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.

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