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The last set of high holy days for the 2021 Grand Slam tennis season are upon us, with the start of the U.S. Open today in New York City. (For you geolocation nerds, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is in Queens…on the magical flight path to LaGuardia.)
This USO is going be a weird one, with no Rafa Nadal, Serena or Venus Williams, Dominic Thiem, Stan Wawrinka, Sofia Kenin, or Roger Federer. Yeah. A nice slew of marquee players out with injuries or COVID (Kenin).
Sorry about the ratings and gate hit, U.S. Tennis Association.
But world No. 1 Novak Djokovic still lurks large, and if he wins, will go past Fed and Rafa for all-time Grand Slam singles titles. And oh, somebody is trying for the calendar slam, as Djoker has won the 2021 Australian Open, Wimbledon and French Open.
Djoker is not coming into New York as a happy hero to root for. He accidentally drilled a lineswoman with a ball, out of anger, in the fourth round last year and was immediately defaulted out of the USO. Cue the controversy online. Djoker also was not a happy camper at the recent Tokyo Olympics, griping about the conditions, wrecking a racket in anger and then leaving his Serbian mixed doubles partner high and dry before the bronze medal match with a shoulder injury. He skipped playing since the Olympics, hoping to rest and heal.
So who knows what his body – or mindset – will be?
The new crop of stars, who have been in long-term limbo as the Fed-Djoker-Rafa triumvirate still exists, will try to make some impact. Thiem did that last year, by winning the COVID-changed U.S. Open.
Stefanos Tsisipas, Daniil Medvedev, Andrey Rublev, and 2020 Tokyo Olympics winner Alexander Zverev want to take over. Tsisipas stirred up some pre-tourney drama by airing his anti-vax views, and then had a tiff with Zverev in Cincinnati over his bathroom breaks. Zverev won Cinci, in a dramatic comeback after bitching about Tsisipas and his dad. But the German has been again embroiled with controversy over an alleged domestic violence issue with a former girlfriend. At the same tourney in Cinci, Medvedev ran into a TV camera in the back of the court and then kicked it. He’s a high emotion player and boiled over. That lead to a loss of focus and then the match to Rublev.
Yeah, the reality show is real, folks.
On the women’s side, Naomi Osaka, and world No. 1 Ash Barty, are the ones to beat. But as we have seen this year, Osaka is vulnerable, and may not be in a good mental and emotional space to deal with the pressure. Barty has been dealing with injuries. Simona Halep has been battling injuries.
Rising American star Coco Gauff is also figuring out how to deal with the spotlight, which is always an intense glare being in the home country Slam.
Be prepared for any of 10 players to win the women’s title. It’s that squishy.
But really, the story revolves on the crew who is not in New York. Will we ever see some of them play again? Much less at a high level?
Should we expect Serena, Venus, and Fed, who will all be 40 and over in a few weeks, to play?
I have one friend, hi Jane!, who texts me in joyful glee when Federer dusts some top-300 player in the first round of the Basel Open. She is a high priestess in the Church of Fed, spreading the good word.
I am an appreciative congregant, who still sees reality beyond the towering altar so many have built for Fed. I text her back, usually saying, meh. I still see retirement looming. The dude is human. Jane tells me, he is back! I respond with I need to see more, and then Fed loses next round…and I re-up saying, please retire. Wimbledon showed how injured his knee was...and now needs surgery and rehab.
Serena also brings the same stream of texts from with another friend (hi Sara!). (Yes, my text messages are an interesting stew, as I have mentioned before.)
Serena’s knees and ankles are a mess from 30 years of wear and tear. She has shown flashes of the old Serena, at times, but cannot sustain the grind. You can see her frustration. The body can no longer accomplish what the head and heart demand. Players no longer fear her. Serena's first round crumbling at Wimbledon, followed by the heart-breaking, tear-filled walk off the court, was terrible to watch.
Same for Venus. She can give you a set, making you think she still has something. And then poof, game gone. Her recent match in Chicago, a straight set loss to Hsieh Su-Wei, showed her struggling to chase down deep balls after long rallies.
Maybe it’s time we turn the channel to some reality. The end is here, just a matter of the period being put on the sentence. Maybe it will be in 2022 Australia, or Wimbledon, or wherever. Or maybe the ending has been written and they (and we!) don’t know it yet. They will certainly try to play. But trying doesn’t equal returning to form.
Serena has nothing to prove. Fed has nothing to prove. Venus has nothing to prove. Rafa likely will keep going a little longer, until he can’t practice 5 hours a day at full tilt *which is also why his ankle, knee, foot, wrist, and other important body parts are falling apart. Rafa only has one gear installed in his transmission – full out.*
Wawrinka is on his last lap too, diminished by a string of foot injuries and surgeries.
Thiem and Kenin will be back.
The change is here.
My suggestion? Pick some underdogs and watch them. Like resurgent vets Angelique Kerber and Belinda Bencic, or the undersized kings of grind, Diego Schwartzman and David Goffin. They have fun playing tennis and make everybody smile. See if Osaka and Djoker can get through the pressure.
The U.S. Open is the tournament of extremes. It’s usually hot and muggy, releasing all the pungent flair of a late New York summer. The subway cars rattle by and airplanes drop their landing gear on approach to LGA during rallies. The night session hecklers in the upper level are drunker and more trash talkingly eloquent than at the hatefest at the nearby Mets. The 1:30 a.m., 5-sets to the death finishes are amazing to witness. (CAVEAT: unless you are a journalist on deadline, having been there since 9 a.m., and you feel as punch-drunk as the players. Then…we have an adventure.)
I have a perverse joy in having tennis on all day and night. So come join me.
I was happy to get a lot of reaction to the Paralympics feature I did on Aug. 23. If you missed it, here is the catch-up.
Many agreed that the global public needs to do better in acknowledging and supporting the Paralympics. The athletes don’t want pity. They want to be recognized for being world class and elite. Period. Case in point: a local TV station showed some Para Team USA highlights from Tokyo, which made me happy. Then I was mad when the sports anchor chose not to discuss the athletic performances that led to a gold medal. He instead blathered on how inspirational the athlete was, blah, blah. I don’t hear us talking about Simone Biles solely in terms of being inspirational. We mention how she wins too. So separating the athlete from their performance, simply because of their physical state, is shallow and wrong. Let’s do better.