As the crowds enter the Billie Jean National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows Park, most walk over a plaque in the ground without giving it a second look. For those who pause to read the inscription, they would learn that they are walking past the time capsules from the 1939 and 1964 World’s Fairs held at the grounds that now house the US Open.
In a time before widespread travel, satellite TV, or instantaneous worldwide connections over the internet, the World’s Fairs were a way to bring people and cultures together, and for each country to show off the best it had to offer. And, their time capsules were a way to show the people of the future – 5,000 years in the future – to see how people lived in the world of 1939 and 1964, and included items like Camel cigarettes, Life magazine, a Gilette razor, and an RKO newsreel.
It’s fitting that the US Open takes place in the same space where so many came together from around the world, but now the tennis world gathers on this site to see the best that competitors from around the world have to offer, and to create a record for future generations to contemplate many years from now.
As many have remarked, the men’s tournament saw a changing of the guard, with the first final not to feature one of the Big Three since the 2005 Australian Open. It also saw inspired play from perennial what-if Gael Monfils, giant-killer Kei Nishikori, and killing giant Marin Cilic, who won the title by routing his last three opponents, and putting together all of the talent that had appeared in flashes since he was a teenager. Cilic rebounded from a doping suspension due to ingestion of a stimulant, but may have benefited from the break from the tour. He used the time to seek out Goran Ivanisevic as a mentor, retool his game, and change his mental focus.
Given that Rafael Nadal, absent with a wrist injury, has emerged from forced breaks to win multiple Grand Slam titles, it raises the question of whether strategic breaks, like those taken unsuccessfully by Ivan Lendl in his attempts to win Wimbledon, may return to the game.
As much as fans may have griped or joked about the drop in viewership in a Roger-Rafa-Djoker-less final, the sight of a first-time winner’s joy was enough to melt the heart of the most die-hard Big Three fan. It’s unclear whether either finalist will reach these heights again, but each has been building towards this breakthrough with years of ever stronger performances, so there is hope that this is the first of many chances they will have to claim the sport’s biggest prizes.
As for those three or four guys who notably weren’t in the final, as time marches on, their absences will cease to be noteworthy, but not just yet.
Roger Federer may not have won a Grand Slam in 2014, but his performance for the season is a marked improvement over his disappointing 2013, and he will no doubt take a great degree of confidence from his return to the top tier.
Novak Djokovic can walk away from the season pleased with his Wimbledon win, but disappointed at his listless play in New York and with falling short in Paris and Melbourne, and continuing to wonder whether Boris is enough to cure his lifeless play at crucial junctures.
Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal have similar concerns – walking the hard road back from injury.
Murray is further down the path and showed improvement in New York, avenging his Toronto loss to Jo-Wilifried Tsonga, but lacked fire in his loss to Djokovic.
As for Nadal, it is troubling that a training injury sidelined him from another Slam. Given his unparalleled competitive instinct and singularly effective game, it’s not hard to imagine Nadal running the tables when he does re-emerge on the tour. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder how many more comebacks he has in him, and whether the rest of the field is finally progressing to the point where even he can be neutralized.
Eventually, though, this conversation about the Big Three/Four will be obsolete. But before that happens, it’s worth a moment to reflect on the achievements of this group, and these are the ones that stand out to me. Starting with the 2005 French Open and ending with the 2010 Australian Open, Roger Federer played in 18 of the 20 Grand Slam finals that were contested; Rafael Nadal won all but one of the French Opens he played in, to date, nine in total. In the shadow of this greatness, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray managed to carve out their own legacies, and nearly a decade later, all four still remain the biggest contenders, for now, at least.
18. That sums up a women’s tournament that had many interesting storylines. Serena Williams reached the 18-Grand Slam club, finally, and probably won’t stay at 18 for long. It was great to see Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert welcome her so warmly – I’m rooting for Serena to get to 22, if only to see if Steffi Graf can be coaxed into presenting her with a 22 karat bauble at the trophy ceremony, though I’m not holding my breath…about Steffi, that is. With Serena, anything is possible.
Her opponent in the final, Caroline Wozniacki, may have nearly as much to be happy about, after her two weeks at the Open. While she came up short in the final, the real turning point for Wozniacki at the tournament, and potentially for her career, was her win over Maria Sharapova in the fourth round. Finding a tenacity to go with her consistent, error-free game, she remained steady in the face of Sharapova’s expected onslaught in the second and third sets, and displayed a willingness to attack the net and go for her groundstrokes that she will hopefully retain going forward.
Many of the other top contenders for the women’s titles bowed out earlier than expected. In addition to Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, Venus Williams, Genie Bouchard, Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, and Aga Radwanska, bowed out before the quarterfinals, and Victoria Azarenka survived one more round. Yet, unlike the men’s tour, the women’s tour has lived with a variety of champions over the past decade, due to the fluctuating fortunes of its top tier. What was once seen as a liability for the WTA, can now be seen as a strength, as it has provided greater public exposure to a group of engaging, talented players, creating more star players who generate viewers for themselves and the new stars that emerge alongside them, like Belinda Bencic and Aleksandra Krunic, both of whom I hope to see a lot more of going forward.
Given the indelible images of Peng Shuai’s physical struggles in her semifinal with Caroline Wozniacki, the ever-simmering issues of injuries and timeouts are an important marker of this US Open. Both Peng’s injury and the aftermath indicate the physical demands of the sport, and the problems in the rules that address the issue of injury. Professional tennis makes incredible demands on its athletes – from quick turnarounds, to varying surfaces and equipment, to extraordinary amounts of travel, and it’s not surprising to see that players break down from time to time.
But, when combined with Serena Williams’ health problems at Wimbledon, there has to be a way for an official to prevent clearly compromised players from playing, when doing so represents danger to their health. At the same time, the rules can be and have been abused by players looking for an edge in a sport of tightening margins, and there need to be point or game penalties for the use of medical timeouts, to keep players honest.
Having watched this tournament partially in person, and partially on TV, it was hard not to get caught up in the farewell to CBS as the tournament broadcaster, and to compare the broadcasts offered by CBS, ESPN, and Tennis Channel. The departure of CBS as the official broadcaster is part of the larger splintering of television these days, and means that, ironically, only the French Open, arguably the least approachable of the Slams, will be shown on a broadcast network going forward, to the extent that such distinctions matter anymore. It was lovely to see the CBS retrospectives of the tournament, and its coverage. But one is struck by the fact that Americans dominated the tournament for much of that history, and the CBS coverage that came from that history is not well-suited to today’s game.
Perhaps to suit the general sports fan rather than the tennis fan, CBS relies on the celebrity of John McEnroe and his force of personality to guide much of its broadcasts, which worked when Agassi, Courier, Chang and Sampras dominated – McEnroe knew those guys as a competitor and Davis Cup teammate. However, as the game has moved to Europe, McEnroe’s knowledge base has not moved with it, and while his insights as a competitor are welcome, the gaps in his knowledge are not, even though he is, as ever, open about his shortcomings and endearingly so, at times.
It’s hard to imagine another sport allowing its premier event to be broadcast in a manner calculated to cater more to non-fans more than fans. There’s a reason Dennis Miller never made it as an NFL commentator. As tennis moves towards more specialized channels, perhaps there is hope that the commentary team will add a player or coach of more recent vintage to tighten things up. They’re easy to find – just check out Tennis Channel.
Like any other time capsule, though, as we close up this year’s US Open, it is with a sense of looking forward more than looking back, and wondering how this moment in time will stack up decades or centuries from now. Strangely, this time, we’re asking whether the WTA’s generation next will have a breakthrough, and whether the ATP veterans will be able to restore order, or whether their order has been disrupted permanently. It’s hard to imagine that the drought of American male champions will end anytime soon, and I wonder what this will mean for tennis broadcasting in America.
The enduring images I will take from this tournament are the belief that returned to players like Caroline Wozniacki, Gael Monfils, Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic, Serena’s 18 and the Bryan Brothers’ 100, and the drama of Federer’s comeback against Monfils. Let’s just make sure to include one of the Coca-Cola cans that Gael drank during that match in our 2014 US Open time capsule – 5,000 years from now, no one will believe Gael hydrated with Coke without proof.