With Novak Djokovic Out, the US Open looks at the future of tennis

Even before Novak Djokovic was sent off from the US Open for accidentally hitting a linesman with a ball in his fourth round match, the 2020 edition of this tournament was not meant for showdowns. between the greatest of all time on the men’s side.

He had also lost the moments of supercharged intensity generated by the fans that accompany a crowded stadium.

Now, with Djokovic disqualified, the US Open has almost entirely morphed into a tournament carried by the sport’s next generation, with some of the mainstays that have supported tennis for over a decade aside from Serena Williams.

“It’s a chance to create new stars,” said Jim Courier, former world number one. 1. “We need these new stars to win major tournaments as well for the general public in America to really care, but you have to start somewhere.”

On the men’s side, with Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal not there to grab attention and trophies, the future is being scripted by a new generation of taller and incredibly athletic players in their early twenties. And the women’s game, already so wide open, seems to open up even more in the years to come, even as Williams pursues a record 24th Grand Slam singles title before retirement.

Djokovic was mostly overpowered in his first three games, but it was Felix Auger-Aliassime, 20, of Canada, his country a rapidly growing power in tennis, barely sweating as he sent up British star Andy Murray, who made his return. of hip surgery, on the ground where Murray became Grand Slam champion in 2012.

The men’s draw, filled with Europeans, started with the most under-23 players in a Grand Slam tournament since 2005, according to the ATP Tour. Ten men under 25 have made the round of 16, the most in a Grand Slam since the 2009 Australian Open, and the most in the US Open since 2001.

“It feels like the start of some sort of next phase,” Courier said.

The transition will not be easy. Tennis has enjoyed a golden age over the past decade, with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Williams claiming to be the greatest pro of all time. It probably won’t happen again anytime soon.

Federer (knee surgery) and Nadal (reluctance to travel during the coronavirus pandemic) skipping the tournament, US television audiences were suffering even before Djokovic’s untimely exit. ESPN’s scores for the first week have declined an average of 35% from the past three years. Playoff competition from the NBA, a league that is typically in its offseason, hasn’t helped.

As players only die-hard tennis fans know dueling in empty stadiums – Sunday afternoon’s round of 16 pitted Croatia’s Petra Martic and Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva and Spain’s Alejandro Fokino and Spain’s Alexander Zverev against Germany – it’s hard not to see the empty rows of seats as an omen.

“Hopefully it’s only this year,” said Andrea Gaudenzi, president of the Professional Tennis Association, which represents male players and their tournaments.

Williams – a megastar without whom it would have been difficult to see the tournament unfold – could still win the title. Lesser-known Sofia Kenin, 21, of the United States, won the Australian Open in January and made her way into week two of the US Open before losing 6-3, 6 -3 against 16th seed Elise. Mertens from Belgium. 2018 US Open champion Naomi Osaka has attracted a lot of attention both for her play and her persistence in speaking out against systemic racism.

Even with them at the top, the women’s tournament is basically a dice game. On Sunday evening, No. 23 and no. 28 seeds in the women’s table had reserved places in the quarterfinals, as had Shelby Rogers, ranked No. 1. 93 in the world.

“Women’s football is so deep that anyone can win a major tournament,” Jen Brady, 25, of the United States said Sunday after upsetting a former world number one. 1, Angelique Kerber, to make her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.

For years, tennis has relied on rivalries to sell itself. Judging from this year’s US Open, that might not be possible in the near future, for men and especially women.

“There is nothing in the sport like a great rivalry,” said Steve Simon, general manager of the Women’s Tennis Association. “But for every big event, whether it’s the US Open or Roland Garros or Wimbledon or Australia or the tour finals, we have all of these possibilities and 10 to 12 scenarios against one or two.”

Gaudenzi, the president of the men’s tour who once ranked number one. 18 years old when playing, said tennis had already gone through periods of transition, most recently when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi retired in the early 2000s. “We’re talking about the three greatest players of all time, and they’re going to be difficult to replace and badly missed, ”he said, referring to the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. But, he added, “we have good players and good personalities” beyond them.

The players who will be on display this week also bear little physical resemblance, even to the Big Three, suggesting that the future of tennis looks bigger and even more physical. For years, most of the best tennis players were of all sizes. Next are Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, all of whom are pretty much on par with the small leaders in the NBA.

Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Zverev, Nos. The 3, 4 and 5 seeds at the US Open are all 24 or younger and have the combination of NBA height and wing footwork like Los Angeles Clippers star Kawhi Leonard. At 6-foot-4, Auger-Aliassime evokes the style of Golden State Warriors shooter Stephen Curry with a tennis racquet. Their long arms function like trebuchets, producing cannon-like serves and powerful forehands.

“You always need one of these players to break through,” said Donald Dell, longtime agent and co-founder of ATP. “But money is the big motivation” that could attract even more of the world’s top athletes to tennis, he said.

This is especially true in women’s tennis, which is by far the highest paying sport for women and offers equal pay at the biggest events. It also helps explain the depth of American women in the US Open arena, even though European women dominated the top 20 seeds. The United States has more depth than it has had in decades, especially in its pipeline.

There were 11 Americans in the 32 finals, although 16-year-old Coco Gauff was not one of them. Gauff, who drew attention after his run to the round of 16 at Wimbledon last year, lost in the first round. She is one of the many promising young black prospects for women’s football in the United States, including Hailey Baptiste, Katrina Scott and Robin Montgomery.

Their time at the top of the sport seems to be a few more years away. In front of them, women less known than Gauff but who have a lot of talent and athleticism. Catherine McNally, who is only 18, has returned from a set down to eliminate No. 21 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova will advance to the third round, as will Ann Li, 20, and Amanda Anisimova, 19 years old.

“I learned that I belong here,” said McNally, who is 5-foot-11 and grew up playing basketball.

Martin Blackman, director of player development for the United States Tennis Association, said with so many top athletes entering the game, the competition is likely to become even fiercer, decreasing the chances that a player, or even a small group of players, want to dominate.

“These women are investing in themselves and making these amazing teams,” said Blackman. “It leads to parity.”

Christopher Clarey contributed reporting.

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