This US Open will be judged by the future of Osaka and Thiem
By Christopher Clarey
Naomi Osaka and Dominic Thiem.
The surreal, fan-free zone of a U.S. Open that ended Sunday night deserves to be judged on many levels. It was, let us not forget, extraordinary that it happened at all considering the headwinds, domestic skepticism and international quarantine issues it faced amid the coronavirus pandemic.
After all the understandable concern, just one player, Benoît Paire of France, tested positive, although several other French and Belgian players and coaches were restricted to their hotel rooms for more than a week because of contact with Paire.
Further down the track, however, this U.S. Open will be judged in large part by the quality of its champions. When future tennis fans and historians scan the long list of Grand Slam tournament results that date to the 19th century, they will see Osaka’s and Thiem’s names for 2020.
If both turn out to be tennis greats, there will be even less of a reason to retrofit an asterisk onto this unique — please, let it be unique — edition of the tournament, which was missing six of the top 10 women and Rafael Nadal, its defending champion in men’s singles.
“The whole issue will really be solved by time, and it depends a lot on the winners,” said Steve Flink, a tennis historian. “If a player who wins a tournament like this never backs it up and never gets near to another big title, then I think historians will look at it differently.”
Osaka, 22, and Thiem, 27, are young in a sport that has largely been dominated by the elders for the past decade. But the 2020 U.S. Open appears to be on solid ground in the champion department.
Osaka, with three Grand Slam singles titles and a former ranking of No. 1, is a surefire Hall of Fame candidate. She also has charisma, an offbeat wit and other intangibles, including a knack for being a part of big-picture narratives.
Her victory over Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open final turned into an international incident after Williams was docked a point and then a game for code-of-conduct violations, sparking conversations about gender bias and sympathy for Osaka, whose victory celebration was anything but.
Consider, too, Osaka’s role over the past three weeks in shining the spotlight on Black victims of violence, including police violence, a campaign she said had inspired her to keep winning.
Her willingness to embrace the political was not as bold as it would have been for past champions (this is a different time), but it was still quite a contrast with her fellow finalist, Victoria Azarenka. Perhaps the most famous athlete from Belarus, Azarenka chose not to weigh in on the tumult in her country, where mass protests continue against President Alexander Lukashenko, a leader she knows personally who is accused of stealing his last election.
In light of Osaka’s easy power, hard-earned fitness and ability to lift her level on big points in New York, she would quite likely have won this U.S. Open even if all of the top 10 had made the trip.
The picture is less clear but still promising for Thiem.
His nerve-jangling, strength-sapping marathon victory Sunday over Alexander Zverev gave him only his first Grand Slam singles title. But that is quite an achievement in this top-heavy era, and Thiem has already reached three other Grand Slam finals.
If he can walk in less than two weeks, when the French Open begins, he will be among the top three favorites there as well, along with the 12-time champion Nadal and the world No. 1, Novak Djokovic.
While Osaka’s victory was a reflection of the present in women’s tennis, Thiem’s victory was a projection of the future in the men’s game.
Although it is refreshing and significant that someone other than the Big Three — Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer — finally won a major, the downside is that Thiem did not have to beat any of the Big Three in this tournament to do so. That is hardly Thiem’s fault: Djokovic was defaulted in the fourth round for unsportsmanlike conduct after knocking a ball in frustration that hit a line umpire in the throat.
But a victory in these circumstances does leave a lesser impression. What made Osaka such a star is, in large part, that she won her first major title against Williams, the greatest player of this era, in extraordinary, debate-generating circumstances.
Thiem has beaten each of the Big Three at least four times, just not yet in New York. As irresistible as it was in its final stages, Sunday’s final — between a German and an Austrian — was expected to draw one of the lowest television ratings in the United States for a U.S. Open men’s final.
That was no blip. In a tournament with no paying spectators, there were very few American television viewers, either. ESPN’s ratings were microscopic: a surprise and disappointment to both Open organizers and ESPN, which pushed hard for the tournament to happen. The network, indeed, was the main reason the tournament was held, because of its rights fee worth more than $100 million annually.
It should not be viewed as churlish to make that point. The U.S. Open revenue does not simply pay big salaries to U.S. Tennis Association officials. It funds the sport at many levels in the U.S., and most of the players who took part in the tournament had not had a significant payday in six months. First-round losers in singles earned $61,000, and the USTA had contributed to player relief funds and provided some support for coaches and tennis programs in the U.S.
But staging the U.S. Open was not entirely about the money. It was also a symbolic gesture after all that New York has endured, and although none of the players made it to Manhattan — at least officially — they did make it to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and give it their all amid the silence. The night of the women’s singles semifinals — when Osaka held off Jennifer Brady and Azarenka defeated Williams — would have been quite a night in any tennis season.
Scanning the sports landscape Sunday, live professional sports were everywhere: NBA and NHL playoffs, NFL openers, Major League Baseball, WNBA, European soccer and more. That glut helps explain the U.S. Open’s low ratings, but how would it have looked if the tournament’s leaders had not managed to get big-time tennis back on court with so many other leagues succeeding?
The players came prepared even after a long break. There were only two retirements in the men’s tournament: the lowest number since 2006. Five-set duels were commonplace, none more gripping than Borna Coric’s third-round comeback from six match points down to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas, and none more significant than Thiem’s high-wire, to-the-limit victory over Zverev from two sets down. It was an extraordinary final more than a great final, but extraordinary still has its thrills.
“The roller coaster of roller coasters,” said John McEnroe, who rode a few in his long career.
Big Three or no Big Three, it was clear how much the outcome mattered to both young men as they struggled to fight the ache in their legs and the doubt in their heads. On the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Open tiebreaker, they played the first fifth-set tiebreaker in a singles final in the history of the U.S. Open.
“The first of many Grand Slam titles,” Zverev said between the tears to Thiem as he congratulated his friend and rival.
If so, this U.S. Open full of effort against the odds will look even more worthy in the history books than it did as of Sunday night.