August 5, 2020

If a Tree Falls in the Woods...

...And Rafa's not there to hear it...

By now, we all know that Rafael Nadal won't be making the trip to New York to defend his U.S. Open title. The four time champion in New York cited ongoing concerns over the spreading coronavirus as his reason for missing what would strangely be the second Grand Slam of the year.

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After many thoughts I have decided not to play this year’s US Open. The situation is very complicated worldwide, the COVID-19 cases are increasing, it looks like we still don’t have control of it. We know that the reduced tennis calendar is barbaric this year after 4 months stopped with no play, I understand and thank [officials] for the efforts they are putting in to make it happen. We have just seen the announcement of Madrid not being played this year. All my respects to the USTA, the US Open organisers and the ATP for trying to put the event together for the players and the fans around the world through TV. This is a decision I never wanted to take but I have decided to follow my heart this time and for the time being I rather not travel.

A post shared by Rafa Nadal (@rafaelnadal) on

It's not the most shocking news of course -- with travel restrictions still in effect and the French Open expected to start just a few weeks after New York wraps, my money was long on Nadal opting to stay local and play the event that launched his career.

Still, it's certainly the highest profile withdrawal from the event so far -- while Roger Federer has been out with injury (albeit, a recent surprise visit to Italy might belie that excuse) and Stan Wawrinka is mysteriously absent from the official entry list, Ashleigh Barty and Nick Kyrgios have taken the same COVID-centric stance as Rafa. 

The potential holes in the men's draw don't stop there -- Grigor Dimitrov, the Typhoid Mary of sorts at the Adria Tour, is still recovering from his bout with coronavirus (I'm not even going to go into how concerning it is that a professional athlete isn't bouncing back so easily). And there's even some speculation that Novak Djokovic, who's entered in the singles and doubles draws for "Cincy", may also pull out (though, let's be honest, how likely do we really think that is?).

So far the women's side is a little more in tact -- though Simona Halep raised some eyebrows with her sudden withdrawal from Palermo, she is currently slated to play in New York, making Barty the only top-tenner not on the list. 

But in all, five of the top twenty men are currently missing from the roster for New York for a variety of reasons -- and it will be the first Major without both Nadal and Federer since 1999 (!!) -- which begs the question: what does that mean for the rest of the field -- and, maybe more importantly, what does it say about the eventual winner?

Obviously, the hands-down favorite of the pack is Djokovic, who'd be going for his eighteenth Grand Slam title, putting him just one behind Rafa. In fact, there are only two other previous Major winners in the field: Marin Cilic, whose lone big trophy came on these courts back in 2014, and Andy Murray, who's said he's willing to take the risk of returning to the scene of his breakthrough after so much injury and time off (I'm not sure I agree with the logic, but Murray has been one of the voices of reason on many issues this summer, so I'll hold my breath). 

The young guard, though, from three-time Slam finalist Dominic Thiem and last year's New York runner-up Daniil Medvedev, to Stefanos Tsitsipas and much-maligned Alexander Zverev, are chomping at the bit to take over. Of that group, Medvedev is really the only one who's kept a low profile this summer, and whether their on-court time lights a fire under them or provides a distraction -- well, I guess we'll see. 

On the other hand, if the limited evidence we have of match play the past few weeks is any indication, after a couple months off, there's a lot of opportunity for players who you don't expect to make a name for themselves. Nineteen-year-old Brandon Nakashima, for one, turned out to be the standout in World Team Tennis -- he might not be ready for the title yet, but he certainly could cause some damage. 

At the end of the day, though, it's going to be a weird tournament, and I'm not sure anyone will know what to make of the results. It's not just the lack of Roger and Rafa -- players (mostly Novak) have won Majors without facing either one of the greats -- or the bizarre, fanless, teamless circumstances -- not to mention the lack of practice, the lack of qualies, etc. The winners' prize money will be cut by more than 20 percent from last year, but the $3 million paycheck is nothing to scoff at. 

Whatever the case, it feels like this year's U.S. Open will be the start of a new generation in tennis -- whether it's a different look and feel to the game we all love, or a fresh slate of champions taking over the reins, things are going to be a lot different on the other side. 

And the sound they create will set the tone for a while to come.

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