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Thoughts On The 2020 US Open

Words on Osaka, Thiem, Azarenka, Zverev and more

The Unisphere and Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows
Image | Manuel Quimbayo

By Stephen Higgins | 14 September 2020

I wrote my last grand slam opinion piece more than seven months ago. That seems surreal, but these are abnormal times as radio ads keep reminding me.

We’ve just witnessed the second grand slam of 2020 and despite all the challenges, absences and the odd default, it was compelling.

Let’s sift through it.

First, Some Credit

When it was confirmed that the US Open would take place in its usual slot, I never thought it would happen. But the USTA put in the legwork and made it happen.

They gave us an (almost) airtight bubble and an actual grand slam in the Covid-19 era. It’s a massive achievement for tournament director Stacey Allaster and her team so well done all round.

Heroine For The Times

While many tennis players were showcasing questionable sides to their personalities during the lockdown, Naomi Osaka was a courageous outlier.

Naomi Osaka
Three-time major winner Naomi Osaka | Rob Keating

Along with Coco Gauff and other players of colour, the 22-year-old used her considerable platform to bring awareness to racial inequity throughout society. She continued this push during the US Open where she wore seven masks before matches stitched with the names of black victims of violence.

During this important movement, the Japanese also found time to win the third grand slam of her career. She really is remarkable.

Against Victoria Azarenka, it wasn’t until the second set that Osaka found her range. But when she did, the match was over and quick. Osaka’s blistering forehand, awesome serve and supreme athleticism were too much for the Belarusian and may be too much for the rest of the WTA. I hope we’ll see much more in the future.

Faith (And Forehands) Rewarded

Much like the overall men’s draw, the final was unpredictable, tough to watch and utterly compelling. After six years, the ATP finally has a new major winner in Dominic Thiem and no one deserves it more.

It’s inarguable that the Austrian has put in the work. Multiple wins over Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have shown us his class. While he couldn’t get over the finishing line in three previous major finals, Thiem made up for it here. Just.

It’s a testament to the 27-year-old’s mental strength that he was able to recover from two shocking sets and win the final. While his usual fluidity was lacking for much of the match, his enviable physicality and bravery carried him to the title.

Thiem is only the fifth player in the Open Era to win a grand slam final from two sets down. An undoubted warrior.

Vika’s Back

Seven years after her last major final, 31-year-old Victoria Azarenka reached another and could almost sniff a third major title before Osaka finally turned up in the second set.

It’s a brilliant achievement for the former world no.1 and she was generally outstanding throughout the tournament as she dispatched quality players like Aryna Sabalenka, Iga Swiatek, Karolina Muchova, Elise Mertens and of course, Serena Williams. She should be top 10 on this form.

Sascha’s Strange Open

It’s not odd that Alexander Zverev ended up in the final. But THIS Alexander Zverev making the final surprised probably all of us.

Alexander Sascha Zverev
The first of many finals for Sascha Zverev | JC

It was a struggle throughout for the German as he dropped sets in every match bar one and could/should have lost to Borna Coric and Pablo Carreno Busta. But he made it through to his first major final and did many brilliant things on Sunday night.

We know how good he can be from the 2018 ATP Finals and those three Masters 1000s. If Zverev can sort out that second serve and commit to an aggressive mindset, he’ll nab a major down the line.

Novak’s Nightmare

Will there be books written about Djokovic’s 2020?

Unbeaten before the tour’s suspension in March, the world no.1 has since meandered through a vaccine controversy, the Adria Tour, the PTPA and now a default from the US Open. The ruling there was correct by the way.

What will happen to him next? Djokovic is almost Trump-like in hoovering up headlines.

Will Serena Get There?

There’s no doubt that Serena Williams will keep trying to match Margaret Court on 24 singles majors. Here’s the question: is she still good enough to get over the finishing line?

There were promising signs in New York with her serve as potent as ever (70 aces) during the semi-final run. Problems arose though against players who could absorb Williams’s power and dish out their own. The American dropped sets against Sloane Stephens, Maria Sakkari and Tsvetana Pironkova before the loss to Victoria Azarenka.

Like in recent majors, it just seems that more and more players can compete with - and beat - the greatest female player of all-time.

Edging Closer

There are a number of players who moved up the pecking order in New York.

Anett Kontaveit at Roland Garros 2019
Rising Estonian Anett Kontaveit | Crosscourt View

On the women’s side, we saw strong runs from Anett Kontaveit, Maria Sakkari and Karolina Muchova. While in the men’s, we can be particularly excited by the continued progress of Felix Auger-Aliassime, Denis Shapovalov, Andrey Rublev and Alex de Minaur.

This event provided an opening for younger players and they all strolled through the door. Let’s hope they can build on it in future majors.

Missed Opportunity

The 2020 US Open also highlighted players searching for some of the old magic.

Karolina Pliskova was top seed in the women’s draw but surprisingly fell in the second round to Caroline Garcia. It is now five straight grand slams where the Czech has failed to make the quarter-finals.

Similarly, Stefanos Tsitsipas would probably like another shot at the Open as he crashed out in the 3rd round to Borna Coric. Also like Pliskova, it’s now five straight majors for the Greek without a run to the last eight.

The 2nd round was particularly arduous for women this fortnight with Garbine Muguruza, Jo Konta, Aryna Sabalenka, Alison Riske, Elena Rybakina and Marketa Vondrousova all falling victim.

Tough Crowd

In such strange circumstances, there was something joyous in seeing the top players watching each other on Arthur Ashe.

This probably reached a peak when Andy Murray recovered from two sets down to win against Yoshihito Nishioka in the opening round: