But as has been the case at many of the US Open Series tournaments this summer, it was not only the players who made headlines: the weather made its presence felt—to such a degree that the ‘extreme heat policy’ was applied to the men’s draw as well as the women’s for the first time.
The first week of the US Open is always hot and humid, but this year the mercury headed towards 38C and over 50 percent humidity.
They played on, of course, but women were allowed to take a 10-minute break between second and third sets, and the men between third and fourth. And for one of the favourites for the tournament, No6 seed Novak Djokovic, it was a blessed relief.
The two-time former champion arrived in New York in fine form after long struggles with elbow injury, via the Wimbledon and Cincinnati titles, and while he took a confident first set over the 41-ranked Marton Fucsovics, the powerful Hungarian began to handle the oppressive heat more easily in the second set.
Djokovic, bent double and apparently in real distress, wrapped himself in ice towels and sought help from physios and doctors. After conceding the second set, 3-6, and going down an early break in the third set, he looked spent. Fucsovics pounded from the baseline to the corners, extending the rallies, and had a break point for 5-2 in the third, but Djokovic summoned more effort, held, and broke to level, 4-4. He would break again, with a roar, for the set, 6-4, and both left the court for the relief of an ice-bath.
A revitalised Djokovic returned, and ran off six straight games, 6-0, for the match, after three gruelling hours. But a few players did not make it.
Six men were forced to retire, five of them “heat-related”, with three more retiring on Monday. One of those was the much-admired David Ferrer.
It was not the way the gutsy Spaniard Ferrer would have wanted to go, but in his last Major appearance, the big-hearted and modest 36-year-old did at least make his exit against friend and defending champion, Rafael Nadal, on the biggest stage in tennis.
He was a set down, but 4-3 up in the second when a long-standing injury became too much, and one of tennis’s greatest warriors—the word used in a message from Roger Federer after the loss—left the US Open after 16 appearances.
The 2013 French Open finalist is often regarded as one of the best players never to win a Major. He was twice a semi-finalist both at the US Open and Australian Open, was runner-up at the World Tour finals in 2007, and qualified among the elite eight seven times, making No3 in the world in 2013.
Recently a father for the first time, he made an emotional tribute after this match:
“I knew this was my last Grand Slam, so it was a gift to play Centre Court with Rafa. But I am proud with my career. I am 36 years old and it is time to be home and rest…
“For me it was a pleasure to play with the best generation, maybe the best two or three players in the world… I am a lucky man.”
Fellow 36-year-old, the expressive Mikhail Youzhny, has entertained tennis fans since playing his first Major in Australia in 2001—he reached the third round. He would go on to make the quarter-finals of all four Majors, and the semis twice in New York, missing only three Majors for 69 appearances.
He accumulated 10 titles from 21 finals, and along the way earned a PhD from Moscow University. But he made his exit in New York with a whimper rather than a bang, beaten by cramp and Marcos Baghdatis, 4-6, 4-6, 6-2, 1-3, in the blazing heat of court No6.
However, the third soon-to-retire 36-year-old, Frenchman Julien Benneteau, survived the heat and No22 seed, Marco Cecchinato, to reach the second round, 2-6, 7-6(5), 6-3, 6-4. There is life in the popular old dog yet, though probably not enough to break new ground in New York. Four times he has reached the third round: To do better in his last appearance, he will likely have to beat No10 seed David Goffin. Before that, though, is the big German Jan-Lennard Struff. No chance, then, of perennial runner-up—10 times—crowning his career with a title.
The top ranked men’s and women’s Britons, No46 Johanna Konta and No16 seed Kyle Edmund, both lost their openers in New York, and were followed by the only remaining woman, qualifier Heather Watson.
Watson, the 2009 US Junior Champion, went down to Ekaterina Makarova, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, to continue her blank sheet of match-wins in New York since then.
Konta, who has struggled with her form since her fine run to the semis at Wimbledon last year, and played without a seeding this year, had shown signs of her old self in the run-up to the US Open with wins over Victoria Azarenka and Jelena Ostapenko in Montreal. She was subsequently hit by a viral illness, and in New York, was outclassed by the exciting French player, No6 seed Caroline Garcia, 6-2, 6-2.
Garcia, it was, who made a strong surge through the last months of 2017, to deny Konta a place at the WTA Finals in Singapore, but she has a tough draw, including Maria Sharapova or Jelena Ostapenko, and then Angelique Kerber or Madison Keys.
Edmund lost out to Paolo Lorenzi, ranked 94 and a clay expert, but on his good days, the owner of flair and fight. He came to New York with a run of Challenger success, indeed 10/11 in August. He beat the below-par and cramping Briton, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-1.
However, Cameron Norrie, ranked 67, beat Jordan Thompson, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3, to set a second-round meeting with Dusan Lajovic, who put out No24 seed Damir Dzumhur.
And then there is Andy Murray, former US champion and world No1 a year ago, but who did not play between Wimbledon last summer and this year’s grass season, and arrived in New York with just four wins under his belt.
It has taken all that time to recover from hip injury, then hip surgery, but his battling efforts in Washington showed that Murray was on his way back, despite a ranking that was halved but still at 382. Fortunately, he enjoyed a protected ranking straight into the main draw, and he came back from a set down, 6-7(5), 6-3, 7-5, 6-3, in his first Major match in 14 months. It set up a tough test, however, with No31 seed Fernando Verdasco, followed by the prospect another US champion, Juan Martin del Potro.
· Agnieszka Radwanska, unseeded in a Major for the first time in over a decade, lost for the first time in the first round of the US Open in her 13th appearance, to unseeded Tatjana Maria, 6-3, 6-3.
· Federer took one step towards guaranteeing his No2 ranking after the US Open with his Round 1 win: He has to reach the third round to be assured of his spot, but would have to win his first US title in a decade to regain the No1 ranking—and Nadal a would have to lose before the semis.
· Another Basel native, Patty Schnyder, met former champion Maria Sharapova for the ninth time and the first time in a decade. Six of their previous eight matches had gone to three long sets, but this would take just two, 6-2, 7-6(6), to Sharapova. However, it was Schnyder who made the headline, the oldest woman ever to come through Major qualifying, having retired in 2011.
· Aryna Sabalenka, who turned 20 in May, and is seeded for the first time in a Major at No26, won her first US Open match, beating Danielle Collins, in three sets.
· Stefanos Tsitsipas, also playing with a Major seeding for the first time, at No15, and playing in the US main draw for the first time, won his first match in New York, putting out qualifying veteran, Tommy Robredo.
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