too good in the final set, but Brady gave a glowing account of herself. That is why I can’t wait to see these two outstanding players meet frequently in the future.

The state of Serena Williams

No one could say Serena Williams did not take her quest for a record seventh US Open women’s singles title very seriously. She went to Lexington, Kentucky for the Top Seed Open and lost in the quarters to Rogers in a third set tie-break. She competed at the Western & Southern Open and was beaten in the round of 16 by Maria Sakkari. And then she made a concerted effort to win the Open, reaching the semifinals and blitzing Azarenka in the first set before bowing 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 in a blockbuster.

Williams will turn 39 on September 26. She played sporadically brilliant tennis during this entire recent stretch, but the fact remains that nine of her eleven matches went to three sets.

Where does she go from here? Serena is as determined as ever. She made it to four major finals in 2018 and 2019, but lost them all in straight sets. She honorably found her way to the semifinals of this US Open, but could not sustain her early match sparkle against Azarenka and was outplayed thereafter.

Will she finally achieve her overriding goal and tie Margaret Court’s record of 24 major singles titles? I would not put it past her. But it is highly unlikely that she will win the upcoming French Open if she follows through on her plans to compete in Paris. Her last and best chance may well be Wimbledon next year. Williams can beat anyone in the world on her best days, but not easily. The cast of competitors who can topple her on given afternoons is growing year by year.

This much is certain: Williams will need a fair amount of good fortune to succeed again at one of the four major championships.