“This is the best first week of a slam that I have seen in 40 years,” claimed ESPN’s Brad Gilbert while looking back at week one of the US Open. The return of passionate fans, the emergence of teens and qualifiers, and entirely unpredictable off-court events made for a surprising week one at the US Open in New York.
Even by Grand Slam standards, this edition of the year’s final Grand Slam has produced some double-takes. Before week two begins, a look back at some of the surprising, even strange results from week one.
New York’s New Darlings
Even many tennis enthusiasts did not know the names Carlos Alcaraz and Leylah Fernandez a week ago. The pair of 18-year-olds stunned men’s #3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas and women’s #3 seed Naomi Osaka in a matter of hours on Friday.
The powerful Alcaraz of Spain and lightning-quick Fernandez of Canada captured the hearts of Friday crowds on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Their youthful passion mixed with steady play at pressure-packed times pushed Tsitsipas and Osaka to the sidelines.
The teens proved they were no fluke on Sunday. Fernandez backed up her stunning win over Osaka with a thrilling three-set knockout of #16 seed Angelique Kerber. Alcaraz ceded a two sets to one lead to qualifier Peter Gojowczyk before seizing control of the match, winning in five sets. Alcaraz is the youngest man to reach this stage of the US Open.
Few knew the names Leylah Fernandez and Carlos Alcaraz last week; few tennis fans do not know their names now. The two kids enter week two as surprising and charming teenage quarterfinalists.
Rain affects large tennis tournaments, no way around it. However, nobody predicted that rain would postpone an indoor match. When the USTA completed its $600m renovation of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, one of the great improvements was the brand new Louis Armstrong Stadium with an ultra-modern retractable roof.
However, the powerful storm which hit New York on Wednesday poured so much rain down that rain swept in through the open-air sides of Armstrong. Fans hovered under umbrellas while watching Diego Schwartzman and Kevin Anderson played indoors.
Eventually, the second-round match needed to be halted due to the indoor rain. Schwartzman and Anderson waited about two hours before picking up on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Schwartzman outlasted Anderson to reach Round 3. The later scheduled women’s match on Armstrong needed to be postponed until skies cleared inside and out on Thursday.
The Male Qualifiers
16 men and women advance to the main draw of the US Open via the qualifying tournament held the previous week. Usually viewed as long shots to make a dent in the main event, qualifiers often bow out in Round 1. This past week, fully seven of the 16 men who survived qualifying won their first-round matches.
Stunningly, seven different seeded players lost to qualifiers during week one. Botic van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands finds himself in the quarterfinals after dusting off both #8 Casper Ruud and #11 Diego Schwartzman during week one.
The Ups and Downs of ESPN
Once again, ESPN’s coverage presents fans with a mixed bag and some new hurdles to overcome.
The emergence of former world #4 James Blake as an impact announcer is a pleasant surprise for fans. Blake presents viewers with deep knowledge and insight, never drawing attention to himself. Late on Thursday afternoon, Blake and Patrick McEnroe deftly moved from match to match as several close men’s contests drew toward their conclusion. Spectacular.
Then, Sunday afternoon, while Blake sat perched in the booth with the equally capable Darren Cahill at the Alcaraz-Gojowczk match, ESPN chose to actively not show tennis. As Alcaraz came back from a set down to square the match at a set apiece, ESPN showed people talking, people in locker rooms, and highlights. When big matches are being played, please…show tennis.
For years, in the highest levels of tennis, American women have produced stronger results than American men. Serena Williams, Madison Keys, and Sloane Stephens all reached the US Open final in the past five years. Stephens won the event in 2017 and Williams claimed it in both 2018 and 2019.
This week, all American women, save World #43 Shelby Rogers, exited the draw before the fourth round. Meanwhile, American men Jenson Brooksby, Frances Tiafoe, and Reilly Opelka all reached the round of 16.
Attention to Bathroom Breaks
Never has analysis of bathroom breaks taken center stage in tennis like early in week one. Veteran Andy Murray called out Stefanos Tsitsipas for extended breaks after losing their first-round match on Monday. This is not the first time some accused Tsitsipas of attempting to derail the momentum of his opponent with such actions.
Within hours, Twitter exploded with talk of rules, the need for rules, claims that Tsitsipas has received texts while on such breaks, and more. Pundits jumped on the opportunity to call out the ATP for lack of guidelines for such antics. By the time Tsitsipas played Alcaraz on Friday, there were bathroom break clocks being shown on TV and fans cheered and booed depending on who headed to lockers at the end of sets. Will officials step in now that senior statesman Murray brought this to the forefront this week?
No Surprise Here
While surprises abound at the US Open, the biggest story remains on track. Chasing the calendar Grand Slam, Novak Djokovic has advanced to the fourth round without a severe test. He’s dropped two sets, both in tiebreakers, but it looks more like pacing and peaking than any real problems.
The 2021 US Open has reached the halfway pole. Surprises have been everywhere. Week two approaches with promise and questions. There will either be a male calendar Grand Slam winner for the first time since 1969, or there will be another huge surprise. That is why we watch.
Main Photo from Getty.