Osaka, Djokovic prevail at controversial US Open tournament

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For the past two weeks, fans flocked to the Big Apple to watch the world’s biggest tennis stars take center stage at the U.S. Open. The last of the four Grand Slam tournaments was celebrating its 50th anniversary, and looked to be the finishing touch on what was a thrilling year of tennis. As always, big names such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams highlighted the tournament, continuing to show why they are crowd favorites and the sport’s most dominant athletes. Of course, there were the occasional upsets and pleasant surprises. After all, no one expected the top-ranked Simona Halep to lose in the first round to Estonian star Kaia Kanepi, and the second-seeded Federer to lose in the fourth round to an unranked Australian player named John Millman.

There were also must-see games that had fans in awe and out of their seats. The men’s quarterfinal matchup between top-ranked Nadal and ninth-seed Dominic Thiem was perhaps the highlight of the tournament, as the Spanish legend out-dueled the Austrian powerhouse in a five-set marathon that lasted 4 hours and 49 minutes. It was unfortunate that this match was merely a quarterfinal contest, as it would have made for an all-time, box office championship.

After so many thrilling moments, championship weekend finally arrived. The men’s final featured third-seeded Argentinean star, Juan Martín del Potro, playing against the sixth-seeded Djokovic. The women’s title featured the 17th-seeded Williams and 20th-seeded Japanese rising star Naomi Osaka. Both matches were nothing short of entertaining, as they provided fans with plenty to talk about.

Up first was the women’s final match between Williams and Osaka on Sept. 8. Both players got this far after beating some fierce competition along the way. Williams defeated Magda Linette in the first round, Carina Witthöft in the second round, her 16th-seeded sister Venus Williams in the third round, Kanepi in the fourth round, eighth-seeded Karolína Plíšková in the quarterfinals and 19th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova in the semifinals. Williams’ story up to that point was bigger than tennis.

After giving birth to her first child and fighting through health issues related to her pregnancy, she made her return to the court in 2018, competing in the French Open and Wimbledon. Injuries and personal issues plagued her throughout the year, but she looked like the Serena of old in this tournament, easily dominating her opponents.

Osaka defeated Laura Siegemund in the first round, Julia Glushko in the second round, Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the third round 26th seed Aryna Sabalenka in fourth round, Lesia Tsurenko in the quarterfinals, and 14th-seeded Madison Keys in the semifinals. The 20-year old Japanese star wowed fans with her magical run, capping it off against arguably the greatest tennis player of all time.

Williams was the clear favorite to win her record-tying 24th Grand Slam title, a record that only Margaret Court of Australia has held. However, as fortune would have it, the living legend seemed to have a very hard time against the young phenom.

Osaka easily won the first set 6-2, drawing shocked reactions throughout Arthur Ashe Stadium. But it was the second set where the drama unfolded. With Williams leading the second set 1-0 and Osaka leading the second game of the set 40-15, chair umpire Carlos Ramos gave Willims a code violation, as a result of apparent in-game coaching by her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. It appeared that Mouratoglou was making hand signal gestures toward Williams, telling her to move closer to the net. Williams looked to acknowledge these signals. The violation, Williams’ first, resulted in a warning from Ramos. Williams immediately pleaded her case, claiming that she only saw a thumbs-up from Mouratoglou and that she is not a cheater.

Mouratoglou later admitted that he was indeed coaching her. Later in the set, with Williams leading 3-2 and Osaka getting ready to serve, the tennis phenom was visibly frustrated after losing the last game. She slammed her racquet on the court, resulting in a second code violation and constituting a point penalty. Osaka, who did not even serve, was already up 15-0 as a result. Williams again argued with Ramos, claiming that he stole a point from her. Williams completely unraveled later in the set, squandering a 3-1 game lead to find herself trailing 4-3.

Another outburst ensued, with Williams demanding an apology from Ramos for stealing a point from her and calling Ramos a thief and a liar. The umpire called a third code violation for verbal abuse, resulting in a game penalty. Now trailing 5-3, Williams called for the head referee, pleading her case to him. In tears, she claimed that men say worse things on court and do not get penalized. However, the penalties could not be reversed.

Williams won the next game, but Osaka finished the job afterward, winning the second set 6-4. Osaka became the first Japanese tennis player, male or female, to win a Grand Slam title. Williams, still frustrated, refused to shake Ramos’ hand after the match. Her outbursts overshadowed what was a historic moment for Osaka, a game in which the Japanese tennis player clearly dominated.

Williams has a history of verbal outbursts against officials, most notably in the 2009 U.S. Open semifinals against Belgian legend Kim Clijsters. In the second set of that match, Williams was called for a foot fault by the line judge. Clearly displeased with the call, she made some very profane comments and threatened the line judge with the tennis ball. She was given a point penalty, resulting in a victory for Clijsters. Williams was fined $10,500 for that outburst. She was fined $17,000 for her actions at this past U.S. Open final.

Sept. 9 featured a highly-anticipated men’s final between del Potro and Djokovic. Del Potro’s route to the final was interesting to say the least. He reached the quarterfinals without losing a set, defeating Donald Young, Denis Kudla, 31st-seed Fernando Verdasco and 20th seed Borna Coric.

Del Potro then defeated 11th seed John Isner in the quarterfinals before matching up against Nadal in the semis. He won the first two sets against Nadal, who suffered a knee injury and was forced to retire from the match. Del Potro won by default and reached his first Grand Slam final since the 2009 U.S. Open, where he upset Federer in five sets, breaking the Swiss legend’s streak of five consecutive U.S. Open titles.

Djokovic defeated Márton Fucsovics, Tennys Sandgren, Richard Gasquet and João Sousa to reach the quarterfinals, where he easily defeated Millman, who upset Federer in the previous round. Djokovic then beat Kei Nishikori in the semis.

Del Potro was looking to win his second career Grand Slam amid all of the injuries and wrist problems that kept him away from the game for some time. Djokovic, who came off elbow surgery of his own, looked to tie American legend Pete Sampras for the third-most Grand Slam titles with his 14th win.

Djokovic won the first set 6-3, with some help from del Potro along the way. In the eighth game of the set, with Djokovic leading 4-3, del Potro was up 40-0, but could not convert any of his 3 game points. He then committed two unforced errors and gave Djokovic all the momentum. However, del Potro made the second set very interesting, as he battled Djokovic in the following game that had eight deuces and lasted over 20 minutes. But Djokovic prevailed to tie the score 4-4. Del Potro, however, regained leads in the set at 5-4 and 6-5. He could not hold on, as Djokovic won the following game and the tiebreaker to take the second set 7-6. Both players changed clothes after the 95-minute marathon set. In the third set, Djokovic took a commanding 3-1 lead. But del Potro answered back to tie the set at three games apiece.

However, the Serbian star won the next three games, retaining that calm, cool and colleced poise, to finish off his dominant performance with a 6-3 victory in the third set.

Djokovic won his third U.S. Open and his 14th Grand Slam title. The match lasted 3 hours and 16 minutes, which proved that del Potro, despite losing in straight sets, gave it his all.

The final score, 6-3, 7-6, 6-3, did not reflect the effort that del Potro gave. The Argentine was visibly emotional after the loss and Djokovic consoled him afterward, displaying a gesture of respect between the two friends and competitors. Both players came off injury problems and surgeries and returned to dominant form in this tournament.

With that, the 2018 U.S. Open, as well as the Grand Slam season, ended. It was an interesting tournament to say the least, with unfriendly humid weather conditions being a factor in some of the matches. But Mother Nature could not stop the competitors from delivering yet another outstanding tournament, with Osaka and Djokovic prevailing in the end.

SportsFelix MalamudComment