Finally, a Grand Slam event, the first since lockdown, albeit without spectators.
But no Nadal, who was preparing for the French Open on his beloved clay.
And no Federer, who was taking time out to have knee surgery.
So that just left Djokovic out of the top three, and who could beat him, since he hadn’t lost a match this year?
Then something very strange happened. He was defaulted for hitting a lineswoman, thrashing the ball behind him without looking to see where he had directed it. I wrote a piece on Djokovic’s recent own goals: https://bit.ly/3mlnsaw
So, due to Covid, no spectators, and a very strange atmosphere it was. I mean, where was all the clapping coming from after a wonderful rally? There could only have been someone with a finger on the button of a clapometer.
And what was that “Fan Cam, powered by American Express” about – other than to promote Amex? Six huge screens featuring people with manic faces and wild hand gestures, on repeat. Were they actually real people?
At least the officials appeared to be human, although the latest creation, “Hawk Eye Live”, dispensed with lines-people on the outside courts. Why not on the stadiums? That was probably to do with Ralph Lauren, whose mammoth logos featured on their shirts; just for the TV cameras, one imagines.
And for whose benefit was the pumping music at changeovers? It’s not as though there were crowds to entertain.
But once we’d got used to the empty stadiums, the event was, at times, quite gripping. Crowd noise usually masks much of the players’ screams and heavy breathing. Now we could hear players out of breath at the end of gruelling rallies, and even nervous hyperventilating, in particular with Serena Williams, who was making yet another effort to equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 singles Slams.
But to hear no crowd noise, real crowd noise that is, after a sensational rally was very odd. Naomi Osaka said she felt quite lonely out there.
Players came onto court and also did post-match interviews in masks and many used these to make political statements. Osaka had prepared seven masks, one for each match, each emblazoned with the name of a black victim of police brutality. BLM featured on huge banners throughout the stadiums.
Then there were coaches and officials with “VOTE” plastered across their masks. I’m making the assumption that they didn’t mean for Trump.
What would have otherwise been empty hospitality boxes were turned into private players’ dressing rooms and it was interesting to see the likes of Zverev and Thiem constantly snacking, while watching their peers from their balconies (nothing else for them to do in the heavy lockdown). But it was also odd to see multi-millionaires eating with plastic cutlery.
A number of players were pretty out of shape, as though they’d “swallowed an elephant” during lockdown (Fabio Fognini’s quote about Raonic, not mine). It was pretty evident as to which players had put in the hard work during their enforced time out from the tour.
Covid restrictions on the players was intense, even more so for the French. With Benoit Paire having tested positive, and therefore disqualified from the tournament, they were subjected to even stricter testing than the other players, and they were definitely not happy about that.
Among the French players, Caroline Garcia had a great straight-sets win over the number one seeded Karolina Pliskova. However, Kristina Mladenovic had a complete meltdown, losing to the Russian, Varvava Gracheva, in her second-round match after leading 6-1, 5-1. She made a vague attempt to blame it on the constant Covid testing.
Sadly, the young American star, Coco Gauff, who would have benefitted from a raucous home crowd, lost in three sets to Anastasija Sevastova.
The former title holder, Kim Clijsters, made her return to the game at the age of 37 yrs, and although she still clobbers that ball, was red-faced and puffing throughout her early loss to Ekaterina Alexandrova. Why would you attempt a comeback at that age?
Serena Williams, despite her nerves and apparent lack of fitness, managed to make it to the semis, somehow overcoming the Bulgarian, Tsvetana Pironkova, in the quarters in three sets. She couldn’t keep it up, losing to Victoria Azarenka in a another tight three-setter.
In the other semi-final, Naomi Osaka closed out against the American player, Jennifer Brady, also in three sets.
Osaka finally managed to grind out the title, beating Azarenka by 1-6, 6-3, 6-3. Her heavy serve and forehands were the clinchers.
Osaka had already won the US Open title in 2018 against Serena Williams, in a match filled with intense drama, where Williams was basically punished by the umpire for behaving appallingly. Well that was my take. It was good to see the Japanese/Haitian player lift that trophy again.
Naomi Osaka was recently hailed as the highest-paid female athlete in the world, earning $37.4M over a 12-month period. Despite her frequently admitting to being cripplingly shy, Japanese sports fans clearly adore her.
Andy Murray won a gripping match in his comeback outing after going down two sets and a break against the young Japanese player, Yoshihito Nishioka, but he couldn’t keep it up for the next round. He was thrashed by the Canadian bright young hope, Felix Auger-Aliassime, who was in turn hammered by the Austrian, Dominic Thiem.
Fourth seed, Stefanos Tsitispas, lost in five to Borna Coric, despite holding match points. The Greek player has long been tipped as a future Slam winner and although his game is beautiful in its purity, he doesn’t really do it for me. I want quirky. Federer’s off-the-hip backhand, Medvedev’s bonkers character and extreme grips, Thiem’s explosive groundshots.
Daniil Medvedev beat fellow Russian, Andrey Rublev in straight sets. Medvedev loves letting fly, although to be punished for verbal abuse for shouting “Arghhhhh” seemed a bit harsh.
He got to the semis for a match up with Dominic Thiem, where the Austrian won in straight sets but it was a lot closer than that score-line suggests, although he had extensive treatment on an achilles injury. It didn’t bode well for the final.
In the other semi, we had Pablo Carreno Busta (the Spaniard who had benefited from Novak’s moment of madness, hitting that lineswoman in the fourth round) against Alexander Zverev. Neither man appeared to want to win. Zverev confessed to being embarrassed by his level in the first couple of sets but somehow picked himself up and came through in five.
So, the final was between two men who have been tipped for Grand Slam success for some years now. And it was a stonker! It didn’t start promisingly, with Zverev cruising through the first two sets. It looked as though it was going to be a disappointing whitewash. And then Thiem came back, with quite a bit of help from those famous Zverev nerves, which particularly affect his serves. The double faults at critical points were all too familiar.
Zverev served for the championship at 5-3 in the fifth and more or less blew it. Onto the final set tie-break. It was nail-biting. Both men were showing signs of cramp. Thiem could barely drag himself round the court. Was that heavy limp also due to the achilles problem?
Somehow, Thiem struggled through to win the tie-break 8-6, and the title. He could scarcely believe it.
Zverev cried during his presentation speech which brought a lump to the throat and reminded me of Murray and his painful loss against Federer in the Wimbledon final all those years ago.
But I was rooting for Thiem all the way through. So, Thiem, Zverev and Medvedev, who have long been touted as the NextGen, benefited from the absence of the top three. If this is the future, I can almost cope with Roger Federer’s retirement.
Next up, Roland Garros, this time with spectators. If Thiem isn’t too shattered, he may just have a chance of overcoming the “King of Clay”, Rafael Nadal. For the first time, due to Covid, it comes only a few weeks after the US Open. The French Open on the European clay has always been known as a gruelling tournament. This year, it will be even more so.