September 12, 2021

History, Rewritten

I'm sure most people thought they'd be writing hugely different articles today.

After all, the only thing anyone was talking about going into this year's U.S. Open was the chance Novak Djokovic had at making all kinds of history. The possibility of capturing the ever-so-rare Grand Slam. Perhaps the even more impressive opportunity of scoring a never-been-done-before 21st Major title. The chance of cementing himself as the unequivocal #GOAT 🐐 in the sport, with plenty of time left to just add to his accomplishments. And as almost every promo airing on ESPN liked to remind you, he got one match away.

But, as we know, that history was not to be, and an entirely different story will go down in the record books.

Daniil Medvedev became the newest inductee into the Major championship club, stunning the world #1 in tonight's final in straight sets. There was almost never any question he was in control of the match, breaking in the very first game and pulling ahead two sets and two breaks to establish what would turn out to be an insurmountable lead. Even when he double faulted away championship point and was broken for the first time, trying to serve out the match, he was able to regroup and ultimately seal in the victory.

Of course we shouldn't be surprised that Medvedev was able to win a Major -- he came OHSOCLOSE to doing it two years ago on this stage against Rafael Nadal, and with a win in Toronto this year and titles in Paris and London to close out last season, he's certainly established himself as one of the best hardcourt players on tour.

But with his win today, he achieved something bigger. Medvedev became the first Next Gen player to beat one of the Big Three en route to the title -- remember Dominic Thiem got away without facing any of them last year in New York. And that could signal a real passing of the torch is underway, with the Russian taking up the mantle of leader of the pack -- a group he could lead for a long time.

So is it all over for Djokovic? Of course not -- he's still the #1 player in the world and playing at the top of his game. While he'll end the year tied with Rafa and Roger at 20 Majors apiece, the next slate of Grand Slams is just around the corner, and given his dominance in Melbourne, he could very well add #21 to his roster in a matter of months.

Going after the full Grand Slam again, that may be a little tougher, and for now Rod Laver's legacy remains intact. Come January 1, everyone starts at square one in their pursuit of that honor, and there's no reason to believe Djokovic won't give it another whirl.

But now, he's going to have at least one more player nipping at his heels and trying to put his own stamp on history.

Stealing the Spotlight

Someone wrote before yesterday's women's final that it was going to be hard for the ladies to stir up a lot of drama and excitement at the U.S. Open when there was so much history on the line for the men. But, boy, did these two rise up to the challenge, huh?

There were so many firsts accomplished by Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez during their runs this year -- the youngest final since 1999, the first qualifier ever to reach a Major championship match, much less win it, just to name a few. But the achievements aren't just in the superlatives -- for two weeks, more for Raducanu, actually, these two demonstrated some of the best tennis has to offer, and their rise to the spotlight was more than well deserved.

Now, I often spend the first week of a Slam writing about the young standouts or the big upsets, assuming that I'll have a chance to cover the favorites later. But that would not be the case this year, at least not on the women's side.

I'll start with the incredible run from Fernandez, who you know I've had my eye on for a while. From one Major to the next, I'd been waiting for her to break through, and had been a little disappointed that it hadn't happened yet. She sure changed that in New York though -- she quickly dispatched a tough Ana Konjuh in her opener and then took out Melbourne Cinderella in straight sets.

And that's when things started to get really interesting. In the third round against defending champion Naomi Osaka -- a woman who was riding a 17-match win streak at the Majors -- the world #73 came back from a set and a break down to notch her first top ten win of the season and by far the biggest win of her career -- at least until that point. She went on to defeat former world #1 and three-time Slam winner Angelique Kerber, Olympic bronze medalist Elina Svitolina, and hard-hitting second-ranked Aryna Sabalenka, each in three sets, spending nearly 13 hours on court to make the final. It's one of the most illustrious lists of victims we've seen in a long time -- certainly from so unexpected a source.

Raducanu, meanwhile, had a much easier run to the final, at least on paper. Originally slated to meet Australian Open runner-up Jen Brady in the first round, she got a bit of a pass when the American withdrew due to injury. Her fourth round opponent, Shelby Rogers, was coming off a monster defeat of top seed Ash Barty, and her semifinal rival, an in-form Maria Sakkari, had pulled off huge wins over two-time Major winner Petra Kvitova, 2019 U.S. Open champ Bianca Andreescu, and Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova.

Still, that shouldn't diminish her accomplishment. After her breakout at Wimbledon ended so abruptly, she regrouped and recharged, making the final in Chicago last month and battling through qualifying rounds here. And the fact that, in only her second ever Major appearance, she made it through ten matches without losing a set shows she's got power and consistency far beyond her years -- and certainly that she's more mentally tough than any detractor might think.

So after all that, we were left crowning the youngest Major champion in more than 17 years, but also having gotten a glimpse of what should be a bright future for women's tennis. It doesn't feel like Raducanu is going anywhere for a while, and Fernandez, while she may be disappointed that she wasn't able to walk away with the "right" trophy, certainly has a lot to be proud of for what she did this fortnight. Will their success here lay the foundation for a years-long rivalry to come? Well, we'll certainly see.

But it sure feels like we've entered a new era -- and one that could be filled with a whole new level of greatness.

September 4, 2021

The Day That Shook the Earth

There have, as always, been a lot of surprises at this year's U.S. Open. From veteran Peter Gojowczyk making the first Major fourth round of his career after a decade of attempts to young Emma Radancu conceivably reaching her second Slam second week in as many showings, there has been no shortage of shake-ups in either draw.

But perhaps no day has had as far reaching impact as yesterday, when some of the biggest contenders to not just go far, but to possibly win the title, were absolutely stunned on the biggest of courts.

Carlos Alcaraz d. Stefanos Tsitsipas (3): 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(2), 0-6, 7-6(5)

It started in the early afternoon when 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz faced off against third seed and French Open finalist Stefanos Tsitsipas. The young Spaniard has been on the radar for a while, winning his first tour title in Umag earlier this summer before reaching the semis in Winston-Salem. But in his previous three meetings against top-ten players, he had yet to win even a set.

Tsitsipas, meanwhile, found himself in a weird position. Suddenly cast as the villain of these games (but perhaps for the wrong reasons), he has kind of struggled since that Roland Garros loss. He was, of course, stunned in the first round at Wimbledon, and though he made the semis in both Toronto and Cincinnati, he needed five sets to get past Andy Murray in the first round here, and even dropped a set to Adrian Mannarino in the second.

Against Alcaraz, he found himself in a hole early. The world #55 got a set and two break lead on the heavy favorite before Tsitsipas started to fight back. He even dealt out a bagel in the fourth, something I didn't think someone so inexperienced would have been able to rally back from. But rally back he did -- in a decider with no breaks of serve, Alcaraz kept his cool and prevailed in the nearly four hour match, by far the biggest of his career.

Tsitsipas's elimination certainly opens up the bottom half of the draw, but it also gives a real opportunity to the young upstart. Alcaraz will next face Peter Gojowczyk, who as mentioned is also breaking new ground at the U.S. Open. The German has already spent some eight hours on court, so he's certainly not at his freshest. And if Alcaraz can manage the win to make the quarters, there's no telling what more he can do.

Frances Tiafoe d. Andrey Rublev (5): 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(6), 4-6, 6-1

The drama in the men's draw didn't stop there, of course. In the late-night match on Ashe last night -- literally, this one didn't end until 2am -- Frances Tiafoe, he of the aforementioned stunning of Tsitsipas at Wimbledon, looked for his second straight Major top-ten win against Russia's Andrey Rublev. The gritty American has been working hard this summer, taking out Denis Shapovalov as a lucky loser in Toronto and making the quarters in Winston-Salem.

Rublev's had his share of successes too -- a quarterfinalist here last year, he stunned world #2 Daniil Medvedev on his way to a runner-up finish in Cincy, the second Masters final of his career. And as the fifth seed in New York, he was expected to go far.

But Tiafoe had different plans. Though the two had never met on the ATP Tour, the 23-year-old underdog had scored a big win over the then-#1 seed in the 2014 U.S. Open Boys' quarterfinals. And though this match would take a little longer -- another 3:45 to be exact -- it would ultimately end with the same result. Big Foe dropped the first set, but fought back to take the next two and held tough in the decider to notch his third top-ten win of the year and to get to the second week for the second straight time.

Things won't get much easier from here though -- next up is another young upstart, twelfth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime. But though the 21-year-old Canadian has scored wins over Roger Federer and Alexander Zverev this year, he is notoriously inconsistent and eminently beatable. If Tiafoe can pull it off, he's got a little more room to run -- Tsitsipas, of course, has already been eliminated, and while second seeded Medvedev certainly looms large, we've already learned that truly anything can happen here.

Leylah Fernandes d. Naomi Osaka (2): 5-7, 7-6(2), 6-4

But perhaps the biggest wow moment from Friday came in the first night session match on Ashe. Defending champion Naomi Osaka was taking on Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez in her third round match and was looking to rebound from a summer that brought her more headlines off the court than on it. Since withdrawing from the French Open, she was stunned at her homeland Olympics and upset by a feisty Jil Teichmann in Cincy. Though she got a pass in her second round in New York when Olga Danilovic pulled out, she was looking in form to make a play for another title.

But she would be stopped in spectacular fashion by the world #72. It's not that we shouldn't have expected big things from Fernandez -- she was, after all, one of my players to watch, beating Belinda Bencic at Fed Cup in 2020 and capturing her first title this year in Monterrey. But she'd been frustratingly underwhelming at the Majors, winning just one match this year against a lower ranked opponent.

That was, of course, before the U.S. Open. She opened with an impressive win over dangerous qualifier Ana Konjuh and then took out Melbourne Cinderella Kaia Kanepi in straight sets. She dropped her first set to Osaka on Friday night, but as the former world #1 -- who'd won her last sixteen Slam matches -- was serving for a win in the second, Fernandez was able to break for the first time and barely looked back since.

The win earns Fernandez a fourth round date with another former champion, Angelique Kerber, who's been having a strong summer of tennis herself. It'll certainly be a challenge for the 18-year-old to pull off two straight wins against such high caliber opponents. But it wouldn't be the first time such a young talent took a tournament by storm. And why shouldn't we see it happen again?

Of course, there are plenty of top tier stars still out there fighting for the titles here -- top seeds Novak Djokovic and Ashleigh Barty have been so far pretty dominant in their wins. And it's not like these results came completely out of the blue -- all these victors had demonstrated their talents well before these big wins.

Still, the world looks a lot different than it did just 24 hours ago -- some of the favorites may be breathing a little easier as they see their draws open up, while a bunch of underdogs could start to believe they have a shot at pulling off their own monster upsets.

And as we get close to kicking off Week Two at the Open, we certainly have seen that anything is possible.