It was the most wide-open U.S. Open in living memory but Rafael Nadal slammed the door shut on all new applications, assuring that the Big Four are not ready to post any vacancies.
Their ranks slashed in half by injuries, the old guard’s two towers, the first and, at present, the last member of the most exclusive club in 21st century tennis, held off the envious and the hungry, the would-be’s and the wanna-be’s, and dominated a draw depleted by injury and illness, in which where’s-Tom? seemed a more significant question than who’s-Dick? and ever-hear-o’-Harry?
They did it with the poetic grace and ruthless power that mark their respective games and that will be the inedible, lasting imprint they leave on the sport when, or if, they finally pack their gear bags for good, which does not appear likely to be soon. When the great maestro himself lost under gasps of 23,000 fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium, his original challenger was waiting in the wings to pick up the old racquet — actually one of several brand new ones — and carry the legend on, two more rounds, to the trophy.
And the legend, in this instance and this year, is for real, no mistaking it for a fairy tale. Roger Federer, the most successful and popular tennis champion since Rod Laver, made the sport’s thinkers and fans consider the possibility that he would pull off a Grand Slam in his 36th year, 20th on the job, and directly after a six-month layoff due to surgery and rehab. The feat was last accomplished by the great Australian in 1969.
Federer provoked this notion by defeating Nadal in the final of the year’s first Slam at Melbourne. His game was so astonishingly smooth and true, the forehands finding their targets on the lines, the pin-point first serves scoring aces whenever the need arose, the backhand refashioned into a weapon able to thwart the most difficult shots and serves of his toughest southpaw opponents — Nadal’s in particular — that ink was spilled in buckets and lasers shot in megabites to expound upon the theory of the Ageless Tennis Ace. The human species may be on the brink of extinction, but the quest for the Fountain — of what exactly, you lose track — seems to be proceeding as happily as ever.
But Federer announced he would sit out the clay season, provoking a few murmurs about sportsmanship here and there that quickly were hushed by the diversion of Rafa’s repossession of his favorite surface, from Monte Carlo to Roland-Garros with Barcelona and Madrid on the way. The Man of Manacor too was coming back from the disabled list. Wrist and knee had required major care, and since 2014 he had been on and off the Tour.
Nadal marched through the draw at the Internationaux de France without losing a set, and demolished the defending champion, Stan Wawrinka — fairly viewed as the fifth man in the Big Four phalange — in scarcely over two hours, efficient work unimaginable in a Slam final. But Federer’s strategy now re-emerged in its plainness; he was ready for the grass at Wimbledon, and indeed he glided over it with the same mastery that Nadal had slid over the clay, dominating in the final practically without breaking out a sweat, though his opponent, Marin Cilic, broke out more than a few tears and it seemed he would have to be carried off the mythical Centre Court before he remembered this is the place where you must “meet triumph and disaster, and treat those imposters just the same.”
So triumph it was for the maestro of Basel, and the man of Manacor had recovered his clay kingdom; would the greatest prize of them all, New York’s World Series of Tennis, the Big One — okay, okay, international amity and modesty require that this kind of talk stop, for though it is time to get serious and get great again, especially in Queens, grandeur in these democratic times requires that ostentation be muted. At any rate, the issue was, would the Two sign off now and let the pretenders have their time in the sun? Or under the lights? As summer turned to fall in the world’s greatest city, and the Mets hung in there (across the tracks) for a berth in the playoffs, the answer was plain: foggedaboudit.
By now, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and the fifth man, Stan Wawrinka, were giving every indication that they would not be there. They both had what for them were ghastly seasons, and their various heel-snappers, young guns with such names as Nick Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem, Sascha Zverev and Lucas Pouille, as well as courteous, unpretentious, aw-shucks Yanks like John Isner and Sam Querrey and Jack Sock, had to be thinking that, by Jove, Flushing Meadows’s our last shot this year, and looka this, they’re down to Two and they gotta rest on their laurels, don’t they?
No they do not. It is in the nature of greatness that you do not rest on your laurels until they wrap you in white linen and drop the roses while beating the drums slowly. Neither Rafa nor Roger is ready for that, by a long shot, and they both made spectacular runs in Queens. Federer was tested right away, by a young American sensation named Frances Tiafoe, who took him through five dramatic, thrilling sets in the first round. Tiafoe, the American-born child of immigrants from Sierra Leone, whose twin brother Franklin is a stand-out student at Maryland’s legendary DeMatha High School, has the moves and the power to take the lead in American tennis, but at the end of five sets he lacked Federer’s steady hand and netted a relatively simple groundstroke — it happens to the best of them and he is not even out of his teens.
But the sharks smelled blood. The shark in question was the nicest, most gentlemanly man on the Tour, the mighty mountain of Tandil, who had led Argentina to its first Davis Cup last year and beaten Nadal at the Rio Olympics. Juan Martín del Potro is anything but a shark, but if any man merited the honor, and had the talent, to stop Federer, it was he. Recovered — we hope — from a series of injuries that very nearly ended his career just as it was soaring, he was remembered as one of only two men — the other being Cilic — who had broken though the wall around the Slams erected by the Four plus Wawrinka. He beat Nadal at the U.S. Open semi in 2009 and went on to meet Federer in the final, where he beat him too.
And now here he was, facing them in the reverse order. He was coming off an extraordinary comeback in the previous round against Dominic Thiem. Losing the first two sets, gasping from a flu, staggering, he rallied as only a not-if-you-win-or-lose-but-how-you-play-the-game champion does and changed the course of history. Would he cede to Federer in the quarter-final, clearing the way to what, surprisingly, would be the first time in all these years and matches that the Swiss and the Spaniard stared at each other across a court at Flushing Meadows?
He would not. Federer went out in four sets two nights later, graciously acknowledging del Potro deserved the win and adding he had the better chance against Nadal, who meanwhile was about to bring back to earth a remarkable flying Russian teenager named Andrey Rublev.
The anticipation of the Federer-Nadal clash, the letdown when it was denied and the fresh excitement over the well-liked del Potro’s surge took some of the glamor out the women’s draw which, while all this was happening, took on an openness of its own.
This was due mainly to the absence of Serena Williams (maternity leave), Vika Azarenka (relationship crisis), and the shortcomings of their most likely replacements, Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, and Maria — back from dope suspension — Sharapova. Despite these contretemps, Sloane Stephens’ late-Cinderella run (after most of a year’s worth of recovery from injury) was a big treat for American tennis, as were her friends.
With Venus Williams, whom she beat in the semis, and Madison Keys, whom she beat in the final after Miss Keys beat CoCo Vandeweghe in her semi, it was the first time so many pretty American faces had top billing, and they were not alone. The Junior Girls final saw New Jersey’s own Amanda Anisimova, 15 and amazing, beat Florida’s Cori Gauff, who is 13 and amazing too.
Del Potro was amazing too, in the first set of his match against Nadal. He was in full form, with his deep hard forehands, by many accounts the best in the sport, and his big serve keeping the mighty caballero off balance and unable to set up his own lethal forehands against his opponent’s backhand side, weaker due to his still-fragile wrist.
Nadal found his range and power, however, and after dropping the first set 4-6, he took charge. The score, 6-0, 6-3, 6-2, does not adequately convey the strength and skill of del Potro’s resistance, but it was clear nonetheless that Nadal dictated the pace, found his angles when he needed them, wore his man down. One to go.
It turned out to be he whom it could not have happened to a more nicer guy (as we say in Brooklyn.) Kevin Anderson, also a much-injured star, from South Africa, who like del Potro is tall and dependent on a deep hard forehand that, unlike the Argentine’s, tends to falter in the stretch of a long rally, beat the favored Pablo Carreno-Busta, who is Spanish, in three elegant sets, ground-stroke duels between two serve-and-baseline men. He was happy. At 31, he had never been in a final at a Slam, a consequence of tough breaks on the injury side, but also of the long Federer-Nadal supremacy (and the other two).
Which continues. Just how much a toll the summer hard court season took on Roger Federer’s back will not be known for a few months, and how well Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic recover from their mishaps before the 2018 Tour remains, of course, a known unknown. Rafa Nada is as good as ever — better, in fact, if this season is the reference. With his third U.S. Open win, his 16th Slam, he stands athwart history, shouting ¡Vamos!
It’s only tennis — but it’s life.