View of Rafael Nadal vs. Kevin Anderson U.S. Open Final in Arthur Ashe Stadium as taken by my iPhone
Rafael Nadal Cruises to U.S. Open Title defeating Kevin Anderson 6-3, 6-3, 6-4
The men’s draw got a lot easier when a lot of top players withdrew with injuries: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Stan Wawrinka. With Roger Federer winning two Majors and Rafael Nadal winning the French Open and losing the Australian Open to Federer, it seemed like an eventuality that they would play and one of them would win the tournament if they were both healthy. Of course, we were again denied an opportunity to see their legendary rivalry at the U.S. Open when Juan Martin del Potro upset Federer in the Quarterfinals in 4 sets. Federer was never right in the U.S. Open after tweaking his back again before it started. A combination of injury and not getting the proper preparation clearly resulted in a compromised game and play. Obviously, it is one of the issues with his age. After he won two Majors already this year, I could not expect a third Grand Slam. I was just happy he at least made it to the Quarterfinals so I could finally watch him play in person. Whenever Federer and Nadal win now, it is more special than a decade ago because it is no longer a given.
For Nadal, a weaker than normal Men’s Draw became even easier with a bunch of upsets that allowed him to win the U.S. Open without playing a top 20 ranked player. Of course, winning a Major is still never easy. Federer was in the same draw and could not play well enough to face Nadal. More importantly, Nadal was playing at the top of his game. He would have most likely won the tournament even without all the upsets. He was never really in danger of losing a match. Juan Martin del Potro presented matchup problems and took the first set from Nadal in the Semi-Finals. However, Nadal made brilliant adjustments in the subsequent sets. Combined with del Potro’s tired legs from a five setter in the Round of 16 and a dramatic 4 set match with Federer in the Quarters, Nadal quickly dusted off del Potro in the 4 sets after the first set setback. The outcome of the Finals was never in doubt. Kevin Anderson is a tall, powerful server. He played well but Nadal is just out of his league. Rafa never faced a break point in the match and won all 16 points when he went to the net. It is an extra sweet victory for him because it was the last Grand Slam that his coach and mentor, Uncle Toni, would be coaching him. Without his tutelage, guidance, and discipline, Rafa would have never been an all-time great. With 16 Grand Slams under Rafa’s belt, Uncle Toni has certainly done a magnificent job and he goes out with a bang with the U.S. Open title.
With Nadal’s victory at the U.S. Open, he and Federer swept the 4 Majors in 2017 with each player winning 2. Before the season, both players looked like they might be done. Nevertheless, they defy logic again in their careers and dominated the sport for yet another year. At their advanced ages, the idea appeared impossible until it happened. Despite their greatness, I would not expect it to happen ever again. During the Australian Open at the beginning of the year, their matchup in the Finals was billed as the match that would determine who was greatest tennis player of all-time because it would seemed to be the last time they played in a Grand Slam Final and might be one of the few, if not last, remaining opportunities each player would have to add to his Grand Slam total. Obviously, Federer and Nadal have proven that they are still writing the story. Can Rafa win 3 more to get to Federer’s 19? At his press conference, he noted that anything is possible if he is healthy. On the other hand, he also noted anything seems impossible if he is not healthy. He added that three is a lot. Consequently, it will not be easy. It was definitely difficult and a grind for Federer to tack on and get to 19. On the other hand, Nadal has a slight advantage. In Federer’s 30s, he had Nadal in his prime then Djokovic in his prime blocking him from winning Grand Slams. While Federer and Djokovic [once he returns] should be there to provide resistance and competition, they are no longer in their primes. In addition, there is no apparent up and coming superstar to provide that road block. As a result, Rafa should have a slightly easier path to more Majors in his 30s than Federer did. Of course, Federer is definitely not satisfied with 19 and has enough left to compete for more. The record number for Majors may increase. Nevertheless, Rafa has the appropriate attitude. He will just play instead of harping on it and see where the chips land at the end of his career. At this point, we will just need to wait till both their careers are over before we tally all their achievements and perform a final analysis. Who knows? Djokovic may still have something to say about who is the greatest ever too.
Sloane Stephens defeats Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0 to Win Duel of Young American Stars and 1st Grand Slam
Sloane Stephens completed one of the most unbelievable runs by winning the U.S. Open. As everyone has noted over and over again during her run, she returned from an eleven month absence from surgery and was ranked 957 five weeks ago. Entering the tournament, she was ranked 83rd and unseeded. She is the second women to win the US Open as an unseeded player. Ironically, the other woman is Kim Clijsters, who was actually inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and honored at the U.S. Open this year. Stephens really showed me what she was made of in her Semi-Finals Match against Venus Williams. In the first set, Venus came out sluggish and slow. She handed Stephens the set 6-1 with a comedy of unforced errors. In the second set, Venus got going and imposed her will. She totally overpowered Stephens in a 6-0 rout. No one would have blamed Stephens if she folded against the living legend, especially after already advancing so far in her return from injury. Nevertheless, she fought and scrapped that entire third set. She started by breaking Venus’s first service game. Nevertheless, Venus was still crushing the ball and overpowering Stephens. Venus’s shots were clearly faster, harder, and deeper than Stephens’s shots. Venus had her pinned at the back of the baseline. She had time to set her feet before striking the ball with her full motion while Stephens had to hit them on the run, seemingly at the last possible moment. Once Venus broke back to get back on serve, it seemed like an inevitability that she would win the match. However, Stephens showcased ridiculous foot speed and court coverage. She returned balls that I thought were sure winners. Not only did she get to the balls, she put enough on her returns so they were fast and deep enough so that Venus could not simply move forward to the net to quickly end the points. Despite the incredible defense, it still looked like Stephens was hanging on for dear life. However, she showed a lot of determination and toughness to keep on battling despite getting continually peppered by Venus’s powerful groundstrokes. In the end, the long rallies resulted in 50+ unforced errors for Venus. Although they were recorded as unforced errors, a lot were forced by the long rallies and Stephens forcing Venus to constantly hit extra balls in the rallies. They broke each other’s serve repeatedly in the third set but Stephens held serve in the final game to win the match.
Similar to Venus, Madison Keys is a very powerful tennis player. Prior to the Finals, I had a conversation with someone who thought Keys would win easily because of the power. However, I reminded him that Stephens plays great defense. Both women were playing in their first Grand Slam Final. If Stephens could make Keys hit extra balls like she did with Venus, nerves of a first Final could bother Keys. Moreover, Keys likes playing quick points with short rallies. The Semi-Finals against Coco Vanderweghe was the ideal matchup for Keys. Like her, Coco enjoys playing fast with a power game. Unfortunately for Coco, Keys has more power. In contrast, Keys is not accustomed to or wants to be involved in long rallies. Of course, long rallies are Stephens’s games. The Finals played out in this exact situation although I am not entirely sure if nerves or impatience doomed Keys. She held her serves at the beginning of the match so I lean towards impatience. Stephens played amazing defense and forced Keys to hit extra balls in the rallies that resulted in unforced errors. Once Stephens broke in the first set, Keys definitely pressed. Rather than bear down, toughen up, and prepare to be in long rallies where she could eventually overpower Stephens; she kept on trying to play quick points. She forced the issue, went for more on her shots, and hit a lot of balls long and out of bounds. As a result, the points were quick but only because they ended with unforced errors from Keys.
Future of American Women’s Tennis
It was a great story with an all-American female semi-final. The old veteran and legend, Venus Williams, led the way for the young guns. Of course, it is near impossible for any players to top the brilliance and greatness of either Williams sister. Regardless, here are my thoughts on the field:
Stephens won the U.S. Open. She is definitely a good player but I do not know if she is a great player. She is an excellent defensive player who can turn defense into offense. However, her serve and service game are nothing special. In order to consistently contend for and win Majors, a player usually needs to have the game that generates a lot of easy points with her service game. On the other hand, Novak Djokovic has become an all-time great by being the greatest returner of all-time. Of course, he is freakishly lanky, long, and flexible. He gets to balls most players cannot and returns it with authority. In contrast, Stephens has a modest frame at 5’7” and does not have the elite athleticism to duplicate anything close to the return game Djokovic features. As such, her game does not allow her to make any mistakes. In addition, she needs her opponent to make unforced errors. If she plays her best game and a power hitter (e.g. Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Petra Kvitova, etc.) both play their best games, the power player will win every time. Stephens will be in the mix in future Majors but definitely not a favorite. Nonetheless, her diminutive stature and class make her very easy to root for so she will totally be a fan favorite. When she played the tall Venus Williams, she looked like a kid playing across from Venus. Nevertheless, she is very tough and has a bit of “The Little Engine That Could” thing going for her. Moreover, she was incredibly gracious when she defeated Venus and praised the legend as a role model and inspiration. When she beat Keys in the Finals, she comforted her best friend immediately and genuinely. Stephens is well spoke and charismatic. It is very natural to root for her.
Despite the loss in the Finals, she is the most talented of the group. She is 5’10” with a lanky but powerful body. She has smooth mechanics and easy power. In her Round of 16 match against 4 seed Elina Svitolina, Svitolina was completely outplaying Keys, dictating the play, and in complete control of the deciding third set. With Keys’s back behind the wall, she just played free and unloaded big shot after big shot. In the end, she turned the match around by completely overpowering Svitolina. Accordingly, Keys has the tools and shots to be a dominant offensive player if she continues to progress. She can add drop shots and improve net play to her repertoire. However, she does not necessarily need to. She is young enough where she can run around and engage in long rallies. One aspect of her game she should definitely work on is her return game. In particular, she should have a more aggressive and powerful return of weak or second serves. Especially against a server like Sloan Stephens, Keys can step into and unleash more powerful, aggressive returns. Of course, she has the length and athleticism to cover a lot more ground if she improves her movement. Most importantly, she needs to get tougher. On the other hand, she is only 22. Toughness and channeling competitiveness into focus instead of frustration is something that may come with experience. Keys has a chance to be a top player but there is still a lot of work to done before it happens.
Unfortunately, I only watched Coco for 4 games against Madison Keys in the Semi-Finals and she was broken twice and lost all four games. Obviously, it is not a great or representative sample of her ability. On the plus side, she did display legitimate power. Again, Keys just had more power. Coco has been impressive upsetting top women’s players in this U.S. Open and in past Majors. Consequently, she is a name to keep an eye on. I hope she is able to improve and tweak her game enough so she continues to contend in Majors.
Passing of the Torch
With Venus with the three young games in the Semi-Finals, it served as a passing of the torch moment. However, I do not think either Williams sister is ready to pass the torch just yet. Venus came every close to winning another Major in 2007. She made the Finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon. She made it to the Semi-Finals of the U.S. Open. In my opinion, the result of her match against Sloane Stephens was a flip of a coin. If Venus made the Finals, her experience and more refined power game would have helped her prevail against Madison Keys. Venus will be back and in contention to win more Grand Slams. Of course, Serena won the Australian Open before taking a leave for her pregnancy. She is definitely not ready to cede anything to the younger players. I absolutely expect her to return next year to remind the young guns that the torch will not be passed just yet.