NEW YORK: Naomi Osaka and Dominic Thiem.
The surreal, fan-free zone of a US Open that ended Sunday night deserves to be judged on many levels. It was, let us not forget, extraordinary that it happened at all considering the headwinds, domestic scepticism and international quarantine issues it faced amid the coronavirus pandemic.
After all the understandable concern, just one player, Benoit Paire of France, tested positive, although several other French and Belgian players and coaches were restricted to their hotel rooms for more than a week because of contact with Paire.
- English Premier League 2020-21: All the big transfers ahead of EPL kick-off
- The sporting week in quotes: Harbhajan stuns CSK in IPL, Djokovic defaults, Gasly’s ‘crazy’ F1 win
- IPL in UAE: All the past champions from the first IPL in 2008 to 2019
- IPL in UAE: Mumbai Indians players spend quality time at the beach
Further down the track, however, this US Open will be judged in large part by the quality of its champions. When future tennis fans and historians scan the long list of Grand Slam tournament results that date to the 19th century, they will see Osaka’s and Thiem’s names for 2020.
If both turn out to be tennis greats, there will be even less of a reason to retrofit an asterisk on to this unique — please, let it be unique — edition of the tournament, which was missing six of the top 10 women and Rafael Nadal, its defending champion in men’s singles.
“The whole issue will really be solved by time, and it depends a lot on the winners,” said Steve Flink, a tennis historian. “If a player who wins a tournament like this never backs it up and never gets near to another big title, then I think historians will look at it differently.”
Osaka, 22, and Thiem, 27, are young in a sport that has largely been dominated by the elders for the past decade. But the 2020 US Open appears to be on solid ground in the champion department.
Osaka, with three Grand Slam singles titles and a former ranking of No. 1, is a sure-fire Hall of Fame candidate. She also has charisma, an offbeat wit and other intangibles, including a knack for being a part of big-picture narratives.
Her victory over Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final turned into an international incident after Williams was docked a point and then a game for code-of-conduct violations, sparking conversations about gender bias and sympathy for Osaka, whose victory celebration was anything but.
Consider, too, Osaka’s role over the past three weeks in shining the spotlight on Black victims of violence, including police violence, a campaign she said had inspired her to keep winning.
In light of Osaka’s easy power, hard-earned fitness and ability to lift her level on big points in New York, she would quite likely have won this US Open even if all of the top 10 had made the trip.
The picture is less clear but still promising for Thiem.
His nerve-jangling, strength-sapping marathon victory on Sunday over Alexander Zverev gave him only his first Grand Slam singles title. But that is quite an achievement in this top-heavy era, and Thiem has already reached three other Grand Slam finals.
If he can walk in less than two weeks, when the French Open begins, he will be among the top three favourites there as well, along with the 12-time champion Nadal and the world No. 1, Novak Djokovic.
While Osaka’s victory was a reflection of the present in women’s tennis, Thiem’s victory was a projection of the future in the men’s game.
Although it is refreshing and significant that someone other than the Big Three — Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer — finally won a major, the downside is that Thiem did not have to beat any of the Big Three in this tournament to do so. That is hardly Thiem’s fault: Djokovic was defaulted in the fourth round for unsportsmanlike conduct after knocking a ball in frustration that hit a line umpire in the throat.
But a victory in these circumstances does leave a lesser impression. What made Osaka such a star is, in large part, that she won her first major title against Williams, the greatest player of this era, in extraordinary, debate-generating circumstances.
Thiem has beaten each of the Big Three at least four times, just not yet in New York. As irresistible as it was in its final stages, Sunday’s final — between a German and an Austrian — was expected to draw one of the lowest television ratings in the United States for a US Open men’s final.
The players came prepared even after a long break. There were only two retirements in the men’s tournament: the lowest number since 2006. Five-set duels were commonplace, none more gripping than Borna Coric’s third-round comeback from six match points down to beat Stefanos Tsitsipas, and none more significant than Thiem’s high-wire, to-the-limit victory over Zverev from two sets down. It was an extraordinary final more than a great final, but extraordinary still has its thrills.
“The roller coaster of roller coasters,” said John McEnroe, who rode a few in his long career.
Big Three or no Big Three, it was clear how much the outcome mattered to both young men as they struggled to fight the ache in their legs and the doubt in their heads. On the 50th anniversary of the US Open tiebreaker, they played the first fifth-set tiebreaker in a singles final in the history of the US Open.
“The first of many Grand Slam titles,” Zverev said between the tears to Thiem as he congratulated his friend and rival.
If so, this US Open full of effort against the odds will look even more worthy in the history books than it did as of Sunday night.