Naomi Osaka’s activism, Novak Djokovic’s legacy and more US Open takeaways


NEW YORK — The most extraordinary US Open ever staged produced the most remarkable men’s final, as well as a dramatic, high-quality women’s final, with Dominic Thiem and Naomi Osaka emerging as the respective, worthy champions.

Yet the real star of this tournament was, well, the tournament. From the early stages of planning the fan-free “double in the bubble,” skeptics didn’t believe the USTA could stage a safe event. Even if it did, some believed the tennis would be second-rate at best, owing to the absence of some top stars in both singles draws due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The skeptics were wrong.

The fact that the USTA undertook such a challenging — and risky — project and pulled it off beautifully is the main takeaway from this event. Here are a dozen others:

There will be no asterisk attached to this one, because the quality of play was extremely high throughout. The players were itching to once again compete in an event in which the result really mattered in some critical ways. As Reilly Opelka said after a first-round win: “I loved it today. We’re professionals and we play for money and incentives like rankings. It’s different. That’s the ingredient that’s been missing [these past six months].” The quality of the play greatly diminished the negative impact of the prohibition against fans.

Naomi Osaka found a cause larger than herself. Instead of it being a distraction, it seemed to motivate and inspire the 22-year old No. 4 seed, ultimately leaving her in a role of leadership — not just in the WTA, but the entire tour. Osaka’s social justice protests (she wore the name of a different Black person killed by police on her masks for each of her seven matches) were touched by a humility that made the budding activist’s gestures that much more effective.

“She has shown more and more confidence about speaking up,” said Billie Jean King, the tennis legend and longtime social justice advocate, during one of Osaka’s previous matches. “She’s very quiet and calm, but internally she’s on fire and thinking about things. I really admire what she’s done. Sports is a platform, and women’s tennis, we are the leaders in women’s sports, and Naomi has really stepped up.”

The age of all-electronic line officiating is upon us, and there will be no turning back. Hawk-Eye Live was employed to call all lines on most courts (with just a chair umpire to monitor all else), and it worked flawlessly. Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong still used a full complement of line judges and the familiar challenge system, and it ruined the first set in one of the men’s semifinals, when a blown call cost Daniil Medvedev a service game and his concentration. We will miss the challenge process when Hawk-Eye Live takes over, as it inevitably will, but not the damage the “human factor” does to the integrity of play. “We’ve had four weeks of the experiment of Hawk-Eye Live,” US Open tournament director Stacey Allaster said on the final day of the tournament. “It’s been a terrific success.”

Novak Djokovic‘s angry outburst may mar his legacy in more ways than one. With 17 major titles, Djokovic trails Rafael Nadal by two, Roger Federer by three. This was a golden opportunity to narrow that gap without the other two members of the Big Three present. Sure, Djokovic is 26-1 on the year, his only loss the default he earned here for inadvertently striking a line judge in the throat with a ball recklessly hit in frustration toward the back of the court. But he’s 33 years old, his rivals are still around, and younger players like US Open finalists Alexander Zverev and Thiem are consistently getting better and more confident.

Former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka is back and probably here for a while, based on the energy and quality of play she displayed in advancing to the final. She is a mother now, but her custody woes are behind her and she’s still just 31. It has been an amazing seven-plus years since Azarenka last played a major final, yet she finally logged that first win at a Slam against Serena Williams in 12 tries in a compelling semifinal.

Dominic Thiem’s career-long diligence was rewarded with a historic win, his first in four tries in major finals. The 27-year old Austrian, seeded No. 2, became the first man in 71 years to rebound from two sets down in the final to win the title. In his three previous finals, Thiem was beaten by iconic players Rafael Nadal (2018 and 2019 French Opens) and Novak Djokovic (2020 Australian Open).

The Big Three will be missed when they retire, but maybe not all that much. The game moves on, like it always does, constantly churning out new talent. The key to a robust game is contrast and variety, and the ATP has that in abundance, between the brainy Medvedev (he even looks like a physics professor), the earnest bombardier Thiem, casual hipster Alexander Zverev and the mercurial Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Serena Williams was unable to capitalize on perhaps her last best opportunity to equal Margaret Court’s all-time Grand Slam singles title record (24). It seemed Williams was destined to win once she made it to the second week, yet she was simply outplayed and was unable to bring her ‘A’ game from start to finish in a number of matches. That said, this remarkable woman turns 39 near the end of the month. She’s a three-time winner at the French Open, but the slow clay will probably demand greater strength, stamina and focus.

Daniil Medvedev has figured something out, and it has turned him into the most deceptive and complex player on the ATP Tour. In the semifinals, the 24-year old Russian and his opponent Dominic Thiem had a 34-shot rally, the longest in any match from the second round on. Medvedev is known for his terrific defense and willingness to run all day, but Hawk-Eye technology showed that all his previous opponents had actually run farther in their matches than Medvedev. Thiem also ended up running farther (14,098 feet to 13,000) in their marquee matchup, a straight-set win for Thiem.

Apply that unused asterisk to the women’s’ doubles, because just as the competition was about to begin, the top-seeded team of Kristina Mladenovic and Timea Babos was pulled from the draw. Mladenoivc had been under “enhanced protocols” after being contact-traced (along with nine others) to Benoit Paire, who tested positive for COVID-19. New York City officials allowed her to continue playing as long as she observed some more restrictive rules. But Nassau County health officials, who have jurisdiction over the hotels where the vast majority of players stayed, decided those traced to Paire had to quarantine in their rooms and were forbidden to travel to the NTC. Fortunately for the tournament, most of those in contact with Paire were already out of the competition, but this may be an ominous sign for future events.

With the No. 1 seeds out, the doubles title went to former singles standout Vera Zvonareva and Laura Siegemund.

Move over, Margaret, Serena, Roger and Rafa, and make room for Shingo Kunieda of Japan, who earned his 24th Grand Slam singles title in the men’s wheelchair competition. Kunieda, defeated two-time defending champion 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 in a match that lasted 2:54. It was Kunida’s seventh triumph in New York, his first since 2015. Diede De Groot, thee top seed in the women’s’ wheelchair event, captured her third consecutive US Open title, defeating No. 2 Yui Kamiji 6-3, 6-3.

The stricture against fans didn’t stop one superfan: New York restaurateur Giovanni Bartocci. The 41-year-old native of Rome stood in Flushing Meadows Park, just outside the fence around the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, and repeatedly screamed encouragement to his Italian compatriot Matteo Berrettini. The No. 6 seed, Berrettini was playing his third-round match on Court 17, one of the venue’s four stadia. As the court is located at the extreme eastern edge of the grounds, Berrettini heard Bartocci loud and clear — even though he was unable to dine at Bartocci’s quaint Italian restaurant as he had almost every night during the tournament in 2019. Berrettini won but, scheduled out of earshot for his next match he lost in four sets on Louis Armstrong.

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