It’s always been the unanswered question: What is the sound of one hand clapping? Is that what we witnessed at the US Open, a Zen moment that would have stretched even Orwell’s imagination—a surreal event of high-intensity tennis played out amidst the echoing sound of balls being pounded in cavernous stadiums, bereft of spectators and atmosphere?
That it produced riveting sporting drama is a tribute, not merely to the USTA—who somehow managed to create the required bubble—but to the players, whose every breath you could hear, whose every squeak of a shoe told of their speed and ability to turn and chase and whack that unforgiving ball ever harder. From Naomi Osaka’s winsome smile and developing wisdom to Dominic Thiem’s disbelieving laugh as he collapsed into his chair, fighting cramps at the end of a four-hour plus duel, this unforgettable occasion spoke to the greatness of the game and the deeply-committed ability of its athletes.
We learned so many things watching—from afar—the most unusual Grand Slam tournament ever played and, happily, completed. Perhaps, foremost, was the evidence that top players do not need the stimulus of crowds to bring out their best tennis, however much they might miss them and want them back. And that the big stars who chose, for perfectly legitimate reasons, not to play were not missed, either. Chris Evert was not alone is expressing the view that, Osaka, Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams and Jennifer Brady played tennis of such a high level, especially in the later rounds, that they would gone deep into the second week, no matter who was playing.
That, in its way, is comforting because no one wants talk of “asterisks” when referring back to the champions of the 2020 US Open. There is every reason to believe that Osaka is playing the best tennis in the world right now and, if it needed the quirk of Novak Djokovic’s disqualification for unintentionally hitting a lineswomen in the throat, to bring it about, a changing of the guard at the top of the men’s game had been on the horizon for a while. And, in Thiem and Alexander Zverev, the men’s draw had the right two players on deck when finals day arrived.
Although the women’s draw was more depleted than the men’s, it produced much of the excitement with Jennifer Brady giving American fans a new face to admire. Followers of World TeamTennis, which had been held at The Greenbrier a month before, would have noticed a sudden change in fortunes for Brady midway through the three-week event. I understand this had much to do with Brady finally listening to her Orange County Breakers' veteran coach Rick Leach over the tension in her strings.
Wanting more power, Brady had insisted on going for looser tension but when too many shots started hitting the backdrop, she took Leach’s advice, tightening up the strings. Brady won her first WTA title soon after in Lexington, setting the former UCLA star up for an eye-opening run at Flushing Meadows. She blasted her way through the early rounds, brushing aside Caroline Garcia, 2016 US Open champion Angelique Kerber and Yulia Putintseva without the loss of a set. Even though she lost, the first Grand Slam semifinal of her career was a match to remember, as she and Osaka traded pounding groundstrokes, demonstrating the ever-increasing power and quality of women’s tennis. Osaka won it, 7-6 (1), 3-6, 6-3, but Brady left the impression that she will be back for more.
Will Serena? That question was left dangling after Azarenka beat her, 1-6, 6-3, 6-3, in the other, equally riveting, semifinal. Serena had needed to battle her way through consecutive three setters against Sloane Stephens, Maria Sakkari and Tsvetana Pironkova and the physical effort took its toll. Totally dominant in the first set, Serena had no answer to the incredible precision of Azarenka’s returns and a left ankle that needed heavy strapping at the start of the third set only added to her woes.
So drawing alongside Margaret Court with 24 Grand Slam titles remains out of reach for Serena but the ambition is still strong and it is too early to say she will never achieve her goal.
Azarenka was a revelation. Having been on the verge of retirement during an exhausting battle for custody of her son, the Belarusian moved from California to the east coast, settled in Boca Raton, Fla. and flung herself back into the game she plays so well. Winning the “Cincinnati in New York” event—played as a curtain raiser at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center the week before—gave the locker room fair warning that she was back in business and many felt she was playing well enough to add to her two Australian Open titles.
But for a couple of wasted opportunities in the third set of a pulsating final she might well have, though Osaka was growing before our eyes, as a person, as an activist with her masks and as a player of increasing confidence and strength. By winning her second US Open and her third Grand Slam, this fascinating personality has burst through the tennis recognition bubble to emerge on the world stage as a genuine superstar. Her fame can only grow—and tennis, let alone her causes, will benefit.
Once again, the five-set format proved its worth in the men’s final. Dominic Thiem, so dominant throughout the earlier rounds, seemed fraught with nerves at the start and, despite the first sign of hesitancy from Alexander Zverev right at the end of the second set, a ‘best of three’ would have been over and soon forgotten in about ninety minutes with the 23-year-old German a 6-1, 6-4 winner. Instead we witnessed the wonder of unfolding drama, with all its momentum switches as these two great athletes asked more of body and mind than anyone could expect.
By the time Zverev served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth, Thiem, feeling the onset of cramping, seemed spent. The German, searching for his signature first serve and making a hash of a forehand volley, could get no closer than two points before he was broken. Double faults in the tie-break will haunt Zverev because the frailty of his second serve remains his biggest nightmare. Despite defeat, this was a major breakthrough for a young player who had struggled so long to become a force in Grand Slams.
It is impossible to believe that this triumph, coming after defeat in three Slam finals, will not put Thiem on the path to a career that, sometime in the future, might start to rival the trio of champions who, suddenly, were nowhere to be seen on this strange finals day.