FLUSHING MEADOW, NY—No one expected surprises and there were none Sunday afternoon at the U.S. Open final. They like winners in Queens, and if they respect underdogs and appreciate the drama of unlikely upsets, they go for the champion when the champion gets going. Rafa Nadal was indomitable for two weeks and there was no reason not to cheer him on to his third U.S. Open title, his 16th Slam.
Still, this was the most open U.S. in years. With several of the top players on the disabled list – Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic, and defending champion Stan Wawrinka absent with serious injuries, and several other top players pleading illness or dropping out with one excuse or another early in the tournament, the way seemed open to the perennially touted “next gen”(eration) of players.
Not quite open enough, however: while one of the best young Americans, Frances Tiafoe of College Park, Maryland, gave Roger Federer a serious scare in the first round, it was Juan Martin del Potro, who is closer to Nadal’s cohort, who took the Swiss maestro out of the tournament with a four-set win in the quarter-finals. Nadal then dominated the Argentine star – who led his country to its first Davis Cup trophy last year and beat Nadal at the Rio Olympics – in the semis, which was somewhat like winning a Democratic primary for mayor in Chicago.
Nadal met South Africa’s Kevin Anderson in the final, a lopsided match that nonetheless allowed the loser to show how much heart he has, in addition to his powerful serve and high-powered forehand. But such tools alone are not enough against a champion of Nadal’s skill and experience. He neutralized the 130 mph serves by standing ten feet behind the baseline and Anderson simply does not have the variety and spin control to trip him up as would, for example, a master-server like Federer or the Aussie bad boy Nick Kyrgios (another next-gen star who went out in an early round.). He counterpunched against the big serves and the deep forehands and patiently set up winners that, by the third set, Anderson could not longer keep up with.
By way of consolation to American tennis, the tournament was an all-American affair in the women’s draw at the end, as Venus Williams fell to Sloane Stephens and Coco Vandeweghe was crushed by Madison Keys. Stephens in turn crushed Madison, dictating the point almost all the way through two quick sets and capping a remarkable summer with her first Slam trophy. In Juniors, two very young American girls made it to the final, with Amanda Anisimova – all of 15 – holding off the remarkable Cori Gauff, a 13-year old eighth grader.
Given Nadal’s victory at the French Open and Roger Federer’s at Melbourne and Wimbledon, it would seem the famed Big Four, who between them have won almost all the Slams since Federer won the first of his eight Wimbledon titles in 2003, are down to two. In fact, precedent suggests Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will recover from schedule surgeries and return to competition in 2018. Despite the obvious depth of the men’s field, the tennis Tour remains a small club.