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Time to sweep up the confetti, pick up Novak Djokovic’s tear-filled tissues, and tell Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Leo DeCaprio (and his unseen, but probably there, supermodel date half his age), Maria Sharapova and the assorted stars to go back home.
The U.S. Open is over. Sigh. Sighiest of all sighs. The drama will be missed.
To quote Stefon, this tournament had everything: two first-time major singles winners; the women’s game going to another level with fresh stars; golden Slam and Grand Slam winners in wheelchair; Sam Stosur (yes, the Aussie warrior is still grinds at 37) taking a doubles title; and American teen stars Coco Gauff and Caty McNally – the fun doubles team – nearly winning a title. (They were denied the win because of…Stosur. Circle of life, y’all.)
So let’s tease out some things to file away in our stress-addled brains. Tennis essentially goes dark for me until Australia. We can watch the various tournaments and the end of the year stuff to keep us going, but the players you want to watch are going to take a looooong, and well-deserved, break. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are both on crutches, not to resurface until 2022.
This tennis year has been an exceptional grind, thanks to COVID bubbles, the Tokyo Olympics and the tons of injuries that popped up. People need to go home, get right, and recalibrate.
Women’s side: We’re not going to recover from the Emma Raducanu and Leyla Fernandez show for a while. Which is a sign of something special. Emma was amazing in the final, playing the straight sets win like she knew exactly what to do. Leyla was fine too, but she lacked that Super Mario mega mushroom gear that she had all tournament.
It was unthinkable to have a qualifier win a major. It is the most brutal road, as you get to play a tournament, before the main tournament, just to GET INTO the draw. Emma had to go to work before she really had to go to work. And then not to drop a set the whole way in the big show? Again, all prop bets you would never take with a sober mind. Impossible. Until Emma made it all happen.
The magic of her story may lie in how she could impact tennis. Her parents did not farm her out to a tennis factory in another country when she was young. She has been home in England, going to a real high school, and her parents deliberately dialed back the tennis over the last 18 months so she could work on her studies. She recently did well on her A-level exams, and talked on ESPN about her love of economics, finance, and being a student.
What her parents did is revolutionary. The norm is to take a young tween or teen with potential and ship them - alone - to Florida or California (a lot of academies cluster there); Spain (the Nadal family has an academy in Mallorca, and the Sanchez operation has been in Barcelona and Florida for a while); France (Patrick Mouratogolu has a major operation in the south); or the hundreds of other places around that globe. You leave school, say goodbye to friends and family, and turn into a tennis slave. In many cases, the new tennis world will not be in your native language. The stories of isolation, despair and stress are numerous. These academies sell their academics and opportunities to create well-rounded players. But we all know why thousands of euros or dollars are spent on your new form of education…to turn you into an elite tennis beast. This is not Bayside High, the magical Nadal island edition. Your Mr. Belding will put you on the court 5-6 hours a day, plus more time spent on off-court conditioning, and then comes school.
If you’re really good, like world-class, all eyes on me amazing, you will never step foot in a real high school. You are pulled out of society, and away your youth goes.
This is the way and the truth. Nearly every one of today’s top players has a similar story. The all-or-nothing approach to tennis has left a pile of careers and souls in its wake. Being talented at a young age is a blessing and curse.
But is it the only way? Emma has proven otherwise. She obviously is playing high level tennis, getting her development close to home, with the social and emotional stability of having her family helping her journey to becoming a full-scope young woman. She is can win the U.S. Open, with class and poise, and also be somebody who could go to college with real life plans if tennis ended tomorrow. A $2.5 million check and a beautiful trophy may be enough to change some ambitious parental minds. Maybe Emma’s win can move the conversation into a new place, given the focus on mental health and today’s top players talking about their struggles for normalcy and stability.
Men’s side: Admit it. We all knew, early on, that Djoker was unlikely to rise from the dead in the final. He was so tired. Emotionally. Physically. Mentally. The dude was gassed, and Daniil Medvedev – the No. 2 player in the world – was waiting with a chainsaw. Djoker’s tears were about the grief of losing the rare Grand Slam opportunity, and the relief of being freed from the pressure. It was Med’s time, the same way it was Djoker’s time in Australia last January when he won over the Russian. Med has been knocking on the door for a while, so this win was real and justified. The hype over Djoker and the Grand Slam may have been too much, but he was also weakened from having to play extended matches against strong players in the rounds before the final. He was a staggering fighter, entering the big ring with only 2 rounds left in his legs.
There is no shame. Any player would love to be the “loser” of the fourth Slam of the year, especially if you’ve already got the other three 2021 trophies in your display case. I was having fun imagining Rafa and Fed having a group chat watching the match, secretly hoping Djoker would stay tied with them at 20 Grand Slams until they can come back.
So where do we go from here? We chill for a bit and watch the storylines. Can Leyla and Emma deal with the pressure and tabloid focus on their personal lives and tennis? Chris Evert had a stunning remark on ESPN after the match, saying she hopes both women still have the same joyful smiles and love for tennis in a few years. She knows the price of fame and success can be toxic.
Can Med follow up with more Slams? He is used to fame. This probably won’t hit him too hard. We need to watch if the old guard coming back – Fed, Rafa, Serena - can recover to a level where they feel ready to play. Is tennis turning into a more all court game, especially on the women’s side? Will Djoker stay hungry and strong, and get the 21st Slam to become the all-time male major leader?
We will stay tuned.
See you Friday!