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A few days before the U.S. Open started, I was chatting with a tennis-playing pal about the tourney. He was lamenting how much the tournament was probably going to suck. No Federer. No Nadal. He’s a Del Potro fan, and that guy has been out for a long time. No Thiem or Wawrinka. No Serena. No Venus. Barty and Halep coming in injured. You know all that.
He jokingly urged me to wish my former co-workers at ESPN Tennis good luck, because nobody is going to watch a “weak tournament of nobodies and Nole (Djokovic) pounding people.”
I laughed, because I got his point. The TV person in me would rather hype matches with Federer than pushing Andrey Rublev (who is good, BTW, but not a household name here - yet) in primetime.
Things definitely looked…iffy.
We have all gotten served, and need to account for our faithless shade at today’s crop of Grand Slam-level pros. This has been the most exciting U.S. Open – or any other major – I have watched in a long, long time. Canadian wunderkind Leylah Fernandez, Spanish grinder Carlos Alcaraz, British power hitter Emma Raducanu, and in a best supporting player role, American Jenson (J.T.) Brooksby brought a jolt of energy in person and on TV.
They’re all newbies to the latter stages of a Slam, but you’d never know it. Leylah and Emma looked like the veteran favorites in their semis last night, and now will face off for the title tomorrow. All four have swag on the court, like to play with the crowd, and play with a brave, smart, and aggressive form of tennis.
My tennis geek level has been amped up by seeing volleys, lobs, and the pure crafting of points. Tennis, in its best form, is chess. You are thinking three shots ahead to get the winner. You set up the play. And when it works - JOY.
The current vibe is: blast a serve…blast a forehand…point over. Yawn. It's certainly the modern power game, but it lacks beauty. Power-producing rackets and strings, bigger players, elite conditioning and funky grips have changed everything.
It’s just a rotating firing squad at times. Not tennis.
But we have seen the future, and it has all-around game.
Leylah, 19, is tracking everything down on court, making you hit one more ball, and literally making her opponents lose it. (See busted racket, Aryna Sabalenka semis.) And she has people wearing Leafs and Habs jerseys to tennis matches for her. AND she has Steve Nash as her hypeman. Love.
Emma, 18, is just blasting away on all counts, with vicious angles. You can’t return what you can’t touch. She just finished acing her A-level high school exams and figured out how to get through the terrordome of U.S. Open qualifiers to reach a final. (Final Jeopardy: Both women are children of immigrants, bi-racial, and Emma could play for Canada too, as she was born in Toronto before moving to England with her parents.)
Carlos, 18, is all Spanish swagger, I see bits of Rafa and Carlos Moya in his attitude. The famous, you must kill me dead four times, or I will keep coming back to beat you. J.T., who is 20, has a pure physical game, delivering brute poundings. He is going to mess you up with the heavy balls, which takes a toll over the hours of sets.
The young guys are now gone, still making this the Nole show. Much to the pain of my Federer and Nadal stans, he is well poised to take his 21st major, take the Grand Slam and put himself No. 1 all time for men. (Note, if you hear some media ignorance saying Djokovic has won the most singles Slams…put your own asterisk. Serena has 23. She has the most of any human.)
The highlight is going to be Emma v. Leylah for the title. They are the happiest of fireworks on court. Will be hard to decide who to cheer for. But quietly, I am going for Leylah. She is 5-6. Tiny. I am 5-6. Not tiny. I love seeing somebody of average size make it to the top. SLAY those 5-11 women.
Emma is 5-8, so she is not a “big babe tennis” person (to quote Mary Carillo) either.
The men’s and women’s game has become the big and tall show, making an average size human equaling too small. Federer and Nadal stand 6-1. Djokovic is 6-3. When they go to the net to shake hands with Next Gen…the OG’s are looking up. Daniil Medvedev is 6-6. Ditto for Alexander Zverev. Matteo Berrettini is 6-5. Stef Tsitsipas is 6-4. And I am not including the John Isner/Reilly Opelka types, as they are nearly 7-foot.
Women’s side is the same. Naomi Osaka and Sabalenka are 6-foot. Carolina Pliskova is 6-1. Serena is 5-9. Venus and Petra Kvitova are 6-1.
But Barty and Halep are both around 5-6. Yay!
Average stature can still get through in tennis, but you better have amazing hands, crazy wheels, and awesome awareness to avoid getting dismantled. When you’re smaller, playing an opponent with a bigger wingspan - the margin of error is lower. You must be right and bold, because you’re not going to make up the space with your legs and arms.
Isn’t silly we were lamenting not having the old guard there? (I mean, the changing is coming, but none of the big stars are retired…yet.) Having new players to enjoy, new styles and the pure unknown, is a treat.
I’ve been here for all of it. I will need a small tennis detox after the tourney.
But until it’s over, let’s enjoy every second.
THE FEEDBACK FILE
I was so happy to read all of your wonderful comments about how swimming outside after Labor Day brings you joy. ICYMI, I wrote about my swimming adventures on Tuesday. I had no idea that there were so many rebels in the swimming alliance! I went swimming on Tuesday, and dropped my longest one-hour mileage of the summer, thanks to the warmth of all your words. There is a peace underwater that cannot be achieved in most places of our loud and hectic lives. Many of you reported the same, seeing your swimming time as something that restores body and soul. That makes me so happy.
And an additional joy of the moment: I wear a mask everywhere I go, to protect myself, but also to respect others. (I am vaccinated, BTW.) When I am swimming…NO MASK. Yeah, so it truly has become the escape from reality. The pool is paradise and salvation, all in one lane.
Let’s all promise to keep swimming until they close our pools. If you want to flake out because it is 67 degrees, remember that you would kill for that chance when it is 12 in January and we are all trapped inside.
For those of you in warm weather states, yeah, yeah, yeah, you’ll be outside in January too. Awesome. Happy for you. Really.
Swim! SWIM! Swim!
See you Monday!