As the US Open, the year's final major tennis tournament approaches, let's talk about where it ranks among the game's premiere events. I think it's tops, though JA Allen considers it a definitive second; read her reasoning here.
The United States didn’t invent democracy, but over the past two centuries it has helped advance the notion that people should be treated equally.
A little more than 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, the United States Open seemingly applied this notion when it moved from Forest Hills to Flushing Meadows. In the process, it rejected the choice between the opposites of grass and clay (both of which it had tried), offering a hard court that split the difference between them.
In doing so, the US Open became the Democratic Slam: The surface where offense-minded net rushers like Edberg and Rafter would be equally matched with the defensive baseliners like Wilander and Hewitt. It allowed both types a chance, without succumbing to the ephemeral points of grass or the monotony of clay.
The fact that both of all styles of play are at home there goes a long way in explaining why the Open, for my money, remains the best tournament in tennis.
For a little more than 30 years now, the Open has employed DecoTurf, significantly faster than the Parisian clay at the time it was adopted, but quite a bit slower than the grass used at Wimbledon. As a result, for many years the Democratic Slam was home to the best surface for matches between contrasting styles.
The aggressive play of John McEnroe overwhelmed the baseline bound Jimmy Connors at the 1984 Wimbledon, but their rematch in New York the same year was a five-set thriller. Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova went three tight sets in the ’84 women’s’ final, which Evert called one of the most painfully close defeats of her career.
Throughout Pete Sampras’ career, Andre Agassi provided a worthy contrast, with their clashes of 1995, 2001 and 2002 allowing both men the chance to display their full range of shots.
Of course the game has changed: In the late ‘80s the Australian Open adopted a slow hard court, and in this decade Wimbledon has gotten slower and Roland Garros faster. Furthermore, “contrasts” in style are scarcely found anywhere, now that the vast majority of players rely on hard, consistent and accurate groundstrokes.
Now it’s been said that the US Open actually plays fastest of all majors. However, it still offers the most natural of conditions: Unlike French clay, its surface speed does not alter with the weather. Furthermore, it doesn’t have the bad bounces and uncomfortable footing of Wimbledon, and it lacks the strength-sapping heat of the Melbourne sun.
At the Democratic Slam, everybody participates in the action, and that includes the crowds.
Granted, this environment isn’t for everyone: The boisterous cheering of US Open fans (along with the lights in its night matches) was a big part of why Bjorn Borg was never comfortable there, even when it was taking place on clay.
When it switched to hard, the stoic Swede was never able to adjust to it the way he was with grass, as the fans used the acoustics of Louis Armstrong Stadium to rally the combative natures of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, denying the Ice Borg the title that eluded him.
But for those who did enjoy crowd participation, the fans provided an extra gallon of gas after their natural fuel was spent. The crowd helped a 39-year-old Connors past Aaron Krickstein in 1991, a very ill Sampras past Alex Corretja in 1996, and a 36-year-old Agassi through three five-set matches in 2005.
He may have been addressing all his fans worldwide, but Agassi’s retirement speech in 2006 was given, fittingly, in New York:
“You have willed me to succeed sometimes even in my lowest moments. And I've found generosity. You have given me your shoulders to stand on to reach for my dreams, dreams I could have never reached without you. Over the last 21 years, I have found you and I will take you and the memory of you with me for the rest of my life."
On the short list of tennis’ greatest matches of all time, the Wimbledon finals between McEnroe-Borg in 1980 and Federer-Nadal 2008 are at the very top. The US Open had had fewer final round matches mentioned in the same breath, but the Democratic Slam extends the rights to epic thrillers to the earlier rounds.
There have been great finals, certainly: the ’84 women’s final, Lendl-Wilander in 1988, Agassi-Martin in 2002. But the best matches in its history have almost uniformly taken place earlier in the draw: on the women’s side there’s the Monica Seles-Jennifer Capriati semifinal of 1991, which heralded the kind slugging which would eventually dominate the game.
Twelve years later, Capriati lost another semi in a third-set tiebreaker to Justine Henin, in which the Belgian, despite a leg injury, won her toughest match of the tournament and capped her transition to No. 1.
On the men’s side, Sampras’ win over Corretja in 1996 was a quarterfinal. Todd Martin’s 1999 win over Greg Rusedski, in which he rallied down two sets despite requiring intravenous fluids, was in the round of 16. In 1997, Tennis magazine picked the five-set grudge match between Scott Draper and Jeff Tarango as the men’s contest of the year.
At the US Open you don’t have to wait for finals weekend to catch an epic, but you may see more than one on Super Saturday, which takes place the day before the men’s final. The Evert-Navratilova and Connors-McEnroe matches listed above both took place on the Super Saturday in ’84, along with a five-set clash between Ivan Lendl and Pat Cash.
In one day, the fans at Louis Armstrong saw 13 of the best sets of tennis imaginable.
In theory, the equal playing field of democracy should allow the best candidates to reach the top. With actual democratic governments, that doesn’t work so well in practice. At the Democratic Slam, though, it rarely fails.
Jimmy Connors won five Opens, McEnroe four, Lendl three and Agassi two. The Grand Slam kings Roger Federer and Pete Sampras have five apiece. While most of these players have also succeeded at Wimbledon, Centre Court was also the site where one-slammers Richard Krajicek, Michael Stich, Pat Cash and Goran Ivanisevic won theirs, using their aggressive games to win on the most accommodating surface.
On the women’s side, Wimbledon is the site of Conchita Martinez and Jana Novotna’s only major wins.
At the US Open, the only one-slammers in the past 30 years are Gabriela Sabatini, Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters. Clijsters’ mental fortitude has often been questionable, but Sabatini and Roddick’s failure to win more is largely attributable to having Steffi Graf and Roger Federer, two of the most dominant players of any era, as competition.
The Open doesn’t offer many surprises. Sportswriters may celebrate upsets, but ticket holders and TV viewers want reliability, and that’s what the New York delivers: Ivan Lendl was the dominant player of the 1980s, and reached the Open finals every year from 1982-89.
Sampras was the best of the ‘90s, reaching five Open finals and winning four. Federer hasn’t lost in New York since 2003.
That the best players do so consistently well at the Open helps prove that democracy works.