Serena Williams will be at the 2020 U.S. Open — that is, if the tournament, scheduled to begin Aug. 31, really does take place.
But the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center might be short of star power on the men’s side. Five-time U.S. Open champion Roger Federer, recovering from knee surgery, is out. Four-time (and defending) champion Rafael Nadal has signaled that he likely will bypass New York to concentrate on the French Open, which moved its start date from May to late September for this pandemic-ravaged year. Three-time champion Novak Djokovic also might be a no-show in the Big Apple, having expressed concerns about the quarantine and other safety procedures being put in place for the tournament.
Which leads any tennis fan to wonder: In the age of the Big 3, is a Grand Slam tournament still a Grand Slam tournament if the Big 3 don’t show up? Would a U.S. Open sans Federer, Nadal and Djokovic be known as the Asterisk Open?
The short answer to both questions: yes — and no.
That is, in the short term, sure, some people would consider the champion’s legitimacy suspect. But in the longer term, he would simply be the 2020 U.S. Open king.
Ultimately, the four annual Grand Slam tournaments are bigger than whoever does or doesn’t play in them in any given year.
The 1973 Wimbledon stands as a prime example. The Czech star Jan Kodes, a clay-court specialist, won on SW19′s grass that year, no doubt aided by the men’s players’ union’s boycott of the tournament over a dispute with the International Tennis Federation. It would be one of only three times, in 15 career appearances, that Kodes would make it past the second round at Wimbledon.
The three men who had won the five Wimbledon singles titles prior to 1973 (Rod Laver, John Newcombe and Stan Smith) did not suit up at SW19 in the boycott year, yet the record book offers no asterisk next to Kodes’ name. When he’s mentioned by tennis commentators these days, he’s usually identified as a Wimbledon champion (as well as a French Open champ), with no caveat offered.
Even at the time, tennis reporters did not emphasize the gutted field at the All England Club. In its report on the championship match, The Associated Press noted that “the men’s bracket was weakened by a boycott of some 70 professional players” but then argued that “the 27-year-old Kodes played like a champion, with his return of service as good as anything seen in a Wimbledon final in recent years.”
The New York Times, meanwhile, indulged Kodes’ theory that clay was a sterner test than grass for elite players. “Ironically,” the paper of record stated, “the new Wimbledon Tennis Champion has always considered grass a poor substitute for clay.”
The money quote: “Tennis played on grass is a joke,” Kodes said.
This being the height of the Cold War, most U.S. reports lingered on the fact that Kodes, as the citizen of a communist country, didn’t get to keep his prize money; the $12,500 he received for winning Wimbledon went to the Czech Tennis Association. He told reporters that he was a university student who happened to play tennis. And what did he study? “I don’t have to tell you,” he said.
But we’re getting off topic. The point is, Wimbledon in 1973 did not have a strong field. The same goes, by the way, for the Australian Open for much of its history before the 1990s. And there are no asterisks to be found: not for Kodes, not for Down Under champions Brian Teacher, Roscoe Tanner, Johan Kriek and Mark Edmondson, among others.
Then there’s this: The possibility that the Big 3 won’t be in New York this year offers the opportunity for new stars to finally emerge in full, particularly the heralded young guns (who aren’t so young anymore) who might need a boost of confidence.
Dominic Thiem has proven he can beat the Big 3. He’s 5-2 against Federer, 4-7 against Djokovic and 5-9 against Nadal. He just hasn’t proven he can win a major final, going 0-3 in them so far.
Alexander Zverev also has proven he can beat the Big 3. He’s 4-3 against Federer, 2-3 vs. Djokovic and 1-5 against Nadal. Yet he hasn’t been able to reach a major final.
A victory for either of them at the 2020 U.S. Open, even without facing one of the Big 3, could provide the mental kick-start the player needs to perform at his best from here on out on the game’s biggest stages. That would make for an especially exciting 2021, with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic seeing their dominance under serious assault.
A Big 3-less U.S. Open also would offer another heartening potential storyline.
Could 33-year-old Andy Murray, after being on the sidelines for most of the past three years due to a severe hip injury, actually return and win his second U.S. Open? It seems like a long shot, but one that just might be worth laying a bet on. Without question, a Murray march through the draw would be every bit as thrilling as Jimmy Connors’ famous 1991 end-of-career run to the semifinals at Flushing Meadows. And no one would begrudge the well-liked Scotsman a Grand Slam title won without facing Federer, Nadal or Djokovic.
Whoever might win a U.S. Open that doesn’t have the Big 3 in it, we can be sure of one thing: the champion won’t say that tennis played on hard courts is a joke.
— Douglas Perry
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