Sunday, September 13, 2020

My U.S. Open top 10

 Here are my top 10 U.S. Open happenings, in ascending order:

10. Piling insult onto injury: A lot of people were upset by Kiki Mladenovic's complaints of being a "prisoner" in her hotel room because of the "bubble within the bubble" rules imposed on those who had contact with a player who tested positive for Covid-19. Of course, it's nothing new for the French player to open her mouth when a bit of thinking would have resulted in her wisely keeping it shut. But then Mladenovic's situation did become a wretched one when the county ordered her and her partner, Timea Babos, to withdraw from the event. 

Babos and Mladenovic were the top seeds, which made the withdrawal even worse. Of course, an argument can be made that (a masked) Mladenovic should never have been participating in a card game during a pandemic. But all the same, changing the rules (an ATP player who was at the same card game was allowed to play the day before) suddenly--even if by government decree--was most unfortunate, and not a good look.

9. All about my mother: Remember that time when Roger Federer was introduced as "Rose and Charlene and Lenny and Leo's dad"? Of course you don't.

8.  Revenge is a dish that is best served into the deuce court: On Saturday, world number 1 Diede De Groot won her third consecutive U.S. Open women's wheelchair singles title by defeating world number 2 Yui Kamiji. On Sunday, Kamiji and her partner, Jordanne Whiley, the 2nd seeds, defeated De Groot and Majolein Buis to claim the championship. Kamiji and Whiley also won the Australian Open, defeating De Groot and Aniek Van Koot. 

De Groot, who is only 23 years old, has now won eight major singles titles and eight major doubles titles, which is why we call her Diede De Great.

7. Comebacks galore!: Vika Azarenka, Vera Zvonareva, Tsvetana Pironkova--three veteran players who endured both hardships and major life changes all soared to glory at this year's U.S. Open. I can't recall anything like that ever happening before.

6. Once a champion, always a champion: Look who won the women's doubles title! A member of the original Russian Squad--which included the likes of Myskina, Sharapova, Kuznetsova, Petrova, and Dementieva--Vera Zvonareva was an accomplished singles and doubles player for many years, but left the tour because of injury. She also impressively continued her education, got married and had a baby. After two years, she returned, won a couple of doubles titles, and now, she and Laura Siegemund have won the 2020 U.S. Open.

5. Breakout star of the year: Jennifer Brady began the year in fine form, making it to the quarterfinals in Brisbane and the semifinals in Dubai, and taking out some big names on the way. She was hands-down the MVP in the Charleston exhibition event, and then she won Lexington. At the U.S. Open, she took out Anna Blinkova, CiCi Bellis, Caroline Garcia, 2016 champion Angie Kerber, and Yulia Putintseva. Brady was finally stopped, in the semifinals, by eventual champion Naomi Osaka, but Osaka needed three sets to get the job done. It was a hell of a run.

4. Doing it with mirrors: Tsvetana Pironkova, the Bulgarian Woman of Mystery, has always occupied a peculiar niche on the tour. A very talented player (great serve, wicked forehand slice) has--for some reason--won only one title. But her presence at grass and hard court major events can be formidable (as Venus Williams knows only too well). Pironkova left the tour because of injuries, and she also had a baby, and--after three years--it looked like we might not ever get to see her again. But then, suddenly, she popped up in Flushing Meadows and made it all the way to the quarterfinals

Of course, this was a totally Pironkova kind of move, like "I'm rested, guess I'll go to New York and check things out." Her game was better, too--the serve, signature forehand slice, and lob were all there, but there was also an increase in steadiness, which resulted in much more consistency in her groundstrokes. 

Pironkova began by defeating Liudmila Samsonova, then took proceded to take out two-time major champion and 10th seed Garbine Muguruza, 18th seed Donna Vekic, and an on-fire Alize Cornet. It was amazing display of tennis, but there was a down side: Pironkova's thigh was wrapped, and as the tournament wore on, it became harder for her to serve, and she was sometimes limping. Had she not been hurt, who knows?--she may have had a better shot against Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. As it was, she took Williams to three sets, but she wasn't able to prevail. All the same, it was a head-spinning piece of Pironkova magic. 

3. Perseverance (see Azarenka): Victoria Azarenka is probably the most snake-bitten top player in the history of the tour. So many different things have derailed her, and the last thing--a nasty, extended custody battle which kept her away from tennis for an extended period--would likely have destroyed the motivation of a lot of strong individuals. Azarenka, once she had her legal issues settled, came back, but she was so discouraged that, in January, she considered retiring. 

Fortunately, the Belarusian star had a change of heart. At the 2020 U.S. Open, she performed like the Vika of years ago, swatting away opponents in grand style. Her victims included 5th seed Aryna Sabalenka, up-and-coming player Iga Swiatek, an in-form Karolina Muchova, 16th seed Elise Mertens, and 3rd seed and six-time champion Serena Williams. She was stopped in the three-set final by Naomi Osaka, but her performance throughout the tournament left no doubt that Azarenka is back at the top.

2. Spontaneity--a winning strategy: Laura Sigemund and Vera Zvonareva had never played doubles together, but, at the last minute, they found each other and signed up to play in the U.S. Open. It turned out to be a magic combination, as the pair took out 2nd seeds Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka in the quarterfinals, then--in the final--they defeated 3rd seeds Nicole Melichar and Xu Yifan. This is Siegemund's first women's doubles major championship, and  Zvonareva's third.

1. A champion for the times: Winning the 2020 U.S. Open wasn't a walk in Central Park for Naomi Osaka. She had to play three sets against Misaki Doi, Marta Kostyuk, Jennifer Brady, and Vika Azarenka. She also had to endure stupid and offensive comments from members of the media (not that that's anything new). But the now three-time major champion has learned a lot about how to navigate the choppy waters of media spectacles and cultural expectations, and she handled everything that came at her with aplomb.

Osaka also found a way to let her Covid-19 protection speak for her. She entered every match wearing a mask that bore the name of a black U.S. citizen killed by the police. She packed seven masks, and got to wear every one of them. The sight of Osaka entering the stadium in her black masks will be, for me and for many, an enduring image. I expect that the champion will provide us with more enduring images in the future, as she continues to draw attention both as a superb sportswoman and a representative for those whose voices are either lost or unheard.


colt13 said...

Great list.

Djokovic didn't even make it.

Sinner dragging himself into a tiebreak while lame may be the enduring image on the men's side, after Djokovic and the new champ.

Diane said...

Thanks, colt.

Yes, the images from the ATP side are a mixed bag this year.

Todd.Spiker said...

Especially on ESPN, the commentators tend to latch onto something and won't let it go. The whole thing about the moms was one of those this year, but so was the seemingly constant lament about the lack of fans.

"Oh, imagine if there were fans here for this moment." "This is where the fans would be cheering their heads off." "This would be so much better if the fans were here."

Truthfully, I liked it better without the fans. I mean, the NYC crowds are sometimes the worst thing about the Open. Viewing on television, I didn't think the lack of anyone in the stands was nearly the "missing" element that those on site did. I credit Sakkari for noting after one win that she wasn't going to lament the fans not being in the stands because, let's be honest, they were all in New York for a reason -- to play and try to win a title, fans or no fans.

Not that I'm advocating locking the gates in 2021, but still. ;)

And I thought that Vika had a few wonderful quotes:

"I don't want people to identify us just as moms. You know we're tennis players, we're women with passion and dreams."

And a personal favorite...

"You can be the most beautiful peach in the world, and somebody will still be allergic to peaches." (That one's a keeper!) :)

Diane said...

I remember when USO fans were polite and appropriate, but that ended several years ago. I was fine without having a crowd boo someone's double faults; it's bad enough that that happens repeatedly at my favorite major, in Paris.

I always think that ESPN can't go any lower (they almost make Tennis Channel look, but I won't go that far), but obviously, they can. That they were clueless enough to not realize how patronizing the mother thing (meaning, the way they handled it, not the fact that several players are moms) was confirms my long-held opinion of them. The cherry on the cake, for me, though, was when MJF said--not once, but twice--"your U.S. Open champion" at the close of the men's final.