Young guns shine in empty and silent US Open

Young guns shine in empty and silent US Open

Engin Kratzer
Young guns shine in empty and silent US Open

The 2020 U.S. Open will go down into tennis history as a very special event. We all know that the most crowded, noisy and chaotic audience with an average of 50,000 daily spectators has been in New York. But the 139th edition of the event was played without audience due to the pandemic, leaving the USTA Billie Jean King National Center empty and silent.

It was a strange feeling for us watching on the television how the players ran after the balls facing empty seats. The top ranked players are used to play at big stadiums and show courts with the support of their fans. The applause and cheers from the stands are always a very effective mental strength for them. But this time all players had to manage their mental up and downs themselves. The only backing they received from their coaches in the stands was some hand eye body languages. And a cam fan system simulating applause after aces and big points.

On the men’s side, two masters, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were not in New York: Nadal because of the pandemic and Federer decided to wait and relief his right knee surgery.

This was a perfect opportunity for the world number one and three-time U.S. Open champion Novak Djokovic to win his fourth title. But unfortunately something unexpected happened in the fourth round. Djokovic was 5 to 6 down in the first set against the incredible play of the Spanish Carreno Busta. During the side change, a ball Djokovic struck toward the back of the court in frustration hit a line judge’s throat. This action fell under the Grand Slam rule book’s definition in professional tennis of “ball abuse” and “unsportsmanlike conduct,” and Djokovic was defaulted from the match and suspended from the tournament. He lost his earned $250,000 prize money and ranking points for reaching the fourth round. He was fined an additional $10,000.

Next generation on court

The fact that the favorite three were not on the field anymore was a big chance for the “Next Generation” players: Number two seed Austrian Dominic Thiem, number five German Alexander Zverev, number three Russian Danill Medvedev and the 20th- seeded Spanish Pablo Carreno Busta, all of whom are under 30 years old, reached the semifinals.

Zverev faced Busta. The German was two sets down but made the impossible happen to win in five sets and reached his first Grand Slam final. On the other side of the draw, Thiem truly earned the semifinal victory in three sets against Medvedev with his powerful backhand and serve.

Thiem has lost only one set until the final on Sept. 13.

The Austrian, with three previous Grand Slam finals, was the favorite of the championship match against Zverev, who was in his first Grand Slam final appearance. But when the match started it seemed like that the underdog was Thiem. Zverev was relaxed, focused and had a tactical plan: Not to step into Thiem’s backhand trap. Thiem has a perfect one-handed backhand mixing the game with and changed slice and very hard drive shots. So Zverev stayed aggressive and changed the ball direction to Thiem’s forehand to bring him of balance. Zverev’s big serves and approaching the net gave Thiem not a chance at all to play his own game and he lost the first two sets.

Starting with the third, Zverev broke Thiem’s serve and was leading 2 to 1. But he lost the next long game with some unforced errors and that was the turning point of the match where everything was equal again.

From there on Thiem started with his aggressive play fighting for each point, winning the next two sets. He played an exceptional fifth set to force a tiebreaker and won the that historic tie breaker after three championship balls.
The Austrian became the first player to come back from two sets down in the final match in the first-ever U.S. Open final to be decided with a tiebreak.

Young guns among women

On the women’s side, the 31-year-old veteran, former world number one Victoria Azerenka made a sensational comeback. All this despite the fact that the Belarusian’s last Grand Slam final was seven years ago, three-and-a-half years before she gave birth to her baby boy, Leo. Azarenka beat the 23-time Grand Slam winner 38-year-old Serena Williams in the semifinals after losing the first set.

The two time Australian Open champion stayed focus, positive and aggressive to win the match in three sets.
Azarenka’s opponent in the final was the 22-year-old Naomi Osaka from Japan. Osaka, who is of Haitian and Japanese heritage, moved to the U.S. when she was three years old. Osaka is not only a role model on court, she is also a role model off court as a Black lives activist.

The final started with Azarenka’s enormous aggressive power full shots making Osaka run from one baseline corner to the other, dictating the game and dominating the rallies. Osaka had no answer to this game. The first set ended 6-1 just in half an hour. Azarenka continued the second set with a 2-0 leading. But Osaka did not give up. Rallies got longer and Azarenka’s unforced errors were increasing.

The Japanese began to serve better and her known powerful game dominated the rest of the match, winning 6-3, 6-3. This was Osaka’s third Grand Slam title and second at the Flushing Meadows.

The question is who will dominate the women’s tennis in future as Steffi Graff, Martina Hings, Martina Navratilova did before as Williams’ domination also seems to be coming to an end. She will still be playing because she loves tennis, but without winning as many matches as she was used to. The young players have self-confidence are not chocking. And the more they play against the older and experienced opponents in three sets, the bigger chance they to win. If not, they really work very hard to improve. The only difference comparing to the men’s tennis will be that none of the women will dominate the top spot in the rankings for a long period.

A silent revolution

The biggest change for all players was to play in front of “nobody.” Players have had to adjust competing without the energy of the crowd. The atmosphere on the courts was more like a junior tournament event with few coaches and some parents. The emptiness and silence for the winner of the match was very unusual. No applause, no cheers, touching rackets over the net instead of handshake to observe social distancing. But most of the players said that they were more relaxed during points and close positions because there was no fan pressure. I think that empty seats affected the top players more as most others are used to compete in front of a few spectators.

*Engin Kratzer is a tennis columnist for Hürriyet and a former Davis Cup and Fed Cup coach.

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