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Tennis

This U.S. Open Has Everything

Leylah Fernandez celebrates after a third-round upset of Naomi Osaka
Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

It’s taking all the editorial restraint on this masthead for this post to not just list every storyline of this U.S. Open like some Billy Joel shit, but it has possibly been the best first week of a major since I have started following the sport. For all the casuals’ grumbling about the famous geezers sitting this major out—Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal—the actual tennis has been a revelation, both in terms of narrative and quality of play. If the sport cannot use this quality of tennis to proselytize to new fans, or convince old ones to stay on board, it doesn’t deserve to have fans at all.

The U.S. Open, which can sometimes feel a little sloppy because it comes at the tail end of an enervating globe-trotting season, has not disappointed on any conceivable level. Every foothold a fan could possibly want can be found here: pure highlights, fresh blood, close fights, toilet beefs, underdog triumphs, late nights.

Who needs Roger or Serena when there are teens slashing their way to the quarterfinals? Friday’s third-round upsets brought some pleasing symmetry to the men’s and women’s brackets. Two 18-year-olds—Carlos Alcaraz Garfia of Spain, and Leylah Fernandez of Canada—beat the No. 3 seeds in their draws—Stefanos Tsitsipas and Naomi Osaka, respectively—in feverishly entertaining matches, while managing to turn the crowds in their favor with a little help from Tsitsipas’s toilet trips and Osaka’s racket chucks. Fernandez, who turned 19 on Monday, defeated former world No. 1 and major champ Angelique Kerber in the next round, with passages of comically high-quality play. Meanwhile, Emma Raducanu, the British 18-year-old who broke out at Wimbledon, has been pulverizing in a manner reminiscent of Osaka’s own run here in 2018, having only conceded 15 games through four rounds. The youths are not just playing well; they are confounding their veteran foes. Tsitsipas, who has beaten the Big Three in men’s tennis, said he’d never seen anyone hit the ball as hard as Alcaraz did in their deciding fifth set.

Indifferent to names and just in the market for competition? This Open has taken good care of fans who are only looking for fight. As someone who can say, with clear eyes, that many tennis matches are not entertaining, and that scoreboards can misrepresent the quality of a competition, this tournament has delivered classic after classic, making it genuinely difficult to remember a dud.

Rather than feeling stupid for losing sleep, a fan might instead wake up grateful to have witnessed, say, Monday night’s fourth-round clash between Maria Sakkari and Bianca Andreescu. On the women’s side, 28 matches have gone to a deciding third set. On the men’s side, 32 matches have gone five sets—closing in on a tournament-record 35 matches—and 10 of those saw victors come back from two sets down. Asked about the chaos, Frances Tiafoe opened a portal into a locker room full of unusually pumped-up fellas:

Q. I wanted to point out there are 33 five-set matches at the US Open which is approaching the all-time record, also 10 comebacks from two sets to Love down. I wanted your take, is there something unique happening this year? Are you aware of it? Do you think there is any reason it’s this kind of a chaotic tournament?

FRANCES TIAFOE: I mean, I think there is numerous reasons. You don’t have Roger, Rafa. Guys are hungry, guys are like, The fucking Open, I got to fucking push.

So I think that has definitely a part to play in it. Level of tennis is high. Anyone can beat anyone. Look, I’m 50 in the world. I’m beating all these kind of guys.

You have qualifiers in the run of 16, like tennis, like there is no bumps. Everyone’s good. Like if you don’t show up to play, you can lose to anyone.

I mean, I definitely think guys are trying extra hard, because there is Roger, Rafa. I truly believe that. I see guys foaming in the mouth, pretty funny to watch, I’m in the locker room cracking up. You have Seppi like 37 playing 15-13 in the fifth. What’s that about? Crazy. His 19th US Open, he’s putting his heart on the line. He’s probably not doing that if he plays Rafa the second round, probably, like, I’m done.

It’s unreal.

Tiafoe knows this firsthand, having surged back to take out No. 5 seed Andrey Rublev in a five-set odyssey that ended at 2:14 a.m., with a shirt-free LeBron-style celebration, before he lost a nerve-wracking fourth-round matchup to No. 12 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime. He has been a boon to the reliably simple U.S. Open crowd—see American flag, make noise—as was Shelby Rogers, slaying world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in a third-set tiebreak.

Those results don’t even do justice to the ones who almost did it: Amanda Anisimova nearly pulling off a second-round upset over Karolina Pliskova via third-set tiebreak; Jack Sock whaling the forehands of his life to steal a set off Sascha Zverev; Sloane Stephens looking transcendent through two rounds against two countrywomen; Jenson Brooksby winning a five-set epic against Aslan Karatsev and going straight ahead to play two stupefyingly competitive sets against Novak Djokovic on Monday night.

If it’s old dark horses you seek, you’ll find them on the men’s side, a pair of inspired qualifiers surged into the first weekend. Botic van de Zandschulp, the 25-year-old Dutchman who had not won a tour-level match until this season, dispatched the No. 8 and No. 11 seeds at the U.S. Open with monk-like calm and a languid forehand. The 32-year-old Peter Gojowczyk wrung every minute out of his career-best Open run, playing an astonishing 19 sets in his four matches, before he lost to wonderteen Alcaraz. A tournament that might have been been deadened by the inevitability of Novak Djokovic—who is still looking rather inevitable, second seed Daniil Medvedev and fourth seed Sascha Zverev be damned—has instead injected unexpected novelty into this season.