Lessons from US Open 2020

As the world is slowly coming back to terms with the shock and astonishment that COVID-19 has brought in this year, it’s slowly learning to peacefully coexist with the pandemic. All around life is coming back to normalcy. The world of sports is no exception to that. We’re seeing empty and eerie stadiums devoid of Mexican waves, fanfare and ‘divided’ fans. Matches are going on without much din and bustle, in this new normal, the only spectators being the ones watching games from the cozy atmosphere of their homes. Recently, the US Open Tennis Championship got wrapped up at Flushing Meadows. And playing to the tunes of 2020, the US Open also didn’t fail to astonish and shock us. Upon completion of the tournament, it taught us some vital life lessons.

It started with the uncertainty of getting organized or not. Players were skeptical about participating due to the raging COVID-19 situation in the US. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were conspicuous by their absence, and the only one from the Big three participating was Novak Djokovic. Nick Kyrgios (AustraliaN player) not only himself abstained from participating but also bashed others for not doing the same. The women’s draw also saw major names like Ash Barty, Simona Halep, Bianca Andreescu and Elina Svitolina pulling out, with Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka being a few exceptions. Amidst all the uncertainty, the organizers did a commendable job in organizing the tournament.

The initial shock came in the form of Novak Djokovic being defaulted or disqualified from his round of 16 match against Pablo Carreno Busta. Djokovic losing a service game was visibly frustrated and whacked the tennis ball backwards and as luck would have it, it hit straight at the throat of a lines judge! Now rules are rules, as per a statement released by US Tennis Association, “In accordance with the Grand Slam rule book, following his actions of intentionally hitting a ball dangerously or recklessly within the court or hitting a ball with negligent disregard of the consequences, the US Open Tournament referee defaulted Novak Djokovic from the 2020 US Open”. And with that, the three time US Open champion, poised to win his 4th and inch closer to all time tennis greatness by winning his 18th major, had to bow out. It was a shock for the entire tennis world, but just like life, it moved on. But it taught us one vital lesson, the only certainty in life is uncertainty.

Life comes so close to fairytale but sometimes it just falls short. In the women’s draw of US Open finals, it came within a whisker of a fairytale. The protagonist was Victoria Azarenka, back to grand slam finals after seven long years. Pregnancy, split with her partner, tough and emotionally drenching custody battle since 2017, and her native Belarus descending into a political chaos – all these took a lot from her, and consistent bad performance pushed her to the edge of a breaking point. Finally in 2020, winning her first title in Western and Southern Open on hard courts since 2016, she made her first grand slam final since 2013 despite being unseeded. She was a set and two break points up, however, couldn’t make the final jump to glory. She fell just short. But she can take a lot of heart from the fact that she finally defeated Serena Williams in a grand slam semi-finals. By sheer power of greet and determination she finally showed what mental fortitude can make a human do. This is a fairy tale that didn’t happen, by a whisker. But on the other hand there was a fight against oppression and racial bias; Naomi Osaka sent a strong message in support of #BlackLivesMatter by wearing masks with the name of victims of racial prejudice printed on them. Kudos to Naomi Osaka, who showed exceptional resilience and brought out her best tennis when it was needed the most and eventually lifted her 2nd US Open and 3rd major overall. It was a fitting finale between two players, who not only battled it out on the court for US Open glory, but were fighting internally and externally against their respective adversaries.

Perhaps the most noteworthy incident of this US Open is the absence of the big four of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray from the grand slam finals. It was the first time since 2014 that none of the big four featured in a grand slam final. It was the youngest grand slam final in years with one player aged 27 and the other 23. Though it’s yet to see whether a change of guard is happening anytime soon as none of the big three participated and Djokovic was defaulted. But it’s surely a good start and finally the younger generation won a slam. Dominic Thiem from Austria has to be praised for what he gave out on court in the final. It was the first time in US Open’s history that a player has won the final after being two sets down. It was also the first time that the final was decided in a fifth set tiebreaker. After losing in three major finals, two to Nadal in French Open of 2018, 2019 and one to Djokovic in Australian Open final in 2020, the jinx was finally broken. After Thomas Muster’s French Open win, Austria had to wait for 15 years to produce another grand slam winner – Dominic has arrived. Alexander Zverev also gave a tooth and nail fight to make his way to the top glory but he was so close yet so far. It’s only time which will tell whether the younger generation will snatch away the baton of tennis from the older generation or yet there is still some gas left in them.

Human beings have a strange habit of adapting to any situation provided to them. When 2020 gave us lemons, we made lemonades from it. Surely 2020 is a challenging year, but the US Open showed us the way. Djokovic’s defaulter proved that life can be uncertain; the contest Victoria Azarenka between Naomi Osaka taught us how to fight against the difficulties; and Dominic showed us that consistent effort is the key to success. In this game of life, just like tennis. we need to serve through the difficulties, rally in the opportunities, and ace all challenges. That’s what we learnt from the US Open 2020.

-Aishik Bhattacharya (Opinion Writer at Indian Folk, Senior Research Fellow at IACS, Kolkata)

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