Denis Shapovalov, down two sets to one, came back from a 2-5 deficit in the fourth set to beat Taylor Fritz in the third round of the U.S. Open, where one dramatic match keeps following another before stands without spectators. In both the women’s and the men’s draw, the excitement is provided by young players who, if there is a future, are the sport’s future.
Tennis’s old guard, if great athletes in their 30s can be thus characterized, is holding on with depleted ranks this year, with both Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic cruising without much difficulty into the fourth rounds of their respective draws. (Miss Williams got a first-set scare from Sloane Stephens, 2017 U.S. Open champion.) But it is getting lonely at the top. Miss Williams’ sister, Venus, lost in the first round for the first time in her career, to Olomouc’s Karolina Muchova, who advanced on Saturday to the fourth round. Roger Federer closed down his season months ago, following knee surgery, and Rafa Nadal, the defending champion, decided to stay home in view of the health crisis.
Andy Murray made a magnificent five-set comeback in the first round, against a determined and brilliant Yoshihito Nishioka, but it took something out of him because he fell in straight sets in the next round to one of tennis’s future stars, the young Canadian Félix Auger Aliassime, who has just turned 20. He was on his way to beating another French-speaker, Corentin Moutet, who is 21 and, like Nicolas Sarkozy — not a tennis player — hails from Neuilly-sur-Seine, where a famous World War I U.S. military hospital is located, but to date the prez has not said anything nice about it or the dedicated doctors and nurses who treated wounded doughboys there.
As many matches here keep demonstrating, you do not win until you win. Naomi Osaka, who is fair bet to win it all here if her injured hamstring does not give her too much trouble, lost her focus in her third round match, against Ukrainian teen Marta Kostyuk, and blew the second set in a tiebreak. Unlike Taylor Fritz, she regained her focus in the decider. When she is serious, the shy and poker-faced Miss Osaka can be very serious indeed. When she gets mad she throws her racquet on the ground.
Another Canadian, Vasek Pospisil, dispatched Roberto Bautista Agut, a great Spanish baseliner, in five sets, and this was after beating still another Canadian, Milos Raonic. Say what you will about immigration, it seems to work for Canadian tennis; on the women’s side, however, defending champion Bianca Andreescu (her parents are from Romania), who is only 20, declined to play this year.
Djokovic retired during the round of 16 last year, while playing Stan Wawrinka (2016 champion). Like his compatriot Federer, Wawrinka is sitting this one out, but Djokovic, world No. 1, appears fit as ever despite asking for medical timeouts a week ago at the final of the Western & Southern Open, which some observers thought constituted gamesmanship to break the momentum of his opponent, the same Bautista Agut, who protested. The ump ruled the requests were legitimate.
You might say tennis is at a critical moment in its storied history. This may be why the USTA has adopted the slogan “be open” for the Open season. The truth is, they are. They are more open than closed, or than they were closed in the days of yore, when they wanted to close the door to Althea Gibson and other future champions of color.
The past is the past, and the future is written nowhere — as long as the present stays open. Because look at the Soviet Union: frozen present for 70 years! Athletes benefit from studying history; at the very least, it can save them from embarrassing themselves.
In the idiom of the teenager she only recently was, Naomi Osaka, who won here two years ago in a dramatic match against Serena Williams, answered a question about Billie Jean King’s leadership of women’s tennis in the 1970s:
So I don’t know that much about the history, like, if I had to take a test I would probably fail, but I feel like I know enough in order to be aware that the position that I am in right now wouldn’t be possible without the efforts of everyone.
For me, I feel like they are — I don’t know. For them to do that was super brave of them. And for me, I feel like sometimes when I get texts from her, it always surprises me. I always feel very honored. And I feel like the fact that she’s backing me up so much means a lot to me, especially through, you know, what’s been going on the past week or so. So, yeah.
There is a thoughtfulness that pierces through the teen idiom that Miss Osaka still uses; it reflects something about this sport that will be lost if the demands of political fashion take over — as they seemed perilously close to doing when the same Miss Osaka made a rather unhistorical reference, scarcely more than a week ago, to “genocide” in relation to unrest and policing issues. Your persuasiveness on a critical public issue is diminished if you make outlandish and simply wrong analogies; this should be obvious. But as we know from other sports, it is not.
The fact that tennis is played by individuals, as individuals more than as teams, from all over the world, may have something to do with this, as Miss Osaka seemed to intuit when she said of her friend Stefan Tsitsipas (a great young player who was knocked out by Borna Coric in yet another fantastic five-set comeback): “I think what I understand about him now more is he’s genuinely curious about everything, and I think there is a lot of things that — you know, because I was raised in America and he was raised in, like, Europe, so there is a lot of culture things that are very different.”
This is a true statement.
Corrections: An earlier version of this article erroneously referred to the USTA slogan as “we’re open.”
In an earlier article, we referred to Brian Lynch as a “legend,” which, with no prejudice intended to a wonderful human being who is happily married to Kim Clijsters, is a case of verbal inflation. In the name of just-the-facts and the old fair-and-accurate, the word has been adjusted.