The 2018 US Open is now a part of tennis history, with Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka being the winners. In the men’s doubles, Jack Sock and Mike Bryan claimed the trophy. Ashleigh Barty teamed up with CoCo Vandeweghe to win women’s doubles. And Bethanie Mattek Sands with Jamie Murray became the mixed doubles US Open champions. Aside from the end result of the tournament, there are several stories that stood out in the past 2 weeks.
The heat in New York became a challenge that players had to overcome to be able to compete. Roger Federer got knocked out in the round of 16 by John Millman. Simona Halep couldn’t make it to the second round for the second year in a row. The new Louis Armstrong Stadium enjoyed its premiere, albeit with an unfortunate camera angle that had to be corrected. The US Open established itself as the highest paying tennis grand slam. The prize money for men’s and women’s singles was a record 3.8 million dollars. Rafael Nadal had a good chance of defending a grand slam title other than the French for the first time but had to retire in the semi-final against Del Potro, with a knee injury. The Women’s final got controversial attention due to the events between Serena Williams and chair umpire Carlos Ramos.
Out of all the memorable moments, highlights, upsets and controversy, there are 4 takeaways worth pondering on. Sadly, there is plenty of time to do that until the next grand slam in early 2019, in Australia.
Serena’s US Open final meltdown explained
The 2018 Women’s final stood out more than any other US Open moment. Serena Williams lost the final (6-2, 6-4) to Naomi Osaka, along with the opportunity for her 24th Grand Slam. Williams was edgy from the first game and ended up being clearly outplayed by her opponent. I’ve written before about how Serena’s return to the tennis scene would catch her by surprise. Still, that wasn’t the biggest news of the evening, nor the reason everyone will remember this final for years to come. It will be remembered for the drama and heated arguments between her and chair umpire Carlos Ramos, as well as what followed it. Here is a pretty accurate account of the incident that unfolded in the Women’s final.
Following an awkward trophy ceremony, Serena insisted that she was the victim of sexism in her post-match press conference. So where does the truth lie here? Why was the reaction from the media vs. tennis fans so much different thereafter? Here are my 2 cents.
At Serena’s level and with her experience it was as if she intentionally blew things out of proportion as the match slipped through her hands. Seeing her loss was inevitable, she went on a downward spiral and then kept sliding without putting any brakes on. She made the final about herself, kept appealing to the crowd’s emotional responses, made it as difficult for her opponent as possible and eventually took something away from Osaka’s well-deserved victory. As Martina Navratilova put it, Serena was in the wrong, which only made her arguments and fight against sexism and discrimination weaker.
How much truth can tennis bear about Serena Williams?
Sexism is very real in tennis, sport and life in general, even if not obvious or blatant. Here is a very interesting study, which explains the concept and effects of implicit bias in sports. In short, the theory of implicit (or unconscious) bias suggests that each and every one of us thinks, acts and speaks based mostly on preconceived notions. Particularly when we are forced to do so quickly and under pressure, similarly to a referee or umpire. We might want to deny or ignore it and -if we make an effort to take a good look inwards- try to minimize it consciously, where we can. But it’s there. Hence it can be difficult to find obvious instances of sexual or race discrimination in tennis, but the frustration against sexism can be justified.
Coincidentally, there was an instance that effectively validates this theory at the very same tournament. Alize Cornet received a code violation warning for changing her shirt on-court. Technically, she should have been sitting in her chair to do that, but few can dispute that the real reason behind that penalty was that the chair umpire acted under the bias that a woman taking off her shirt is actually provocative. It wouldn’t have registered as a violation in most people’s minds if it were a man in her place. It would have gone by unnoticed. Hence the US Open organizers felt the need to issue an apology.
If we are to support this argument though, the same principle applies to Serena. She has been treated badly throughout her career and has been the victim of subtle or obvious discrimination because of her race, sex or external appearance. Therefore, there is some merit to her being defensive and suspicious of anything that strikes her as unfair play. Having been through a lot, she probably has the preconceived notion that she will be treated unfairly under certain circumstances. And that is where things start to go sour.
In the final, Williams starts acting up under that same prejudice and consciously escalates a seemingly minor incident. On one hand, to “validate” her bias (that the umpire has intentionally harmed her) and, on the other, to test her own power against him. The main problem is that she does that in a completely wrong setting: a) she has been clearly outplayed b) the chair umpire is known for his rule-abiding style c) she plays at “home” and she tries to get the crowd emotionally involved and d) she uses the same tone and language that have justified many people to think she is arrogant and a bully over the years. So instead of setting an example on why rules should be enforced more regularly and equally, it looks as if she is trying to get away with bad behavior because she is Williams, or because she is a mother.
All things considered, it seemed more like a self-serving attitude, whereby she used the causes she allegedly supports and stands for, to minimize the damage from her loss and validate her own biases. What makes it even more complicated is that Serena has been pampered by the tennis world to the point where she might as well be convinced that she is beyond criticism for the “right” reasons. The worst part about it all is that it has given a voice and an alibi to actual sexists to claim that there is no discrimination and no bias whatsoever. The way the American media and many from the sports or celebrity world have reacted thereafter, shows both that we all need to rethink how we want to fight this fight against sexism, discrimination and inequality, as well as whom we want to choose as its ambassadors.
How long before Novak Djokovic becomes the new GOAT?
Last year I wrote a piece on how Novak Djokovic could return to the top and what seemed to be his obstacles. The tennis world questioned whether he was capable of a come-back and if he had run out of challenges. Well, Nole is back, showing glimpses of the unmatched 2011 level of tennis he is capable of. Luckily for him, this also translates to 3 back to back titles, 2 of them being Grand Slams. Playing good tennis again without getting the results can only get you so far in terms of motivation and confidence. But crowning the effort and good form with titles is what a returning pro player needs. Djokovic is also peaking at the best time of the tennis season, which will allow him to rest well enough before he starts his 2019 campaign.
The good news doesn’t end here for the Serbian though. Together with a renewed thirst for the game, Djokovic returns with a much improved net play and overhead skills. Case in point:
Along with the shortcomings of Federer, Nadal, Murray and the rest of the ATP elite, it seems that the stars are aligning for Djokovic to reach new heights. The question is whether he has enough time to achieve GOAT status, at 31. Another question worth pondering on though is if we are right to determine the greatest based on their number of titles alone.
How much longer can Federer and Nadal retain their level?
They both started the 2018 US Open tournament as favorites for the title. The men’s draw was such that allowed for the hope of a long overdue first “Fedal” final in New York. Yet, Federer got eliminated in the round of 16 by John Millman in 4 sets. The Swiss was up a set when he says he started feeling as if he couldn’t breathe. Heat and humidity were indeed bad in New York, but his opponent was playing in the same conditions. Federer admitted later that his body was unable to cope, to the point where he felt relieved the match was over.
Rafael Nadal made it to the US Open semi-finals, after beating Dominic Thiem in a tough 5-set encounter. In the semi-final against Del Potro, his recurring knee injury appeared again, forcing him to retire after the second set. It is a rare sight to witness, Nadal obviously struggling to pull through a match. The fact that if Nadal retires everyone knows he has given it all he could, is one of those features unique to this athlete, that inspire unequivocal respect.
When the biggest fighter of the sport is forced to retire and the alleged GOAT loses in the round of 16 because he can’t breathe, it is a painful reminder that this era is coming to an end. They might win more titles, but more and more we will witness time taking their game apart piece by piece. The tennis world should be appreciative of what these two legendary champions have given to the sport and be graceful when they fail to perform at their usual level. Time will certainly not cut either of them any slack.
Juan Martin Del Potro and Bethanie Mattek-Sands keeping the dream alive
Aside from the skills, trophies and prize money, there are some things that distinguish great athletes. Like the perseverance and courage that elevate them to true life inspiration for us mortals. Such are the stories of Juan Martin Del Potro and –even more so- Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
Just over a year ago, Bethanie Mattek-Sands was one Wimbledon title away from a Career Grand Slam in women’s doubles. She and Lucy Safarova had won the 2016 US Open, 2017 Australian Open and 2017 French Open titles. They were the favorite in the Wimbledon women’s doubles, the favorite to hold all Grand Slam titles simultaneously. But then injury struck. Mattek-Sands ruptured her patella tendon in Wimbledon, in the second round. If you are into any sort of fitness activity, you don’t want to see what that looks like. It is gruesome enough to make you not want to exercise again. That injury took so much away from this athlete, at such a bad time. At 32, with such a disappointment looming over her head, it would make sense for her to call it quits. Instead, she came back a year later to claim the mixed doubles US Open title.
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Juan Martin Del Potro’s story is just as inspiring. 9 years ago, he was crowned US Open champion in New York. In 2011 he started the season with a wrist injury and effectively spent the next 7 years trying to recover from failing wrists and surgeries. His backhand is still a liability due to those problems. Making it to the final is a big achievement for this huge fighter, even though he didn’t manage to beat Djokovic. A healthy Del Potro is missing from the men’s tour and it as great as it is inspiring to see him back.
Featured image credit: lev radin / Shutterstock.com