The Open era in tennis — the period when professionals were rightfully permitted to play the marquee events — will have its 50th birthday next year. But the sport, despite all the infighting and concern about its continuing relevance to the young, keeps breaking new ground.
This United States Open did its part.
Sloane Stephens’s big surprise of a victory on Saturday came in the wake of Jelena Ostapenko’s big surprise of a victory in the French Open and meant that for the first time in the Open era, two unseeded women won Grand Slam singles titles in the same year.
Rafael Nadal’s much-less-surprising run at Flushing Meadows means that, for the first time in the Open era, the last five straight major titles have been won by men in their 30s.
It has been quite a contrast in 2017: new talent grabbing the most important trophies in the women’s game while the old guard has hoarded all the biggest prizes in the men’s game, with the 31-year-old Nadal and 36-year-old Roger Federer each winning two.
The disparity was accentuated by Serena Williams’s pregnancy, which restricted her to two tournaments this year. She won the Australian Open to claim her 23rd major singles title and intends to return next season, when she will be 36.
But the new wave has picked up momentum in her absence. For all of Serena’s brilliance and enduring love of the game (and the spotlight), the odds are against her dominating again even if some experienced coaches feel the overall level of the rest of the women’s field is historically weak.
I can’t remember it being this low,” said Eric van Harpen, a 73-year-old coach who has worked with Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Conchita Martinez and more recently the cerebral German Andrea Petkovic.
Van Harpen sees too much uniformity of style, not enough skill at net or use of spin, and too many weak serves and predictable patterns.
That is one old hand’s viewpoint. But today’s viewers can judge only what is in front of them, and tennis is generally at its best when the generations clash.
From a commercial perspective, it is also still at its best when the United States market is thriving. Men’s tennis here has emerging figures but remains a work in progress. But the women’s game is rich in both quality and quantity. All four U.S. Open semifinalists in women’s singles are Americans, and the farm system is booming. The Grand Slam events have featured three straight all-American girls finals involving five players.
Eight Americans are in the top 50 of the WTA rankings, and 30 in the top 200: more than any other nation.
And yet globally, the most intriguing event in New York might have been the boys tournament, as Wu Yibing, 17, became the first Chinese boy to win a Grand Slam junior singles event (he also won the doubles).
Wu has a long way to go to become a leading professional, but there is no doubt about what a first Chinese men’s star would mean.
“Definitely a game changer,” said John Tobias, Stephens’s agent. “If a Chinese man could get to top 20 in the world, where you are seeded and in contention, I think from a commercial point of view, it would have a huge impact on the tour.”
As for the present, Venus Williams, now 37, was the most consistent women’s performer at the four major tournaments this year: reaching the finals of the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and the semifinals of the U.S. Open, where she lost to Stephens in a thriller of a third set.
Stephens is now ranked 17th(up from 957th last month) and has a fine chance to make the WTA Finals in Singapore.
If Serena Williams does indeed come back, her potential duels with Stephens, Madison Keys, Ostapenko and the latest world No. 1, Garbiñe Muguruza, would all be appointment viewing.
Yet tennis continues to disagree on change. A proposal by Steve Simon, the WTA’s chief executive, to restructure the women’s tour, creating more mandatory tournaments for the leading players, met with fierce resistance in New York from tournament directors and others.
The ATP, the men’s tour, is considering lucrative proposals to revive its World Team Cup event in 2019, which could create a logjam of men’s team events with the venerable Davis Cup and the new Laver Cup, a Europe versus the Rest of the World competition to be held in Prague this month.
There are also debates about the rules of the game. The U.S. Open experimented with serve clocks, warm-up clocks and in-match coaching during the qualifying and junior events this year. Stacey Allaster, the chief executive for professional tennis at the United States Tennis Association, said the findings were well received by other tennis officials.
The serve clock and warm-up clock, meant to address pace-of-play concerns, seem to be smart innovations and experienced few problems during the trial. Adopting them seems only a matter of time. The bigger issue is coaching, currently prohibited during matches on the men’s tour and in the main draws of all the Grand Slam events.
The U.S. Open experiment allowed coaches to communicate directly with their players from the stands between points. According to the U.S.T.A. report, 82 percent of players received coaching while only 7 percent did not have a coach available.
The amount of coaching increased as the tournament progressed, and chair umpires were pleased with the change, according to the report, because it allowed them to focus on overseeing the match itself rather than policing the entourages (coaching has always happened to some degree on the sly). The chair umpires, the report noted, also found that the coaching improved the quality of play.
That should not necessarily be the objective. Part of tennis’s appeal at the highest level is that it is an individual sport, one in which problem-solving can play as big a role as baseline power. Changing that equation in the biggest events would be a major move, affecting the essence of the sport.
Wimbledon officials, in particular, sound skeptical about the idea. They are not alone.
“It seems one thing it does do is take pressure off the umpire, and they like that,” said Paul Annacone, a former coach of Pete Sampras, Federer and Stephens. “If that’s your objective, mission accomplished for sure. But is that worth doing away with something we should celebrate in tennis: Pete, Roger, Rafa or Serena figuring it out? Figuring it out with six million people watching you play on Centre Court at Wimbledon. To me, that’s a huge part of being an all-time great. How do I handle this moment of stress on my own? It’s a great character builder but more importantly, a great character revealer.”
To change that equation at the highest level, tennis had best be certain, very certain, that it is gaining more than it is losing.