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A Weekend of Nostalgia and Uncertainty at the U.S. Open

Experiencing the best that the tournament has to offer, and examining what’s next for tennis beyond 2017

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Before arriving at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where the U.S. Open is held, a swarm of excited fans walks onto the subway. To get to the right platform, just follow the crowd of families with parents wearing RF ball caps and toting supply-filled backpacks for kids eating doughnuts and holding giant tennis balls meant to be covered with autographs. The 7 train lifts them out of Grand Central Terminal, through the sprouting steel forest of Manhattan, before depositing them at Willets Point in Queens, next to the stadium where the joints of every promising Mets pitcher seems to tear.

A river of the familial units amble out of the station and across the bridge that leads to the Arthur Ashe Stadium gates. There’s a billboard on the side of a nearby building advertising a pink-and-yellow cocktail sponsored by Grey Goose. The line of spectators waiting to get in on this Saturday morning, during the tournament’s middle weekend, stretches far beyond the entryway, but only for entrants with bags, which is pretty much everybody.

Past the metal detectors and through the ticket turnstiles, the grounds are swarmed. The concourse pulses, populated by teenagers wearing the gear of players who withdrew from the tournament weeks ago — “Stan the Man” T-shirts and Adidas tech sneakers with Novak Djokovic’s logo. There are preppy women with sweater sleeves draped over their shoulders and men in cargo shorts barking about tournament odds. The masses flock toward Ashe, where a giant screen broadcasts the first premier match of the day.

It isn’t raining, but the sky is gray, which isn’t doing the grounds any favors. The usually picturesque entrance is marred by a labyrinth of brown and white beams that will serve as the foundation for the new Louis Armstrong Stadium. The Open’s second show court was closed after last year’s tournament, and will be replaced by a 14,000-seat arena with a retractable roof. But for this year, the second-tier acts are performing in a makeshift stadium made of high, steep, top-heavy bleachers. The future hasn’t finished being constructed.

Venus Williams serves against Petra Kvitova during their quarterfinals match at the U.S. Open 
Venus Williams serves against Petra Kvitova during their quarterfinals match at the U.S. Open
Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Through just five days of matches, this year’s Open shaped up to be the most disappointing edition in recent memory. The sport’s main attractions started to fall weeks before the tennis world converged on Queens: Serena Williams, who gave birth to a daughter during the tournament’s first week, has been inactive since winning the Australian Open in January. Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, last year’s men’s singles finalists, both pulled out of the draw well in advance with injury concerns. Andy Murray, less accepting of his bodily struggles, didn’t withdraw until after the tournament’s draws were released, which resulted in Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal being placed in the same half of the bracket.

Angelique Kerber, last year’s women’s champion, lost her first-round matchup, as did 22-year-old men’s eternal-star-in-waiting Nick Kyrgios, who fell to his countryman, the 235th-ranked John Millman. For the past few years, tennis fans have held out hope that Kyrgios would banish his demons and fulfill his vast potential at a major, and entering the 2017 Open he was coming off one of the best results of his career: a runner-up finish at the Cincinnati Masters. But in the third set of his match with Millman, Kyrgios ran into shoulder issues. His strokes sprayed and easy volleys began to find the net. He called for the trainer. Then came the familiar problems: the swearing, the racket smashing, the somber press conference following a defeat.

The second round, too, defied the oddsmakers: Grigor Dimitrov, who beat Kyrgios in the Cincinnati final, lost in straight sets to the unseeded teenager Andrey Rublev. Alexander Zverev, the ascendant 20-year-old two weeks removed from upsetting Federer in the final of the Canadian Open, lost to his longtime juniors rival Borna Coric. Assuring that no narrative would emerge from the match, the also-youthful Coric promptly lost to Kevin Anderson, the tall, powerful, and largely unremarkable journeyman from South Africa. Marin Cilic, the 2014 champion, fell on Friday. By Saturday morning, midway through the third round, it was already assured that the bottom half of the men’s singles draw would produce a first-time major finalist. (That would turn out to be Anderson.)

What was supposed to be a refreshing tournament had encountered an identity crisis. Federer, Nadal, and Venus Williams were advancing through the draw as they had in the year’s earlier majors, but the landscape around them looked unfamiliar. For the most part, the favorites were still the favorites, but their obstacles were shapeless.

At the tournament’s midpoint, it seemed fitting that the crown jewel of the event — if everything went just right — would be a meeting between Federer and Nadal in the semifinals, leaving the Open’s final Sunday to end on a whimper. That is, of course, until both took the court. Nadal dropped the opening set of his second-round match to the 121st-ranked Taro Daniel before finding his target, and then did the same in the third round against Leonardo Mayer. Federer fought through two five-setters in his opening two matches, against Frances Tiafoe, the 19-year-old who promises to be an American star of tomorrow, and 35-year-old Mikhail “wait, he’s still playing?” Youzhny (who sports an 0–16 record against Federer), before running out of answers in a four-setter with Juan Martín del Potro three rounds later.

On the women’s side, Garbiñe Muguruza was billed as the pre-tournament favorite, but had never advanced past the second round of the Open. This time around, she would reach only the fourth. Just one top-eight seed would make it any further than Muguruza.

With wide-open draws, the tournament should have been a chance to crown new stars, promote new rivalries, and overlay the tennis of the 2020s with the tennis of the aughts. After all, the U.S. Open has a history of launching prodigies: Serena and Pete Sampras both won their first singles majors here as teenagers, and John McEnroe did so just after his 20th birthday. But for the most part, tennis in 2017 has been about older players repeating history, not younger players making it.

Juan Martin del Potro celebrates after winning in the fourth round at the U.S. Open
Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Saturday’s action begins with a match from a past for which nobody is nostalgic. Alexandr Dolgopolov, a player with Jon Snow’s hair but not his willingness to die in battle, squares off against Viktor Troicki, a bespectacled remainder of the Serbian surge of the late aughts that waned as quickly as it came. Both are former top-20 players; on this day, they’re afterthoughts competing for a chance to be spanked by Nadal in front of 23,000 smiling fans.

The match takes place on Grandstand, the Open’s year-old third showcourt. The old Grandstand, a peculiar but beloved venue, shared a border with the long side of the old Armstrong stadium. From an aerial view, it almost looked as if the larger court was trying to unhinge its jaw and devour the smaller one. Fans at the top of Armstrong’s bleachers could turn and watch the match on Grandstand if their primary offering failed to provide the proper level of entertainment.

The old Grandstand preceded Armstrong’s journey into oblivion, making way for the new edition, which opened in time for the 2016 tournament on the opposite side of Ashe. The asymmetric bowl is covered on its grander side by an off-white awning, a sail spoked like a hang glider, while its shorter side is left exposed, giving the audience a clear view of Ashe’s monstrous silhouette. There are two modest screens above the stands where fans can see challenge results, scores from other matches, and Mercedes-Benz advertisements.

It’s early, so the stadium is only speckled with spectators. Dolgopolov, who has recently made news for an uncharacteristic loss that aligned with suspicious betting patterns, is freewheeling, hovering over the court and Jordan-shrugging as he races to the finish. Every pock of the ball that comes off his racket is perfect; the sweet spot is infinite. For all the focus on this event’s stars, he’s a reminder that every player at this tournament has spent thousands of hours learning how to sculpt perfect paths through space and time for a rubber, fuzz-covered ball with nothing but a piece of metal and threads of cow intestine.

Shortly after Dolgopolov wins in just over an hour, the stage is set for Del Potro, the most beloved man in tennis. The fans know this guy — he won the U.S. Open in 2009 — and by the time the big Argentine lumbers onto the court, the capacity crowd gives him a standing ovation.

Del Potro, he of the Wagnerian forehand and the face like a Dalí painting, is unusually popular for a player seeded 24th and who has only sporadically appeared in the second week of slams since winning here a virtual lifetime ago. That’s probably as much due to his earth-shaking power as it is to the adorable juxtaposition of his deep, slow speech, soft, ever-present grin, and general amiability with his massive frame.

He is the rare example of a player on either the men’s or women’s sides who is a true dark horse, whose victory would feel neither fluky nor predictable. He’s not a Roger or a Serena, but he’s also not, say, Roberto Bautista Agut, the 11th seed and anonymous member of the Spanish Armada, who is his opponent on this day.

Tennis is missing its shares of Del Potros, the players who have a trademark, are known and loved, but still have something left to prove. The type of presence who can shake up a draw without spoiling it. When Del Potro won his title in Flushing in 2009, beating Federer in a five-set come-from-behind final, he pulled the tennis world in. He was young, played with a singular style, and was just good enough to make waves, but not so good that his triumphs felt routine. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that eight years and many surgeries later, he will upset Federer again at this tournament, this time as an even heavier underdog.

During the first set of his match with Bautista Agut, though, Del Potro shows sparing signs of what’s to come, often slicing on his backhand side and making it impossible for fans to forget the wrist injuries that caused his year-end ranking to yo-yo between no. 5 and no. 590 in the time since he raised the trophy here. But then he’ll field a ball on his starboard side and swing that warhammer of a forehand. Every time he hits it flat and true, no matter the gravity of the point, the Grandstand crowd gasps. After one particularly heavy shot, a man who has been streaming a college football game on his phone and lengthily clarifying to his neighbor that his company is profitable, not just cash-flow positive, looks up and remarks, “Man, that forehand.”

Del Potro is ahead two sets to love and cruising through the third. He slices a backhand, and as he does a couple carrying five of those pink Grey Goose cocktails forces a row of fans to stand up and block the court as they make a beeline back to their seats.

Roger Federer serves during his fourth-round match against Philipp Kohlschreiber
Roger Federer serves during his fourth-round match against Philipp Kohlschreiber
Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

It’s three in the afternoon and the sky is still gray, and it’s still not raining. There’s a line to get into the stands that overlook the basin of practice courts. About 10 feet away there is a match happening on Court 5, which is less important than Grandstand and Court 17 but is a high-profile court nonetheless, and there are plenty of open seats. The RF caps are densely concentrated here because the television screen that displays the practice schedule says that Federer will be here at four, before he plays his night match against Feliciano López. The attendants have chained off the entries to the stands and are letting people in one by one as spectators abandon their seats in the gallery.

By 3:15, the lines for the viewing gallery are growing wild. An attendant tells everybody to move closer to the outer walls of the stands so that passersby interested in seeing the still-available matches on the other side of the tunnel can reach their destinations. A bronzed man in cargo shorts and an emoji-laden Federer shirt puts his arm on the wall in front of him as the line moves, just so no one gets any ideas about cutting. In front of the man, a kid takes out a cucumber that must be almost a foot long, breaks off a piece, and begins eating it. A roar comes from Ashe; hardly anybody looks in its direction.

Eventually, the kid finishes his cucumber. The man in the emoji shirt is handed a pink cocktail by a companion. Kyrgios, now free from his singles duties, has emerged on one of the practice courts and seems to be having a grand time. He’s wearing a blue sleeveless shirt with teal athletic tape running down his injured shoulder, going through a short-court hitting session with a partner and hamming it up. He lightly slices a forehand, then a backhand, then a forehand again, each time groaning as if he were in the middle of a grueling, full-force rally. He nets a backhand and mimes throwing his racket into the ground, hiding his face in his hands before smirking mischievously at his audience. After he wins a point, he pumps his fist and holds it in the air far longer than necessary. Maybe Kyrgios doesn’t hate tennis after all.

The crowd is growing restless. Subway trains chug by in the background at regular intervals, an intermittent reminder that even a man who has defied age and injury is not a machine. Roger Federer isn’t operating on dream time, he’s just late.

Then, at about 4:30, shrieks start to emanate from the grounds. Federer enters the court and people scream like a 25-year-old Paul McCartney has just played the first few notes of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The fans who still haven’t gotten a seat in the gallery stand on their tiptoes and hold their phones above their heads to try to snap a photo of the maestro. He waves at the crowd. Luckily, nobody faints.

The Swiss is in full Darth Federer Casual attire, which is just his night match outfit, but with a T-shirt instead of the 100-dollar tech top that he wears on Ashe. (No need for concern, the shirt also has a Nike logo, a bigger one, in case you miss the 10 others that are featured somewhere else on the ensemble.) His black bandana is pulled tightly against his forehead, tucking back his hair that has been thinning oh so slowly of late. On his left wrist shines the Rolex that also doesn’t make it onto Ashe during matches, but is always clasped firmly back on his arm by the time a trophy ceremony rolls around.

For all that has been made about his easygoing, any-trophy-is-icing attitude over the course of this season, Federer looks deathly serious during this light hitting session with a stocky man who is obviously not high up the tennis food chain, given that he asks for a picture with Roger after the practice. As of this Saturday, Federer probably doesn’t feel like his season is funded by house money anymore, and with his first two matches having gone the distance, it’s likely that he feels the tongues of tournament mortality licking at his soles.

So the mass of Federer obsessives get to see all the sublime shot-making that coats their dreams. Each backhand begins the same way: He grips the racket’s throat with his left hand and pulls it across his torso before uncoiling. Each time, the resulting sound is perfect, a rounded pop, reminiscent of a champagne cork leaving its bottle. The follow-through is exaggerated, with Federer’s racket and non-dominant arms nearly forming a right angle behind his back, like wings. This is the shot that redirected a career, and admittedly, it looks sublime.

Whenever Federer strikes the ball particularly hard, the crowd gasps. When he shanks it into another practice court, they keep smiling. The session is over in about 15 minutes. Federer waves toward the stands as he leaves, and the fans react as they have been. To this subset of Open-goers, he is the only player who matters. When Del Potro eliminates him from the tournament on the following Wednesday, they’ll disperse.

Maria Sharapova serves against Anastasija Sevastova in the fourth round
Maria Sharapova serves against Anastasija Sevastova in the fourth round
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The sky on this Sunday is gray, even though it’s stopped raining. Inside Ashe, there has been tennis all day. The stadium is unmistakably American; it’s the biggest tennis-specific venue in the world, and when the retractable roof that was added last year is closed, the viewing experience can feel downright basketball-like. From Row Z, the very top of the upper deck, it is hard to see the court. Yet a gaggle of fans in Row X all holding pink cocktails — called the Honey Deuce, it turns out, because of the three speared honeydew balls that come with the drink — seem unconcerned with this vantage point. They are too busy talking loudly about Meldonium.

Maria Sharapova, who was suspended from the tour for 15 months after testing positive for the drug, is walking onto the court for her fourth-round match. This is her first major since the 2016 Australian Open, as she was given a wild card after being denied automatic entry at Roland Garros and missing Wimbledon with an injury. She started the tournament with a statement: knocking off the second-seeded Simona Halep. Ranked 146th in the world, Sharapova has played exclusively on Ashe in this tournament, generally pleasing fans but peeving her peers, who were understandably upset that a player returning from a cheating ban was given top billing while they were relegated to outer courts.

Before the match, a reel of Sharapova’s career highlights plays on the stadium’s monitors. She is wearing an ornate beige-and-gold dress, an outfit Nike has provided specifically for her, and not for any of its seeded athletes who played throughout her suspension. During a tight first set against the 16th-seed Anastasija Sevastova, Sharapova’s lesser-known quirks grate against the flow of the match: On what seems like every Sevastova service point, Sharapova goes through her ritual of walking and facing the back wall, picking her strings and doing nothing in particular, before turning around and signaling that she is ready. Each time, Sevastova stands at the baseline and watches, waiting for Sharapova to get on with it. Every champion has quirks, but in this case they feel strikingly unearned. When Sharapova double-faults and then misses another serve, the crowd cheers. It is clear that it is no longer her golden age, and she unravels in the third set, falling 7–5, 4–6, 2–6.

The scene comes in stark contrast from one from earlier in the day, when Canadian Denis Shapovalov did battle against the 12th seed, Pablo Carreño Busta. The Spaniard was the first player in major history to face four qualifiers at the same tournament, a fact that on its own explains the horrorscape that is the bottom half of the men’s singles draw. Nevertheless, he had his hands full with Shapovalov, an 18-year-old who looks like his natural habitat would involve eternal summer and a surfboard. He might be the only player on tour who still opts for a Lleyton Hewitt–style backward hat.

Shapovalov, who was playing Challengers as recently as July, barged into the mainstream when he beat Del Potro and Nadal at the Canadian Open en route to becoming the youngest player ever to reach a Masters semifinal. Still, he had to play through three rounds of qualifying in Flushing before knocking out two promising youngsters as well as the 8-seed, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Shapovalov is the youngest man to reach the round of 16 since Michael Chang did so as a 17-year-old in 1989. He is different, surprising, and full of potential — all qualities that the Ashe crowd loves.

There’s a beautiful confidence to Shapovalov’s game. He’s a freewheeling southpaw with a one-handed backhand who looks like he hits each and every shot like he’s trying to put a dent in the ball. For now, that proves ineffective against Carreño Busta, who wins in straight sets. Still, Shapovalov leaves the court to a standing ovation, even if he also leaves his half of the draw to total narrative mediocrity. The crowd knows he’ll be back.

Arthur Ashe Stadium
Arthur Ashe Stadium
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

The sun has come out for the first time during this Labor Day weekend, and it’s shining through the rectangular hole in the roof, presumably so that God can watch some world-class tennis. The Sunday-afternoon session on Ashe is ending with another crowd-pleaser: Venus Williams against Carla Suárez Navarro. Having already reached two major finals in 2017 at the ages of 36 and 37, Venus has been the story of the women’s tour, and would probably be even more of one if all norms surrounding aging and career arcs hadn’t been continually defenestrated over the last eight months. Descriptions of Venus this decade have generally had qualifiers — she’s great … for her age. There isn’t a need to hedge, though; she’s ranked ninth in the world and (as her run to the semifinals will indicate) is playing great tennis.

Suárez Navarro is celebrating her 29th birthday. The crowd is familiar with both players, and graciously applauds for Suárez Navarro when she walks into the stadium. When Venus is introduced, though, it becomes raucous. The two are well acquainted, Venus and the Ashe crowd. Williams reached her first final here 20 (20!) years ago, in the year that the court was first christened.

This is the beauty of this tournament, that familiar faces are still around and thriving. But their presence serves as a reminder that below the greats is anarchy. For every Nadal, who would advance to the final, there is only one Del Potro, when there should be five. For every Shapovalov, there is a decade’s worth of promising youngsters who didn’t fulfill their potential. It is difficult to feel anything about players who were off the radar yesterday and may be again tomorrow. This is the curse and the hallmark of the sport in 2017: The tennis is only very good. It showcases the historic and indulgent, but leaves it up to fans to search for the appealing aspects of the seemingly mundane.

Venus and Suárez Navarro are warming up now. They’re both wearing sweaters. Even though it’s not cloudy anymore, it’s unusually chilly. A fan in Row Y mentions that it’s unbelievable that Venus is still in fighting shape as she approaches her 40s. In the stadium, somehow, you can hear the sound of a subway train going by in the distance.

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