10 U.S. Open Storylines to Follow

by Hanlon Walsh (@HanlonWalsh)

If one thing is certain at this year’s U.S. Open, expect the unexpected.

With no fans, many top players sitting out, a newly created bubble environment, and many other unprecedented changes in the wake of COVID-19, it will be a U.S. Open for the record books with many compelling on-and-off court storylines to follow.

1. The Almighty Asterisk

Without many of the top players in action (think Federer/Nadal and six out of the top 10 women), there has been a lot of chatter about the asterisk debate. Will the US Open winners have an asterisk by their name in the history books for winning in a COVID-era weakened field? 

We don’t think so. You win seven matches fair and square and can only control the players who are in front of you. With prominent names like Djokovic, Thiem, Serena and Osaka still in the draw, let’s go ahead and quiet the asterisk discussion now and give the winners their due.

2. Quiet Stadiums

Playing grand slam tennis in a global pandemic brings many changes to a typical slam environment that will be interesting to see play out, most notably empty stadiums. Will the fanless environment benefit lesser ranked players, prone to playing on smaller and quieter stadiums, than the top players who often rely on the energy of the crowd? Or will it remove the pressure for those intimidated by the massive crowds in New York?

If we learned anything from watching Serena run out of gas in her three-set loss to Maria Sakarri earlier this week, it could be a foreshadowing of more scenarios to come when players find themselves in a hole but don’t have the fans to help dig themselves out of trouble.

2016 U.S. Open night session in a packed Louis Armstrong Stadium
How will players fare without the energetic New York crowds this year?

3. Will the Bubble Burst?

The USTA has taken aggressive measures to implement the bubble strategy to ensure a safe, COVID-free tournament. This has proven effective in warmup tournaments thus far and from what we’ve seen in the NBA, but how will it hold up in New York? All it takes is one player to break protocol and burst the bubble. 

Some players, like Sloane Stephens, aren’t confident that everyone will do their part to respect the safety of the players and maintain the integrity of the bubble. 

Check out more details about USTA safety protocols and bubble restrictions in tournament director Stacey Allaster’s recent interview on Beyond the Baseline podcast with Jon Wertheim. 

4. Bigger Than Tennis

Naomi Osaka sent shock waves throughout Tennis Twitter earlier this week when she boycotted her semi-final match to take a stand against racial injustice following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. 

As the highest paid female athlete in the world and a proud Black woman, her honorable move and level of influence led tennis officials to pause semi-final play on Thursday and resume on Friday in honor of this tragedy. Will we see this continue throughout the U.S. Open? 

5. The Road to 24

Once again, the major story on the women’s side focuses on Serena’s quest to tie Margaret Court’s grand slam record of 24 titles. Whether or not you agree with the legitimacy of Court’s record, it has been the monkey on Serena’s back ever since she returned to the tour as a mother in 2018. 

Considering how close she’s come in recent years with losing her last four slam finals, it would be ironic (and very 2020) if she were to finally tie the record playing during a global pandemic without any fans. While she won’t have the added pressure of a star-studded player box full of celebrities, can she find motivation to continue chasing history in a quiet Arthur Ashe?

Dominic Thiem serves at the US Open
Dominic Thiem is one of the key title contenders in the men’s field.

6. Foreshadowing of the Future

There’s no doubt tennis has been spoiled with Roger and Rafa at the top of the game for so long. This year’s U.S. Open marks the first time neither of them will be in a grand slam draw since 1999. 

Is this a foreshadowing of what a post-Federer/Nadal era will look like? Will Djokovic mow over the field with ease or will other contenders like Thiem, Medvedev or Tsitsipas step up to plate in Federer and Nadal’s absence? 

7. Will Doubles get its Due?

Often a second fiddle to singles (though we wish it wasn’t), doubles will take on a new look this year with a smaller, 32-team doubles draw. While we won’t see the Bryan Brothers in action like many had hoped (congrats on an incredible career), there are plenty of other exciting teams to watch like ATP No.1s Cabal/Farah, Azarenka/Kenin, Ram/Salisbury, and Gauff/McNally. Additionally, some doubles players will also be on standby as alternates or lucky losers for potential singles withdrawals. 

Check out our recent Tribe Talk interviews with WTA doubles stars Gaby Dabrowski and Nicole Melichar to learn about their doubles career and how you can help grow the doubles game. 

8. A Case for WTA Depth

Missing six out of top 10 women might sound like a big loss on paper, but if you know the WTA, you also know the incredible depth of today’s tour and how that helps soften this blow. 

Apart from the top 10, the field contains a mix of household names, former Grand slam champions and rising stars including Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, Coco Gauff, Madison Keys, and Sloane Stephens…just to name a few. Sure, we’ll be missing top 10-ers like Halep, Barty and Andreescu, but there’s never been a better time to highlight the depth of the women’s game than in their absence.

 9. Surging Americans

With just nearly six weeks of live tennis back in action, the red, white and blue has notably been shining through. The best part? Much of these impressive results have come from American players who haven’t been in the spotlight. 

  • 18-year old Brandon Nakashima impressed in World Team Tennis helping the Chicago Smash reach the finals while thumping fellow American Jack 5-0 in the men’s singles. 
  • Former UCLA standout Jen Brady plowed through the Lexington field without dropping a set to claim her first WTA title. 
  • Jessica Pegula reached the quarterfinals of the Western & Southern open after claiming impressive victories over Jen Brady, Amanda Anismova and Aryna Sabalenka. 

10. Here to Stay

During COVID, there has been a lot of conversation about which lifestyle changes – mask wearing, remote work culture, QR code restaurant menus – will be here to stay once the pandemic subsides. The same can be said for changes in tennis at this year’s US Open. 

  • Will virtual press conferences become a norm in the future?
  • Will some top players realize they can make it on their own without a full entourage catering to their every need?

Given the current world climate, unprecedented tournament changes, and little to no data points on many players’ recent form, you have a feeling this U.S. Open will be full of surprises. Considering everything that has happened in 2020, we’re fortunate to have the chance to enjoy grand slam tennis even if only from the comfort of our own homes. 

Major props to the USTA for going to great lengths to make the tournament possible. Regardless of the outcome, we know it will be an exciting and unpredictable two weeks of live tennis. 

Will Boucek, Hanlon Walsh, and Richard Walsh enjoy a night session on Louis Armstrong Stadium at the 2016 U.S. Open.
The Tennis Tribe team enjoyed a night session on Louis Armstrong back in 2016.

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About the Author

Hanlon Walsh is a content writer and social media manager for The Tennis Tribe. Based in Birmingham, Ala., he also works full-time as public relations specialist for a communications firm. Hanlon has played tennis for over 20 years and was a former Division III collegiate standout at Birmingham-Southern College. A master of the moonball in his playing days, he recently attended his first (but not last) Australian Open in 2020 and can attest that it is the GOAT of all four grand slams. When not trolling Tennis Twitter or podcasts, he's usually doing some type of outdoor activity.

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