If you live in New York, you noticed a drop in the temperature this past week; the stifling heat and haze of high-pressure systems passed, and clouds that had loitered for days finally, and rather theatrically, drained themselves and moved on. This is the time of the year when I find myself in the middle of more conversations about both the weather and tennis than at any other time. There is the person who already misses summer (I can’t believe summer’s already over, they say) and the person excited for the slight hints of autumn in the air (I can’t wait for summer to be over, they say).
No event embodies this betwixt and between atmosphere like the U.S. Open. It’s both the apogee and perigee of summer, and many treat it as the final act of the year in tennis, even though the season continues well into November.
This year, as I sat through the sweltering haze of the quarterfinals — a visible wave of heat that sat dull and firm inside Arthur Ashe Stadium late into the evening — and later watched the semifinals and finals on television, there was the same discernible vibe: a determined readiness to celebrate something, mixed with a heavy dose of communal anxiousness. The whole place seemed bottled up and tense. As in most years, the tournament brought sublime highs and staggering lows. But I have never seen the place imbued with so much anxiety.
Over the years, as it has moved from Forest Hills to Flushing, the U.S. Open has always been a streetwise, loud, boozy and increasingly expensive love song to a long season. It’s been center stage for the introduction of prodigies, the return of prodigal talents and the third acts of aging champions. But partly because of where it falls on the calendar and partly because of how the tournament sells itself, the U.S. Open has become a bottleneck of anxious expectations. At some point the atmosphere in the air changed from “Let’s enjoy Serena Williams playing tennis” to “I’m on edge wondering if Serena will finally win Grand Slam No. 24”; from “It was fun watching James Blake’s run here” to “Is this the year we finally see another American-born men’s champion?” The promise is right there in the slogan for this year’s tourney, which trumpets, “Spectacular awaits.”
Last Saturday’s final between Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka exemplified some of the very best and very worst of the tournament. Their contrast of styles was on display for all to see: Sabalenka’s power and single-mindedness against Gauff’s ability to endure and problem-solve. They took turns finding their games and unfortunately, as the 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 final score indicates, they were not at their best at the same moments. It was a dramatic match, but not an especially good one.
Gauff’s win, however, was immediately understood as symbolizing American core values such as determination, grit and self-belief. The crowd, after a heavy two-week diet of narratives about the rise of American tennis, finally got what it came to see: not just a win for Gauff but the fulfillment of an American story.
During the broadcast, Chris Evert couldn’t resist calling Gauff the face and future of tennis and declaring that there will be many majors in her future. I have heard Evert lay this burden on players before. She may be proved right, but these unnecessary pronouncements never do the players any favors. What do we learn from these prophesies but to repeat them again and again? This reflexive American triumphalism turns any final into little more than a prologue, with more and better promised in the future. It just sells the product; a grasping for greatness in the moment instead of simply letting the moment be.
As I watched that final, I could not help thinking that I had seen all this play out a few times before on that same court: the experienced hard-hitter with the championship pedigree exhaling into her shots as though she was hitting them with all of her soul; then suddenly the strokes going off the rails, first long, then wide, the player wondering for all to see what in the world was happening to her game. On the other side of the net, a player with mind-boggling foot speed first overwhelmed by her opponent’s firepower, then realizing that the first step was to keep the ball in play no matter what, play with changes of pace and some chicanery, then seize the moment when the skies say to her that this is her day.
And it was a great day for Coco Gauff. It is also worth keeping in mind that repeat winners have been rare lately: Nine of the last 10 U.S. Open women’s championships have been won by different players. While we understandably marvel at 19-year-old Gauff’s precocious success, she is less of an outlier than we might want to believe: The 2019 U.S. Open women’s champion, Bianca Andreescu, was also 19, and in 2021 the champion, Emma Raducanu, was 18.
We can’t know how this story will unfold. Maybe one day we’ll look back on this year’s Open primarily as a turning point for Sabalenka, who has gone viral in the past few days not for her play but for destroying one of her rackets in a locker-room scene that none of us had any business ever seeing. Or for the reinvigorated Madison Keys (once on the receiving end of said prophesies), who came so close to the final. Or for the defending champion Iga Świątek, who seemed to run out of steam and run into a player who has her number. Or we’ll remember it as the tournament in which Novak Djokovic — who in 2010 began to sink his teeth in earnest into Roger Federer’s sense of invulnerability at the Open, and who’s always seemed to relish the villain’s role — played the unlikely hero, winning the crowd’s affection when, after Carlos Alcaraz, the defending champion and new crowd favorite, was upset in the semifinals, Djokovic vanquished his conqueror.
Such stories are intrinsic to tennis: Champions return and lose, the unbeatable are beaten, new legends emerge — this gives the game its energy. But look no farther than this year’s women’s final for a sense of how complicated that energy can be. We should be less cavalier about overselling success. It blinds us and turns these wonderful players into products. Instead of rushing to anoint tennis’s next savior, we should learn how to savor the moment. That’s something worth reaching for, like the open air just above us, at least when the powers that be deign to open the roof.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips is a poet and the author of “The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey.”
Source photograph by Sarah Stier via Getty Images.
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