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US Open: The Final Slam

  • The US Open is the final grand slam of the tennis calendar
  • Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal are among the favourites to win the tournament

From left- Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka.
From left- Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Naomi Osaka.

It has been almost a year since that extraordinary meltdown on court. When 20-year-old Naomi Osaka played Serena Williams in the US Open final, a first-time Grand Slam finalist was up against a player aiming for her world-record equalling 24th title.

Last September, Williams did become the centre of the sporting world—not because she got that elusive number, but because of her infamous conflict with the chair umpire. The clash, over code of conduct violations, a broken racket and a coaching episode, escalated to Williams declaring she was not a cheat, the crowd booing, and winner Osaka in tears of hurt.

At the season’s final Grand Slam, which starts in New York from 26 August, the memory of that controversial incident has resurfaced. The umpire in the line of fire then, Carlos Ramos, will not officiate in any Serena or Venus Williams match this year.

“We want to be focused on the competition and want to go forward. This is just for 2019. Let’s just not put everyone in that spotlight," US Tennis Association chief executive Stacey Allaster told The New York Times.

It is one reason Serena is likely to be the centre of attention again. Chasing Margaret Court’s mark of 24 Grand Slam singles titles, at age 37 and not having won a major since the 2017 Australian Open, just before she announced her pregnancy, she remains the player to watch.

“Serena has to look at it in two turns—the first week is the first tournament. Then work her way to get better in the second week. She is definitely one of my top five favourites," ESPN commentator, coach and former player Brad Gilbert told Lounge. “In the French Open, I said 15 women could win it and Ashleigh Barty (the eventual winner) was not even one of them. I feel like 15 women can win the (US) Open; not including Madison Keys, who has now stepped up (winning the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati on 18 August). But I have no clue who would win and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s someone from the outside."

World No.1 and Australian Open champion Osaka, Barty and Wimbledon winner Simona Halep are just three of the players who could become the champion on 7 September. Coco Gauff, 15, who became the youngest player to qualify for Wimbledon in the Open era (since 1968) before reaching the round of 16 this summer, is a wild card. Their combined efforts would perhaps take attention away from the 2018 final, which has even inspired an episode in a new documentary series.

“It’s horrible for us, horrible for Serena, but fantastic for tennis," Patrick Mouratoglou says about the US Open incident in the ESPN series Backstory. Mouratoglou, Serena’s coach, had started last year’s dramatic series of events by gesticulating to the player from the stands—coaching is not allowed in Grand Slams. This was the first code violation Serena got. “We don’t have any dramas in tennis. We have dramas in all the other sports but not in tennis," says Mouratoglou.

There has certainly been plenty of drama in the men’s game. Just some weeks ago, Novak Djokovic won at Wimbledon after a nearly 5-hour, five-set final against Roger Federer in which the latter had two match points.

The three top players, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic, have won the last 11 successive Grand Slam singles titles and 53 of the last 62, which makes the 2019 US Open a bit predictable, unlike the women’s game. One player who could have challenged their hegemony, former champion Juan Carlos del Potro, is yet to recover fully from a knee surgery.

As we wait for the next generation of contenders, including Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, to claim their first majors, there is a belief, mentioned partly in jest, that the Big Three might outlive them.

One player heading to New York on a high is Daniil Medvedev, who beat Djokovic in the semi-finals on the way to his title win in Cincinnati last week. The 23-year-old Russian has the most Association of Tennis Professional (ATP) Tour match wins this year (44), has five ATP Tour titles (all on hard courts) in 20 months and has raced to world No. 5.

“Favourites in men are the Big Three—they have a 99% chance to win the tournament. I would not have been able to give you a fourth favourite till the Cincinnati final, but I would now say Medvedev. There isn’t even a fifth favourite," says Gilbert. But Medvedev has only one win over the Big Three in eight matches and his best performance in a major was a fourth-round finish at the Australian Open.

Nevertheless, in a tournament with day and night sessions, variable humid weather, in one of the biggest stadiums in the world, the 52nd US Open champions of the Open era, male and female, will get credit for relegating to the background the memory of a seated Ramos looking down at an enraged Serena on the blue courts of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.

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