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PostTennis: US Open Opens (David Duggan, USA, 09/01/20 4:24 am)
While the world awaits the latest Covid totals (and a vaccine), the US Tennis Open has started with a star-short field in the spectatorless bubble at Flushing Meadows. Defending champions Rafael Nadal and Bianca Andreescu are sitting it out and in both the men's and women's draws, about half the top 32 players are not showing up. Rather than compress the seeds however, the US Tennis Association fed lower-ranked players into the draw somewhat randomly. Whether this will have any ultimate affect won't be known until next week when the draw has been winnowed down. The US Open is always known for early-round upsets.
So it is time to reflect on the 30-year anniversary of Pete Sampras' improbable 1990 run to the final, beating along the way a resurgent John McEnroe in the semis and 3-time champion Ivan Lendl in five sets in the quarters. At 19, he remains the youngest male winner of that tournament. In the finals he demolished the year-older Andre Agassi, 6-4, 6-3, 6-2 to win his 1st of 14 grand slam titles. The two had played each other for years in the juniors and Agassi had racked up an impressive record against "Pistol Pete." Thanks to a prescient coach, however, Sampras had changed from a two-handed backhand to a one-hander, and from a baseliner to a serve-and-volleyer taking advantage of his height, reach and never-equaled serve. A new biography, Pete Sampras: American Greatness by Steve Flink, is out this week and recounts Pete's shape-shifting contributions to the great game. For the record, this was Agassi's second of three straight losses in a grand-slam final (1990-91 French); he got the monkey off his back 10 months later at 1992's Wimbledon.
Sampras went on to win 13 more GS titles (seven Wimbledons, four more US Opens, and two Australians) to eclipse Roy Emerson's record of 12 (all before the Open era which began in 1968). His 14-4 GS finals record (78%) outshines those of the so-called "Big Three" of today's era (Nadal, 19-8, 70%; Djokovic, 17-9, 65%; and Federer, 20-11, 65%). Admittedly, their careers are not over, but for instance Nadal would have to win nine straight GS titles before equaling Pete's percentage record. Not gonna happen. Almost as significantly, Sampras has a winning record in each of the GS tournaments that he won (7-0 at Wimbledon; 5-3 at the US Open, and 2-1 at the Australian). None of the Big Three can say that. Djokovic, undefeated at Oz, is 3-5 at the US Open. Nadal, 12-0 at Roland Garros, is 1-4 at Oz. Federer, 6-1 at Oz, is 1-4 at Roland Garros, all to Nadal. Admittedly, Pete never won the French which through the 1990s into this millennium was largely the province of a passel of Europeans, and the Brazilian Gustavo Kuerten. But in Pete's four GS finals losses, none of his conquerors (Stefan Edberg, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, and Agassi) was a "one-slam wonder." Federer can't say that (2009 US Open loss to Juan del Potro). Further exemplifying Sampras' greatness was that the game was much more competitive in the 1990s than it is today. In the decade of 2010-19, of the 40 GS tournaments, the Big Three won 33 (Djokovic 15, Nadal 13 and Federer 5) and only three others won the remaining seven. In the 1990s, by contrast, 16 men held the 40 trophies aloft; no three totaled more than 18 (Sampras 12, Agassi & Jim Courier 4 each). The double-aught decade would be equally disperse.
At least as importantly, Sampras was the spearhead for a resurgence of American tennis. After Michael Chang won the 1989 French Open (at 17 still the youngest male GS winner), the quadrumvirate of Sampras, Chang, Agassi and Courier--all born within 22 months of each other--won 26 more GS titles. In the Open era, no other 4 players from one country have won that many, though the Swedes come close at 25 (Borg 11, Wilander 7, Edberg 6 and Thomas Johannson 1; they took 27 years to do it while these Yanks took only 16). And this group legitimized the 2-handed backhand. Though Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert introduced the stroke to the world in the 1970s, it took 20 years for it to dominate the game: in the 1980s of the 10 US Open champions, seven of the finals were won by men wielding the one-hander (3-McEnroe, 3-Lendl, 1-Becker). The same ratio applies to the women (4 Navritalova, 1-Mandlikova, 2-Graf). A man with a one-hander hasn't won the US Open since 2008 (Federer) and a woman since 2007 (Justine Henin).
Djokovic is probably the favorite this year (though he tested positive for the coronavirus earlier after a shirts-off nightclub revelry-infused "exhibition tour" in his native Serbia to raise money for the dozens of players sidelined by the suspension and who do not have lucrative endorsement deals and Monaco apartments to call their tax-haven home). His legendary endurance may be affected in one of those five-setters. And on the women's side Serena will once again be trying to get her 24th GS victory to equal Margaret Smith Court's record (most of them in the amateur or closed era) record. Her 23-10 GS finals record (70%) equals Nadal's with whom she shares the distinction of having won the Career Golden Slam (all four GS titles and the Olympic gold in singles). Last year's teen-phenom Coco Gauff just lost her 1st round match to Anastasija Sevastova, preventing a reprise of her rivalry with 2018 champion Naomi Osaka. Osaka beat Gauff in last year's US, while Coco returned the compliment in this year's Oz. They would have met in the 3rd round later this week.
What did I say about 1st round exits? Linesmen ready? Players ready? Play.
JE comments: Spectators or not, David Duggan's welcome servings of sports commentary give us the impression that life is almost back to normal. Tennis is the perfect (if we can say such a thing) contest for pandemic times: you're all alone and there's no need to huddle with, check, or slide into your fellow humans.