10 US Open Talking Points

Rafael Nadal (zimbio.com)

The past two weeks in at the US Open has been filled with a variety of shocks and surprises. From a series of high-profile withdraws leading into the tournament to Sloane Stephens’ triumphing in the women’s draw, this year’s edition has been one to remember.

Here are ten points to take away from the US Open.

1) The feel-good moments

Outside of the Olympics, does any sport have events that continuously provide as many emotional moments as tennis? Every major this year has featured so many inspiring storylines, and the US Open was no exception. After undergoing surgeries earlier this year, two young Americans advanced to their first major finals, and showed such grace in both victory and defeat. Not to mention the winner of that women’s championship was ranked outside the top 900 just five weeks ago. A classy, 37-year-old former champion advanced to her third major semifinal of the season, and won more matches as majors than any other woman this year. A veteran who hadn’t won a match at a major in two years due to illness and injury, and arrived in New York ranked outside the top 400, wins three rounds of qualifying and four rounds in the main draw to reach the quarterfinals. A beloved big man, who has lost years of his career to injury, couldn’t hit one winner for the first hour of his fourth round match due to illness, yet used the energy of the crowd to save match points and win a five-setter. Tennis is unique in providing a new set of compelling stories so frequently throughout the year.

2) Sharapova’s return
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One comeback I was not as inspired by was that of Maria Sharapova. Yes, she served her time. Yes, she is a five-time major champion. Yes, she has millions of fans. But the way in which her return was romanticized is a really bad look for the sport. Let’s not forget Sharapova tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug, and admitted to using that drug for the previous 10 years before it had been banned. I can’t speak to the television coverage of Sharapova’s return in other countries, but the US coverage included video packages set to dramatic music which celebrated her return and her fighting spirit. I found this a bit disturbing. On Tennis Channel, Martina Navratilova went as far to say Sharapova’s first round upset of second seeded Simona Halep validated the wild card she was given. While I respect Navratilova more than anyone else in the sport, giving a wild card to Sharapova is the equivalent of rolling out the red carpet to a cheater. She should be given no preferential treatment, and should earn her way back by competing in smaller tournaments and qualifying draws. The result of the match does not validate the issuance of the wild card.

3) The Nick Kyrgios debate
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The tournament also featured the usual debate over whether Nick Kyrgios is good for the sport. This was sparked by his first round loss to a player ranked outside the 200 as Kyrgios complained of a shoulder injury and appeared to again not give his all. Kyrgios’ big game and big personality are very good for the sport. But a player who continues to give less than 100% after admitting to tanking in countless matches, and who has also said he doesn’t love tennis, is terrible for the sport. Perhaps he just needs to mature. Perhaps he’s afraid to fully apply himself out of a fear of failing. We can only speculate as to the reasons, but do the reasons really matter? Until he’s ready to give the sport his all, let’s end this debate and focus our attention on players who do.

4) Fabio Fognini’s downfall
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No one at the US Open was a worse look for the sport than Fabio Fognini. During his first round loss in singles, Fognini swore at a female umpire in Italian, calling her a whore. This is one of three code violations he was cited, being fined a total of $24,000. It wasn’t until three days later, and after he played and won two further doubles matches, that he was suspended from the tournament. What took so long? This suspension came way too late, especially for the two doubles teams that were eliminated after Fognini’s vile display. While Fabio’s apology on Italian television seemed heartfelt, his words deserve more than a $24,000 fine and a suspension from the doubles draw. Let’s hope the Grand Slam Board, who are currently reviewing the incident, impose a much harsher punishment.

5) The clever use of bathroom breaks
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The use of prolonged bathroom breaks to disrupt the flow of a match must stop. After blowing a set and a break lead to Caroline Wozniacki, Ekaterina Makarova appeared near-tears as she dropped the second set tiebreak. Makarova proceeded to take a bathroom break that approached 10 minutes in length. After basically creating her own timeout, she received no penalty. Having regained her composure, Makarova easily won the third set 6-1. Ekaterina is far from the only player to do this: she’s just the most recent example. This gamesmanship has become far too common. There needs to be a certain amount of time allowed for such a break, after which a player is penalized for extending past the allotted time. I’m sure the bathroom breaks would immediately shorten if players lost a point for every 30 seconds they were late in returning to the court.

6) Wozniacki’s rant
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Coming out of that same match, I was surprised the bathroom break was not the story. Instead, Wozniacki complained to the press about her court assignment. On an extremely crowded schedule due to the previous day being an almost total rainout, Wozniacki played her second round match on Court 17. She felt it was unfair to have the number five seed on the fourth biggest court on the grounds, while Maria Sharapova was scheduled on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

According to Wozniacki, “someone who comes back from a drug sentence, and you know, performance-enhancing drugs, and then all of a sudden gets to play every single match on center court, I think that’s a questionable thing to do.” When questioned by the press regarding Wozniacki’s comments, Sharapova responded by saying, “’if you put me out in the parking lot of Queen’s I’m happy to play there.” She continued by saying, “all that matters to me is I’m in the fourth round. Yeah, I’m not sure where she is.”

While it isn’t really fair to have Sharapova play all of her matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium when she’s unranked and returning from a drug suspension, there is more to be considered when assigning courts. Like her or not, Sharapova is a big star. Her matches at this tournament drew much more attention than almost all other players. That was also the case before Sharapova’s suspension. It was appropriate for her to be placed on stadiums that can hold more fans. Wozniacki may be a top five player, and a two-time US Open finalist, but she does not draw anywhere near the same crowds as Sharapova.

7) The New York fans
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Speaking of court assignments, they truly can impact the outcome of matches. Perhaps Wozniacki does pull that match out on a bigger court in front of more fans. Certainly we saw Americans such as Madison Keys and CoCo Vandeweghe benefit from playing in front of boisterous crowds on Arthur Ashe Stadium throughout the tournament. To the contrary, Juan Martin Del Potro benefited from not being placed on Ashe. Del Potro said after his fourth round comeback that he would have retired from that match if not for the thousands of fans passionately urging him on, and most of those fans were grounds pass holders who would not have been allowed inside Ashe. Players often cite the fans as a critical factor in a match’s outcome. Sometimes that’s a bit of pandering, but at this US Open, it was apparent just how much court assignment, and a crowd, can impact a match.

8) The scheduling
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On the subject of scheduling, the US Open would benefit from moving one week earlier. By the second Tuesday of the tournament, summer in New York is basically over. Schools are back in session, and the crowds for the day sessions thin out considerably. The amount of fans willing to hang around for the end of the night session also decreases. The USTA tries to combat this by offering discounted tickets for the day sessions in the second week (or sometimes even free tickets), but the empty seats remain. Adjusting the tournament calendar is extremely challenging, but it would help attendance during the second week of the Open.

9)The ultimate pet peeve?
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My pet peeve of the tournament: the fans in the crowd who see themselves on the big screen in the stadium and wave. As a television viewer, it completely distracts from the match. The worst offenders? Those that try to take a picture of themselves on the big screen. This does not happen at other majors. If television directors are insistent upon showing fan reactions throughout the match, there’s an easy solve here: show a different feed on the stadium screen that focuses solely on the action on the court. Please, I beg you.

10) Tour success doesn’t make grand slam glory
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I was taken aback by hearing Alexander Zverev was the pre-tournament third favorite to win the title. I understand the bottom half of the draw was without a “big four” member. And yes, the 20-year-old phenom has won five titles this year, including two Masters 1,000 events where he defeated Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer in the finals, respectively. However, his best result at a major is one fourth round appearance at Wimbledon. Surely this will change sooner than later, but the difference in results at majors versus non-majors is clear. For the men, winning best-of-five sets is much different than winning best-of-three. As Zverev’s own camp has stated, the youngster’s body is not yet at the top level of conditioning. But we’re also seeing this happen on the WTA tour, where they play best-of-three at all tournaments and physicality is not a factor. 22-year-old Elina Svitolina is a prime example: she’s also won five titles this year, including three Premier 5 events, yet has not been past the quarterfinals of a major. Svitolina defeated four top 10 players in Toronto, but struggles to do so at Grand Slam events. Performing at the majors with more pressure and eyeballs on you is a wholly different situation, and some players take more time to excel on the big stage. Results outside the majors don’t always immediately translate to Grand Slam success.

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