Before we begin, a reminder for readers:
Attacking The Net is a major-tournament tennis blog, not (yet) a full-service year-round tennis blog. You’ll get coverage of the Davis Cup semifinals and finals; the WTA Finals; and the ATP World Tour Finals, with perhaps a wrap-up of the Masters 1000 events in Shanghai and Bercy, in the coming months. However, full-week (daily) coverage of tournaments is reserved for the four majors. Bloguin does not yet have the budget to support a broader commitment for Attacking The Net. This blog will contain minimal posts after next Sunday’s review of the Davis Cup semifinals.
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Now, on with the show.
A very brief preface before this list: You all know that the top story at this U.S. Open, in terms of significance and impact, was and is Serena Williams’s pursuit of a Grand Slam, all four major titles in the same year and tennis season. You will note that we’re focusing on 10 big stories here, not necessarily ranking them in order of significance. Other stories beyond the obvious ones need some time and attention.
Attacking The Net wrote about the calendar Grand Slam here. ATN covered Flavia Pennetta’s women’s championship here. This site wrote about Roger Federer firmly ensconcing himself as the No. 2 ATP player in the world (in a context beyond rankings) here. ATN wrote about Roberta Vinci’s upset of Serena Williams here.
We’ll certainly talk about components of those stories, but we’ll try to look at a broader picture in the list below:
10 – PAYING FOR THE SINS OF THE PAST… AND NOT ADJUSTING TO THE FUTURE
This U.S. Open was unique in that it wasn’t played in an open-bowl version of Arthur Ashe Stadium. The outer framework of what will be the support structure for the roof was put in place this year. The Ashe environment in 2015 was different from 2014, and it will be at least somewhat different from the 2016 environment, when the actual roof and more supports are added.
Next year and beyond, the rain which will still be an issue for the outer courts at the USTA National Tennis Center will not become a factor in the quarterfinals and beyond. Since every quarterfinal, semifinal and final is played in Ashe, rain will not disrupt the tournament if it is on schedule when the quarterfinals arrive.
It’s long past time. We’ve finally made it through the era of delays on the final weekend of the U.S. Open. That era is now done. Over.
ENOUGH! (In Serbian, the word for enough is “dosta,” meaning that this era is “done and dosta’d. Hat tip to tennis tweep Ana Mitric for that bit of education on the Serbian word for “enough.”)
However, as much of a joy as it might be to know that there won’t be any more rain delays of championship-weekend matches, this tournament underscored the extent to which the USTA blew it by constructing Ashe the way it did.
Notice the cover image for this story. You can see the shadows covering the court in the middle of the afternoon, around 2:45 p.m. in New York. During the late-morning matches at Ashe (the first of the day, at roughly 11:10 to 11:20 a.m.), those long shadows would cover the court not in the lateral fashion shown in the photo above, but in a vertical fashion. The far court existed in sun, but the near court existed in shade. Players had to see the ball either coming out of a shadow from the near court, or coming into a shadow from the far court. Women’s champion Flavia Pennetta and others rightly expressed their displeasure with the situation.
It brings to mind the simple point that if Ashe had been conceived as a domed stadium back when it was built in 1997, this delayed application of the roof wouldn’t have created such problems with shadows and sight lines. This tournament reinforced how poorly designed Ashe Stadium was. We’ll see if the filling out of the roof structure reduces problems. If it doesn’t, the USTA should give serious consideration to closing the roof for an 11:10 a.m. or 12:10 p.m. quarterfinal in the second week of the tournament next year. Better to shield players from those shadow problems and play an indoor match than to subject them to difficult conditions totally out of their control.
Let’s hope future U.S. Open players don’t continue to pay for the past sins of the USTA.
There’s another point to be made about this new U.S. Open: The new environment at Ashe gave this tournament a different feel, but what also entered the picture this year was a new schedule, courtesy of ESPN’s emergence as the sole American broadcaster of the tournament. Yes, the women’s semifinals were still played on Friday afternoon — just as they had been for decades — but that was only because of rain. The men’s semifinals, long a Saturday staple, moved to Friday evening. These adjustments gave the U.S. Open a chance to reorganize its schedule, and while one common-sense adjustment was made — removing the third day of first-round play for the men, instead reducing that round to two days — the second week represented a missed opportunity.
The USTA put two women’s quarterfinals on Tuesday and two on Wednesday, before originally scheduling Thursday semifinals (which were pushed back to Friday afternoon by rain). This schedule format maintained an imbalance between the two halves of the draw. One half got one more day of rest before the semifinals. This is true at the Australian Open and also at the French Open. Only Wimbledon gives every quarterfinalist, WTA and ATP, equal rest before semifinals.
The U.S. Open missed a chance to follow Wimbledon’s lead and make this schedule adjustment. It could be done without too much of a fuss (and in ways which would heighten the sport’s exposure). The simple move would be to introduce play on on a third Sunday, as the French Open does, which would then allow for a resetting of the tournament at a later point (either in the round of 32 or 16, maybe even the quarters) to balance the brackets before the most important late-stage matches of the tournament.
This issue just doesn’t seem to be very important to the three non-Wimbledon majors. The U.S. Open’s schedule change offered the USTA a chance to move in the right direction.
9 – WASTED TALENT: FOGNINI, DIMITROV AND OTHERS
Grigor Dimitrov’s descent into career irrelevance in his mid-20s is so pronounced that the Bulgarian is steaming toward Richard Gasquet territory. (More on Gasquet below, later in this piece.) Dimitrov has to land a top coach and commit to that coach in a way that never seemed to emerge with Roger Rasheed. Being receptive to coaching is important for Dimitrov, but it’s even deeper than that. Dimitrov needs to enter a new coaching relationship with the full understanding that the coach needs to call the shots, and that if Dimitrov breaks any components of an unwritten pact with his coach, the coach will walk away, with Dimitrov being at fault for the split.
Enough about Dimitrov, though. Plenty of time has been devoted to his aimlessness in 2015.
At this U.S. Open, the profile of wasted talent which emerged in full view was that of Fabio Fognini.
You saw how Fognini played when he came from two sets down to beat Rafael Nadal in the third round of this event. You saw how unplayable he was when he attained the kind of comfort zone all athletes dream of. You saw how outrageously talented the Italian is. Yet, this is the same man who had never before reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open. This is the same man who has reached only one major quarterfinal, a match he never even played in. (He gave Novak Djokovic a walkover into the 2011 Roland Garros semifinals.) This is the same man who — on the rare occasions when he does something special — can’t back it up the next round. When he lost to Feliciano Lopez in the fourth round (and in straight sets), no one in the tennis community was surprised. Casual American sports fans who saw Fognini on Friday thought he was a revelation, a breath of fresh air.
If they followed tennis with any degree of regularity, they would have known better.
Fognini’s story reminds us that while talent helps, it certainly doesn’t guarantee results at a certain minimum threshold. This is a sport most centrally decided between the ears, and other examples below will reinforce this reality.
8 – WITH AGE COMES WISDOM: ATP EDITION
For years, a number of ATP players have labored without higher-level success, without the clear knowledge that they were getting the most from their abilities, or at least something close to it.
That has changed for Richard Gasquet, Feliciano Lopez, and Kevin Anderson. Lopez is 33, while Gasquet and Anderson are 29. All three have more yesterdays behind them than the number of tomorrows which lie ahead, but they have all begun, at different rates, to get more out of their skills. Gasquet’s backhand; Lopez’s net skills and probing slices; and Anderson’s big-man serve combined with a powerful forehand and increasingly improved court coverage have all given them openings at deep runs in majors.
Only in the past two years have the three men begun to steadily accumulate better results at majors. Gasquet has reached multiple major semifinals, and he calmly rebuffed Tomas Berdych in the fourth round of this tournament, getting back to the quarterfinals in New York. Sure, Gasquet still can’t break through against the ATP’s elites, but he’s a lot better at beating everybody else (or close to it). Gasquet wandered in the wilderness for years, the way Dimitrov is now, but he has clearly lifted himself to a better place.
Lopez, whose big game was genuinely imposing eight years ago (when he pushed Roger Federer to the brink of a two-set deficit in the 2007 U.S. Open fourth round), fought a lot of losing battles with pressure in his 20-something years. Now at 33, though, he’s collecting quarterfinal checks at times and is leaving almost no prize money on the table. He’s making up for lost time, successfully applying a lot of lessons which had to come about the hard way.
Anderson, 0-6 in major-tournament fourth-round matches heading into Wimbledon, took a two-set lead over Novak Djokovic but couldn’t close the sale. Many players would have sagged and sulked and slumped as a result of that loss. Anderson regrouped and took out Andy Murray to make his first major quarterfinal. Turning 0-7 into 1-7 (in fourth-round matches at majors) never felt so good.
It also feels really good — as a lover of tennis — to see these veterans finally making the most of their abilities.
7 – WITH AGE COMES WISDOM: WTA EDITION
In the world of news, it has always been the case that a plane landing safely doesn’t make the news (unless it almost crashed and was miraculously brought to safety by Sully Sullenberger). Similarly, among players who don’t reach the finals or perhaps semifinals at these major tournaments, I usually reserve “post-tournament wrap-up space” for those who failed to achieve at a level they should have. However, I’ve just made time for a few quarterfinalists, above, and I’m going to take a step further here:
The Italian women who have reached major finals the past five years — Roberta Vinci, new U.S. Open champion Flavia Pennetta, 2010 Roland Garros champion and 2011 runner-up Francesca Schiavone, and 2012 Roland Garros runner-up Sara Errani — are all examples of players who have gotten the most out of their careers. You could perhaps say that Pennetta — an accomplished hardcourt player — should have done more at the Australian Open and at other non-Indian Wells hardcourt stops on the tour. However, her large bunch of U.S. Open quarterfinal showings over the years — in an era shared by the Williams Sisters, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, and others — lends an impressive consistency to what she’s done. That fact makes hers a career which — capped by this championship in New York — generally reached the ceiling of its potential.
That Pennetta gets to ride into the sunset of retirement this year, on the heels of this crowning moment, makes her career that much sweeter. Yet, all of these Italian women — not just Pennetta — deserve credit for what they’ve done without massive weapons or large margins for error.
6 – BACKING UP RESULTS AND BRINGING IT WHEN IT COUNTS
Casual American sports fans — if they ever do devote a little more attention to tennis during each year — perk up at Wimbledon and then notice, in the slowest period of the sports calendar, the presence of several North American hardcourt tournaments leading up to the U.S. Open. While American sports fans wait for football during July and August, they might flip on a channel and notice that this sport has events beyond the majors.
It is in these non-major events that the difference between the big ones and the “almost-big” events on tour emerges. Every player gets to choose his or her path on tour. Certainly in terms of a professional ethos, trying hard and competing honestly should always be parts of how a player comports him/herself on court. If you participate in a tournament, you might hold realistic expectations (quarterfinals, round of 16), but you are always trying to win. Seen within this context, the likes of Angelique Kerber and Sloane Stephens are very much professionals. Stephens is no longer the player who rises at the majors but blows off smaller tournaments. Kerber has consistently put in a full effort at the second-tier events on tour. There’s a lot to admire about them and many other players in the same positions, with similar reputations.
Yet, there’s a part of every athlete which wants to achieve at the highest level, to forge the biggest name, to etch a place in history. This is done by being consistently great, but it’s more precisely done by shining at the biggest tournaments. Kerber can be counted on to win Stanford or other like events on tour, and to be sure, she played one of the best matches of this U.S. Open — very possibly its best — against Victoria Azarenka in the third round. Yet, the long run of time has shown that Kerber just doesn’t pull through in very many mid-tournament matches at the majors. As much as she might achieve at other tour stops, there will always be a ceiling on her career and reputation until she can break through at the events which matter most. Other players (think of Carla Suarez-Navarro from the first half of the 2015 tennis season) reside in somewhat similar situations.
5 – DEALING WITH SUCCESS
Toronto champion Belinda Bencic, Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza, and French Open finalist Lucie Safarova all experienced firsthand what it feels like to experience an entirely new level of success in a much more visible spotlight. One can perhaps say that not enough time has passed to make any sort of judgment on how a major-tournament breakthrough has affected each player, but what indisputably changes after a player makes a noticeable step up on tour is that the other players take note.
Your own mentality as a player might not change, but the others sharpen themselves and dig in a little more to compete against you. In short, you become a target. Your normal preparation methods might still be conceptually sound, but if others raise their level, that can change the dynamics of what happens on the court.
Bencic after Toronto; Muguruza after Wimbledon; and Safarova after Roland Garros all struggled to find their games and their winning form. The 2016 season gives them a chance to reset the dial, but the arrival of the coming offseason also gives the rest of the tour and the community of coaches an opportunity to scout their games. How will these players deal with the rush of new (levels of) success they experienced in 2015? They didn’t handle that success well in New York.
This leads us to a brief aside about Eugenie Bouchard. She did not lose a match at the U.S. Open in singles. She had to pull out of the tournament in the fourth round because of a concussion sustained in a fall away from the court. Bouchard seemed to begin to rediscover her competitive chops after a season largely adrift at sea. If Bouchard plays like — and delivers the kinds of results one would expect from — a renewed and restored performer in 2016, her struggles with the pressures created by success will have been worth it.
Bencic is still a teenager, so she is by far the most likely of the three to require extra time to settle in on the tour. Muguruza turns 22 in October, so if she wobbles in 2016, we can still chalk that up to the growing process (but not on the same level as Bencic). Safarova is the player who, in her late 20s, should be able to more quickly apply the lessons she’s learned after her tremendous French Open.
4 – DEALING WITH INTERNAL PRESSURE: SIMONA HALEP’S EDUCATIONAL YEAR
You just read about a number of players on the WTA Tour who recently tasted success. You also just read a brief note about Eugenie Bouchard, a player whose transition from 2014 to 2015 could be a cautionary tale for the likes of Belinda Bencic and Garbine Muguruza. However, the player who occupied the situation most like Bouchard’s at the start of 2015 was Simona Halep.
Like Bouchard, Halep made deep runs at each of the first three majors of 2014. Like Bouchard, Halep made one major final and lost it. Like Bouchard, Halep ran out of steam at the U.S. Open. However, unlike Bouchard, Halep regrouped at the season-ending WTA Finals and reached the championship match, falling to Serena Williams. Unlike Bouchard, Halep remained relevant at Indian Wells and Miami, and later at other North American hardcourt stops in Toronto and Cincinnati.
Halep didn’t struggle with success the way Bouchard did, and certainly not to the same degree, either. For Halep — who re-learned the value of fighting skills on court against Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round of the U.S. Open — competing in adverse circumstances is not a problem. This semifinal showing at the 2015 Open, her first such result in New York, is a definite success — maybe not a complete one, but certainly enough to rate as a forward step in her season and career.
The problem for Halep is a bit more precise than what Bouchard dealt with for much of this season, and what Bencic and Muguruza might face in 2016. For the world No. 2, it’s becoming increasingly clear that in high-profile matches she’s expected to win, she internalizes the pressure of the moment in ways that leave her sluggish. Nerves can manifest themselves in the form of shanked shots, but they also reveal their presence in the form of slow movements, legs that drag across the court instead of gliding the way a tennis player’s legs invariably must.
Halep was not expected to beat Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals of this tournament. In response to that situation, the Romanian flew across the court and made all sorts of defensive retrievals with enough depth to reset points. Azarenka hit plenty of penetrating groundstrokes in that match — enough to beat most of the women on tour — but Halep rose to a higher plateau. She obviously used a day of rest to her advantage; she recuperated quite effectively after the taxing Lisicki match, in which her body appeared on the verge of a breakdown on multiple occasions. Yet, as much as Halep’s body demonstrated its own resilience against Azarenka, it was impossible not to notice that Halep also felt relatively relaxed and focused on court.
When she then moved into the semifinals against Flavia Pennetta — in a match she was supposed to win (and also a match in which she had a day off, albeit because of a weather-based postponement) — all the freedom and confidence which had marked her game against Azarenka promptly went out the window. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the 2015 Australian Open quarterfinal against Ekaterina Makarova, but the comedown from the Azarenka match was still conspicuous.
Against Azarenka, we saw the 2014 version of Halep. Against Pennetta, we saw the player who is sometimes too conscious of her identity as the favored player in a match. The 2016 season will offer many fascinating questions to tennis fans and observers, one of the main ones being this: “Will Simona Halep make prosperity and high expectations her friends?”
3 – SABR-RATTLING: A RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF HYPE AND ATTENTION, WITH SOMETHING MEANINGFUL UNDERNEATH THE SURFACE
Entirely too much has been written about SABR, Roger Federer’s tactic of rushing the net on a second serve; half-volleying the return; and continuing to move forward in one relatively continuous action. Federer unfurled this in Cincinnati and used it in a first-set tiebreaker against Novak Djokovic in the final, which he won. Since then, it’s become a constant talking point for a lot of tennis bloggers (but not this one).
Federer doesn’t spring the tactic very often in a match, and the stats indicate that it has not had a profound impact on the overall percentage of points (or return points) won. It is ultimately something a (possibly) bored press corps has wanted to write about a lot, if only because it’s something new in tennis.
This sport, as you know, does not do “new” very well. New things shock the senses of tennis fans more than the fans of other sports. Seeing something different from “the way it has always been done” is often a shock to tennis fans. Many tennis writers — knowing they need those pageviews and clicks — have chosen to take the plunge on this topic. In devoting so much time to whether the tactic is insulting to the opponent or not (my verdict: not even close), or to the difference it has made for Federer, a lot of tennis pundits have given this subject more weight and centrality than it deserves. Therefore, I’m not going to beat this to death.
However, I’ll say one thing about SABR, something Steve Tignor of Tennis.com picked up (at least partially) in his review of Federer’s semifinal win over Stan Wawrinka.
The value of SABR is that — as a tactic which requires a great deal of concentration (half-volleying a serve while running forward is not an easy thing to do) — it requires a lot of coordination and precision. It’s a lot harder than, say, hitting a moonball or a neutral-rally slice backhand.
Forget about the idea of messing with the opponent’s serve. If the SABR return isn’t put back in play, the tactic means very little. Federer, in the process of refining this tactic, didn’t use it until he was sure he could put the half-volley return in play. By developing that shot, Federer hasn’t gained a lot of value on the points in which he uses it. He’s gained value because the practicing of SABR has honed his racquet skills.
If you get a chance to re-watch the semifinal against Wawrinka (or even the final against Novak Djokovic after the grubby first set he played), you’ll notice that Federer’s defensive backhand from the baseline was very sharp at this U.S. Open. (The shot which failed Federer in the final was his forehand, especially down the line and even more especially from the deuce sideline or corner.)
Normally, the half-volley return on SABR is a backhand. It stands to reason that when holding your racquet with a backhand grip and angle, you have a little more control over a shot hit while rushing the net. A more open racquet angle consistent with a forehand half-volley offers less control and balance, especially on a body serve. You can block the body serve much more easily with a backhand than a forehand.
It is not an idle coincidence, then, that Federer’s racquet skills with his defensive backhand were so sharp at the Open. SABR fine-tuned other dimensions of Federer’s game and kept his mind fresh as it competed with a new challenge. This was psychologically healthy, and it built up his backhand. That’s what SABR has meant to Federer, not the stuff a lot of pundits have been talking and writing about.
With that, my SABR discussion for the year is over. I hope that wasn’t too painful.
2 – ANDY MURRAY AND VICTORIA AZARENKA: THE NEED TO TAKE THE NEXT STEP IN 2016
Andy Murray and Victoria Azarenka have both won two majors. They’ve both played close and tough matches this year against the best players on their respective tours, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams. You look at each player and see someone who has the game needed to win more majors (plural). Yet, in this U.S. Open, both Muzz and Vika just didn’t have it — not at the times when they really needed it.
Murray — because he hasn’t won as many major finals or gone as deep into tournaments as contemporaries Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal have — has played comparatively fewer matches to this point in his career. Yet, he was born within a week of Djokovic and is just one year younger than Nadal.
Fast facts: Murray has played just under 700 matches in his career. Djokovic is just over 800, and Nadal — who has been more consistently great than Djokovic over the past nine years (but not the last five) — has played a little more than 900 matches.
Murray, by having fewer miles on the odometer — even though he’s a player who loves to run and play defense — needs to make 2016 count. At 28, he’s not going to have too many more prime years left, and since Amelie Mauresmo has become a very helpful coach — the right choice to succeed Ivan Lendl — everything should be in place for a strong 2016.
We’ll give Murray a pass for New York after a very strong showing at the year’s previous three majors. However, if he doesn’t win one in 2016, the coming year will be seen as a disappointment, period.
For Azarenka, it might be going a little too far to say that she has to win a major next year, especially since her ranking (and attendant seeding for majors) will remain outside the top 10. However, the Belarusian should certainly make one final and a couple of semifinals.
Azarenka was too good, too dazzling, too resolute in her soaring win over Angelique Kerber in the third round to not return to the central tennis dramas of the WTA Tour. There’s too much game and too much belief to leave Azarenka short of the championship match in the prime events of a tennis season. This year built back some of what had been lost in 2014, and it’s also true that her lower ranking caused her to face Serena Williams earlier than she would have liked in multiple tournaments. (Vika will need at least a little draw luck in Australia, and perhaps at the French as well in 2016. By the time Wimbledon arrives, though, she should be ranked higher.) However, if Azarenka is on the other side of the draw opposite Serena in 2016, a failure to make the final will be a stinging blow.
Azarenka is and has been the best challenger to Serena Williams over the past few years. Fans and journalists will tell you that the WTA will become a much better place if Azarenka can stare down Serena in the most important matches of the year.
1 – THE NEW U.S. OPEN: WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS, AND WHAT IT SAYS ABOUT TENNIS EXCELLENCE
It’s true that the men’s final at the U.S. Open was played after a rain delay, altering the conditions of the moment and changing the feel of both the court and the ball. No other singles matches began immediately after a weather delay.
The Halep-Azarenka quarterfinal continued after a delay, but it did not begin after one. When more rain came Thursday night, play did not resume until Friday morning with the first women’s semifinal. Only the men’s final involved the start of a singles match after rain had fallen at Ashe Stadium. For the rest of the fortnight in New York, hot and sunny conditions prevailed.
The men’s final was an adjustment for both players, and so it has to be acknowledged up front that a lot of what we saw at Ashe over two weeks did not lead to a sweeping and airtight conclusion about the way in which the new shadows and roof structure impacted play. Sunday’s final was and is — and will be — a question mark which lingers into 2016, given that it stood apart from the rest of the past two weeks. We will wonder if Ashe is more susceptible to wind than we initially thought. We will need at least another year, if not more, to get a better sense of how Ashe will play in a changing environment.
With that preamble done, however, there is one thing which can clearly be said about the new-look U.S. Open, as it relates to Ashe Stadium, the one venue which hosts every quarterfinal, semifinal and final match at this tournament: The abundance of shade was a constant.
If any match started at or after 2:45 p.m., the shadow length was pretty much what you see in the cover photo at the beginning of this 5,800-word story. The men’s semifinals were delayed by the women’s semis in the adjusted Friday schedule, but with the roof in place next year, we can count on the regularly scheduled 3 p.m. start for semifinal number one. With that in mind, it’s pretty clear that from the quarterfinals onward, very little if any court time will exist in sunshine for the top eight men’s players.
None of the men’s quarterfinals at this U.S. Open started before 3:15 p.m. (The Marin Cilic-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga quarterfinal started at that time.) If the women’s quarterfinal between “Kiki” Mladenovic and Roberta Vinci had not gone three sets, Cilic-Tsonga might have started at 2:15. That would translate to maybe 15 minutes at most in which a player in the near court at the south end of Ashe Stadium would have to stand in the sun during match play. The men simply do not have to play quarterfinals, semifinals or finals in the sun anymore.
We said before this tournament began that the shade over Ashe Stadium offered a very convincing reason to think that Novak Djokovic would win this tournament again. With the benefit of hindsight… our first instinct was correct and needed no fundamental revisions.
It should be said that the main reason Djokovic won is that he’s the best player in the world, better than Roger Federer. However, playing in shade (or under the lights) is what Djokovic has always enjoyed the past several years in Australia. That he’s won five Australian Open titles does not seem to be an accident. That he’s now won another U.S. Open with a lot more relief from the pounding sun does not feel like an accident, either.
Before fans of Roger Federer get too upset, though, it should be pointed out that their man also benefited from the new roof structure at Ashe. The overhangs severely cut down on the effects of wind and created much calmer conditions on court. Federer himself said that this new component of Ashe Stadium should lead to better, cleaner tennis, and as is almost always the case, Federer — when speaking about the flight of a ball (or whether it bounces two times based on backspin, or anything related to the substance of playing equipment, etc.) was right.
Djokovic and Federer, the two best players in the world, safely made their way to the final in a year when conditions were calmer and more conducive to good tennis. Less sun in players’ eyes or on their backs; less wind; less peripheral light in the stands, especially on the east side of this massive edifice — they all helped players play better.
This reinforces something you hear from time to time among fans of the main solo-athlete sports on the planet, tennis and golf.
A lot of golf fans — including one of my colleagues at Bloguin’s college sports site, The Student Section — love the U.S. Open golf championship because it makes players suffer. Dealing with awful conditions is, for many golf fans, the thing they want to see golfers do. Similarly, a lot of tennis fans — when Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych played a 2012 U.S. Open tennis semifinal in a raging wind — loved the spectacle. They loved seeing two world-class players struggle with the conditions in an attempt to make their way to the finish line.
That’s a perfectly reasonable view of sports. I can see why the struggle is compelling for many fans of both golf and tennis.
I, however, take the completely opposite view. Golf and tennis are about hitting a ball as cleanly and as artfully as possible. I want to see players do their best in conditions conducive to playing their best… because that’s what tells me Player X is the best at hitting a golf ball, and that’s what tells me Player Y is the best at hitting a tennis ball.
It is true, as many Nadal fans and other pundits on #TennisTwitter have said for years, that clay is under-represented on the calendar and schedule each tennis season. It is also true, however, that there should be a grass Masters 1000 event. It is also true that if one of the two hardcourt majors was an entirely indoor event, not only would we get a truly balanced assortment of four majors (four truly distinct flavors of tennis), but we’d get one major in which outside weather would never be a factor.
Obviously, an all-indoor major will never, ever, EVER happen, but the idea is mentioned if only because indoor tennis — like clay — is not that prominent on the calendar. The ATP World Tour Finals are indoors, and one Masters 1000 event is as well, but the World Tour Finals are not a normal tournament, and the Bercy Masters is (and will continue to be) the least significant Masters event, if only because its proximity to the World Tour Finals on the schedule makes it hard for every player to attend (and vigorously compete in). There is more than one surface (or condition-based) imbalance on the ATP Tour.
Therefore, circling back to the topic at hand, it was refreshing to see calmer conditions at Ashe Stadium for this new-look U.S. Open. The conditions favored the two best players in the world.
It is worth wondering how different history — and Novak Djokovic’s U.S. Open trophy case — might be if a roof had been built in 2009 or 2010. It is also worth wondering if Roger Federer would have made more finals over the past three years before returning to the last match of the tournament this year.
Next year, with the roof firmly in place, we might get a true indoor match in the semis or the final. We’re 350 days away from the 2016 U.S. Open, but if you were the betting sort, a Djokovic-Federer rematch would certainly look like the best call to make at the moment.