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By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Tuesday September 14, 2020


If you like beginnings, the 2021 US Open was for you. If you like endings, you also got your money’s worth. This year in New York, people got what they wanted, what they feared, what they couldn’t fathom, what they loathed and what they will likely never see again during a cacophonous fortnight at Flushing Meadows.

Now, how to make sense if it?

Two unseeded teenagers met in the unlikeliest US Open women’s singles final in history. World No.150 Emma Radacunu, a qualifier who entered Wimbledon in July with a ranking of 338 and left suffering a panic attack, demolished the field in stunning fashion, never dropping more than four games in a single set.


Posh, precocious and preternaturally gifted in the art of front running, she leaves New York, after a detour to the Met Gala and the morning talk show circuit of course, as the youngest Grand Slam champion in 17 years, since Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon in 2004. That statistic doesn’t even scratch the surface of the improbable nature of Raducanu’s rise – many a pundit hardly had time to recognize what it was that made her so incredibly invincible on court before she raised the trophy on Saturday, the first qualifier to ever take home a Grand Slam major singles title.

Raducanu pummeled Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, a feisty, fist-throwing southpaw with a perpetual never-say-day look in her eyes, in the final, as the Montreal native’s last-ditch comeback plans were thwarted by the surprisingly steely Brit – two years after Bianca Andreescu became the first woman to win the US Open on her main draw debut, Raducanu became the second, and did it in just her second Grand Slam appearance.

I talked with ESPN’s Pam Shriver on Saturday before the final and she told me that if all of ESPN’s talking heads went into a room on a mission to create the most far-fetched US Open women’s single final scenario, what they would have imagined would have paled into comparison with reality.

That reality made us smile, and imagine what the future of the women’s game might be like moving forward. Have the floodgates opened for teenagers to ascend?

A day later in New York, as we pondered those questions, still smiling, order was due to be restored on the men’s side. Novak Djokovic was one victory from locking down an achievement that would have cemented his status as the alpha GOAT. In a US Open that did not feature Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Serena Williams for the first time since last century, the Serbian was front and center in NYC – ready to become the first male player to capture the Calendar Slam since Rod Laver in 1969.

A world-beater, beating the world into submission? Sounded simple enough, but… everybody who paid close attention could see that Djokovic was starting to fray at the seams in New York. He had lost the opening set four times through his first six matches, but did manage to recover in impressive fashion each time.

It was obvious that Djokovic was being pushed and pulled by the weight of history on his shoulders, and yet he continued to find ways to win. He told the crowd on Friday, after defeating Alexander Zverev in five sets, that he was ready to leave every ounce of his being inside of Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“I’m going to put my heart and my soul and my body and my head into that one. I’m going to treat the next match like it is the last match of my career,” he said.

Celebrities showed up en masse to witness the last leg of the Grand Slam, sensing that Djokovic, a ringer at delivering when the chips are down, especially at the Slams in 2021, would be true to his word.

A glittering cadre of luminaries – Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper, Kate Hudson, Gayle King, Rosario Dawson, Spike Lee, Frank Ocean, Jon Hamm, James Corden, Ben Stiller, Claire Danes, Megan Rapinoe, Maria Sharapova, Diane von Furstenburg, Sharon Stone, John Krasinski, Jamie Foxx, to name a few – watched the final in a state of shock, trying to make sense of what the unorthodox, charismatic Russian dude was doing to the favorite.

The clarity with which Medvedev played was breakthaking. The wave that formed way out in the ATP ocean two years ago was swelling. Sunday September 12 will forever be the day it crested and finally broke on shore.

Djokovic tried to mount a late push, and the crowed egged him on, but he simply didn't have enough left for one last epic comeback. The curtains closed on his Grand Slam season, and his first loss to Medvedev at a Grand Slam will forever be the one that got away. Medvedev would later tell reporters he was cramping in the waning moments of hte final, but not even that could stop him from bashing daring serves that were too hot to handle. He clinched the win and deadfished on the court, further confusing an already puzzled crowd inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

[No, Medvedev wasn’t playing dead… he was doing the Dead Fish. Don’t y’all know FIFA?]


Saturday’s beginning had morphed into Sunday’s end, which was also a beginning. The end of Djokovic’s streak, and perhaps his aura at the Grand Slams (time will tell), also marked the beginning of Medvedev’s arrival as a finished product, a menacing marvel that may see his rise forever associated with the end of the last legitimate Grand Slam quest in men’s tennis.

[Question: In what year will a tennis player next win the first three majors of a tennis season? Answer: Never is a distinct possibility.]

I cannot tell a lie: I expected the Djokovic coronation to be completed on Sunday, and if it had happened, all the accolades would flow to him. He’d stand alone with 21 majors, while Federer and Nadal floundered with 20. He’d have the single most significant achievement of the Big 3 Era – the Grand Slam! – making his case for him in all future GOAT debates.

But sure as salmon spawn in the Pacific Northwest, the dead fish had an ace up his sleeve. Medvedev played his cards right in the final, incorporating high-risk serving tactics that left Djokovic, the greatest returner of his generation, unable to cope. Compared to the 20-time major champ Djokovic, Medvedev won more second serve points, hit more winners, made less unforced errors, hit ten more aces and covered more distance per point.

He flat-out dominated.

Surprising as it seemed – shocking even – this is the logical progression that great players typically follow. And, sadly, this is what happen to legends of the game at the back end of their career.

The enormity of the task at hand weighed Djokovic down from the moment he took the court against 18-year-old Holger Rune in his first match of the tournament. In a US Open that saw teenagers make so much headway, it was fitting that an 18-year-old beast from the Netherlands took the first piece of skin from Djokovic in New York.

In the end there were too many similar moments. Djokovic was taxed to the gills, and the dead fish on the lower half of the draw was swimming downstream, riding the current, barely dropping sets.

This was a continuation moment, spawned in 2019 when Medvedev raced to his maiden Grand Slam final, pushing Rafael Nadal to five sets before falling. Two years later, the Russian became the first man from his country to capture a US Open title since Marat Safin in 2000.

The changing of the guard that we witnessed at the Open in 2021 is also a continuation. It’s been happening for years, slowly but surely. Serena Williams hasn’t won a major since 2017, and several teenagers have broken through at the Slams in that span. First-time major winners have been the norm since 2015 and now they are getting younger. 19-year-old Andreescu at the Open in 2019; 19-year-old Iga Swiatek at Roland-Garros last September.

On the men’s side Djokovic has held down the fort for the Big 3, winning eight Grand Slams since Wimbledon in 2018. Is it the end of his domination? Certainly not. But Medvedev’s exploits in New York will chip away at Djokovic’s once invincible aura. At 34 going on 35 (next May), it will take even more commitment for Djokovic to stay on top. The dogs that have nipped at his heels and been kicked in the snout for the last few years, are now full grown, and ornery.

They will join together and circle what's left of the Big 3, hoping the feast continues in 2022.

 

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