A great queen was dethroned and a young princess stepped up and took her place. A king was knocked out by a very young pretender bursting with talent and energy. Serena Williams and Rafa Nadal, queen and king of tennis for the past two decades lost in the third and fourth rounds of their draws in the first week of the U.S. Open, last tournament of the year on the Slam circuit.
The great Majorcan, to be accurate, is called the king of clay, and may choose next year to defend his title at Roland-Garros, the clay Slam. Andy Murray, playing with a rebuilt hip, was in New York and made it to the third round. Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic may come back and join the fun.
New York’s new champion accedes to No. 1 in the world rankings, youngest ever. The median age of the winners this year is 20; the runners up are 23 and 28; all four were in their first finals at Flushing Meadows.
Thus goes the tide, as it must. Sport is only the study and celebration and enjoyment of youthful talent; it is one of the live metaphors, like dance and theater, by which we understand ourselves and our societies. There are of course hierarchies in culture and aesthetics, and it would be a bold critic who would suggest the value of a tennis trophy equals an acclaimed performance at Carnegie Hall, but anyway that is another matter.
As is the unserious yet inescapable connection you could not help make between the passing of tennis generations and the succession to the British crown. The crown fell off one head on the first day of the semifinals, the women’s; it was placed on a new one on the second, the men’s.
Members of the Windsor family take turns as patrons of the All-England Championships, Britain’s equivalent to the U.S. Open, and Elizabeth II was on call when it was time to congratulate America’s Althea Gibson for winning the title in 1957; the date gives a dizzy idea of the remarkable longevity of the queen’s longevity. She will be missed by fans of the racquet sport that Englishmen invented. And some tennis players will also cherish her memory as a leader of the Free World.
There is no comparison, obviously; but a sport, with its traditions, is one of the seemingly small things that a civilized society makes possible. The enthusiasm and the fun and the talent on display in the Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadia and the outside courts, the hopes dashed and realized, not to mention the millions earned by players and tennis institutions and media companies, depend on the likes of Elizabeth, who donned the uniform of her country in World War II and then led it, through thick and thin, reverses and disasters, successes and triumphs, for seven decades.
The tributes poured forth, British players wore black armbands, words were solemnly written or spoken by the sport’s living legends including Billie Jean King and Roger Federer. And the show, as of course the good queen knew, went on. Elizabeth was not at Wimbledon this year — the Duchess of Cambridge took her place — but otherwise she did her duty to the end, meeting with the new British prime minister only hours before she closed her eyes, true to her truest Christian and English self.
The U.S. Open always pays tribute to New York’s Finest, and flies the flag and sings our anthem. It might have been well, too, if this time they had played an English hymn. “Jerusalem” would have been fitting, that beautiful and mysterious poem by William Blake, set to music by Hubert Parry.
The tournament ends on a day of remembrance for all Americans, and particularly New Yorkers; the finalist from Norway, Casper Ruud, said when receiving his silver plate that the pain and suffering it caused was on his mind, and in fact always is. Carlos Alcaraz added a few words along those lines when he followed to receive the trophy cup from former champion John McEnroe. The chairman of the USTA mentioned a donation to Ukrainian refugees and made thanks to a charity tournament held during qualification week; it might have been tactful not to mention how much money was involved, as it was less than the winner’s take, but so.
The victory of Iga Świątek, the first Polish player to win the U.S. Open (or any Slam), was a splendid feat of guts and nerves — and first serves and strong groundstrokes to the lines. Carlos Alcaraz’s win added a thrilling display to two weeks’ worth of them; his talent is so precocious at 19 it must invite comparisons with Mozart.
“Carlito” took five sets to beat Frances Tiafoe, the 24-year-old rising American star who had brought down Nadal in four, and he did it after playing five sets against former U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic, and another five sets against his near contemporary Jannik Sinner, who is 21. Then he did it again against Casper Ruud, 23, on Sunday. He said, as Iga (who is 21) surely knows too, that in the that in the end it comes down to mental fortitude, evoking Blake’s verse: “I will not cease my mental fight…” When Ruud lost the fourth set tiebreak by 1-7, even as Alcaraz appeared to forget how to miss a shot, it was not physical and it was a sudden loss of talent. Between Iga Świątek and Ons Jabeur — the first Tunisian woman to reach a Slam final — the match ended in a tiebreak, which may or may not show they were both on edge.
A Slam win does not a king make, nor a queen (actually Iga has three), and the winners know it. If top athletes do not indulge in self-regarding vanity, they have no need for false modesty, either. They know if they continue, they will be where their childhood models stood, and they know others will follow them. 78 x 27 feet separated by a three-foot net.
Applaud and let it be. Let the mystery be, as one of our musical artists says. And carry on.