After eight days and five rounds of U.S. Open play, the storylines are coming into focus. If you’ve been staying up bleary-eyed until two in the morning to take it all in, then you already know: the women’s U.S. Open is incredible this year and we’d be fools to sleep on this moment.
To be fair, there’s been some cool shit on the men’s side.
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Aussie battler John Millman took down normal human Roger Federer. Kei Nishikori and a sprightly Novak Djokovic are in prime form. We slogged through heavy-footed John Isner matches (congrats to us there). And on deck, best-competitor-in-sports Rafael Nadal and fan favorite Juan Martín Del Potro will meet for the 17th time, following up a five-set, four-hour-and-forty-eight-minute throwdown at Wimbledon.
The matches have been great, guys. But mostly, things have just been wet.
As for the women, the perennially under-appreciated tour is having a moment at the last slam of the season, and more people should take notice. (Might some cross-tours, ATP-WTA player championing help? I ask these things while scrolling Twitter every night and seeing moments like this.)
Serena is rolling. While charging to a Wimbledon final two months ago and now entering her ninth-consecutive (!) U.S. Open semifinal, she’s molded herself as an advocate for mothers on the stadium court she grew up on. It’s both stunning and completely unprecedented. Whether or not she wins her 24th major singles title doesn’t matter—I have a feeling she will—because the record is now hers to set.
And amidst all the Serena “Don’t Call It a Comeback” ads are Madison Keys and Naomi Osaka, two next-generation standouts who have quietly made their way through the draw.
Naomi Osaka: twenty years old, queen of the press conference (she jokingly told WTA reporter Courtney Nguyen that she had dreams of crushing her on-court) and the acceptance speech. She’s the first Japanese woman to make the U.S. Open semifinals in 22 years—but simply calling the multicultural phenom a Japanese athlete is reductive. (More on that here.) She won the “fifth slam” in Indian Wells this past March, and she’s only dropped 22 games in her first five matches in Flushing. Her round of 16 match against Aryna Sabalenka was among the best matches of the year thus far—it certainly had the most momentum swings.
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More important than the numbers, though, is how Osaka makes tennis fun to watch again. She moves with unfettered confidence, serves a lot like Serena (her coach used to be Serena’s hitting partner), and her forehand? There are military-grade weapons less destructive. When talking about Osaka in a press conference today, her coach Sascha Bajin said she has a lot of similarities with Serena. He added, “[Serena] is more of a boss than Naomi is now.” When she’s off the court, Osaka is an unabashed nerd who loves playing Overwatch on her computer. I’d say she’s a boss already.
In the semifinal, Osaka might meet a very in-form Madison Keys. Unfortunately, one will lose. But it’s okay because this next-generation duel is one we’ll see again and again in the coming years. For her part, Keys makes the game look simple. She hits her forehand at around sixty- to seventy-percent full power, and she hits it harder than anyone in the women’s game. It’s devastating. She deftly finished off her last match with a stunning open-stance inside-in forehand. If not Serena, I think Keys might lift the trophy—she was so close last year, and she seems more than ready now.
Like Osaka, Keys is a joy. Someone tennis needs. When you meet her, she’s comes across just a genuinely decent person handling the inordinate amount of shit the pro tour throws at you. She’s ambitious, optimistic, steadfast (even when she’s injured) on-court, and spearheads determined anti-cyberbullying work on top of it all.
The ascent of these two feels inevitable as they continue making the game a simple yet multidimensional affair to cherish. And, perhaps more importantly, they’ll both continue to radiate empathy, which we could all use a bit more of these days.
So don’t sleep on these last few days of the U.S. Open. Because where things go from here in the itinerant and erratic sport, who knows.