The drama of a US Open night match is one of sports’ true gems. When center court at Flushing Meadows gets rolling, when the lights are glowing and the crowd is humming, the energy and excitement can match any atmosphere under our great sporting umbrella. Sometimes the drama is infused by a young tennis upstart who draws on that energy and pulls off an upset. But more often it courses through the game’s best and biggest stars, a bright lights-big city combo that defines a can’t-miss “event.”
Which is why I find myself rooting for the old-guard stars to make another run to a title, to see Roger Federer get the best of his big-three counterparts Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic and add to his record 20 Grand Slam titles, and to watch Serena Williams finally match Margaret Court’s all-time mark of 24 major wins. Maybe you feel they’ve won enough, that they’ve been around long enough, that it would be good for the sport to let someone else crash the party. That’s how longtime commentator and former US Open champ John McEnroe sees it.
“I think it’s time for some fresh blood to break through,” McEnroe said in a conference call with reporters Friday that included lots of discussion of the reign and run of the men’s big three. “These guys are the three greatest guys that ever played the game. We have to enjoy that, appreciate that. These guys are even more difficult to beat when the chips are down, when it’s best of five. They just understand what it takes better than these other players. They’ve got the talent to back it up. It’s a tall order for any of these guys.
“You have to beat potentially at least two of them, in some cases three of them. That’s seemingly almost impossible to do. Perhaps with a little bit of luck something happens where a draw opens up. They’re human. At some stage they’re going to start losing more.”
For me, that time can wait. For me, their greatness is the draw, much in the way Tiger Woods remains golf’s singular supernova. And just as we saw the world celebrate Woods’s return to major victory with a stunning and stirring April win at the Masters, one more title for a 38-year-old Federer or 37-year-old Williams would unleash the same joy.
Williams’s journey begins with a promise of immediate drama, thanks to a quirky draw that pits her against Maria Sharapova in a first-round match Monday night. Hard to call it a rivalry, given Williams’s career 19-2 record against the hard-hitting Russian and fellow multiple major champion. But with 15 years of enmity underlining those matches, it is an absolute event, captured in the sentiment of 21-year-old defending champion Naomi Osaka when she said Friday: “Of course I’m going to watch it. I know you all are going to watch it. I think everyone in New York is going to watch it.”
Of course, Osaka’s victory a year ago is also remembered for its Serena drama, coming as it did at Williams’s expense when the veteran American warred with the chair umpire, was penalized for illegal coaching, and ultimately, after losing, was fined for her actions and arguments. The quest to match the all-time Slam mark exposed Williams’s frustration, and when you remember she has also lost two Wimbledon finals since returning from the birth of her daughter Olympia, the intensity of each opportunity ratchets up. We all know there are only so many chances left for her to set the mark, and though she doesn’t need it to be remembered as the game’s all-time best player, having that statistical marker to underscore the impact she’s had on the game would be fitting.
“I just have a lot of belief in Serena,” fellow commentator and US Open champ Chris Evert said on the call. “I’ve just seen her come back from adversity so many times in the last 20 years. The one added component that she has now that I probably overlook is age and injuries. Even though she looks unbelievable when she plays, to play like that for seven matches is a tough task to ask a [37-year-old], very much like a Roger Federer. It’s tough to ask of him.
“I still feel, though, she has the highest ceiling of all the players. At her best, she’s better than everyone. Can she do that for seven matches? That’s the real question. I think her opportunities are running out. I think this and maybe the Australian Open could be the last two.”
If that’s the case, then here’s hoping one or both of them ends in triumph. And the same for Federer, whose epic loss in Djokovic in the Wimbledon final also had an air of last-chance energy.
“When you’re watching the three arguably to me best players that ever played, if you can’t enjoy it till they retire, you should have your head examined,” McEnroe conceded. “But I would like to see some of these kids make more of an impact. They have to want it more, be hungrier, battle. That’s what these top guys teach you. You got to dig in deeper, do more whatever it takes. You can’t allow yourself to get psyched out. They’re going to do that to you in different ways, as they should. They have the experience, the wherewithal to take advantage of it. I admire them for that.
“I think it would be better for tennis if some of these young guys actually beat Novak, Rafa, or Roger before they actually quit. It’s not like they finally win because they’ve stopped. You would like to actually see them compete against them. To me that would be more interesting.”
Me? I’m happy to wait just a little bit longer.