The 2021 US Open in New York, starting on 30 August, is already shaping up to be an intense tournament, if the sequence of events leading up to it is any indication. It will be played in front of full capacity crowds, unlike last year when empty stadiums and scattered applause were the anaemic rewards for the players’ efforts.
Women’s world No. 2 and defending champion Naomi Osaka broke down during a press conference at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati last week after a reporter asked her about her dislike for such media events. Osaka had cited mental health reasons for skipping the mandatory press briefings at the French Open earlier this year, leading to her disqualification from the tournament. In Ohio, she excused herself briefly, returned to complete the conference and soon after lost to 44th-ranked Jil Teichmann.
The importance of mental health in sports, a fact reinforced by gymnast Simone Biles at the Tokyo Olympics, is a subject that’s seldom been openly discussed. But with the pandemic exacting a heavy toll even on elite athletes—isolation, lack of practice, subsequent injuries, uncertainty—mental health has become a recurring theme with Osaka.
Some in the game have their own views on this. “Pressure is a privilege,” said Novak Djokovic, men’s No. 1 player, told reporters at the Tokyo Olympics in July after his quarter-final match there. “Without pressure, there is no professional sport. If you are aiming to be at the top of the game, you better start learning how to deal with pressure and how to cope with those moments—on the court but also off the court.”
Djokovic was eliminated in the semi-final and then promptly had a meltdown in the bronze medal match—which he lost to Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta—flinging his racquet into the empty stands. Even last year, the Serbian seemed to have a clear run amid a depleted field at the US Open when he defaulted after hitting the ball to the back of the court, which struck a line umpire. Pressure, it would appear, is easier dismissed than dealt with.
Some of the pressure on Djokovic eased earlier last week when, much to the agony of tennis fans, first Roger Federer (knee surgery) and then Rafael Nadal (recurring left foot injury) withdrew from the US Open. This leaves a relatively easier field for Djokovic to navigate, as he aims to become the first player since Steffi Graf in 1988 to win the calendar Slam, which would easily turn into the biggest tennis story of the year.
The twin withdrawals reopened another conversation—or rather broke it down to one phrase—the ‘end of an era’. Since 2003, when Federer won his first major at Wimbledon, through 2005 when Nadal got his maiden win at Roland Garros, and then 2008 when Djokovic opened his account in Australia, the three players have dominated the men’s game like no trio has before in the game’s history. Each of them has 20 Grand Slam singles titles, though Djokovic is the most likely to finish ahead in that race. A few players, like Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, challenged their dominance for a time, but lacked the consistency or fitness to endure. Now, with 40-year-old Federer’s return to his best seeming improbable and 35-year-old Nadal’s body breaking down once too often, The Big Three’s hold over the sport will dilute, allowing others some wriggle room.
“It’s getting there, definitely getting there,” Federer’s former coach Paul Annacone told the New York Times. “It’s not the end of an era, but the end of winning Grand Slams tournaments,” former US Open winner Mats Wilander told Eurosport. “With every year, you give the two of them (Federer-Nadal) less and less chance of winning. The era of winning is over but the era of filling the stands … that is still alive.”
“Anytime Federer, Nadal are not in tournament that’s bad for viewership,” says ESPN commentator Cliff Drysdale over the phone. “Federer especially. But it is what it is and time moves on.”
Djokovic’s chances have improved further with defending champion Dominic Thiem also pulling out. “(It) puts him (Djokovic) in a position where he would not celebrate Grand Slam victories the way (he would) when the two of them (Nadal, Federer) were playing,” added Wilander. “Definitely, Novak is going to be the highest contender at the US Open,” men’s world no. 2 Daniil Medvedev of Russia said recently. “He should feel the pressure in New York, but I think he likes it, as he does not crack like others.”
Medvedev and Alexander Zverev of Germany are the other main contenders, the latter having won the Olympic gold medal and the Western & Southern Open on Sunday. Then there is seventh-ranked Andrey Rublev, who beat Medvedev in Cincinnati and No. 3 Stefanos Tsitsipas completing the list of five players most likely to hold the trophy aloft on 12 September, with 23rd ranked Reilly Opelka as the local favourite.
It’s the women’s draw that provides an avalanche of possibilities.
An unbelievable 15 Grand Slam singles champions are likely to play the event, including No.1 Ashleigh Barty, who won at Wimbledon, 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu, 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek, and Osaka, a four-time Slam-winner. Garbiñe Muguruza, Simona Halep, reigning French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova, Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Jelena Ostapenko, Sloane Stephens and Samantha Stosur complete the field.
If Djokovic is chasing a record, so was Serena Williams. She was aiming to win her 24th title, one that has remained elusive since her Australian Open win in 2017. If this US Open was an opportunity, in the midst of an unpredictable, divided field, it was not meant to be for Williams pulled out on Wednesday with a torn hamstring. Her sister Venus, 41, won’t be playing either because of a leg injury.
This would be the first Grand Slam since 1997 Australian Open without any of these four—the Williams sisters, Federer and Nadal—in a singles draw. Venus was first off the blocks with the 1997 French Open followed by Serena the next year, Federer in 2002 and Nadal in 2003.
Both the men’s and women’s game has always gone through eras when one or a few players would dominate the game and win a majority of the titles. Among the women, for example, the 1980s were dominated by Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, followed by Graf and Monica Seles in the 90s and Venus and Serena Williams in the following two decades. But currently, there’s no such dominance in the women’s game. Osaka has the ability, but Serena Williams remained the player to beat. “In the history of tennis, there has never been this openness. I don’t know if it’s more or less exciting,” Drysdale adds, picking Osaka and Barty as his two favourites.
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.