For at least a decade now, the tennis commentariat has been wringing its hands over an inevitable future without three of the sport’s biggest stars and perennial golden geese: Roger Federer, Serena Williams, and Rafael Nadal. In their stead, some regression in the sport’s marketability and popularity appeared certain.
By the time each of them withdrew from this year’s U.S. Open — Serena with a hamstring tear; Rafa with a foot injury; Federer with terminal back and knee pain — their faces were already plastered on subways and buses across New York City, promising their “great return” to Flushing Meadows. Instead, the banner advertisements have been a gloomy testament to Father Time, as this year’s U.S. Open marked the first without at least one of the trio playing since 1997, before Greek world No. 3 and taker of contentiously long bathroom breaks Stefanos Tsitsipas had been potty-trained.
But after a week and a half of some of the best, most competitive Grand Slam tennis in recent memory, buoyed by riotous crowds that were absent from last year’s event on account of the pandemic, the future no longer looks so bleak. When the torch is passed, if it hasn’t been already, tennis will be just fine.
Just take a look at the women’s draw, which has been delightfully blitzed by British 18-year-old Emma Raducanu, the first qualifier ever to reach a Major final, and Canadian 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez, who has defeated the tournament’s second, third, and fifth seeds to reach Saturday’s final. In coolly dispatching the world’s top players (Fernandez beat the tournament’s second, third, and fifth seeds, each in three sets; Raducanu, ranked 150th in the world, hasn’t lost a single set), each of them demonstrated the exact sort of plucky irreverence the sport needs. (And that Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu, whose own coronations took place at this very event, had displayed in recent years before their respective struggles with mental health and injuries.) When Raducanu and Fernandez play one another Saturday, it will be the first all-teenage U.S. Open final since 1999, when a 17-year-old Serena Williams won her maiden Grand Slam. One hopes that in Saturday’s final, between two players entirely unburdened by expectation, they play the kind of fearless and composed tennis that got them there.
And on the men’s side, there’s Carlos Alcaraz, a gutsy, baby-faced 18-year-old Spaniard, possessed of explosive power, who shocked Tsitsipas in five sets and became the youngest men’s quarterfinalist at a Major since 1990. Though he’d bow out in that round, he has a natural swagger and ball-striking ability that have courted comparison to both Federer and Nadal, who with Novak Djokovic have successfully gate-kept an entire generation of upstarts from the Major titles.
Needless to say, the fans have responded in kind. The New York crowd savors its underdogs and its wunderkinds, and this year they’re “foaming in the mouth,” to quote the young American Frances Tiafoe, who burned the midnight oil in a five-set upset win over Andrey Rublev that ended after 2 a.m., with Tiafoe ripping off his shirt at the seams in celebration. (An improbable number of matches during the tournament have ended well into the small hours, justifying whatever loss of sleep they caused.)
The old guard is hardly absent at Flushing Meadows. Djokovic, making a strong case for himself as the greatest player ever, is into the semifinals, two matches away from the pinnacle of tennis achievement, a calendar-year Grand Slam, and with it a 21st Major title that would break a three-way tie with Federer and Nadal. This pursuit may still be the tournament’s A1 story line — the weight of history bearing down on a player of automatous efficiency, a man perhaps too workmanlike in his genius to inspire the same devotion as his two rivals. But it has felt like something of a sideshow to the gauntlet of fresh faces.
Neither Tiafoe nor any of his countrymen and women were able to reach the quarterfinals, but the state of American tennis looks rather promising. The 20-year-old Jenson Brooksby, whose disarming, almost squashlike style of play provided a refreshing foil to the modern game’s surfeit of powerful baseliners, took the opening set off Djokovic in their fourth-round match before his legs gave out. The big-serving human beanstalk Reilly Opelka also reached the final 16 in a career-best Grand Slam result. And the South Carolinian Shelby Rogers, who at 28 is not exactly a newcomer, pulled off the biggest win of her career over world No. 1 and Wimbledon champion Ash Barty, willing herself to victory in a final-set tiebreak before an exuberant hometown crowd juiced up on the tournament’s signature, exorbitantly priced Grey Goose cocktail.
“The crowd is next-level this year,” Rogers said in her on-court interview after the upset. Surely the quality of play and the number of closely fought matches — 35 five-setters on the men’s side so far, tying an Open record from 1983 — has something to do with their return.
Writing about last year’s Open, I noted that the absence of fans at the 2020 event made for its own kind of theatre, forcing athletes accustomed to big crowds into the sort of intimate confrontation that distinguishes professional tennis from junior-level competition, where players are mostly watched by just their families and coach. Take last year’s final between Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, a clumsy war of attrition that didn’t so much announce the arrival of the sport’s next superstars as it did augur a future without any at all. Watching them founder nervously in the biggest match of either of their careers, one wondered if they would’ve better risen to the occasion in front of a packed house. In his semifinal match against Djokovic on Friday, where he’ll look to hand the Serb his first loss in a Major this year, Zverev will get a chance to partially rectify last year’s collapse.
The tennis has been superb throughout — and it might get even better this weekend — but so has the psychodrama, including but not limited to petty controversies over the aforementioned toilet break; catty handshakes; admonishing tweets; and a retractable roof that couldn’t keep out the remnants of Hurricane Ida, which inundated much of New York City but arrived after last Wednesday’s night session, keeping the tournament on schedule. Yes, even the weather, usually oppressively hot this time of year, has broken in the Open’s favor. Altogether, these two weeks have been a balm, however trivial or fleeting, during a summer fraught with evermore variants of contagion and natural disaster. They’ve also been a welcome reminder of the particular thrill of live professional tennis, as riveting a spectacle as any in sport.