In the leadup to the US Open, two tournaments stand out as exceptionally important. The Rogers Cup (a.k.a. the Canadian Open) and the Western & Southern Open (a.k.a. the Cincinnati Masters) feature some of the best players in the world and frequently foreshadow the US Open. In four of the last five years, at least one of the men’s finalists at the US Open captured one of these two tournaments. This year, both featured a first-time winner, helping end a long string of Big Four titles. Below are the major takeaways and lessons learned heading into Flushing.
The young guys won!
For a while, we’ve been lamenting the dominance of tricenarians in men’s tennis. Those old guys are also lamenting their dominance, waiting for someone to finally push them out so that they can go home. Finally, that shift seems to have started.
Both the Rogers Cup and Western & Southern Open were won by players who went into 2017 without a title at the Masters 1000 level. Alexander Zverev got his first win on clay at the Italian Open before besting Roger Federer at the Rogers Cup. Grigor Dimitrov beat Juan Martin Del Potro, John Isner, and the ascendant Nick Kyrgios to win the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
The difference between the two is that Dimitrov is 26 years old and has been “the next big thing” for half a decade, while Zverev only turned 20 this year, bursting onto the scene in the last 18 months. In that period, the youngest players have attracted the bulk of the attention (and a big share of the titles) on tour, while players in their mid-twenties have gone somewhat ignored. You can even find some people calling them the Lost Generation, which is a tad dramatic but not entirely incorrect.
For his part, Dimitrov seemed to step outside of his “Baby Fed” moniker in Cincinnati. His style seemed more open and less of an inch-perfect impersonation of his most obvious influence, and the change seems to benefit Dimitrov. Hopefully Cincinnati is the start of a new phase for the Bulgarian, one where he can turn all of his promise into major results and a top ranking.
Federer is hurting
Roger Federer took time off last season to get healthy and prepare for 2017. He was rewarded with an impressive win at the Australian Open, his 18th slam title. Similarly, he took time off during the clay court season (skipping the French Open entirely) to rest up and get ready for Wimbledon. He was rewarded with his eighth Wimbledon title and 19th slam. Heading into the US Open, on comparatively short rest, he appears to be showing his age. Against Zverev in the final at the inaccurately named Rogers Cup, he visibly struggled with back pain and wasn’t able to hold his serve as convincingly as usual. If those struggles persist, beating the flight of young talents that make up the US Open draw will be a mighty challenge.
What’s going on with Rafael Nadal?
Rafael Nadal played in both tournaments, and ended in upset losses to young opponents. The first, to Canadian teenager and umpire-blinder Denis Shapovalov, was a shock, considering that El Shapo has never ranked anywhere near the top ten; but it’s clear he was playing out of his damn mind and is now the most interesting and promising teenager in the game. Shapovalov backed up his performance by besting Adrian Mannarino in the next round and performing decently against eventual champion Alex Zverev.
Nadal then travelled to Cincinnati and got walked off the court in straight sets by Nick Kyrgios. Kyrgios also had a fantastic tournament, beating #9 seed David Goffin, indefinable weirdo Alexandr Dolgopolov, serve monster Ivo Karlovic, and human backboard David Ferrer before losing in the final to Dimitrov. Kyrgios played the whole tournament with a focus and an intensity that we’ve been waiting for, at no point getting wrapped up in accusations of adultery or spectacular temper tantrums. A Nick Kyrgios who is focused and motivated is an intimidating opponent, as Nadal and the tennis world learned intimately this week.
Still, we wonder about Nadal, who at his best does not appear nearly this mortal.
Looking forward to the US Open
Maybe the most fun tournament of the year? The Australian Open quickly evolved into crossed fingers for a “Fedal” final, the French Open was a largely ceremonial affair, and while Roger Federer’s win at Wimbledon was emotional, it rarely seemed in jeopardy. Now the Big Four’s grip on slam titles seems to be the loosest it’s been in years. there are handfuls of exciting youngsters looking for their first big win, and (arguably) no clear favorite.
If the first half of the year was about the past, with Federer and Nadal squeezing everyone out to reignite their historic rivalry, these later stages could be about the future of tennis. Who among these young stars is going to emerge as a future #1? Who’s going to step into the spots left empty by the aging, ailing, and declining Big Four? I honestly can’t claim to know — possibly a first for me — but I’m certainly going to enjoy finding out.