A confident teen upset a nervous queen, and an ageless legend stopped a relentless insurgent to win US Open titles. As a result, the bid to equal a hallowed women’s record was thwarted, and the race for the men’s GOAT heated up.
Let’s review these and other memorable matches, trends and human interest stories at the year’s last major and consider what they portend.
Andreescu gets top grades
The most impressive first-time Grand Slam queen, other than Naomi Osaka, in the past three unpredictable years of women’s tennis was crowned at the US Open. Going into the tournament, the vastly improved Bianca Andreescu hadn’t lost a completed match since March 2 and boasted a perfect 7-0 record against top 10 foes. Although a shoulder injury forced her to withdraw from the French Open and Wimbledon, the fast-rising Canadian won prestigious events at Indian Wells, beating five seeds, and Toronto.
Even so, many experts doubted a callow teenager could ever win another major title because elite players increasingly competed into their 30s and the women’s tour boasted unprecedented depth. Andreescu, just 19, emphatically disproved that during the fortnight at Flushing Meadows. Though her steely mental strength evoked memories of past teen queens Chris Evert, Steffi Graf and Monica Seles, make no mistake: this girl’s got the game. Losing just two sets, Andreescu showcased a wicked topspin forehand, strong first and second serves, beautiful angles and drop shots, skilful defence and clever shot selection. As all-time great Martina Navratilova said, “Andreescu has everything. There’s really no weakness.”
After supremely confident Andreescu outplayed Serena Williams 6-3, 7-5 in the riveting US Open final, she said of Williams, “I’ve really strived to be like her. And who knows, maybe even better.”
Bianca arrived at a propitious time of great parity. Different women have captured the four majors in each of the past three years. Andreescu and the more powerful, but less versatile, Osaka look like the best bets to end that parity and emerge as superstars in the early 2020s.
Nadal isn’t just getting older, he’s getting better
What a year! Rafael Nadal reached the Australian Open final, captured a mindboggling 12th French Open title, made the Wimbledon semifinals and climaxed his super season by grabbing his fourth US Open at age 33. His superlative 7-5, 6-3, 5-7, 4-6, 6-4 final triumph over Daniil Medvedev, 10 years his junior, gave Nadal his 19th Grand Slam title. That’s just one short of Roger Federer’s all-time record 20.
Rafa insists he’s not obsessed by overtaking Federer, who is nearly five years older and hasn’t won a major since the 2018 Wimbledon. “If you did, I think you would live in a state of tension and pressure all day long,” Nadal explained. “I don’t think it would make me happy, and I think it would keep me from appreciating all the things I’ve done and all the good things that have happened to me.”
Even so, Nadal harbours a burning passion for competition, much like the rest of the historic Big Three. And like 32-year-old Djokovic, he grabbed two majors this year. In fact, Nadal became the first man to win five majors after turning 30.
How ironic that Nadal, plagued by major injuries throughout his brilliant career, would outlast the much-younger Medvedev and flourish long after most past champions declined or even retired. As ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe noted, “He was the guy who we thought would have the most trouble as he got older.”
Serena’s bid for 24th major fails again
“I’m so close, so close, so close, yet so far away,” said a frustrated Serena Williams after losing to Bianca Andreescu in the US Open women’s singles final. It marked her fourth straight decisive defeat in a Grand Slam final after giving birth to her first child two years ago.
Williams might identify with Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure. Zeus punished Sisyphus by forever forcing him to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down when it neared the top.
At the top of Serena’s tantalisingly elusive hill is the Holy Grail of tennis — Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles. Many experts already consider Serena the women’s GOAT for two reasons. Court won 11 majors at the Australian Open, which suffered from very weak fields in the 1960s and 1970s. Secondly, Serena’s resume includes four Olympic gold medals (three in doubles), though, in fairness, tennis wasn’t reinstated in the Olympics as a medal sport until 1988, long after Court had retired.
Those fine points don’t mean a thing to the determined superstar who turned 38 on September 26. Before the dramatic final, Serena told reporters, “What you don’t understand is when I get 24 — because it’s inevitable — you guys are going to ask me about 25 and to pass the record.”
When the year’s last major began, former doubles star Rennae Stubbs presciently predicted, “It’s a matter of whether Serena can emotionally handle the emotional stress of two weeks at the US Open.” She couldn’t.
Although Serena didn’t implode and get penalised and fined as she did at the Open in 2009, 2011 and 2018, she cracked under the pressure against Andreescu. This debacle resembled her choking in the 2015 semifinals when she was shocked by heavy underdog Roberta Vinci. This time, the nerve-wracked Serena committed 33 unforced errors, put only 44 percent of first serves in play and had eight double faults, three on break points to lose her serve.
“I could have just been more Serena today,” Serena lamented. “I don’t think Serena showed up. I have to figure out how to get her to show up in Grand Slam finals.” Like many an aging but proud former champion, Serena can’t accept the fact, the reality, that her reign is over. If Serena reaches a major final in 2020, we should consider it an achievement and not a failure.
Medvedev goes from villain to nice guy
When was the last time a player was heavily fined — $19,000 for four infractions, in Medvedev’s case — yet managed to reach a Grand Slam final? Harken back to 1970-1980s tennis bad boys Ilie Nastase, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.
To understand the love-hate relationship fickle New York fans have with Daniil Medvedev, you have to appreciate how much the quirky Russian matured during the tournament. After he ripped a towel from a ball boy, gave jeering spectators the finger and cursed during his tempestuous fourth-round victory over Feliciano Lopez, he became the new villain of tennis. Merciless fans booed Medvedev’s double faults when he defeated Grigor Dimitrov in the semifinals.
When asked, “Can you tell the tennis public what kind of person you are?” Medvedev confided, “I’m a really calm person in life. I actually have no idea why the demons go out when I play. When I was a junior, I had a lot of problems with my attitude. I was not getting defaulted, but I was getting a [lot of] game penalties… I was working hard because every time I do something wrong, I’m sitting with myself [and I’d say] I’m not like this… Why does it happen?”
Medvedev credits sports psychologist Francisca Dos and his wife, Daria, for helping him quell, for the most part, the mental demons that have bedevilled him since he was a teenager.
With the Russian on his best behaviour throughout the four-hour, 49-minute final, appreciative spectators chanted “Medvedev! Medvedev!” as he mounted a courageous but ultimately unsuccessful comeback against Nadal.
During the trophy ceremony, Medvedev paid tribute to the crowd. “Because of your energy I was here in the final,” he said. “I’m a human being, I can make mistakes. Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart.” The empathetic, forgiving spectators cheered loudly.
Tennis may need a villain, as McEnroe maintains. But we may have to settle for the boorish, self-destructive Nick Kyrgios because Medvedev is just too nice.
The women’s Old Guard flounders
Let’s start with Venus Williams. At 39, the elder stateswoman of tennis remains a sentimental favourite wherever and whomever she plays. Just two years ago, she enjoyed a surprising, even amazing, renaissance, reaching the Australian and Wimbledon finals. At this US Open, Venus showed flashes of her bygone greatness, but was routinely defeated 6-4, 6-4 by No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina in the second round.
Most likely, Venus, who made her WTA main draw debut way back in 1994, will hang up her beloved racquet at the 2020 US Open. Next, Maria Sharapova, who captured the last of her five majors in 2014, looked her age, 32. She moved slowly, played erratically and Serena crushed her 6-1, 6-1 in a disappointing first-round match. In retrospect, given Serena had previously defeated her 18 straight times, the media hyped this match way too much.
Victoria Azarenka continues to be stymied by extremely tough draws. At Flushing Meadows, No. 9 seed Aryna Sabalenka edged her 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the first round. The 30-year-old Belarusian never gained any traction in her comeback after giving birth to her son in December 2016. Azarenka’s groundstrokes lack the power they packed during her short 2012–13 prime when she won two Australian Opens and reached two US Open finals.
Three-time major winner Angelique Kerber, the 14th seed, suffered a 7-5, 0-6, 6-4 first-round upset to hard-hitting Kristina Mladenovic. That loss completed the 31-year-old German counter-puncher’s worst Grand Slam year, winning just four matches, since 2009. Hopes for a third major title soared for popular Petra Kvitova when she reached the 2019 Australian Open final and played superbly in a close loss to Osaka. But the powerful, 29-year-old Czech lefty, seeded sixth, misfired too often and was upset 6-4, 6-4 by 88th-ranked Andrea Petkovic in the second round.
Net-rushing enjoys a wonderful resurgence
No style confrontation in tennis is more exciting than that between an athletic net-rusher and an adroit groundstroker. In this century, however, powerful racquets, spin-enhancing strings, two-handed backhands and Western forehands shifted the advantage to baseliners. So much so that it takes a brave, highly skilled player to make a foray to the forecourt.
Against the odds, net-rushing — even the near-extinct art of serving and volleying — made a big comeback at the US Open. And, many times, the tactic paid off for its creative practitioners.
None more so than unheralded Taylor Townsend. Ranked 116th, the 23-year-old American has underachieved since winning the US Open junior title seven years ago chiefly because she’s been at least 20 pounds overweight.
Despite that handicap, the highly talented lefty knocked out Wimbledon champion and No. 4 seed Simona Halep 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 in the tournament’s biggest upset. Townsend completely disrupted Halep’s rhythm by attacking the net 106 times. She executed the smart tactic a stunning 64 times in the deciding set and won 60 percent of those crucial points. In her first three matches, Townsend served and volleyed 45 percent of the time (116 times in 256 points), an unheard-of percentage this century in women’s tennis.
“People have been saying for years that you can’t play that style and win,” 1980s doubles superstar Pam Shriver told The New York Times . “I always thought they were wrong, but people always said I was biased because that’s how I played. But I do think Taylor is proving a point, and I think other people are proving it, too. I think there’s been a shift in the last couple years toward more of an all-court style.”
Caty McNally, an 18-year-old American, similarly surprised Serena Williams by frequently rushing net and putting away enough volleys to take the first set in their second-round encounter. “It was definitely something to get used to,” said the impressed Williams. “You don’t play players like her that have such full games.”
Similarly, in the men’s final, tactically astute Rafael Nadal came to net 66 times and won the point 51 times, for an unusually high 77 percent, including 13 for 16 for a terrific 81 percent in the high-pressure fifth set. Nadal also capitalised on Daniil Medvedev’s ultra-deep serve return position with 20 serve and volleys, taking 17 points for a spectacular 85%. Not to be outmanoeuvred, Medvedev, a chess player, streaked to net 74 times himself and won 50 of those points for a solid 68 percent. He also played 29 serve-and-volley points, winning 22 for an even better 76 percent.
Let’s hope this entertaining and effective playing style becomes popular again in the coming decade.
Parity prevails at the top again
The first three Grand Slam queens of 2019 had a wonderful chance to solidify their superiority by winning the US Open. But none even reached the quarterfinals. Thus, for the third straight year, women’s tennis has four different major champions.
Australian Open champion Osaka lost 7-5, 6-4 to highly regarded, 13th-seeded Belinda Bencic in the fourth round. The thoughtful Osaka viewed the setback as a valuable lesson. “It’s something I have learned over the summer that even if you aren’t playing your best, you’re going to play people who are going to play their best,” Osaka said. “You have to figure out how to win those matches. And it’s matches like that that are the most important, because it really tests your character. So I think on that side I have a lot of growing up to do.”
Ashleigh Barty, the surprise French Open titlist, had a surprising reaction to her poor performance in a 6-2, 6-4 loss to light-hitting, 18th-seeded Wang Qiang. “I don’t think [making] the second week of a Slam is a missed opportunity,” said Barty. “It’s a hell of an effort for all Slams to get to the second week.” It’s hard to believe such an outstanding athlete with such an all-around game would be satisfied with a fourth-loss to a very beatable opponent.
Simona Halep, who finished No. 1 in both 2017 and 2018 and took the 2019 Wimbledon title, ran into a serve-and-volley tornado in 116th-ranked Taylor Townsend and suffered a shocking 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 second-round loss. “Never played with someone coming so often to the net [106 net approaches, including 61 serve and volleys],” said Halep. “Didn’t miss much. It’s unbelievable.”
The 27-year-old Romanian also regretted giving advice to Townsend last March. “After we played together, she came in the locker room and she asked me what she has to improve to be better,” Halep recalled. “Next time I will not say anything.”
Federer's gradual decline continues
Roger Federer graciously downplayed his back pain and stiff neck after 78th-ranked Grigor Dimitrov upset him 3-6, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in the quarterfinals. Fed had won their seven previous matches. Two stats tell much about the match: The five-time US Open champ made 61 errors, including 33 off his backhand. Federer’s vulnerable backhand usually breaks down sooner or later, and Dimitrov smartly targeted it, especially in the deciding set.
Had Federer converted a match point against Djokovic in their epic Wimbledon final in July, he would have extended his Grand Slam lead over Nadal and Djokovic. Instead, the heartbreaking loss marked the 22nd time Federer lost a match after having one or more match points and the fourth time at a major. “The scoring system in tennis is genius,” Federer rightly noted. “You have to get over the finish line.”
The guess here is that the Mighty Fed will hang up his racquet in 2020, so he has four more Slam chances and the Tokyo Olympics to enhance his GOAT credentials.
If he doesn’t, will his record of 20 majors then be strong enough to fend off his two archrivals still in their primes?
“John McEnroe, Tim Henman and I have discussed who will end up with the most major titles,” said Jim Courier, former No. 1 and now a Tennis Channel analyst. “We’re all convinced it won’t be Federer. It’s an educated guess, but a guess nonetheless.”
Young guns misfire
Aside from Medvedev, surprise semifinalist Matteo Berrettini, 23, and Alex De Minaur, 20, who upset No. 7 Kei Nishikori to make the fourth round, the Next Gen fizzled for the second straight major.
Remember Stefanos Tsitsipas, the handsome, 20-year-old Greek who upset Federer to reach the Australian Open semis? He admits he never recovered from his heartbreaking, five-set French Open loss to Stan Wawrinka. Since then, he lost in the Wimbledon first round and again in the US Open first round, to Andrey Rublev in four sets.
Afterwards, the eighth-seeded Tsitsipas, who called the umpire “a weirdo,” confided, “I don’t feel inspired… I feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over again and my brain can’t really take it anymore.”
Another lost soul, Alexander Zverev, reached the fourth round, but only after surviving two five-setters and a close four-setter against players he should beat more decisively. Then the 5’7” Diego Schwartzman upset the 6’6” Zverev in four sets by not only out-steadying the sixth-seeded Zverev but also outhitting him. The 22-year-old German badly hurt his cause with 17 double faults and a whopping 65 unforced errors. Besides a shaky second serve, Zverev needs to improve his volley, court positioning, defensive skills and tactics. And hire a topnotch coach. Zverev split with his latest coach, Ivan Lendl, in June.
Karen Khachanov, the strapping Russian who slugged it out with Nadal for four ferocious sets in the 2018 US Open third round, was ousted in the first round this year. The ninth-seeded Khachanov, touted as a future star, suffered a shocking five-set loss to 215th-ranked Vasek Pospisil.
The most athletic Next Genner, 19-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime, was the most disappointing loser. Seeded No. 18, he was routed 6-1, 6-1, 6-4 by fellow Canadian Denis Shapovalov. Sounding dazed in the post-match presser, FAA said, “I haven’t really figured out where I’m going to go from here, like, what to think from that match. I don’t even know what my emotions are. I don’t know if I should be frustrated, sad. I’m not sure.” Expect the talented and dedicated FAA to learn from this stinging defeat and rebound strongly.
Osaka shows great compassion
Coco Mania captivated the US Open during the first week, just as it did at Wimbledon where Coco Gauff reached the fourth round. So before the 15-year-old prodigy faced defending champion Naomi Osaka, ESPN ’s Patrick McEnroe enthused, “It’s hard to remember a third-round match at the US Open, or any Slam, that has had as much hype as this one.”
The ballyhooed match didn’t live up to the hype. A relative veteran at only 21, the two-time major champion overwhelmed the tour rookie 6-3, 6-0. Osaka had too much shot power and big-match experience, though Gauff blasted big serves and displayed dazzling foot speed reminiscent of teenagers Venus and Serena Williams 25 years ago.
What happened after the last point, though, became an Internet sensation and almost as memorable as the controversial US Open final a year ago. Then, throughout the stunning upset, Osaka somehow kept her composure while Serena Williams lost hers and abused the umpire, incurring fines totalling $17,000. During the bittersweet trophy presentation, the pro-Serena crowd cruelly booed the innocent champion Osaka instead of cheering her. Taking the high road, Osaka told the spectators, “I’m always going to remember the Serena that I love. It doesn’t change anything for me. She was really nice to me, like, at the net and on the podium.”
This year, Osaka was just as empathetic and gracious after defeating Gauff. Noticing that Gauff was sobbing, Osaka comforted and hugged her and then persuaded Gauff to join her for a rare joint on-court interview. “She’s been so sweet to me,” Gauff told the rapt crowd. They hugged again. Paying tribute to Gauff’s parents, Osaka said, “You guys raised an amazing player.” She also thanked the spectators, adding, “The energy was crazy, even though it wasn’t for me. It was an incredible atmosphere.”
The poignant scene touched just about everyone. “This is what sports is all about,” said ESPN analyst Chris Evert, who won her first major title 45 years ago. “I’ve never seen anything like that in all my life.”
For her admirable compassion, Osaka received the women’s 2019 US Open Sportsmanship Award. Later, the appreciative and precocious Gauff praised Osaka with a brilliant and original aphorism. “For me, the definition of an athlete is someone who on the court treats you like your worst enemy, but off the court can be your best friend,” said Gauff. “She just proved that she’s a true athlete.”